Kikuyu - Circumcision
|See also Circumcision dance described by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. On the internet, there's also the British Empire Commonwealth Museum's unusually perceptive interview with a Kikuyu woman, Jane Chege, about female circumcision, and circlist.org, which covers male circumcision around the world.
|In this page:
Origins of circumcision
The Kenyan context
The meaning of circumcision
The Christian campaign against female circumcision
Mau Mau and circumcision
This section also applies in large part to other Kenyan societies, with the notable exception of the Luo and Turkana, who are alone among Kenya's main forty-odd tribes not to practice circumcision.
Of all the Kikuyu life stages, circumcision (irua) was and remains by far the most important, signifying not only a child's passage into adulthood, but a whole wealth of other socially significant meanings and assumptions of responsibility.
For both boys and girls, initiation into adulthood - through circumcision or clitoridectomy - marks their admission into full membership of Kikuyu society, and was thus a momentous occasion, both socially and individually. Through circumcision and the period of initiation and instruction that accompanied it, an individual became a full participant in society as a whole, beyond the scope of the village (itura) and their families. Their responsibilities, therefore, extended not just to their family group, but to the Kikuyu as a nation.
On the most basic level, the social consequence of a boy's circumcision meant that he would now become a warrior, and would spend several years in the service of the entire people to defend and protect, and occasionally attack neighbouring tribes. Uncircumcised, the boy - for he would remain a boy even if he lived to ninety years - would also be barred from getting married and raising children. For a girl, circumcision meant that she was able to bear children, and marriage was usually swift to follow.
It is thought that the system of circumcision was borrowed from Cushitic and Nilotic peoples by the early Thagicu, one of the ancestral groups of the Kikuyu (and possibly the tenth of the 'full nine' clans mentioned in oral tradition). The point to note here is that circumcision was adopted some five centuries ago. Before then, one presumes that it did not feature in proto-Kikuyu life.
In all but a handful of Kenyan societies (notably the Luo and the Turkana), male circumcision is widely practised, and has no stigma attached to it at all. There are no groups advocating for men's rights, and indeed circumcision is for most a much yearned-for, if slightly dreaded, event. The shame that surrounds a boy who flinches or cries during the cutting will remain with him throughout his life: to flinch is a sign that he is not as manly as his age mates, and cannot be trusted with the defence or government of his people. Few, in consequence, fail the ordeal.
This is in stark contrast to female circumcision (also called 'female genital mutilation', or FGM), which over the last century and a half has attracted furious criticism and opposition not only from missionaries, the church and latterly Kenyan women's groups, but from people all over the world. Contrary to a boy's circumcision, there are few taboos surrounding the behaviour of a girl during her clitoridectomy.
She may scream and cry, she might even utter curses against her circumciser.
And although she too will become an adult through the ordeal, she will not gain freedom in the same way that the boy gains the right to procreate and become a warrior. Instead, she becomes eligible for marriage, which is often swift to follow (though unlike the common preconception, she will not be forced to have sex: a sometimes long period of convalescence follows circumcision, accompanied by her seclusion along with her age mates when she is instructed in the mores, rules and customs of society, and is taught her duties and responsibilities as a mature woman).
Outwardly a relatively simple physical act, circumcision is in fact of crucial social importance, with complex meanings that affect the entirety of society. On its most basic level, circumcision marks the passage of a child into adulthood. The cutting of a foreskin or clitoris marks the cutting away of childhood. Psychologists and others variously ascribe all manner of additional interpretations to the act: it could be a breaking of innocence, or of purity; it is a cleansing; it marks the difference between rational man and animal-like childhood, and so on. Whatever the truth of these additional meanings, what is certain is that the responsibilities that accompany this rite of passage are extremely complex, and cannot simply be dismissed as being 'primitive' or 'barbaric' without a deeper understanding of their significance.
Circumcision symbolises a person's assumption of adult responsibilities - both social and cultural - and the individual's acceptance as a full member of the tribe. Among peoples who practice it, an uncircumcised person, no matter how old he or she might be, will generally be regarded as a child, or else will be seen as inferior or lacking. If a person who is not circumcised has children, the act is believed to anger both God and the spirits of the ancestors, and the whole community will suffer in consequence.
There would be a drought, for example, because someone who was not circumcised had made a child. Circumcision, therefore, was necessary for maintaining relations with ancestors and God. In consequence, many societies - the Kikuyu included - have a taboo against an uncircumcised man or woman bearing children. If this occurs, the usual punishment is exile for both the mother and father, which nowadays takes the form of people heading off to Nairobi to fend on their own. If a man, this is not so much of a problem, but if a woman, the city is certainly not a friendly place: I met many Kikuyu prostitutes propositioning supposedly well-heeled Westerners in Nairobi's bars.
But the taboo against uncircumcised people applies not just individually, but across entire peoples: many Kikuyu, Maasai and other circumcising people cannot countenance the possibility that there may one day be a Luo president of Kenya, for example: along with the Turkana, the Luo do not circumcise, and so the prospect of a Luo president would be akin to Kenya being ruled by a child. Much has been made of this recently, ever since the 'ethnic violence' set-in after the first multi-party elections were held in 1992.
Traditionally, there was a circumcision ceremony for boys organised by age-sets of about five-year periods. Although boys could be circumcised throughout that period, they would become part of the same age-set, and all the men in that circumcision group would take an age-set name. Times in the history of Kikuyu society could be gauged by age-set names.
Circumcision was traditionally a public affair, which only added to the anxiety - and determination - of the boys to pass the ordeal without showing the slightest trace of fear. The practice of circumcision is still followed, although is nowadays more likely to be performed in hospitals. Traditionally, boys who underwent circumcision became warriors (anake), although this institution is now defunct. As in so many societies all over the world, sex was seen as a weakness, both spiritual and physical. For this reason, junior warriors were barred from sexual relations, though in compensation they were also given a lot of food to make them strong. Only senior warriors, who were preparing to leave warriorhood, were allowed to marry and raise children.
Although still widespread (around 30% of Kenyan women are thought to have been circumcised), the practice of female circumcision is gradually becoming less common, especially as traditional social structures break down and women gain increasing access to modern western education, and indeed the cash economy.
Nonetheless, clitoridectomy is far from eradicated, and as long as the antagonistic attitude from outsiders against it prevails, it seems likely - somewhat perversely - that it will survive - for to attack clitoridectomy is, for many, an attack on their own society as a whole.
Among the Kikuyu, as among all the tribes which practice it, clitoridectomy marks a girl's transition from childhood to womanhood. With it comes the lifting of the taboo on pregnancy, and usually marriage is swift to follow.
A sexual as well as a social act (although the circumcision itself is done in private), the circumcision marks a woman's assumption of her female identity, allowing her both to procreate, and to take part in traditional rituals and traditional governing councils. It is also the time when initiates are instructed in the rules and regulations of their society, and their responsibilities within it.
Christian missionaries and other Westerners have invariably looked down on circumcision, of both men and women but especially of women, as being repugnant. Given the Christian belief that the body is the temple of God, this apparent act of mutilation was seen - and still is seen - as sacrilege. And thus, with their typical open-mindedness, the ceremonies that surrounded circumcision were condemned by the missionaries to be heathen and anti-Christian.
It was not so much the cutting of the clitoris that outraged them, but the excision of the labia and other parts which were prevalent before colonisation, and which were viewed as being abhorrent and barbaric in the extreme, and as an unwarranted mutilation of a woman's body. The term female genital mutilation itself (FGM) bears this up, as does the paradoxical absence of the term 'male genital mutilation'.
For more on this, see the section on Christianity
The protestant missionaries who first settled in Kikuyu terrain were generally very much against female circumcision (unlike the Catholic or Orthodox churches, which interfered little in local society), and by the late 1920s and 1930s many missionary organisations, notably the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, were actively trying to suppress it. This was done by insisting that converts to Christianity had to denounce the practice by signing or thumb-printing a written declaration. Otherwise, they were told, they could not become Christian.
This led to great controversy, as many converts believed that the practice had nothing to do with their being Christian, and that its suppression was an affront to their culture and traditions. The problem was that the missions also provided schools, and the education they provided was essential if a Kikuyu was to have any hope of paid employment, which had been made necessary by the colonial policy of herding the Kikuyu into overcrowded 'native reserves' and later the 'protected villages' where traditional agriculture and herding was barely a means for survival.
Nonetheless, a large number of converts decided that they could not abandon female circumcision, and instead set about establishing new churches and schools which were independent of the missions (in this, they were helped by the Catholic and Orthodox churches). There, they could practice Christianity with the liberty of their traditional practices, and would also gain the education they needed for employment. Their independent status, incidentally, also helped pave the way for the fight for national independence in the 1950s. Their stance against the colonial attitude about circumcision made them a focal point against colonialism. In was in these independent schools that the ideologies of nationalism and self-government developed.
The relationship between Mau Mau and circumcision is often cited, but rarely covered in full. Of course, circumcision was an aspect of traditional life which was threatened by the colonial administration. But some Mau Mau took this a step further, considering that anyone who had not circumcised, or who refused that their children be circumcised, was an enemy of Mau Mau, and thus of independence. As a result, a number of uncircumcised girls were forcibly circumcised by Mau Mau, and many others (many more then the colonists killed by Mau Mau) were executed for their beliefs: the adverse publicity which surrounded this persists to this day, and very few Kikuyu are prepared to talk about this period openly.
If you'll forgive my digression, I would like to state my own position about female circumcision.
I would like to begin by emphasising the Christian notion that ideas and practises contrary to traditional Christian beliefs are not so much different, but 'anti-Christian'. Unfortunately, it is the belief of many missionaries that they are involved in a spiritual conflict that has characterised so many missions in Africa, notably in Kenya. In fact, if you take a look at the Caleb Project's website, at the bottom of some of their profiles you'll see the phrase: "Any missionary going to that area needs to have a strong prayer team behind them and be well versed in spiritual warfare". This is personally what I find repugnant, irrespective of what one might feel about female circumcision. For the ultimate consequence of this 'warfare' is the destruction of the society that is being converted, and with it the loss not only of one or two 'barbaric' practises, but the loss of the values, traditions, music and structures of the entire society.
Sadly, instead of working to construct or suggest alternatives, the most vociferous commentators on female circumcision simply state their opposition, without taking much time to consider the context in which clitoridectomy takes place, and its broader meaning and significance within those societies. It must be understood that it's very difficult - and misguided - to attempt to separate circumcision itself from the other practices that surround it.
I should point out, for those who are already beginning to seethe in self-righteous anger, that I personally believe that female circumcision is a bad thing, certainly physically, quite obviously as it takes away a good deal of the pleasure a woman might experience in sexual relations. It can also make childbirth dangerous or even fatal, though this aspect has - as far as I can gather - been somewhat exaggerated by outsiders, as in the majority of cases childbirth passes without any complications (otherwise, how else could the population of Kenya have increased tenfold over the last century?).
Nonetheless, from these medical facts many people have assumed that female circumcision is a way of controlling the sexual desires of a woman by reducing or simply removing them, and is thus a means of keeping her faithful to her husband. While there seems indeed be a good deal of truth in this, circumcision is a great deal more complicated. In any case, the reasoning that circumcision is intended to keep a woman faithful assumes that a woman must essentially be a lust-driven creature, which is certainly not what the opponents of female circumcision believe to be true.
What I do know for certain is that in all the Kenyan societies who practice female circumcision (exactly as in north African societies), it is women who actually do the cutting, and it is women who thereby pass the tradition on to their daughters. It is thus fair to say, I think, that it should only be women - specifically the women of the societies concerned, both the circumcisers and the circumcised - who should decide whether their practice is good or bad, and nobody else. What we as outsiders can do is to educate people about health and free choice. That is indeed important, in fact crucial for the successful development of Kenya in the future. But we should always be aware of our moral limits: we should never tell people what they should and shouldn't do, for it not our business - or our right - to interfere with anything else.
Rather than provoke head-on confrontations with traditional societies, it is my own belief that working towards consensus and compromise is a much more constructive path. The headway made among the Meru by women's groups, for example, with the full support of the elders and some NGOs, means that a new form of female initiation has been created with the full backing of the entire society. Called "circumcision through words", this parallels the former ceremonies, and keeps the full significance of female circumcision, without a single knife being wielded. For more on this, see the section on Meru circumcision.