Gusii - Initiation
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Female initiation ceremony
The movement against clitoridectomy
Male initiation ceremony
For the Gusii, the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by group initiation ceremonies, culminating with circumcision for boys at around the age of twelve, and clitoridectomy for girls, at around the age of eight or nine. The ceremonies occurred annually, just after the harvest, and lasted from October to December. The circumcision of girls was done before that of boys.
The Gusii have by far the highest proportion of circumcised women in any Kenyan society, with an estimated 97% of adult women having undergone the operation.
Each girl going to be initiated would wake up her mother at dawn and ask for a hen or two shillings, as payment for the operator. The mother typically pinched the girl and told her she was still too young. The idea was to test her seriousness and courage. If the girls insisted on going with her age-mates, she left the house naked except for a cloth on her shoulders and accompanied by her mother. In a chilly dawn they met the other girls with their mothers at an arranged spot and then proceeded, singing, to the home of the operator. The operator was usually a middle-aged woman with a reputation for skill in female circumcision.
At the place of the ceremony a crowd of women surrounded a stone on which the girl to be operated on was seated. For every operation a woman came behind the girl to support her, firmly holding the girl's hands over her eyes so that she did not see what was going on. The operator applied some white flour to the girl's private part and expertly and swiftly cut off the head of the clitoris. As soon as this was done the crowd of the gathered women gave a trilling noise, gaily singing and dancing. The girl was then led over to a shed to squat and bleed.
After all the girls had been circumcised and the operator paid, they were led to their respective homes. On the way obscene songs were sung, indicating that the girl was now too big to be inhibited or embarrassed. At home she was again asked to squat behind a granary or bush until the mother had cooked for her and the crowd that had gathered in the homestead. Then in the afternoon groups of initiated girls gathered in a house of one of the mothers of the novices for a month-long seclusion. After the seclusion and cleansing, the life and behaviour of each girl was expected to be that of an adult and was conditioned by the prospects of her marriage.
The following article by Charles Wachira was first published by IPS on 24 January 1995, under the title: Dilemma Of Female Circumcision
Mary Nyamboki ran away from home at the age of 15 because her mother refused to allow her to be circumcised.
"All my friends were getting circumcised. I felt that if I was left out I would become the laughing stock. So I ran away from home and went to stay with grand mum who gave me the green light to become a woman," recounts Nyamboki.
Today, the 35 year-old mother takes a different view of female genital mutilation. She flares when asked if she would allow her daughter to undergo the traditional operation.
"Don't ask me such a question. If you would allow your daughter don't think I would," she says.
Female circumcision is customary among the majority of Kenya's ethnic communities, and is still widespread in the rural areas.
Only the western-based Luo and the Turkana in the north have not adopted the practice, out of the country's 43 tribes.
An umbrella women's rights organisation, 'maendeleo ya wanawake', has however taken the brave step of announcing that it intends to see the eradication of genital mutilation. It fully appreciates that it is not going to be an easy task.
A random survey carried out by the organisation in Nyamboki's home district of Kisii showed 98 percent of women interviewed in the villages had undergone the ritual.
Moreover, a frank 47-page report on harmful traditional practices by 'maendeleo ya wanawake' provides heavy calibre ammunition to the conservatives who want to see circumcision preserved.
It points out that, "...65 percent of the women interviewed wanted circumcision to continue citing reasons like 'it is a good tradition' and 'a sign of maturity' making it clear that changes may be extremely difficult to bring about."
According to Leah Muuya, the group's project coordinator: "We are under no illusion that the job to be done is awesome, but somebody has to do it. We are aware the cultural barriers of our people could be a problem but we must find a solution."
There are three forms of female genital mutilation practised in Kenya:
'Sunna' involves the removal of the hood of the clitoris and is found predominately among the Kisiis.
The excision method cuts away the hood and glands of the clitoris and adjacent parts of the labia minora and is common in the eastern district of Meru.
Infibulation is the severest operation of all, where the entire clitoris, and the labia minora is removed and the opening sewn to allow a tiny passage for the passing of urine and menstrual blood. It is used by the Samburu and ethnic Somalis.
Circumcision is usually performed during the school holidays by traditional birth attendants on girls that are around 14-years-old.
When Christian missionaries first arrived in Kenya in the early nineteenth century, they attempted to do away with the rituals, but were defeated by the power of its cultural significance.
"We are aware culture is important. For culture means the person. Our entry point therefore will be the people. Female circumcision is not a standing issue. It has to do with what happened and what has happened," notes Muuya.
According to communities which uphold the tradition, the rite represents a passage to adulthood and enhances tribal and social cohesion.
"Circumcised girls receive important recognition among peers and within the community. It also increases marriage opportunities for girls and assists in ensuring a favourable economic situation for the family," says Dr. Agina Alour of the University of Nairobi's anthropology department.
Banning the custom is "unpromising in the light of socio-cultural attachment of the practice," she believes.
However, apart from the issue of women's rights, there are health grounds on which a case could be built for legislation.
The crudely performed operation with unsterilized blades can kill. There is also the risk of infection and excessive bleeding, complications during labour and delivery, reduction of sexual desire and sometimes an accompanying fear of sexual intercourse.
Unlike their rural sisters, there is much stronger opposition among better-educated women in Nairobi to circumcision.
"The issue does not even arise. Its a foreign thing at this time and age. Women today cannot succumb to rituals that suppress their womanhood," says Jennifer Mwikabi, an advocate with a city firm.
"In a male dominated society, female circumcision is one way of subjugating women," she adds.
For boys the circumcision age spread between eight and twelve years. Boys were restless to be initiated, so that they could become men who could join the warriors, participate in men s activities and even have sexual relations with girls. Like girls, no boy wanted to be left behind by his age-mates when the latter were circumcised. Again, like girls, boys in a community were circumcised together.
The day before circumcision a boy who wanted to be initiated chose his sponsor from among already initiated but still unmarried boys. The sponsor was meant to take charge of the novice during his seclusion, teaching him all the responsibilities of adulthood.
The day before initiation the candidate shaved his head and slept in the hut of the sponsor who escorted him to the operator the following dawn. The older boys usually treated the candidate roughly; telling him how painful circumcision was, just to test his bravery. If the boy was still determined to go through with it he was led to bathe in a chilly river and was then taken to the home of the circumciser. These ceremonies were not usually attended by parents, but brothers and unrelated women could come to witness.
When the time came the boy was led to a special tree. He put his hands above his head, leaning his head on the tree for support. Unlike girls, boys were not supported by anybody during the operation and were not expected to show any signs of pain. In the process of operation the older boys stood with clubs and spears threatening that if the boy moved or showed any signs of pain he would be killed.
After the operation the boys were led away holding their bleeding penises with one hand and carrying a bush, ekerundu, a fertility symbol, in the other hand. In the afternoon the novices were led into seclusion by sponsors and 'classificatory brothers', who sang obscene male circumcision songs. The mothers of the novices prepared food daily and sent it to them. A lot of food was needed to 'heal their wounds'. Nobody was permitted to eat leftovers.
The boy's life in seclusion was usually a comfortable and enjoyable one. No quarrelling or fighting was allowed among themselves. After seclusion there were several cycles of cleansing, anointing and feasting. These launched the novices into adulthood.