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September 23, 2018

Naked rituals, feasts and sex advice: Untold story of Bukusu circumcision

Boys gear up for the ritual in Bumula constituency, Bungoma county / BRIAN OJAMA
Boys gear up for the ritual in Bumula constituency, Bungoma county / BRIAN OJAMA

Every even year in August and December holidays after schools have closed, as you approach Bungoma county, you hear songs and ringing bells known as “chinyimba”.

It’s time for traditional circumcision, locally referred to as “Embalu”, the rite of passage in which boys become men. The bells are won on both hands and rang by the initiates as they sing circumcision songs.

Semi-naked boys aged 10-15 years crisscross the county, ringing bells to inform their relatives that they are ready for the cut in a process known as “Khuminya”, usually an overnight vigil.

Circumcision songs often send shivers down the spines of the initiates, parents and circumcisers, who spend sleepless nights until the ritual is over. Some are sang before the boys are cut and others as they are escorted to and from the river.

Some songs are meant to give the boys courage before they face the cut. Others praise members of the community who made it proud or ridicule those who brought it shame.

Bukusu elder Walinywa Mukhamule, who lives in Bumulu, told the Star that Embalu is highly regarded in the Bukusu, Tachoni and Batura communities, as it marks boys as full members of the community.

Legend has it the Bukusu community started practising circumcision in the 18th century, after their King Mango Maalule killed a huge python, which had killed many tribe members.

“The serpent used to bite victims on the head, forcing residents to put a hot porridge pot on their heads, so that when the snake struck, it would be burned by the porridge. Mango faced the snake alone with a knife after it attacked and killed his son,” Mukhamule says.

“During that time only the Sabaoti, neighbours to the Bukusu, practised circumcision. The Sabaoti, who are commonly referred to as Sebei, a Kalenjin community, then circumcised Mango, saying he was courageous for killing the terrifying reptile.”

This is just one of the many myths and stories that surround the origin of circumcision among the Bukusus.

Walinywa said it has now became official that anyone who reaches age 18 and has not paid “the debt of Mango” of not being circumcised is ridiculed as a coward and forced to face the cut.

TO RIVER AND BACK

Sinoni Omukolongolo, Bungoma county chairman of the circumcisers, says that during the traditional circumcision ceremonies, relatives and friends gather at the home of initiates, where they sing and drink local liquor, busaa, until morning, when the boy is initiated.

A day before the boy is initiated, two bulls are slaughtered; one at home and another at his maternal uncle’s home. Some parts of the meat are removed from the animals and worn around the initiate’s neck, as everyone feasts on the rest.

“Early in the morning, before the boy faces the knife, he is escorted half-naked to a river, where he is smeared with mud,” he says.

Omukolongolo says the special river, called “Sitabicha”, is meant to provide a certain clay soil, which is used by the boy’s uncle to paint him, and a certain grass that is put on his head.

“At this stage, if any other boy comes to the river, he will also join the one being prepared and be forced to face the knife, too. He is called ‘Namukhulisila’,” he says.

Once clay painting is done, one is ready to go back home to face the knife. Before stepping out of the river, the boy throws the bells. Then villagers sing a song called “Sioya oyo” all the way home.

The crowd leaves via a different route from the one they came through. This is to avoid witches, as it is believed some people with a bad eye can bewitch the boy to fear facing the knife.

The circumciser and his helper then cut the boy while he is standing facing upwards at a designated spot in his father's compound, a process that takes about 10 seconds.

In the case of twins, the boys are cut between 5am and 6:30am, but others can be circumcised as late as 9am, and a whistle is blown immediately after the cut is finished.

If one half of the twins is a girl, she is also smeared with clay and a special banana material tied around her waist. The material is cut as a sign of circumcision as the twin counterpart is circumcised.

In some cases, a newly circumcised boy can refuse to sit down until he is given a special gift by his father. In the past, they could get bicycles, radios or cows.

After the cut, the boy graduates from “Omusinde” to “Omufulu”. He later undergoes counselling called “Khubita”, where he is taught cultural values.

The “Bafulus” begin to heal slowly and are given special food to fasten the process. After about two weeks, they begin to walk around the village in groups, hunting for fruits and birds using catapults.

In Bukusu, circumcised people are allowed to watch the process, whereby the boy is not allowed to cry lest he pays a fine. But in other Luhya tribes of Tiriki and Maragolis, the cut is performed secretly by elders in a designated area.

An elder from the Tachoni community, Erick Sakwa, says Khubita is usually very important, as the boys are advised on good morals.

“Once the cutting ritual is over, about two to three days later, the circumciser talks to the boys, now regarded as men, about how they should conduct themselves. This is usually done in the presence of a few elders,” he says.

“They are told the door that is closed is someone else’s, while the one that is open is yours. This means one is not allowed to have sex with another man’s wife.”

Other wisdom imparted includes how to treat elders with respect and the need to stay away from temptations of married women.

This year’s ceremonies started on August 1. They ran throughout the month and will extend to December, where the ceremonies of the boys graduating are officially done. These ceremonies are called “Khualukha”.

HYGIENE TRAINING

Unlike previous years, when anybody could circumcise, this year, only certified circumcisers, traditionally known as Walusanya, are allowed to take part. They were trained by the county’s Culture department on hygiene matters. 

The circumcisers are usually given Sh1,000 for every boy they cut. Each circumciser is required to have at least 10 small knives, commonly known as “lukembe”, to be allowed to participate. Each boy is supposed to get a clean knife.

The Culture department trained more than 800 traditional circumcisers. They were awarded certificates, badges and uniforms. The community was told that anyone who does not have them should not be allowed to perform the cut.

The training was aimed at curbing the spread of HIV, venereal and other diseases. The one-knife-one-boy policy has been emphasised. Circumcisers were told to be clean, wash their hands and cut their nails. The environment must also be clean. They were advised not to wrap the boy in a dirty lesso or piece of cloth.

In the past, some boys contracted diseases after the cut, while others’ penises were disfigured.

Culture executive Everline Kaikai said ambulances are on standby in case of emergencies. She warned that non-Bukusu people must not be forced to undergo the cut.

Omukolongolo, the circumcisers’ chairman, said they usually converge at the home of one of the colleagues to perform a ritual of blessing the knives.

“We cleanse the knives in a traditional way and pray for the knives so that ancestors may assist the circumcisers do their work safely,” he said.

SEX AND CURSES

Bukusu Council of Elders chairman Richard Walukano asked the circumcisers to avoid having sex with women for the entire month.

“Sex is usually avoided by the circumcisers, as it might affect their concentration and lead to accidents,” he said.

Bungoma Deputy Governor Charles Ng’ome said whoever forgets his culture is lost, adding that all boys who are traditionally cut and given proper teachings by elders usually grow up to be very responsible men.

He asked circumcisers to mould the boys the right way. “In past circumcisions, some circumcisers bewitched each other terribly. I want them to shun the evil practice,” he said.

“Some Walusanyas look at their fellows with a bad eye because maybe one has been invited to cut more children than the other. This leads to one being sick and unable to perform the cut,” he said.

He warned women against leading circumcision songs, saying that is a taboo and anyone who breaks it risks death by being cursed.

In the Bukusu community, those circumcised in the same year or within a span of two years are of the same age set. There are seven age sets: Bachuma, Kananachi, Kikwameti, Kinyikeu, Kolongolo, Maina and Sawa.

Those circumcised under the same age set call each other Bakoki, as they school, walk and do most of their activities together. Some of the age-set brothers even construct a small hut, commonly known as esimba, at an identified homestead, and stay together.

Most of them even marry at the same time or even in the same place. The wife to a fellow age-set brother is highly respected, and it is a taboo to have sex with her.

During funerals, if the deceased is from your age-set, you are not supposed to see him being lowered into the grave but are instead to walk away. During the circumcision period, if a fellow age-set brother is having his son circumcised, the others go to his home and are usually given money or meat, known as “lubaka”.

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