NAIROBI – The circumcision season among Kenya’s Bukusu ethnic group brings a festive atmosphere: music, food and free-flowing beer. For the uncircumcised men from other tribes in the area, however, it is not time to party, it is time to flee.
At least 12 men from other tribes have been forcibly circumcised since the start of the circumcisions in August, police and local authorities said. Others have sought refuge in police stations to avoid the knife’s cut.
The Bukusu ethnic group prefers traditional circumcisions using simple tools and no anesthesia. But tradition can be disastrous. A 13-year-old boy lost his penis this month after it was chopped off by a circumciser, said local press reports quoting his parents.
Adult male members of the Turkana community living in the Bukusu-dominated town of Moi’s Bridge are the majority of the victims of the forced circumcisions, said local administrator Moses Okumu. A group of Turkana men wielding swords, bows and clubs held protests last week over the spate of forced procedures.
Michael Ngilimo said a family member was forcibly cut by a group moving house to house in search of uncircumcised men.
“They pounced on my uncle and circumcised him and left him there bleeding without treatment. I spent a sleepless nights as my uncle was bleeding,” he said. “I woke up very early to go and look for medicine.”
To avoid becoming victims, many other Turkana men in the area sleep in the corn fields and others seek refuge in the police station, he said. The Turkana will fight back if the trend continues, Mkai warned.
“All of us should respect each other’s customs. If you force someone to adopt your custom it may harm him,” he said. “We are known, we fight with the (rival tribe) Pokot. We fight every day. We have killed. We are not afraid of death.”
No one has been arrested for the involuntary circumcisions, said Okumu, the local government official. He warned that those who continue with the practice will be charged.
Traditionally the Turkana, a Nilotic tribe whose cultural practices and way of life has not been diluted by modern influences, do not engage in circumcision as a rite of passage into adulthood. But members of the Bukusu community say since the Turkana are living among them they should adopt their most celebrated custom.
Wycliffe Khaemba, a laborer from the Bukusu tribe, said that because Turkana were living among them and marrying their girls, “we want them to be clean.”
“The foreskin keeps a lot of germs and it also prevents them performing in bed,” he said. Khaemba said that while some Turkana men are persuaded to agree to circumcision, others are “cowards” who have to be forced.
Circumcision is a big deal among the Luhya community, the second-largest ethnic group in Kenya, said Martin W.W. Waliaula, a local politician and business leader who is Bukusu. The Bukusu are one of 16 Luhya sub-tribes. He said circumcision ceremonies are held every two years for boys between 10 and 14 and the initiate invites all his relatives to celebrate.
“Cows are slaughtered, people feasting and dancing before the ceremony,” he said.
Among the Bukusu, when one is circumcised in the traditional way rather than going to the hospital, he is considered a hero, Waliaula said. Communities that do not circumcise which live among them are the Luo, Teso and Turkana. When a member of those communities marries a Bukusu woman the community may force some to be circumcised at the request of their Bukusu wives and in-laws.
“The spirit wants but the body is scared,” he said. “So the community helps them overcome their fear.” He said if they are married to Bukusu women and are not circumcised the family may be cursed.
Circumcision has scientifically proven health benefits, including a reduced transmission rate of HIV, said Waliaula. But he added that many men of other ethnic groups remain unconvinced and do not want to undergo the procedure.