Monday, September 1, 2008

Traditional Male Circumcision Ceremony

As I have posted previously, our trip to Malawi was to observe male circumcision ceremonies held at Yao villages, so see if there are opportunities to impart AIDS/HIV prevention information to the participants. We found the circumcision rites have evolved considerably in that they are no longer linked with imparting sexual knowledge to the participants mostly because the boys are much younger now and would not be able to grasp the information.

The reasons why the boys are younger has to do with status and economics. There is cost involved because the circumciser has to be paid and extra food is expected to be provided to various people. So as soon as money is available the tendency is to spend it now rather than wait because the money may not be available in the future.

The other main change involved religion. The Yao are Muslims due to their association with the Arabs in the slave trade. Unless a male is circumcised, he is not able to enter the masque to pray. There is an effort afoot to do away from the traditional ceremony associated with the rites because some Muslims don't approve of them. In the non-traditional circumcision rites, the boys are just herded to the lodge where they are circumcised and remain until their wounds are healed.

I have no idea why the cause of disapproval, but because I was able to witness both kinds, my analysis is that the traditional kind imparts more of a sense of passage within the social framework of the village and therefore, is better.

I restricted myself from posting much of my experiences due to concerns of confidentially. But my wife Judith, says that any part of the ceremony open to anyone is not confidential and I am free to share photos and descriptions about what took place before the boys were lead off to be circumcised. So here goes.

The group of us arrived early Sunday evening to witness the ceremonial dancing by the village women. However, we were early and sat around for a while until a fire was built and people gathered around. Eventually, the women gathered and started singing and clapping as two drummers provided the rhythm after the Ngaliba’s (the circumciser) assistants showed up and danced for those gathered. They play out some male and female thing as one of them is dressed as a woman. The initiates are brought out and sit in front of the mothers and the other village women.

I was told that, the boys’ mothers have a set of beads, designed by her that she wears around her abdomen next to her skin. These beads are known only to her husband and are used in some matter during sexual foreplay. When her son is to be circumcised she places these beads around her son’s neck indicating that he is her son. The beads can be seen on the boys during the previous evening’s dancing but I don’t know exactly when they are placed on the boy. One thing the boys are told is to never enter their mother’s bedroom again.

I can't help but interject something here. I took a psychology course at Ball State University long ago and the text book talked briefly about Freud and his "theories" saying that his findings appeared to be only related to western culture. I argued vigorously in class saying that this could not be so. The professor, a rolly-polly little man who always wore a bow tie and called his wife mommy (this is before Reagan was elected), seemed totally ignorant of anything Freud ever said. And I was kind enough to let it slide by. So I offered this evidence in support of my long held insights.

I was told that the mothers sing about the forthcoming event of circumcision using the words (translated of course) “that you are coming to experience some pain nothing like I felt when I gave birth to you”. The also sing that “they can accept a man’s penis the size of an arm”!!!! And I am told that in the past, during the female equivalent of coming of age ceremony, she is taught to periodically pull on her labia to extend it.

In the morning, the ngaliba’s assistants first showed up and then the Ngaliba. Here is picture of them with the Ngaliba being 2nd from the left.
To the right of the boys is a basket of flour, applied to the initiates head, with the charm used by the Ngaliba sitting in the flour.
Just before the boys leave for the camp they were lined up and the Ngaliba’s helper places the charm on each boy’s head and says some words.
At the proper time, the boys were led away and the Ngaliba and his helpers raced ahead of the camp. I was told that the boys have no idea what is going to happen and probably think the initiation is over and now are going to receive some kind of reward. Oh, the humanity!


GETkristiLOVE said...

What a great experience... um, for you, not those kids!

dguzman said...

That last paragraph killed me. Poor kids!

Dad E said...

The process of becoming a man has many aspects within individual societies. Being circumcised at birth probably is not less painful than latter. While witnessing the circumcisions, I did not feel horror or sympathy pains or even wince. Their wounds were well attended and treated with herbs. And I image that during the healing process in the "lodge", they developed bonds with their fellow initiates and attending adults. There is a lot of good things to be said for this "primative" rite.