Print this page
Sunday, 31 May 2009

A Short Cut to Manhood, Uganda

Written by David Bentley
Rate this item
(3 votes)

A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyThe threshold, a tree branch on the ground, has been crossed. The 16-year-old boy, the candidate, steps forward. He's about to become a man. The crowd encircled around him inches forward, craning for a better look. Children crawl beneath the forest of legs, hoping for a glimpse.

My heart is pounding. I'm near the front, close to the boy. The energy and emotion of the crowd is so overwhelming that I don't even notice the scorching afternoon sun.

The casually dressed man standing in front of the 16-year-old, the surgeon, pulls out a six inch long, razor sharp blade. The candidate, seemingly in a trance, stands expressionless. His face is covered in goat dung. He holds a baton in each hand. His chin is up as he stares unblinkingly at the sky. The crowd goes quiet.

A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyFor 48 hours prior to this moment, the boy has been running, chanting and singing non-stop, day and night, in a parade of supporters. Now, in five seconds, it will all be over. The surgeon pulls the candidate's foreskin forward and raises the blade....

The whistle blows. 700 primary school students begin to form disorganized lines in the shadeless, dirt field in front of the school. It's report card day, but the students are distracted by us. 700 kids stare in unison at the mzungu, Swahili for white people. Melanin deficient people are not common here; this is a small village in the middle of nowhere. There's no running water, no electricity and no pubic transport. The main road in and out of town is a ruddy, dirt track. No one in the village seems to own a car, but flagging down a passing motorcycle, plus 4,000 Ugandan shillings (about US$2), will get you a dusty, 20 minute ride on the back of the bike to the paved road, the default public transport hub.

Although people here are cash poor they are by no means destitute. There are few bills to pay in such a place. Building badly-needed classrooms, however, does require money.

A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyWe are in Lwemuna Village in Uganda, at the base of Mount Elgon near the Kenyan border, along with five other white, European volunteers and four Ugandan volunteers. The goal of our two-week work camp is to build another classroom at the primary school. Currently there are just four useable classrooms for the 700 students. As many as 100 students cram into each room. Classes are often taught outside by necessity, but the teachers seem to do all right with it. Two or three teachers work together to keep the kids busy.


We've finished five days of work but haven't accomplished much. We non-Ugandans tend to melt in the heat. We work for four hours starting at 9 AM. By 1 PM, it's at least in the mid-80s, which in itself is not so bad, but the sun here is intense and we have no shade. Direct sunlight during four hours of digging trenches, carrying bricks, or mixing cement is enough. We feel bad we can't do more. Nonetheless, the locals are more than appreciative, humblingly so. Work is often interrupted by those who want to shake our hands. A 'well done' or 'thank you for coming' always follows. That manages to give us a momentary boost; the wheel barrow moves a little faster.

Breaks are occasionally provided by high-speed processions of circumcision candidates surrounded by as many as 30 family members and well-wishers.

Circumcision is a very big deal. It is a rite of passage for boys between 15 and 18-years-old, and it only happens once every two years. The ceremony is a three-day process which ends with a knife.

For a goat, the ceremony begins with a knife. It's slaughtered and the dung inside its body is spread on the candidate's face. He wraps a dark cloth around himself, carries batons in each hand with a whistle around his neck, and wears what looks like a New Year's party hat on his head, complete with glittery plastic tassels. A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyThis is his uniform during his two day run through the nearby villages. On the third day, in front of the surgeon, encircled by a crowd of hundreds at his uncle’s house, the running ends....

 

 

 

 

 

A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyThe whistle blows. The surgeon has finished. Two slices--top and bottom--is all it took. Female family members, who had been sequestered inside the house, explode into the yard dancing and singing. The mother, who’s face is also coated in goat dung, leads the group. The men who formed the circle around the candidate raise their clubs, sticks, and machetes and cheer. The weapons are not needed today (and, in reality, are never needed). The surgeon has done a good job and will not be chopped and beaten to death.

 

A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyThe only people not celebrating are the candidate’s father and uncles. They take the foreskin and hurry in the direction opposite those streaming into the yard. They must dispose of the foreskin so it won't fall into the hands of someone who might wish to curse the candidate.


A Short Cut to Manhood, male circumcision, rite of passage, circumcision ritual, Lwemuna Village, Uganda, Uganda rituals, Mount Elgon, David BentleyIn the center of all of this is the new man. He stands triumphantly, almost defiantly, amidst the joyful chaos around him. He stares straight ahead, legs slightly spread, penis exposed. Blood drips from the one-inch cylindrical wound onto the sand placed on the ground beneath him. People congratulate him. He does not speak.

As white people must be rare guests, especially those with cameras, I'm pulled in front of the candidate. People step out of my line of sight as they encourage me take a photo I'm not eager to have. I snap the picture as fast as my camera will take it, thank the candidate and press 1,000 shillings (about half an American dollar) into his hand. The congratulatory contributions are used for antibiotics and bandages. Changing the bandages is far more painful, I’m told, than the circumcision itself.

He had the option to do this in a hospital with anesthetic but that’s considered the coward’s way out - if someone chooses that option they never mention that they have been circumcised. Though all male circumcision is practical since it reduces the risk of HIV infection by up to 76%, hospital circumcisions are not brave, not a rite of passage and certainly not worth celebrating. This is.

After numerous handshakes, slaps on the back, and congratulatory words, the candidate’s stoicism disappears. He slumps onto a stool, his lower body wrapped in a loose sarong. He lowers his head. Exhaustion and relief seem to wash over him.

Meanwhile the celebration continues around him, without him. The men are drinking homemade beer from phallic-shaped gourds, the women are dancing, and the children are running about. The candidate pays no attention. He’s done enough for today.

©David Bentley

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

Related items