In my culture, the circumcision ritual marks the passage from childhood to manhood. When I turned ten, I had to face the knife.
We lay face down on the grass, two ten-year-old boys, completely naked, outside my uncle’s saiga, a hut where young Gusii men live until marriage. The cold from the mid-December dew cut through my tiny body like the knife I was about to face. The tips of my toes and fingers hardened from the cold and felt as if they were going to explode. Ants bit various parts of my body. In Makairo, my rural birthplace, a village nestled in the Gusii highlands of southwestern Kenya, only fireflies illuminate nights. I was scared. My heart was pumping fast. Yet this was only the beginning of a three-hour wait. And I couldn’t complain: I had asked for the harrowing experience. It was time to prove that I was capable of becoming a man.
The men who ordered us to the grass, and were now indoors, drinking, cracking jokes and talking about girls, had arrived at dusk to guide me in my painful journey to manhood. They said that at three o’clock in the morning, we would start a five-mile trek to see omosaari, a traditional circumciser. He would be waiting with several knives immersed in hot coals, ready to chop my foreskin off, without any form of anesthesia. Once there, I would stand, back against a sacred tree, with men pointing spears at me, ready to kill me if I made a sound that could embarrass my father and the village. By the time we got to the man who would sharpen our spears, as the Gusii would say, my mentors hoped freezing my body would lessen the pain.
Gusii is unlike the vast savannah; the image foreigners usually associate with Kenya. There are no acacia trees. Most children who grow up there have never seen the wild animals you would see in a safari. The topography of Gusii is so unique that anywhere you stand you are on top of one hill and at the bottom of another. In all directions, there are randomly placed steep hills, dressed with tea plantations and tall eucalyptus and avocado trees. Corrugated iron-roof mud houses and grass-thatched huts dot the landscape. There is a creek every two miles or so.
The Gusii people, who make up six percent of the country’s thirty-four million people, are small-scale farmers who rely entirely on their land for food. Their main crops are corn, beans, bananas and sweet potatoes. They also grow tea and coffee, which are their major sources of income. Because of the fertility of their land, and rain that falls almost all year, most people born there do not leave. This makes Gusii the most densely populated region of Kenya. The average family has five children, and people live in homesteads made up of extended families. Although the Gusii had embraced Christianity and discarded most of their customs, traditional circumcision rituals were very common when I was a child. The rite of passage still defines a Gusii man.
My ordeal had begun to take shape a year earlier, in January 1983, on the first day Makairo Primary School had reopened after a six-week break. Kenyan schools run on a trimester calendar, beginning in January. Instead of taking a long summer break, like American schools, Kenyan schools take three breaks, in April, August and December. Because of the Christmas holiday and the time reserved for circumcision, the last break begins around the middle of November.
The first day of the school year was special for boys. It was when you knew who had become a man during December. The newly circumcised boys, aged between ten and twelve, seemed happier and always ready to announce that they were now grownups, deserving respect for facing the knife bravely.
At recess, tens of older boys, those who had been circumcised more than a year earlier, gathered the new men to make sure their demands for respect were valid. The secret meetings occurred in the bushes behind the red brick classrooms, near a creek that ran though the school. With older boys in a circle to shield them from girls and teachers, the new inductees to the world of manhood proudly showed their recovering penises, amid praise. When all were inspected, the older boys turned to those who did not make the cut. In January 1983, I was one of them.
“Why didn’t you get circumcised, you punks? Are you cowards?” an older boy named John asked.
“A relative died on my mother’s side of the family,” I replied quickly to avoid the ridicule I knew was coming.
They laughed. It was the custom that if a relative died in a year when children were to be circumcised, the ceremony got postponed. Although it’s a painful act for the soon-to-be man, circumcision is a celebration, and carrying one out in a year that a family member dies is disrespectful. If the dead person was elderly, the whole village may choose not to circumcise any children that year, as a sign of high respect. What I did not know was that this rule did not apply to the death of a maternal relative. The older boys figured out that I was lying.
I did not become a man in 1982 because my parents decided that, at nine years old, I was too young. They also had another concern: I was a coward. Every little thing made me cry. Paper cuts sent me bawling to my mother. The women in my family called me Marera, the Gusii word for “crybaby.” My parents decided that I could not withstand the pain of circumcision without anesthesia. My cowardice would cause more pain, in the year that followed, than the knife I dreaded.
In Gusii, the consequences of failing to graduate to adulthood with your age group are great. In just six weeks, the same boys who had been my friends for what seemed like decades – fishing, hunting, trapping birds, and hollering at girls together – became my superiors. I could not call them “Yaa,” a term that denotes close friendship when addressing age mates, and authority when summoning younger boys. I was omoisia, an uncircumcised boy, who has no right among men. He does not have a penis; he has ekemincha, a tail, which must be cut to make him a man.
If I accompanied my friends at all during our childhood adventures, my role was of an assistant, not an equal. When they needed someone to dig up worms from swamps for fish bait, they assigned me. Failure to obey the circumcised boys sometimes led to violence. I have a scar in the back of my head inflicted by a boy who thought I had no right to protest the unfair share of passion fruits he took after making me crawl through thorny vines to harvest. Such injustice motivated me to make sure that 1983 did not pass without my circumcision.
To toughen up, I would not cry for the whole year, I vowed. One superstition attached to circumcision motivated me to be brave: No woman would marry me if I was not cut. The fear that crying at the sight of the knife would embarrass my father and Makairo, forcing the men to kill me, also helped.
In the beginning of the year, I moved from my parents’ house to the saiga with my teenage uncle. He had been circumcised two years earlier and would be my mentor as I prepared to become a man. The first step was to identify a young rooster and raise it to maturity. The young men, who on the eve of my circumcision would congregate to ready me for the ritual, would slaughter and stew the fowl.
The next task was to gather firewood. Heat is essential for a speedy recovery. A fire has to be continuously burning when boys are in seclusion. Letting it go out during this period prompts rejection from potential brides because the initiate is seen as someone who failed to complete the process of achieving manhood. In the olden days, such men had to travel far away to villages where they were not known to find wives. Although I would have my teenage uncle to help make sure that the fire stayed burning, it was my responsibility to provide enough wood to kindle it.
I devoted Sunday evenings, after doing all my chores, to digging up stumps of omotobo, a shrubby thorn tree most commonly used for fencing and demarcation. It was the firewood of choice for initiation because it burned slowly, keeping the fire going even as we slept. There were several plants that could be used for the purpose, but none were as effective. By the end of September, I had enough wood to burn for a year, let alone a month. On the last day of the school year, I promised the boys I would return a brand new man.
The first week of December came and passed without a word from my father. My patience began to wane one morning after a round in the shopping center, delivering milk. We were one of the few families that had a surplus. My father owned a Jersey, a European-breed dairy cow that, he often bragged, yielded enough milk to flood the village. One of our customers was the family of my best friend, Jones. One day, Jones failed to answer the door, as he usually did, to receive the milk. I asked his older sister, who had now taken his role, where he was. She said he was in seclusion after circumcision, and inquired why I was still delivering milk. I unequivocally assured her that plans were under way. When she asked again two days later, I knew it was time to act.
I did not ask my father if he intended to get me cut that year. My relationship with him was not a happy one, even though I was at such a tender age. We lived together, but I did not know much about him. He never talked about his life to me. It wasn’t until after my thirty-first birthday – eight years after his death – that I returned from the United States to find out, from a biographical flyer distributed at his funeral, how old he was and what schools he attended.
What I knew was that my father was a man who believed that there was such a thing as a stupid question. If I asked one, he punished me, often with lashes. He was a teacher, and like most of his colleagues educated in the colonial days, he carried on the oppressive legacy of the British long after they had left. Many Kenyans who were more educated than their fellow citizens at independence mistakenly believed they became successful because of the floggings they were subjected to in British-run schools. I knew no parents more abusive than those who considered themselves educated. Because I was so afraid of my father, I did not speak to him directly. I went to our mediator – my mother – as I usually did when I needed something from him.
My mother was my best friend, which was unusual for a son in a culture that expected boys to be tough like their fathers. Our relationship was almost a secret. We laughed, hugged and joked when my father was away, but kept a distance when he was home. She was my only source of solace, a protector from the wrath of my father, who cracked the whip in ways that make Kunte Kinte’s torture in “Roots” look like a child’s play. My mother was required to report to him any “sins” I committed in his absence, but seldom did so because she knew that even the littlest of them resulted in severe punishment. I returned her favors by helping around the house.
I found her in the kitchen, sitting on a stool barely a foot off the ground, preparing cornmeal porridge for breakfast, as she did every morning. I asked her if my father had set a date for my circumcision.
“You’ll have to wait another year,” she said without looking at me, rapidly stirring the porridge to keep it from clumping.
“Why, mother?” I asked, protestingly.
“Atang’a died this year. Remember?”
I was devastated to find out that my father had decided against my circumcision. I broke my vow and cried in protest, several times that day, at the thought of enduring another year as an outcast. When I saw my father walking up the driveway, I calmed down, certain by then that my mother would pass my grievances to him.
That evening, my father called me to the kitchen, where he sat around the fire with my mother as she cooked dinner, to deliver a resounding no. He also forbade me to talk to my mother about it because “Men don’t talk to their mothers about such matters.”
I went to bed angry that a man’s death, months earlier, could deny me my adulthood. I was even angrier with Atang’a for choosing to die in 1983. Despite being old enough to be my great-grandfather, the man was one of the strongest I knew. He was slender and stood about six feet tall. He had a very dark complexion, a tiny goatee on his pointed chin, and very little facial hair. Atang’a always wore the same gray woolen trench coat with nothing under it. I never saw him wear trousers, even in the coldest months. On the rare occasions when the youngest of his two wives was able to talk him into letting her wash the coat, he wore a blanket and went about his daily routine, weaving baskets and thatching roofs with grass – unbothered by the stares of people of later generations, who were unaware that that was how Gusii people dressed in the pre-colonial days.
Atang’a was my father’s close friend, despite their age difference. I did not know how old they were. A date of birth was not important, at all. Even today, there are no birthday celebrations in Makairo. Many children are born at home and most parents do not see the need to have written records. Even I, the son of a teacher, did not have a birth certificate until 1993, when it was required for a passport. Thirteen years later, I found out, from the same flyer circulated at my father’s funeral, that he had underestimated my age by a year. In such a culture, it is hard to know precisely how old one is. Men and women of Atang’a’s generation were said to have been born in the year of “the locusts,” or of “the great drought.”
I watched my father sit with Atang’a and other men on weekends, sharing stories and long wooden straws immersed in a five-gallon earthen pot of busaa, a corn-based homebrew. Such get-togethers were the village’s equivalent of bars, only no one paid for beer. Men earned respect from having their wives host. Up to a dozen men sat around the pot, passing the straws to each other, as people sharing a hookah pipe would. Only close friends were invited to the pot, and a song they often sang made it clear:
Siberia ong’e, aye siberia ong’e, Mosaiga.
Ayeee, aye Mosaiga.
Toa monto, ‘saiga, toa monto okobayabaya.
Ayeee, aye Mosaiga.
The lead singer in the ditty invites his best friend, the man he shared a saiga with at circumcision, to take the straw and draw busaa. But he reminds Mosiaga, “Give the straw back to me, not to a man who is not a true friend.”
The men talked about their lives, travels and adventures. Some had gone to work in forests as lumberjacks, others in commercial tea plantations. At the busaa pot, they met to share their experiences. From such tales, heroes were inducted into the village’s oral history book of great men.
Atang’a’s legend was that he was brave, strong and resilient. When the British colonial administrators rounded up men from the area to work in plantations in the Rift Valley, Atang’a ran away and walked hundreds of kilometers home. He often talked about how he escaped at night from a camp owned by a white man who cultivated sisal, an agave plant used for fiber, which the British brought to Kenya from Mexico in the early twentieth century. What motivated Atang’a to abscond were the working conditions. Three years after Atang’a’s death – by sheer coincidence – my father moved us to what was probably the same valley Atang’a escaped from. We lived in a house that most likely belonged to the British plantation owner. It was here that I would find the answer to why a man would walk night and day, risking his life to get away.
The unintended journey to discover Atang’a’s colonial-era workplace began in December 1985, when my father announced that my brother and I would be accompanying him to a new teaching job in the Rift Valley. We arrived in Lower Solai in January, the hottest month of the province. It was not anything like Makairo, my paradise. The heat from the dusty, semi-arid earth scorched my bare feet like I was walking on red-hot coals. There were mosquitoes, even in the daytime. Acacia thorns were everywhere. You couldn’t go a hundred yards without seeing a venomous snake. When the rains came, four months later, roads turned into temporary rivers, forcing residents to take long detours home. Yet, horrible as things were, people were at liberty to build on high grounds to keep floodwater away from their homes. In the hot season, they had the freedom to take breaks from their work in the fields to seek shelter. As a forced laborer, Atang’a didn’t have that luxury.
My two-year residency in Lower Solai explained why Atang’a would risk being mauled by lions, leopards, and cheetahs to get home. I learned why Atang’a gambled that he would make it safely through the territory occupied by the Kipsigis, one of Gusii’s most vicious tribal enemies, who could have easily mistaken him for a spy or a cattle rustler. Whenever someone at the weekend busaa drinking parties asked him how he traced his way home, Atang’a said he followed the sun west. Did he ever think he might not make it alive? “Yes,” he would say, “but when you are subjected to the kind of brutality and humiliation we experienced in the hands of the white man, death becomes attractive.” Atang’a’s strength and determination made him my hero.
I also thought Atang’a had control over his mortality. In the years leading to his final death, the old man “died” at least twice of excessive alcohol consumption. During the last one of those “deaths,” his family actually started to make funeral arrangements. He “resurrected” after more than a day in a coma. Why would such a tough man, let me down in a year when I needed him the most? As I struggled to figure out what to do next to avoid another year of bullying, an idea struck me. There was a powerful person in my family who held a vendetta against Atang’a that spanned more than half a century. I knew she would be thrilled to overrule my father in order to strip Atang’a of the honor postponing my circumcision would accord him.
Those of my generation in our extended family grew up thinking Atang’a was my grandfather’s uncle. Not until twenty-three years after his death did I find out that he was my biological great-grandfather. The man who married Kemunto, my great-grandmother, was Atang’a’s older brother. He died before my grandfather was conceived.
Gusii widows do not remarry. A married man, usually her husband’s brother or cousin, takes her over. He becomes a sort of visiting husband, and a father figure to her children. The children, even those he then fathers, consider him an uncle. He should always go back to his wife or wives. The system is meant to continue the lineage of dead men, an obligatory task for relatives.
Atang’a inherited Kemunto, who had four children already, all of whom died before they reached adulthood. Because she had lost these children to disease, my great-grandmother wanted more. Atang’a, however, wasn’t too excited about her. He left after giving Kemunto only two children. It’s unclear why, but I can guess.
Baba, as we affectionately called her, was no ordinary woman. She was a tough disciplinarian, even to her livestock. I watched her day by day, as she spent her last decade of life sitting on a goatskin outside her grass-thatched mud hut, legs crossed at the ankles, her cane next to her. From the goatskin, she watched her goats graze. She shouted commands whenever one went too far. The goats mostly obeyed, but sometimes one refused to comply. Baba then called out for a child, usually me, and ordered the goat brought to her. She lectured the animal and bit the back of its neck, leaving it crying in agony, as we burst into squeamish laughter. The punishment never made any goat obedient, but that never stopped Baba.
My great-grandmother’s treatment of people who crossed her is even more telling. In a culture dominated by men, a woman, especially a widow, had to be tough to defy them. People in Makairo regularly spoke of how daring she was. She told me stories of how she fought men who attempted to take advantage of her. A black colonial chief tried to sell her goat because she had refused to pay taxes; she wrestled him to the ground and recovered it. She would later choose to spend five days in jail every year rather than pay taxes. Another brother-in-law stole grain from her barn; she went to his house and almost choked him to death. A neighbor tried to move a boundary because, he argued, Baba’s land was too big for her only son; she chased him away with a machete and dared him to try again. So dictatorial was my great-grandmother that one of my uncles nicknamed her “Smith” because he thought her style of running the family resembled that of Ian Smith, the brutal colonial prime minister of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), who in 1965 declared the colony independent from Britain in order to deny blacks self-rule. These unusual traits for a Gusii woman might have scared Atang’a away.
Because he was the legal inheritor of his brother’s widow, she was forbidden to seek other men. For this, my great-grandmother despised him. I don’t ever remember the two of them talking or even being at the same place together. To get an idea of how much Baba hated Atang’a, you just had to watch and listen to her when he passed by on the way to visit my father. She mumbled insults at him, calling him among other things, a worthless piece of crap. She spat after every derogatory phrase, a sign of disgust and resentment in Gusii. As her sight got worse with age, Baba sensed Atang’a by smelling fumes from the raw tobacco he always smoked, rolled in cornhusk. Therefore, when my father decided to delay my right to become a man because of the death of a relative Baba hated, I knew I could count on her to overturn his verdict.
It is hard for most people in the West to understand how a woman in a continent supposedly riddled with misogynists and male chauvinists would have so much power. But in Gusii, women gain more authority, as they grow older. Mothers got the most respect; those who had great-grandchildren ruled their families. They possessed power that was almost supernatural. They had the ability to condemn anyone who defied them to great suffering, the Gusii believed. Fail to heed an old woman’s warning and she will put a curse on you. My great-grandmother’s loss of many children to death may have also made her more vigilant to protect her only son.
Baba supported my grandfather like a religious extremist. He had answered the call of duty to inherit his cousin’s widow, but unlike Atang’a, abandoned his wife to move with his new lover away from Makairo. He only came home once or twice a year to collect money from a tea plantation his wife and children toiled in. Because it is taboo for a woman to question her husband, or a son his father, my grandmother was powerless, even as her children dropped out of school for lack of funds. Her attempts to complain only pushed her name up on Baba’s long list of enemies. My grandmother was almost nonexistent. Her rise in the family hierarchy only came after Baba’s death.
It didn’t take long to convince Baba to take my side. I was her favorite, the oldest great-grandson. She called me Uncle Obegi, after an uncle who raised her when her parents died. Her love for me, mixed with her hatred of Atang’a, made it easier for her to say to my father, “I want Uncle Obegi to face the knife before I die.” He knew better than to argue.
My partner in the march to manhood, the boy shivering next to me on the grass, was my cousin. The twenty or so young men who ordered us to lie down naked had gathered hours earlier at my uncle’s saiga to start the process. It was there that we would be in seclusion for three weeks, during which we would leave only for nature’s calls and only through the window. There would be no baths during that period.
The oldest men in the group, who were in their late teens and early twenties, conducted the ritual, as the younger ones observed carefully. My cousin and I had walked into the room, each carrying the rooster we had been raising all year, gifts to our mentors. The men were ecstatic. Chicken was something most people in Makairo ate only on special occasions. Our diet was chiefly vegetarian.
We handed the fowls to the men. Four of the oldest passed them around, gauging by hand if they were heavy enough. They could reject one if they thought they were being shortchanged. When they were satisfied, they passed the birds to the younger boys to slaughter and stew. One of the boys took my rooster and walked out to the garden behind the hut, as I followed, lantern in hand. He laid the rooster sideways on the ground, his left foot on the wings pinned behind its back like a handcuffed prisoner about to be decapitated. He stepped on its scaly legs with his right foot to keep its body stable. He wrapped its head in his hand, as if to prevent the bird from seeing the sharp knife another boy was about to hand him. Without even saying a prayer for the poor creature’s soul, he slit its throat, leaving the head connected to the body only by the skin. The rooster’s body jerked, shooting blood from its neck like water from a child’s squirt gun. A moment later, the boys were plucking, chopping, and stewing the roosters. It was the only time tradition allowed men to cook in a saiga, for cooking was a woman’s task. While the men cooked, they ordered us to take off our clothes, to begin a long ritual of hazing.
The men started to question us. No matter how we answered, we got in trouble. They asked whether we had had sex with girls. I said I hadn’t. How did I expect to become a man if I had not had a woman, they asked. They responded by slapping, pinching and whipping me with canes from all directions. One man even wanted to hit me with a poison ivy-like plant used in the ritual to measure a boy’s ability to endure pain, but another said my father had strongly forbidden it, probably because he feared I would cry like a toddler and shame him. My cousin, seeing me abused, lied. They served him the same treatment. Who gave him permission to sleep with girls when he was uncircumcised?
The men gave us a crash course on how to act as men. They interrupted the ritual to send us naked to my mother’s house to tell the women to cook obokima, staple cornbread, that we would eat with the stew. We returned only to be punished for indecent exposure to women.
After dinner, our mentors read us the rules men had to live by, most addressing things you don’t do with your mother. Never peep into, or enter your mother’s bedroom. Never sit next to your mother on a bench. Never sit by the kitchen fire with your mother. Never hug your mother. Could I, Mama’s boy, survive under these tough rules? I couldn’t imagine not sitting with my mother, as I did nearly every day, listening to stories about our extended family no one else told. Or the fascinating childhood tales she shared, something my father never did. I took the oath to abide by the rules not knowing that twenty-three years later, I would return to Makairo to break all but one that would embarrass my mother.
At around four in the morning, after a long night of torture, I was delighted to learn that the Christian faction of the family had decided against the more painful traditional knife. My cousin’s father had managed to convince my irreligious father that their father, a devout Christian and the number two commander of the family who executed his duties from the self-exile, would not be happy if they did the ritual the Gusii way. They summoned a doctor trained in Western medicine, the Christian way.
Because we were the last boys in Makairo to be circumcised that year, the doctor was able to come to our home. The men who had been tormenting me all night placed me on the doctor’s table under a cherimoya tree, a few yards from the saiga. They blindfolded me and held me down, like they had the rooster that shed its blood for me hours before. I knew the procedure would be less painful, but there was still pain involved. The doctor injected my “spear” with anesthetics and began to work. There was some pain, but a real man does not flinch like a chicken. A few minutes later, I descended from the table back to the earth where my blood spilled into the soil, a man. My fellow men burst into a vulgar ceremonial song about things I would do to women now that I was a man.
The Gusii still consider the ritual an important step to adulthood. I agree. But I see the rite of passage as serving only a cultural function today. It is what identifies a Gusii man. If I ever have a son, I would have him circumcised. It won’t be at the age of ten, but when he is born. When he is as old as I was when I became a man, I would take him to Makairo for a feast to announce to my kinsmen that he is a man. I value the rituals of my ancestors, just like religious believers adhere to theirs. Unlike my father and those of his generation, though, I would not rob my son of his childhood by expecting too much of him at an age when he needs to be embraced.
Where Gusii’s traditional hardliners and I differ is in the belief that circumcision is what makes a man. I am lucky to have been spared the need to condemn the hazing and omosaari’s knife, for most parents have dropped that part from the ritual, preferring instead western methods. But I still look at how useless the horrifying experience was. I don’t ever remember drawing any lessons that benefited me from that night, perhaps because my mentors were not aware that times were changing. Now I find the rules of manhood standing between my mother and me.
More than two decades after I became a man, I went back home after twelve years in the United States. As I stepped out of the taxi, my relatives waited. My mother was in the front of the line to greet me. I walked up to her, trying as hard as I could to hold back tears. I felt like a little boy again. I wanted a big hug from my loving mother. She reached out to offer a handshake. I wanted to ignore it.
Hug me, Mama, and don’t let go, I wanted to say.
“Never hug your mother! Never hug your mother!” the voices of the men in my uncle’s saiga rang in my head.
I settled for a handshake. I placed my left hand on the back of hers, sandwiching it as we shook. I had not felt her warmth in decades. I let the tears roll.
©2017 Edwin O. Okong’o. Republication of copyrighted material without the owner’s consent is unlawful.