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Church, elders differ over control of male circumcision

Wednesday November 6 2019

A Kikuyu elder prays for initiates

A Kikuyu elder prays for initiates after undergoing circumcision. The circumcision season in central Kenya is here and various stakeholders are fighting to control the rite. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

NICHOLAS KOMU
By NICHOLAS KOMU
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The circumcision season in central Kenya is here and various stakeholders are fighting to control the rite.

Religious, cultural and even medical groups are currently in a tussle — and money is at the centre of it.

For the next 10 days, thousands of boys will undergo the cut, but the war for control of the rite of passage is far from over, with each group accusing the other of overstepping their societal roles and using the cut as a cash cow.

The ritual was once a sacred stage in a boy’s life, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood.

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But over the past two decades, the rite of passage has been commercialised, with religious and cultural groups looking to cash in on the largely mandatory annual rite.

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With over 400,000 boys having to go through the cut annually, it is clear why the practice has turned into a business.

The biggest fight is between religious leaders and community elders in central region over circumcision roles as the rift between religion and culture deepens.

Traditionally, circumcision of Gikuyu boys was a role primarily left to the council of elders where teenage initiates would be placed in seclusion for a fortnight.

During this period, they would be circumcised and counselled on discipline, culture and social responsibilities.

STRICT RULES

The rite was conducted under strict rules, the most important being that women and girls were not allowed anywhere near the initiates during the period.

But the proliferation of religion and urbanisation discontinued the cultural rite in the presence of cultural elders.

This would see circumcision turn into just a medical procedure for post-primary school boys.

Absence of elders to oversee the rite opened the door for peer influence as well as bullying of initiates by their caretakers. The trend saw the church come in to fill the gap left by elders.

CHURCH'S DEFENCE

“The elders were not available to guide the initiates during the circumcision period. That is why the church stepped in and took up that key role to try and keep the initiates from straying,” said ACK Mt Kenya West Diocese Bishop Joseph Kagunda.

While the move by the church was seen as a noble one, the rite has been turned into a business, with more church groupings looking to cash in as well.

Besides mainstream churches, Pentecostal and privately owned churches are also taking up the rite.

But in the past few years, the elders have resurfaced and want to take back control of the rite of passage. The elders argue that they bear the sole responsibility of circumcision as per cultural doctrines.

ELDERS' ROLE

“Circumcision has always been the role of Gikuyu elders, specifically men. This is our culture and tradition. As much as the church is playing a vital role in spiritual growth, the cultural teachings are the most important during circumcision,” Kikuyu Council of Elders Chairman Wachira Kiago told the Nation.

At the same time the elders have accused the religious groupings of commercialising the cut.

“The rite is being used as a source of money by some of these churches which is wrong,” Mr Kiago said.

Usually, the groupings charge between Sh6,000 and Sh10,000 per boy to cater for the medical expenses as well as accommodation for ten days. This is the same amount charged by the council of elders.

CIRCUMCISION RULES

The elders have also accused the churches of breaching cultural rules and doctrines during the cut.

“There are very strict circumcision rules which the church ignores. Some even allow the boys to mix with women and girls which is a taboo,” Mr Kiago said.

The church has defended itself against the claims of turning the rite of passage into a business and disregarding traditions. They are in turn accusing elders of giving teenagers ‘ungodly’ and impractical teachings in the name of culture.

“Not all the teachings they are giving are practical and ideal. That is why the church will not be dropping the rite of passage any time soon. It is not for profit as they claim,” Bishop Kagunda insisted.

A spot check by the Nation showed that at least ten churches will be offering circumcision rite in the next two weeks.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE

At least five different groupings calling themselves Kikuyu council of elders will also be offering the services.

Besides the security factor, the government has been monitoring the exercise to ensure there is no medical malpractice.

This comes as conflict looms between medical and clinical officers after the two groups earlier traded barbs over professional competence and commercial interests.

Trouble emerged during the last circumcision season after the cut resulted in at least 13 medical complications and two deaths in the central region, with medical practitioners calling for regulation of the practice.

DISPENSARIES

While most parents in rural set-ups choose local dispensaries for the procedure, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union (KMPDU) argued that the local health centres lack qualified personnel to conduct the procedure.

At local dispensaries, the procedure costs Sh3,000.

While it is a requirement that the procedure is conducted by a medical practitioner, controversy has emerged over the qualifications for one to perform the cut.

Kenya Union of Clinical Officers (Kuco) accused KMPDU of commercialising the procedure on the basis of competence.

KMPDU has also called for medical oversight of the procedure and the entire process to avert complications in future.

The impasse is yet to be resolved with thousands of boys already checking into different camps ready to undergo the cut.

At the same time, security agencies will be closely monitoring the circumcision ceremonies which have in the past been linked to recruitment of Mungiki sect members.

Central Regional Commissioner Wilfred Nyagwangwa last year said that the sect was recruiting teenagers during the circumcision period.