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Circumcision

Binyavanga Wainaina

G21 AFRICA Correspondent

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Binyavanga Wainaina
Photo of Binyavanga Wainaina.
Compared to most teens in Africa, my circumcision was fairly tame. I was twelve. I had completed primary school, and was about to go to boarding school like most Kenyans at that age. My dad invited me to play golf with him one Saturday. In the showers afterwards, he clapped me on the shoulder and said, "You are a man now. We go Monday."

My big brother spent all of Sunday describing the operation in great detail. The pain, he said, was indescribable. Crying was taboo.

My mom made roast chicken for lunch, and gazed at me proudly throughout the meal. I was allowed two servings of ice-cream. My dad drove me to the hospital, and we parked the car.

He lit a cigarette, looked out of the window, and launched into a detailed biological explanation of what girls and boys do, which I musn't do till I am 77 and married, but if I do, I must use an -- er -- condom...

His technical jargon was superb, and I finally found out what Vagina Hygiene meant. There was a programme on radio that always talked about it, and I thought she and her friend Herpes, Syphilis and Gonorrhea were bad girls from Greek Classics for Adults only.

This was an excruciating discussion to go through. I was twelve. Twin pillows on a bed were enough to pop the corn. To this day, there is a tree in our old garden, with branches shaped like open legs that makes me randy.

I had lots of questions that went unasked.

We went into the hospital. The receptionist aggravated matters somewhat by saying, rather loudly:

"Circumcision, go to room 14!"

Room 14 was occupied by a KENYA GOVERNMENT HOSPITAL NURSE. She was chewing gum loudly and nattering on the phone to someone in Bungoma who was tired of her husband's demands and wanted him to take a second wife. Her's apparently had a very small and inactive one, which rarely bothered her gum chewing. I remember wondering what he did to keep it so disciplined. She paused on the phone, looked at me from head to toe, pausing with a smirk at my crotch, and told me to go behind the screen, take off my clothes, and wait for the anaesthetic.

Her conversation continued, now in her native Luhya. All I understood were the sporadic "reallys!" and "you can't be serious!"

All my brother's macho advice had bolstered by courage somewhat:

"Er.. excuse me, madam. Madam, you see, er..excuse me, madam.."

" WHAT! Can't you see I'm busy!"

" Well, I Can't take off my clothes in front of a woman. I am a man now!"

Laughter. A translation into Luhya. More laughter.

An few minutes later a male nurse was found. The doctor, a fussy looking Iranian, kept wringing his hands and saying, "It must come down!"

When I saw the needle, it did. Fast.

I shan't comment on the next half hour. It was so horrifying, I just felt like laughing.

I left ROOM 14 with this strange, numb thing hanging on me.

I was exhilarated. So this was it? Pain! What a man I am! I can even walk home (my dad had decamped, promising to return by 3).

I set off. I managed about 400 metres. Then the anaesthetic started to wear off.

My Dad found me writhing in exquisite sensitivity behind a Jacaranda tree.

The first two nights were torturesome. The damned thing burned, and reacted to everything. I couldn't even watch "Roots."

A week later, I managed a bow-legged trip to the Sports Club, where I met Maina, a former class-mate. He had had his done the traditional way. His younger uncles had come bearing gifts of plenty booze and other illicit substances and had spirited him away blindfolded. His mother had made the prerequisite screams of protest.

In the bush, together with a few other boys, his uncles taught them lots of dirty songs, made them eat earhworms, and build a small hut. They were taught what goes on in the bedroom, all questions were answered in raunchy detail. Elders came, told them many secrets and their clan history.

They got secret names that only their age-mates (people circumcised that year) could use. The operation was done three days later. No anaesthetic, just herbs for bleeding. That night, a bunch of girls came a-teasing to fan the (very hot) flames and left them in exquisite agony.

At Dawn, a dip in an ice-cold mountain stream, worse than the operation apparently.

After their return, much revelry, much beer and ganja and many gifts, including cash and a red-leather jacket like Michael Jackson's (a gift which defeated the whole purpose).

Photo of African mask. I was so entranced by his story that I adopted it as mine for many years. I hope none of my High school cronies is reading this.

The Age-mate system is still a very powerful networking tool amongst Kikuyu's and related tribes.

The Mau Mau, for example, was dominated by riika-wa-40 (initiated in 1940).

It isn't uncommon for a Kenyan to tell some upstart , "Nyamaza, wewe si riika yangu!" (Which means: "Shut Up, you are not of my circumcism-age!")

Black South Africans take this operation very seriously. Zulus don't do it. Xhosa do, and so do Sothos.. Xhosa's go after High School, on turning 18.

Initiates, I am told, are taken to the mountains for three months where they learn to live in the wild, build a house and generally live lives as useful citizens of the community. Sex is discussed at great length. There is no anaesthetic. Crying is a humiliation that will last your lifetime. Everybody goes.

I am sure there are more than a million strangled foreskins buried about every December. Doesn't matter if you are Mandela's son, or some nsa-nsa-nsa (cool dude) from Johanesburg. You must go.

Every December, the White›Media in South Africa loves to scream about unhygienic practices during circumcision ceremonies. Headlines feature deformed and decapitated dicks. Truth is, there are many initiatives to teach the bearers of the knife basic hygiene. Most of my friends who've been say all the necessary precautions were taken.

I have learned little about women's initiations. People aren't supposed to talk about these things to the opposite sex. I would imagine that the introductory lecture for Kikuyu women would be, "Now I know up to now we have told you that men are the ones who run things -- !"

When working in Masailand after High School, the excited 15 year old daughter of my host invited me to her circumcision. I couldn't bring myself to attend.

While at University, I attended the coming-of-age of a daughter of one of our Deans. A Zulu. She sat in the sun, her breasts bare, with soft sheep-fat over her shoulders. It was quite amazing to witness. Women sang for her, and she cried and cried with pride.

I still wish I had gone to the mountain.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: For the record, Zulu women do not go through any form of genital mutilation.]



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