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The Cutting Edge – Observation of a Maasai Male Circumcision Ceremony
It is night. Not just any night, but “bush” night which means the only light is the flailing licks of fire flames and the steady, faint glow of the few kerosene lamps around the camp. We sip our chai (tea) and kahaua (coffee) to warm our insides against the wind that sweeps across the Simanjiro plains as our Maasai companions, Alterere and Leiyo, hurry us on our way…we are going to be late.
We hop into our two tone pick-up. Our ill-mannered Maasai friends try comically and desperately to negotiate mine and my sister’s two front seats to no avail, begrudgingly jumping into the back. We drive off into the night searching for the tell-tale glow of eyes in our headlights, winding and bounding along the unforgiving road. There is no one in our way, no one crossing our path, no one hitching rides as they so often do out here in the daytime hours. It is about 9 pm when we reach the boma (Maasai village) and we quickly discover we have missed it – the ceremony is over. Now what?
We sit in the car, surrounded by Maasai, waiting on Hassan who will determine our next move, occasionally greeting a faceless arm that curiously navigates its way through the pitch black and into the window. I find myself wondering how they live in such darkness at night realizing that I have been spoiled by modern technology. Outside our car, there is a meeting of sorts, we hear the murmur; the torch clicks on and off – briefly exposing a face, eyes, and a set of teeth, but that is about all. Other than that it is the night that prevails. Hassan is out of the car, talking with the elders and doing his very necessary public relations to get us permission into the ceremony. Every now and then he pops his head in to give us an update, “…there were four boys already circumcised here…they are all unable to walk and in bed…the doctor is still here…we have been invited to another ceremony…”. Then he returns to the abyss of dark.
It is important to note that among the Maasai respect and communication are not only extremely important, but two governing forces in their lives. The first half of any meeting is usually devoted to greetings and formalities. Nothing is too important to rush away for; here we are on “Africa time”, and so we continue to wait. It is arranged after some discussion and clarification with the elders that we will follow the doctor (is he certified?! I’m not sure…) to a neighboring boma about an hour and a half away. Once again, headlights illuminate our way and we take off after the doctor and his team. While I mentioned that nothing is too important to rush away for I didn’t say that nothing is too important to rush to. I (up until this point) have never seen any African display any sense of urgency whatsoever, but this doctor put new meaning to the phrase “…bat out of hell”. Our vehicle occasionally slows down to tenderly maneuver over a bump or hole in the road and in a matter of seconds the faint red tail lights we are following are out of site. On numerous occasions we are left with only his settling dust to follow. Then, like a beacon in a storm, we spot the lights in the distance, the car zig-zagging its way across the bush. The hour long chase (as it became) is broken by a few cowering hyena trotting off across the road and (finally) when the “getaway” car breaks down on account to a broken front wheel axle (shocking). This led us to be the sole vehicle, immediately promoting us from being mere observers of the ceremony, to the actual harbingers of it! I, bleaker in my metaphor, likened us to the horsemen of the apocalypse for these young boys about to undergo what I imagine is insurmountable pain.
We arrive at the boma with butterflies in our stomachs, again into complete darkness, to the faint sound of rhythmic, ominous chanting. “It must be the boys about to be cut…” I speculate in a whisper. But as we near the sound we see a tableau against the moonlight of a group of about eight Morani (Maasai warriors) in a circle (a circle is usually how they not only construct their villages but their ceremonies as well). The singing and chanting never falters, with one vocalist yelling out solo and the others chiming in unison afterward. The sound is guttural and hypnotic – actually quite captivating and beautiful despite the fact the language of the Maasai is foreign to us. After some inquiry, we discover the Morani are not singing at all, but verbally insulting the two leoni (uncircumcised) who are completely nude in the center of all this. We learn from Hassan that this is done in attempts to rile up the boys enough to endure the pain that awaits them, the nakedness is to expose them to cold in an effort to numb them. The whole tribulation can be compared to fraternity hazing; however you can imagine the college “bonding” ritual pales in comparison to this esteemed and ancient rite of passage.
Another click of a flashlight confirms it: in the center of the circle are two scrawny, shivering bodies whose spindly arms cross over their privates. The light clicks off again. The chanting continues and another flick of light exposes chattering teeth (it is freezing) and the whites of their eyes. I am so nervous for these two boys I find myself getting overwhelmed by the weight of the moment ahead. The circumcision is done with a razor, without any anesthetic, and if a boy lets out a yelp, flinch, or hint of a tear – he has failed this test and is cast out of the village bringing tremendous shame to his family. I can not help thinking that these young boys (aged 9 and 13) are too young to carry such an enormous responsibility.
The time finally comes for them to be washed and my friend, Leiyo, takes me by the hand to the area outside the boma where the ceremony is to take place. It is done outside the village because only after they undergo circumcision can they be invited back into the boma, this time as men. The doctor has a torch now and the area is fairly well lit. Men of the boma begin to crowd around as two cow-skin mats are laid on the earth with each chattering boy led to one. The women are in their huts (forbidden to view this ceremony) – the mothers’ wails punctuate the screaming wind. The feeling I have in the pit of my stomach can be compared to that feeling one gets while watching a film in which some valiant character is led stoically to the guillotine – one of sadness, anxiety, and a desire to get the whole ordeal over with as soon as possible.
The boys sit on the mats, legs spread apart before them, their upper bodies in the strong arms of an uncle. In this particular case, their faces are covered with their shukas (traditional Maasai cloth). I hold my breath. The doctor exposes a fresh razor that glistens in the light and makes no haste in cutting. The first boy is tough, not even twitching a toe or clenching a fist as the razor makes its cuts. My tense body does not relax until I discover he has passed. Apparently his mother caught wind of this as well; her song-like sobs of pride, joy, and relief echo into the night.
The second, very young boy has my stomach in my throat with the very first cut as he lets out a shallow gasp of air that sounds breathed through clenched teeth. He lets out a few more of these and I am almost positive he is tearing. When it is all said and done the elders spit on the ground all around him, forcing me to believe he has failed, but I am wrong. Spitting is a form of respect, and the little boy (whom, we gather later, is given some leeway because of his very young age) has proved his vigor and bravery.
They are carried off to recover with their awaiting mothers and it is over. The actual circumcision lasted only about 15 minutes, but we discover the hazing bit we had walked in on had been going on since 6 pm (it was now past midnight), so in actuality it is an all day event.
The whole ordeal left me with a surreal feeling that was only overshadowed by the tremendous relief I felt for each boy. I felt immediately connected to the Maasai and particularly the boys’ for allowing us to witness the single most important event in a Maasai man’s life. It was unbelievably humbling and reminded me of how beneficial and socially solidifying rites of passages are. I cannot think of a single event in the average American’s life that harbors the social significance of this event I have just described. I cannot help but feel that perhaps we are missing out on this idea or construct that strengthens bonds and builds character in the way the Maasai circumcision does. It was not barbaric, gross, pagan or fanatic; it was, in fact, the opposite. The extremely rare event that I was fortunate enough to witness is not only soul building, pride rearing and so completely admirable…it is, in a way, even beautiful.
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