2011/2012 Yearbook Oral tradition and history

Rites of passage

Circumcision is one of the most widespread rites of passage in Kenya and a forum for the performance of oral poetry.

Communities such as the Kalenjin, Agikuyu, Meru, Kamba, Embu, Mbeere, Maasai, Gusii, Dawida, Kuria and Luhyia take their sons, usually at teenage, through the physical operation and social education. Among the Kuria is the famous ukuhurania boys’ circumcision dance performed by initiates to seek permission from their parents and clan elders for the rite. The dance and song is accompanied by ekibiswi or emborogo flutes.

Among the Kalenjin, tumdo is a rite held every seven to 10 years to teach and graduate the initiates into full membership of the community, instill in them courage and formally induct them into an age set. The age set enables the individual to identify with a particular generation, towards which he has certain responsibilities.

The Kalenjin have seven age sets in descending order of seniority: Kipnyegen, Nyongi, Chumo, Sawe, Korongoro, Kipkoimet and Kaplelach.

The tradition is also found among the Bukusu, who have eight cyclical age sets namely: Kolongolo, Kikwameti, Kananchi, Kinyikewi, Nyange, Maina, Chuma and Sawa.

Traditional rites of passage were in the news for various reasons in 2011. In the first case, Maasai morans invaded a girls’ secondary school in Narok, reportedly to abduct the school girls for marriage. Although they were persuaded to leave by teachers, elders and a local chief, they promised to return if brides were not forthcoming. The foremost Maasai novelist, Henry ole Kulet, observed that this was not true ‘moranism’. “Maasai culture has no room for abduction”, he said. “Girls were given out by elders through negotiated engagement”.

In another incident, there was a stand-off between armed police officers and members of the Bugambe and Buiregi clans of the Kuria community when the former attempted to block the community from administering the female cut. The government outlawed female circumcision in September, 2011. The Constitution, however, guarantees communities the right to practice their culture. Article 11 of the Constitution “recognises culture as the foundation of the nation and as the cumulative civilization of the Kenyan people”. It goes on to oblige the State to “promote all forms of national and cultural expression”.

With the outlawing of FGM, alter- native rite of passage for girls is slowly taking root. For instance, 800 Pokot girls were taken through an alternative rite in December 2011. Another 400 girls, under the aegis of the Nairobi Catholic Archdiocese, went through a similar exercise. The girls were taught about child rights and life skills.

Circumcision for boys is encouraged because of scientific evidence that it contributes in reducing HIV infections. Even the Luo, that traditionally do not circumcise, are rapidly adapting the practice.

The Church has taken on a bigger role in the rite of passage practice, bringing together teenage boys and girls for the exercise. Boys are circumcised by qualified medical personnel and girls are taken through an alter- native rite of passage. In the seven or so days the initiates are together, they are taken through various life skills and counselling sessions.