Cut or Un-cut ? Circumcision politics in Kenya by Canon Francis Omondi

It may be just a small flap of skin — but the question of whether or not it is removed has gained currency in determining status and leadership ability in Kenya.

Of course, we’re talking about circumcision, and the disturbing way in which it has been a pretext to isolate, stigmatise or punish people from tribes that do not circumcise. The drums of war are sounding. That we are heading for trouble again, was clear when the National Cohesion and Integration Commission [NCIC] and the Law Society of Kenya [LSK] got entangled in the recent flurry of exchanges on circumcision.
The Hon. Moses Kuria, MP for Gatundu South, has exhibited a fierce and uncompromising determination to disdain the uncircumcised and in the process is earning himself a name; “Mr Foreskin”. He has poured ridicule on his much publicised reprimand, apologies and reconciliation, under the watchful eye of NCIC and LSK. In his latest post he cites the Bible, Genesis 17:14, in another attempt to malign communities which do not circumcise.

Hon. Moses Kuria public apology ....

Hon. Moses Kuria ….giving public apology ….

We can live with this if it is simply a cultural jest. But in this, we have a classic double entendre. His words certainly irked Mr Ken Mwaniki, a blogger who quipped via Facebook: “Moses Kuria! What kind of leadership is this? Yet you represent the President in Gatundu … Now when you insult our lakeside brothers, do you expect them not to hit back? Seriously, what kind of a nation are we building?”

The timing of these discussion is suspicious. Is this an attempt to rally support as we head for elections? Can we afford a repeat of the violence of 2007/8?

We are now aware of the allegations by the International Criminal Court, that branding of “uncircumcised” was used to rally the Kikuyus against the Luos during the elections and the subsequent revenge attacks and the awful post-election violence that ensued.

We need to understand that the Luo community is surrounded entirely by circumcising neighbours. Don’t imagine that their neighbours have failed to mention uncircumcision in jest. The Luos have been called, “Omunyolo” by the Luhyas;[Manyala, Samia, Marachi, Kisa, Marama, Wanyore and Maragoli,” in the north, “ng’etai” by the Nandi and Kipsigis to the west and “Omogere” by the Kisii and Kuria to the south, all whom have been ridiculed in reciprocation;“rayuom”.

Here is a cultural distinctive among neighbours that has amplified the words by Prof. Miraslov Volf, born out of the terrible ethnic violence in the Balkans in the 1980s. Volf charges in his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation;”[t]here would be no discrete identities, and without discrete identities there could be no relation to the other.” On this premise, relations have prospered respectfully, climaxing in inter-marriages.

Friends, the lesson Kenyans need to learn is that rituals do not necessarily make any sense to those outside the orbit in which they are observed. They are a bit like what’s happening in the story of the drunk who crossed the street and accosted a pedestrian asking him; “I say, which is the other side of the street?” The pedestrian, somewhat nonplussed, replied, “that side, of course!” The drunk said, “Strange. When I was on that side, they said it was this side.”

This applies here where the other side of the street, the value of circumcision, depends on where we are. Our different perspectives are formed within our context; the things that have formed us and formed our culture are some of the most potent of these formative influences. They help to determine how and what we apprehend of reality and how we operate in our specific context.
Prof. L. Amede Obiora’s in her celebrated book Bridges and Barricades points out that dominating cultures appoint themselves as the barometers of morality and ethical standards while simultaneously double dealing. She is of course referring to female circumcision, but her point can apply to the ritual of male circumcision and should help us here. Those of the circumcision party have just sharpened a tool for exclusion.

This is what Prof Volf again, observed about his native Bosnia; “Symbolic exclusion is often a distortion of the other, not simply ignorance about the other; it is a willful misconstruction, not mere failure of knowledge. We demonize and bestialize not because we do not know better, but because we refuse to know what is manifest and choose to know what serves our interests.”

We must redeem our versions of Alice Walkers who put high premium on circumcision of male or female. Alice in her book ‘possessing the secret of joy’ is so preoccupation with sexuality, almost at the exclusion of the entire human being results in defining women primarily as genital carriers. This must never be accepted as a yardstick of our humanity.

Our very own Prof. Michere Mugo shows us how, in a confrontation she had with one of Alice Walkers agent as records in her book ‘writing and speaking from the heart of my mind’;

” I had been invited as a panelist to discuss ‘possessing the secret of joy’ at the Equitable Auditorium, New York city,… The promoter called to ask for details about me. I explained that I was an international scholar and visiting professor at Cornell University, apolitical, activist poet and a play wright. As if she had not heard me or thought what I had just said was of no relevance, she proceeded to ask me:

Are you mutilated? Now that question to a 50 year old African woman is not just shattering but downright rude. In shock and disbelief I asked her what she had said, and she repeated the question. Although I protested against objectification, the woman remained adamant. I was livid and made this abundantly clear by promptly withdrawing my participation”.

Male circumcision is a very private thing and it should remain so; private and hidden. It’s now obvious that circumcision is comparable to many perplexing idiosyncrasies that prevail in our country. We should not allow it to cripple our attempts to build one country, where our diverse identities are celebrated and included in the development of the country.

There is no future for us without forgiveness. Holding grudges against Hon. Kuria and his ilk is not an option. Even though the NCIC Chairman Francis Ole Kaparo says Kuria has not shown a ‘conciliatory demeanour’ hence his hate speech case should proceed to its ‘logical conclusion’.” That conclusion should not be imprisonment on the contrary, forgiveness thus help redeem his own humanity.
May Malusi Mpumlwana insightful reaction to his tormentors be instructive to us here. During the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings in South Africa he said;
“[w]hen they torture you, you look on them and you say, by the way, these are Gods children,” ….”and you know they need you [himself] to help them recover the humanity they are losing.’

The writer serves with the All Saints Cathedral diocese in the Anglican Church of Kenya. The views expressed here are his own.