Foreskin politics

Years after a skewed NGO campaign on male “mutilation”, the bottom line does not look good

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By Kenyatta Otieno

I believe I am a progressive African. I also know that some of the things we borrow, however noble, won’t survive the test of time. The irony is that I am a culture enthusiast, who believes that it is not prudent for Africans to drop their culture blindly in favour of Western ways of life. This is why I sometimes find myself in mental conflict. My mind and heart jump into the ring often and, to me, the battle in the war is to keep a consistent thought process.

Seth Disembe, a Twitter user, recently posted a photo of a procession denouncing male circumcision. His conclusion was that the Luo community was cheated into the Voluntary Male Counselling and Circumcision (VMCC) campaign. His post took me back several years ago when some Luo men gave themselves for voluntary circumcision, just after Raila Odinga publicly supported the campaign. The politics of the foreskin had caught up with a skewed NGO campaign. Several years down the line, the bottom line does not look good; nothing much has changed.

The justification for the campaign for voluntary male circumcision is its contribution to a reduction in the chances of contracting the HIV virus, and the spread of cervical cancer. Whereas 13 strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) are considered “high risk” because they can lead to cervical cancer, there is not a public record of the prevalence of HPV data for Luo Nyanza.

Further, the National Aids Council Report on HIV/AIDS has not reported reduced rates in the region, with the uptake of circumcision in Luo Nyanza.

Although he does not go into details, I can understand Disembe’s disappointment.

Circumcision is not an entirely African culture. The Bantu of Africa, to which Luhya belong, and who cover a large portion of Africa, circumcise their young men. It is good to note that male circumcision began in the Middle East where the Kalenjin, a Nilotic group, picked it. The Bantus must have adapted the practice from Nilotes who interacted with the Middle East before them. Today, the practice is high in the USA but low in Europe but is part of life in Judaism and Islamic communities.

The Bukusu of Bungoma County, who carry out an elaborate circumcision rite every two years, began the cut in the 18th Century. They picked it from their Sabaot neighbours. Their counterparts the Tiriki of Vihiga County who conduct it every five years, took it up from the Terik, originally from Mt Elgon, like the Sabaots. The Teriks must have migrated south after the Sabaots had settled, which means the Tiriki as well did not practice circumcision before that. The Tirikis used it to initiate immigrants from other communities into the Tiriki communion.

The software

I do not have a problem with the Luo taking up male circumcision. My problem is, like the rest of cultural traits we copy as Africans, we took up the hardware with glee without its accompanying software. The Kalenjin and most Luhya communities who carry out circumcision accompany it with social indoctrination. Without proper indoctrination, male circumcision can as well be termed as male genital mutilation. The practice ought to be an external expression of inner transformation.

This knowledge was revealed to me one day as I sat at a reception with a Gujarati couple, who were with their two children, a son about four years old and an infant. I was surprised that the four-year-old could speak fluent Gujarati. I asked the couple if they had ever been to India and it turns out only the husband had, once for business trip. They both have and know relatives in the West but had no connection to their Indian roots. Yet here, four generations since their forefathers left India, they were, with a child who spoke their native tongue fluently.

Meanwhile some Kenyans born and bred about 100 miles from their ancestral land cannot speak their mother tongue. It caused me to realise that while Asians may adopt the western hardware, they hold onto their Asian software dearly. They are properly grounded in their culture.

The feeling of buyer’s remorse that is becoming manifest amongst the Luo who took the cut as adults is proof that the political and NGO pressure has not borne anticipated fruits. Neither do figures from NGOs on the ground paint a bright picture of the results of the cut. This is why, like Paul of Tarsus, I am appealing to the Luo to come up with a way of circumcising the heart too.

I grew up among the Tiriki for whom, upon being circumcised, one could not pick food that had fallen to the ground and eat it. Such small acts may appear trivial but they go a long way in reminding the men of the teachings they were taught during their one month of seclusion after the cut. To ask the Luos to go for the cut without serious effort to change their belief system is to make it a useless endeavour. To change a man you must change his belief system, which will then determine his thoughts and actions thereafter.

Like some other isolated communities in Kenya and East Africa, the Luo can talk about sex in between a normal formal sentence. Sex is related to firing, like a gun, but can also mean a matchbox. This means that the outward expression of sex has some base in the culture and language. Insisting on the cut to reduce infection is to teach the right thing the wrong way.

Wife inheritance

I was one of those who feel wife inheritance is misplaced, until I met two concerned parties. It is easier to speak out of information but when your foot is in the shoe, the barrel of the gun lies squarely in your face.

One is a pastor who told me a wife inheritor provided a new roof to the concerned family when the grass thatched house was leaking. His opinion on the practice is not in line with the church’s stand on the same. The other is a relative who lost her husband when I was still very young. She told me she opted to stay with ‘my people’ out of choice. She reasoned that since she had left her people to get married, there was no way she was going back.

These instances reminded me that in so easily discarding our ways of old, we erred in discarding long-held cultural ways in favour of alien, barely-working ones. It is a hole we may not easily fill with new soil.

I recall a discussion I had with an older relative. He told me that, ideally, the community met and designated a specific person after great considerations to take up a widow. His wife had to agree and take part in the rites. The other option was for the widow to approach the wife of a prospective wife inheritor and broach the subject. It was the wife who would talk to the husband if she had no qualms with the request. According to him, it is only a married man with his own home who could take up his dead relative’s responsibilities.

The trouble began when men began to take on wives without discussing with their wives, who got to hear about the arrangements from third parties. Then AIDs came and brought with it much suffering; when infected husbands died, often too proud to seek medication, they left young widows who in turn infected serial wife inheritors who only got into it for easy sex. For policy makers and NGOs, the easiest option was to urge people to “desist from the outdated practice” of inheritance, when the problem itself lay in the human heart. No one sought the widows’ opinions, yet it is evident they would not stay celibate, infected or not.

If we get into the element of it, at least the Luo had a plan to look after widows, a plan that NGOs and government corrupted. What happens to widows from other communities?

As a community, the Luo have left NGOs, primarily driven by a need for donor funding, to dictate what is good and bad. The community fell into the trap of the development industry where projects are set on the path to infinity, solving a problem that only exacerbated a deeper one. This is the reason the Luo Council of Elders must disengage their political gear and look at communal interests.

Circumcision has already been accepted, it cannot be wished away. The way out is to hinge other social interests to it. Let the young men be taught during initiation what it means to be a Luo man. This means that things like education and sports, which come naturally to the Luo, must be taught. The other is wealth creation and positive culture and how to advance and thrive in it.  Luo-ism is a lifestyle, but the software must be updated before more corruption happens. (

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