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The Cutting Edge – Observation of a Maasai Male Circumcision Ceremony
It’s night. Not just any night, but a “bushy” night, meaning the only light is the flickering of the fire’s flames and the steady, faint glow of a few kerosene lamps around the camp. We sip ours tea (tea) i kahaua (coffee) to warm our insides against the wind blowing across the Simanjiro plains as our Maasai companions, Alterere and Leiyo, hurry us on our way…we will be late.
We jump into our two-ton pick-up. Our uneducated Maasai friends comically and desperately try to negotiate for me and my sister’s two front seats to no avail, reluctantly jumping into the back. We drive off into the night in search of the telltale glint of eyes in our lights, winding and speeding down the unforgiving road. No one stands in our way, no one cuts our way, no one hitchhikes as they often do here during the day. Around 9 p.m. we arrive at boma (Maasai village) and we quickly discover that we missed it – the ceremony is over. What now?
We sit in the car, surrounded by Maasai, waiting for Hassan to determine our next move, occasionally greeting a faceless hand that makes its way curiously through the pitch black to the window. I wonder how they live in such darkness at night realizing that I am spoiled by modern technology. Some kind of meeting is taking place in front of our car, we hear murmurs; the flashlight flashes on and off—briefly exposing the face, eyes, and a row of teeth, but that’s about it. In addition, it is the night that prevails. Hassan is out of the car, talking to the elders and doing some much needed public relations to get us permission for the ceremony. Here and there he peeks into his head to give us news, “…here were already four boys circumcised…all of them can’t walk and in bed…the doctor is still here…we invited to another ceremony.. “. Then it returns to the abyss of darkness.
It is important to note that among the Maasai respect and communication are not only extremely important, but two ruling forces in their lives. The first half of every meeting is usually devoted to greetings and formalities. Nothing is too important to be rushed; here we are on “African time”, and so we continue to wait. After a little discussion and clarification with the elders, it was agreed that we would accompany the doctor (is it certified?! I’m not sure…) to the next boma about an hour and a half away. The headlights light our way again and we take off after the doctor and his team. Although I mentioned nothing is too important to rush because I didn’t say nothing is too important to rush to. I had (up to this point) never seen an African show any sense of urgency, but this doctor gave new meaning to the phrase “…bat out of hell”. Our vehicle occasionally slows down to gently maneuver over bumps or potholes in the road and within seconds the dim red taillights we’re following disappear. On numerous occasions, we are left with only his dust that settles. Then, like a lighthouse in a storm, we see lights in the distance, a car zigzagging its way through the brush. The hour-long chase (as it turned out) is interrupted by several hyenas cringing as they gallop across the road and (finally) when the “getaway” car breaks down due to a broken front wheel axle (shocking). This led us to be the only vehicle, which immediately promoted us from mere observers of the ceremony to its actual heralds! I, more somber in my metaphor, likened us to the riders of the apocalypse for these young boys who will go through what I imagine to be insurmountable pain.
We reach the boma with butterflies in our stomachs, again in complete darkness, with the faint sound of rhythmic, ominous singing. “Must be the guys who are going to be cut…” I guess in a whisper. But as we approach the sound, we see a picture against the moon of a group of about eight Morani (Maasai warriors) in a circle (a circle is usually how they not only build their villages, but also their ceremonies). The singing and chanting never lets up, with one singer shouting a solo, followed by the others singing in unison. The sound is guttural and hypnotic – actually quite captivating and beautiful despite the fact that the Maasai language is foreign to us. After a bit of questioning, we discover that the Morans are not singing at all, but are being verbally abused lions (uncircumcised) who are completely naked at the center of it all. We learn from Hassan that this is done in an attempt to enrage the boys enough to endure the pain that awaits them, the nudity of exposing them to the cold in an effort to numb them. The whole trouble can be compared to sibling bullying; but you can imagine that the ritual of “hooking up” in college pales in comparison to this revered and ancient rite of passage.
Another click of the flashlight confirms it: in the center of the circle are two thin, trembling bodies, their spindly hands running over their intimate muscles. The light goes out again. The singing continues and another glimmer of light reveals chattering teeth (ie freezing) and sclera. I am so nervous about these two boys that I am overwhelmed by the weight of the moment ahead. Circumcision is done with a razor, without any anesthesia, and if the boy shouts, flinches or hints at tears – he fails this test and is thrown out of the village, which was a great shame for his family. I can’t help but think that these young boys (ages 9 and 13) are too young to carry such a huge responsibility.
Finally, it’s time to wash up and my friend, Leiyo, leads me by the hand to the area outside the boma where the ceremony is to take place. This is done outside the village because only after circumcision can they be invited back to the boma, this time as men. The doctor now has a flashlight and the area is pretty well lit. The men of the boma begin to gather around as two cowhide mats are placed on the ground, each chattering boy leading to one. The women are in their huts (they are forbidden to watch this ceremony) – the moans of the mothers are interrupted by the screaming wind. The feeling I get in the pit of my stomach can be compared to the feeling you get when you watch a movie in which a brave character is stoically led to the guillotine – a feeling of sadness, anxiety and a desire to get the whole ordeal over with as soon as possible.
The boys sit on mats, legs spread in front of them, their upper bodies in their uncle’s strong arms. In this particular case, their faces are covered with their own shukas (traditional Maasai cloth). I’m holding my breath. The doctor displays a fresh razor that shines in the light and is in no hurry to cut. 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 that he has passed away. Apparently his mother also heard this; her sobs of pride, joy and relief echo into the night like a song.
Another, very young boy, already with the first cut, stuck my stomach in my throat while shallowly letting out air that sounds like I’m inhaling it through clenched teeth. Play a few more and I’m almost certain it’s tearing. When it’s all said and done, the elders spit on the ground around him, making me believe he failed, but I’m wrong. Spitting is a form of respect, and the little boy (who, we will later understand, was given some space because he is very young) proved his strength and courage.
They were taken to recovery with their waiting mothers and it was over. The actual circumcision only lasted about 15 minutes, but we discover that the insult we got into had been going on since 6pm (it was now past midnight), so it’s actually an all-day event.
The whole ordeal left me with a surreal feeling that was only overshadowed by the immense relief I felt for each boy. I immediately felt connected to the Maasai and especially the boys as they allowed us to witness the most important event in Maasai life. It was incredibly humbling and reminded me how beneficial and socially reinforcing rites of passage are. I cannot think of a single event in the life of the average American that conceals the social significance of the event I have just described. I can’t help but feel that we may be missing out on this idea or construct that strengthens bonds and builds character the way Maasai circumcision does. It was not barbarous, rude, heathen, or fanatical; in fact it was the opposite. An extremely rare event that I was lucky enough to witness is not only soul-building, pride-raising and so completely admirable…it is, in a way, even beautiful.
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