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February 20, 2019

Boy's death in botched circumcision lifts lid on tortures meted to 'harden' initiates

An initiate bird hunting. /BRIAN SIMIYU
An initiate bird hunting. /BRIAN SIMIYU

When Juliano Kanyonyo, 15, finished primary school in Murang'a county, he was happy not only with the achievement but also because he was set to be circumcised and join manhood, like his classmates. 

The partial orphan underwent the rite of passage on November 12 at a clinic in Gatitu village, in line with Kikuyu traditionsthen he went home to recuperate. However, six days later, the day he was to mark the end of his seclusion period, he was found dead in his one-roomed house with foam in the mouth.

Beth Nduta, the mother, told the Star she felt betrayed. "I approached our family friend's son because I wanted someone who would take care of my son in a proper way. I had heard stories earlier that during that period of circumcision, they are mistreated, which was something that I wanted to avoid," she said, adding that she trusted the guide to take care of her son.

"I had no clue of what happens and so I asked the young man to tell me how much the whole process would cost me so I could prepare in advance. He said the fee was Sh2,000. I talked to the clinical officer, who told me the real cost was Sh1,000. I started doubting the honesty of this young man, but I had no choice because I had already informed him, so there was no need to make him realise I knew he was lying."

When the day reached, the guide came for her son and took him for circumcision at around 6pm. She waited for them until around 10pm and unexpectedly, he came together with four other young men, which was a bit unusual because it was the first day.


Nduta felt disturbed because they stayed in the small room of her son until 1am. As a parent, she requested that they leave to give her son some space to sleep. All this time, they were talking to her son in a rough way.

The troubled mum recalled a day she was asked to give them Sh150 to buy medicine for her son but that was not the actual price, as she managed to buy it at Sh50.

"In another instance, I asked to wash the utensils my son was using but my son told me they said the utensils should not be cleaned. That day, I washed them and they harassed my son," Nduta said.

Kanyonyo's mother said the torture her son was going through included being cleaned with extremely hot water. When she questioned why, those boys were rude to her. They even asked my son why he was telling me what was happening in the small house, claiming it was a way of transitioning into adulthood.

"A few days before his death, they asked for a cock and I showed them the one they could slaughter. Unfortunately they declined, saying it is very little for them, which forced me to go sell it and get another one just to make sure they were okay at least to take care of my son," Nduta said.

"They became furious after I failed to bring the cock, and the day my son died they had not come, and I was the one who took care of my son. What I am sure is that they came at night and that could be the time they hit him with the blunt object that was revealed after postmortem," she said.

Seven boys have been arrested in connection with the killing and they will be charged today. Nduta is hopeful that justice will be served.


Circumcision is the practice of cutting off the foreskin. It dates back thousands of years and continues today as a religious duty.

In Kenya, most communities practise it yearly, with most parents going for the modern method of initiation done in the hospital and later assigning a guide to take care of their children because they cannot afford to pay for them to be taken care of in church.

Traditionally, the ritual was carried out with a crude weapon, sharpened for that purpose, and was done very early at the river. It was so painful and the subject was prone to infection because there was little sanitisation of the tools used.

The Star spoke to an elderly man who went through the traditional circumcision method. "I was seven years old and I did the right of passage the traditional way, called Tiriki in Western Kenya. There was no torture apart from the circumcision itself. It was very traditional and there was a lot of education involved," he said.

"After circumcision, a lot was expected from us, like taking baths on our own, taking care of our work and not moving across before women. We were told that after the initiation, we were not supposed to go to the kitchen or even enter our mother's bedrooms. Those teachings were just to mean we were men."

Traditional circumcision is still practised among the Ameru, Luhya and Kisii communities.

Robert Muchara, a village elder in Murang'a county, explained how the rite differs from his time. "Any custom in the society is not static. It is bound to change. And that is why you find that for Kikuyu people nowadays, they practise it after the child is done with their class eight education," he said.

"For example, I'm now sixty years old but during our time, even in high school, we still had not faced the knife. It was until when we were in form four that we were allowed to go through the knife. Through the dynamism that has happened years later, we see that boys go through the process even when in primary school. But during our times, they were circumcised at 20 years or above. Now they keep reducing the ages."


Muchara said this premature timing has consequences. "Once the child goes through that rite of passage, they start rebelling against their parents and even from teachers. Some think they should not be ruled by female teachers. They are brainwashed that they are not supposed to be submissive to any woman. Most of them become prone to that mentality," he said.

Sources who spoke anonymously also shared their experiences. "There were some unusual kinds of stuff like feeding on a lot of meals. Isolation was another issue. I was not allowed to interact with my family members," one said.

"After I healed, the real torture started because there were demands from those older than us and even some would come to your house and take some of your expensive stuff."

Another one said: "I was lucky to have a bigger brother who shielded us so we did not go through hell. Others were being burned with cigarettes. Sometimes they would bring women to you and you were supposed to have an erection, which would make your wound take longer to heal. We were given talks (Kirira), which to me technically amounts to bulls**t because it did not add any value to my life as a young man. All that was meant to harden us because they were so tough on us."

The source said before the turn of the millennium, there were no cases of the tortures that are currently happening. "This is just a foolish mentality that has come to be done. No one used to do things like kids being beaten to death," he said. 

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