Meru - Initiation

Male initiation:
Preparations for circumcision
The Kirarire ritual song
The circumcision ceremony
Female Initiation:
Kiatho gia Gukuurwa Nkuuro - Tattooing
Preparations for circumcision
Circumcision and seclusion
Kuthamaara gwa Gutaanwa - Family visits
"Circumcision through Words" - a painless alternative

Male Initiation

Preparations for circumcision

Before a date could be set for circumcision, permission was needed from a Council of Intermediaries. This council was charged to see whether or not it was suitable to hold the ceremony. Factors considered included whether food was available to feed the initiated boys during their seclusion period, or whether there was a possibility of the enemy attacking when the initiated were still in seclusion.

Once permission was granted, candidates' parents who were from well-off families and from spokesmen's families took a gift to the witch doctor and consulted him as to what would be the appropriate time for their son's circumcision and who would be their 'circumcision fathers'. The witch doctor, in consultation with the parents, fixed the day for circumcision to take place in four or five, or even nine days' time, according to the wealth of the family in regard to feeding those who would attend the evening celebrations. The number nine, incidentally, was sacred to the Meru, and was always split into five and four to avoid bad things - the Kikuyu had a similar belief, and when asked about the number of their (ten) clans, would say 'the full nine'.
   Meanwhile the candidates, though they did not know the date for circumcision, went and officially invited the warriors to come and circumcise them. This invitation was referred to as kuringa or kuuna gaaru ya nthaka (striking or breaking the bachelors' dormitory). This ceremony was carried out during the day. One candidate, carrying a horn and accompanied by his age mates, took firewood to the bachelors dormitory and left it there after striking the dormitory with it. The boys also plucked some thatch grass and went away blowing the horn.
   Striking the dormitory (gaaru) was meant to provoke the warriors. The response was to call other warriors in the neighbourhood to go and circumcise the boys.

When the day for circumcision drew near, the candidates - under the guidance of their parents - brewed beer for the warriors, which was referred to as nchoobi ya nthungutho (beer for jumping about), and on the day it was offered the circumcision date was also announced.
   Once the date for circumcision was made public, the candidates set about building huts where they would stay during their seclusion period. They also began a round of tours, dressed in distinctive gowns and carrying long wooden spears with handfuls of grass attached to the points (grass has always been a blessing and a symbol of peace), begging alms and singing songs which announced to their relatives and everybody else that the long-awaited day had arrived.

The songs they sang during this time were referred to as mariri or ndwimbo chia kuriria (songs that made one cry). This meant that the desire to be circumcised made the candidates want to cry for the operation.
   The songs were sung about three to four weeks before the actual day of circumcision, and were performed in the following way. A boy, leading a troupe of his age mates and other younger boys, made a round of tours to inform his relatives that his time for circumcision had come. He disguised himself in various ways: by smearing ashes and charcoal over his body; wearing a cone-shaped cap made of dried banana leaves decorated with feathers; wearing an abandoned old cloak of an old man; wearing ostentatious ornaments around his neck and on his ears as worn by elderly men; and carrying the abandoned old hand-bag of an old man. As the boys went round, they sang:

Oh dear me!
I go up and down,
poor desirer,
who is nowhere.

I will plead with my grandfather,
to buy me mine [circumcision],
with a heifer.

What kind of a warrior is this?
who sees a coveter,
and remains unmoved!

May the circumciser die,
and anxiety disappear in the body.

See also the Song of the confused candidate in the section on Music & Dance.

The Kirarire ritual song

See also the Song to instruct the candidate during circumcision in the section on Music & Dance

Throughout the eve of the circumcision, the people stayed awake, celebrating the event that was to take place the following day. They spent the night singing the epic kirarire song, which would last all night and continue through the morning into the circumcision itself.
   The leader of the singers was supposed to be an expert in giving moral instructions to the candidates through this song. Besides telling them the rules of conduct and behaviour of a circumcised person, and the importance of maintaining one's dignity, the instructor aimed at impressing on the candidates that their years of childhood had gone and that, besides beginning a new life, they had to uphold high moral standards so as to keep on the same moral level with their forefathers.
   This song was sung after all other songs and dances had stopped. It was sung with everyone sitting or standing quietly, and in a serious tone, in front of the candidate's mother's house. The candidate, together with others, was supposed to be either inside the mother's house, or somewhere among those nearest to the entrance.
   The leader of the song either sang or spoke all the words with the crowd responding, "Eee," meaning "That is the thing," or "That is how it is," or "Oh yes, tell us," or simply. "It is true", depending on what the leader had said.

In addition to the instructions given to the candidate, since it was necessary for him to enter manhood being chaste, he had therefore to undergo a cleansing rite to clear him of any impurity he might have incurred in his past life. After all the pre-circumcision formalities were over, including an early morning wash in the river, the witch doctor (muga) was called to make the boy vomit all evils he might have committed in the past. This rite was referred to as kurita mwiji ndiindi.
   As the candidate went to wash he collected small branches from the sacred mugumo fig tree (Ficus thonningii) on which he would sit during the operation. At that time, the warriors taking the candidate down to the river sang:

Bless the river - candidate,
It is day,
Heh hoh,
He, hoh, candidate,
Candidate, evils have been expelled.
Bless the river - candidate.

See also the song You boy, when I was circumcised, in the section on Music & Dance

The circumcision ceremony

The mass male circumcision was always preceded by the circumcision of one boy who had been chosen from the clans which were believed to be of good omen. This boy was picked and circumcised without proper preparation or even the knowledge of his parents.

From the river the warriors and circumcision fathers, singing, led the candidates to the circumcision field. When they reached the circumcision ground, the candidate and his attendants were shown their space. After the circumcision fathers had set all the candidates in the order that was required, the circumciser with his team of the "nine" took over. He took the knife from the knife bearer and started circumcising the boys from the right to the left side. The first boy to be circumcised was the son from the family where the circumciser had spent the night.

Celebrations following circumcision started almost immediately. As soon as the candidate had been circumcised and had proved brave in bearing the pain, a group of initiated young men (family members and relatives of the circumcised) left the circumcision field and went to announce this officially at his home. On approaching the home, they formed a procession and started singing. At the same time, they cut bunches of bananas, sugar cane, arrow roots, etc., from any nearby garden. Anyone who took part in this procession held at least a leaf of something edible which represented food. Symbolically, this meant that they had brought food for their child.
   The procession headed for the candidate's mother's hut, brandishing the spears, swords, bananas etc., and on entering the homestead, dropped the food in a heap on both sides of the entrance. Then, the rhythm was changed and the news was chanted in the following words:

Has the child proved brave?
Yes, he has proved brave.
Has he been cut standing,
Yes, he has proved brave.
Like a senseless thing,
Yes, he has proved brave.
With no pity,
Yes, he has proved brave.
The child of warriors,
Yes, he has proved brave.
Eh, oh, mother,
Bring the child,
To rub against the other [see footnote]
Son's mother,
Has the child proved brave?
Yes, he has,
What then hinders you,
From giving out gruel?

Note: "to rub against the other" means to mix freely with the community (to rub shoulders) as an adult, and also to be able to choose a woman as companion and wife.

Following circumcision, the young men would spend a month or so in a large dormitory (keraro), recovering and being instructed in their duties as young men and warriors. This practice has now totally disappeared, as has the status of warriorhood, and indeed most parents who can afford it now have their children circumcised in hospitals.

Female Initiation

Kiatho gia Gukuurwa Nkuuro - Tattooing

The painful tattooing ritual of Kiatho gia Gukuurwa Nkuuro (literally, making small cuts on the abdomen), occurred a year or so before a girl's circumcision, partly to beautify her body but primarily, it seems, to prepare her for braving the pain she would endure during circumcision itself.
   The tattooing was carried out by a man who was skilled in the art. The cuts were made in four lines, starting from the middle of the abdomen and ending at the back next to the spinal cord. For the operation, the girl would kneel, with one hand holding her suitor's spear, and the other holding a spear belonging to warriors among her relatives. All the while her suitor stood nearby. If the girl feared the cuttings, he would, if brave and out of heroism, kneel down and have the tattoos done on his own shoulders. However, the girl who feared would nonetheless be forcibly held down by the women to bear the tattoos.
   As soon as the operation was over, shouts of joy rent the air. And no sooner did the shouting end than the warriors who hailed from the side of the suitor ran to uproot his spear, while the others from the girl's side ran to uproot the other one. Meanwhile the ladies hurried to kiss the girl because she had faced the operation bravely. After the kissing they carried her high, and escorted her home. During the time of kissing and of escorting her home, there was a thunderous singing from the women of both sides, saying:

We have been to take her,
to be dressed, and has
been smoothened like a feather

Twaunig gugaikia
Ta mbui.

Once home, the girl was nursed by a lady from her village. Ointment which had been brought her by her fiancé was applied onto the wounds, which were then bandaged with scorched banana leaves. This treatment was given for about three days. After that, a special kind of clay was applied until the wounds healed. As the wounds healed, for about one year, the girl did no work. The period before the date for circumcision was set was for feeding her well to ensure that she acquired an attractive body and was strong enough for circumcision.

Preparations for circumcision

See also A girl's song before circumcision, and A song in praise of warriors, both in the section on the section on Music & Dance

Female circumcision was traditionally performed on girls in their late teens, and was followed by a period of healing and seclusion from society, during which they were instructed in tribal knowledge, their roles in life, and so on. After the period of seclusion was over, they would generally swiftly be married, only death in the bride's village or bridegroom's village being reason enough to delay a wedding. Nowadays, with the break-down of the taboo on sex between a mother and father who have circumcised their eldest child, marriage can take place up to three years later.

The celebration of a girl's circumcision, which was held at the girl's home, was the biggest festivity that was held in her honour. Its celebration took place after permission had been granted by the witch doctor. For this festivity, superabundant courses of manaana were supplied by both the in-laws and the parents of the girl. Any side that failed to supply what was required paid a bull to be feasted upon.

Before girls were circumcised, songs or dances referred to as maturu or matu jaturue (songs indicating that the girls had attained the right age to have their ears perforated) were sung for a period of seven days. These dances were organized by the firstborn daughters of the age group whose turn it was to circumcise its children. These girls asked for permission from the Council of Intermediaries (Kiama kia ramare) to begin organizing for that occasion.

Circumcision and seclusion

The actual operation itself was particularly nasty, involving the excision of not only the clitoris (clitoridectomy), but adjacent parts of the labia minora. Senior women elders performed the operation, whilst other women joined in the ceremony by dancing and beating wooden ngaa dancing shields for rhythm.
   Following the operation, the girls would be praised, before being escorted to their seclusion huts (muthimbere), built by their suitors, where they would recover and be taught in the ways of society, as Daniel Nyaga describes:

After circumcision, besides being kissed by her mother and fed with milk, she was kissed by young women who were her relatives, and congratulated by both the girls of her age group and those of her relatives, and the whole clan, if she had endured the pain. Then they would sing in her praise:

I was worried,
Just like anybody else,
I spent all the night,
Encouraging her not to fear.
I thought,
She belonged to the coward breed,
To my surprise, she didn't.

Again, as the women hailed her, shaking her hands, they still praised her saying:

I told you, my sister,
If you prove brave,
I will unprop bananas.
And immature bunches,
Will be eaten by cows.

After this, the freshly circumcised girl was called ngutu, and was escorted home.

Kuthamaara gwa Gutaanwa - Family visits

After recovery, the young woman left seclusion and embarked on a series visits of called kuthamaara gwa gutaanwa, during which she went round visiting her relatives, asking for gifts. All the while she was accompanied by her suitor, who thus got to know the family and relatives of his future wife. The girl was elegantly decorated with ornaments from her parents and suitor, such as gewgaws as earrings, bangles and bracelets fitted on the arms and wrists, rattles on her neck and her legs, and a crown decked with feathers and rattles.
   This period of visits was the first time in the woman's life that she could be seen in public without the company of her mother, the children of her family, or of other girls. For this reason she teased her fiancé very freely, seeing that he had made her do something she had never done before in her life.
   Some of the songs she sung ridiculed her suitor, and sometimes even insulted him. However, as this was done according to tradition, the suitor was never offended. He only pretended that he could not hear what was being said. Daniel Nyaga has one such song in his book:

As I walked in the company of my suitor, he told me you are a worthless piece of meat, to be thrown away, to the birds of the wilderness. My suitor is as rough as an uncircumcised. But I am as dirty as ever. My suitor spends the whole day, down at Kithinu river, trapping doves and other birds of the same family. The urge to be circumcised, has me a wanderer - know that. My suitor has forgotten his dignity - know that. The urge to he circumcised has made me a wanderer - know that. My suitor does what an uncircumcised does - know that.

"Circumcision through words" - a painless alternative

Given the importance of circumcision for the Meru, it is all the more remarkable that a new and alternative form of female circumcision, called Circumcision Through Words, has taken root in Meru society, and has even received the official sanction of Njuri-Ncheke councils of elders. Headed by the women's organisation Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a pilot project was carried out in Meru district in 1996 to develop an alternative initiation ritual. Some 25 mother-daughter pairs participated in a six-day training session that included information on the consequences of female circumcision and how to defend the decision not to be cut. The session culminated in a coming-of-age celebration planned by the community, excluding circumcision but including gifts and special T-shirts for the initiates, skits, and "books of wisdom" prepared by the parents of each girl.

For more on this alternative ceremony, see the page about Circumcision through Words, where I've collected four articles about the project and the current situation.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography