National Geographic : 2017 Jan
making a man 97 and the 14-year-old would be formally presented to Bukusu-land as a full-fledged man. it’S harD to Watch a Bukusu circumcision ceremony without being whipsawed by a mix of admiration and dismay. Dismay because the kids are...well, kids. I saw five circumcisions in a week, and some of the omusinde were even younger and looked less ready for the ordeal than Shadrack. Is a boy of 10, tempted by the promise of new privileges and pressured to con- form, really free to make the decision to undergo this painful and potentially dangerous surgery? And what was done to Shadrack and the oth- ers is hardly the extreme of what cultures do to make men of boys. Mardudjara aboriginal boys in Australia are expected to swallow their own foreskins after the cut. Sambia mountain boys in Papua New Guinea push sharp sticks into their nostrils to make their noses bleed and have to swallow semen after oral sex with young men. Satere Mawe boys in the Brazilian Amazon in- sert their hands into gloves filled with bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) whose neurotoxic sting is said to be among the most agonizing in nature. It’s worth asking: Why? The disquieting answer, of course, is to prepare for war. As anthropologist David Gilmore notes, where resources are scarce and the collective welfare uncertain, “gender ide- ology reflects the material conditions of life.” Boys are “tempered” and “toughened” so they may fulfill the classic duties to procreate, provide, and protect that men have performed for millennia. Whether it’s marshaled to ward off the aggression of other males or to capitalize on weakness, vio- lence is the leitmotif of manhood in countless cul- tures. To judge from video games, action movies, circumcision should go to Luo-land.” A huge crowd—men, women, girls, boys—was waiting at the compound. Shadrack marched into the yard and stood over a piece of cardboard. He faced west, symbolically overseeing the sun- set of his boyhood. Still the showman, Shadrack put his left hand on his hip and thrust his right hand above his head as if he’d been studying the victory celebrations of Usain Bolt. The circum- ciser crouched at his groin. The operation was over in seconds. Shadrack did not blink or flinch or let on that he felt any pain. In fact, when the circumciser blew a whistle signaling the surgery was done, and Shadrack’s aunt and mother and other women were ululating in joy, Shadrack be- gan to prance about. Shadrack’s father, his uncle, and others rushed up to inspect the job, bending in for a close-up view as if they were double-checking the num- bers of a winning lottery ticket. Shivering, per- haps in shock, Shadrack sat down as women wrapped him in colorful shawls. He would spend the next four days conva- lescing. Traditionally, new initiates in this com- munity are sequestered for four months with a guardian who will teach them how to hunt, build a hut, tan a hide, and become warriors fierce enough to repulse attacks from cattle raiders and stage raids of their own. Though some young Bukusu males still learn these skills, Shadrack would be going back to school when classes resumed in September. “You can be fierce in school,” says Simiyu Wandibba, a Bukusu pro- fessor of anthropology at the University of Nai- robi. “You can repackage traditional virtues to suit today’s life.” Already Shadrack was being treated with new respect; already he was entitled to a new set of patriarchal privileges. No longer would he be dis- patched to fetch water from the river or collect firewood or sweep the family compound. Wom- en preparing his meals now would consider his preferences. With a hut of his own in the fam- ily compound, he would no longer sleep in his mother’s house or sit at her feet listening to her stories. And come December, in accord with the old ways, there would be a khukhwalukha cere- mony when the traditional period of transition from omusinde to omusani would be complete, Already Shadrack was being treated with new respect. No longer would he be dispatched to fetch water from the river or collect firewood or sweep the family compound.