I would not say I have given much thought to what makes the distinction between boys and men. I am sure some really knowledgeable people have spent their whole or some significant part of their lives studying and writing about the transition from youth to being a man.
You may ask, “Why write on such a random topic?” I will respond saying that the topic is really not that random. Just under 50% of the worlds population has to make this transition at some point, though much less spend more that a few seconds contemplating what the transition means. But, the real reason is to tell a story of what this transition means for people of the Sabin culture in Northeastern Uganda. These people live in a relatively rural district less than one hour from Mbale, a major Ugandan city. I heard this story about 36 hours ago from a 21 year-old Sabin man I will call Mr P. I will try to narrate as accurately as my memory permits and will take as little liberties as possible embellishing the story.
Here it goes.
There are three times in life when you have a big celebration: first, when you are born; then, your circumcision; and of course, when you die. We do not celebrate big weddings because they are expensive; not many people have the money to have a big wedding. Circumcision ceremony is a very important part of our culture and they mark the successful transition to being a man. You cannot be a man until you have undergone the circumcision ceremony.
The ceremony is performed on boys of ages 12-14. It is a community ceremony; I mean a big celebration that everyone attends. The celebration takes place once every two years and this year is a circumcision year. It usually happens in the month of December, starting from the first of the month till about the second week depending on the number boys participating from the town. Participants come from all over, even from the US so far as they identify with our culture. I hope you make it to see this year’s celebration.
The ceremony itself is just a culminating event; the process starts as much as one month in advance. Participants start traveling to personally invite all their relatives all over the country to the ceremony. The relatives in turn make gift promises of bulls, land, money and other valuables to be delivered at the ceremony. The next step is intense preparations by elders in the community. The participants are coached, and their readiness for the ceremony is accessed. Then, the boys begin a pre-celebratory period of 2 weeks. They have a very unique outfit and anyone would be able to recognize them when you see them around. Initially they wear the outfits only at night, but as the day draws near, they wear the attire even during the day, and during the ceremony itself. Their outfit comprise a T-shirt and shorts, two sashes made from bed-sheet material over each shoulder to the opposite waist, one sash used in a belt-like fashion across the waist, and beads along the neck and each ankle. They also hold on each hand a dancing ornament made from a special monkey’s tail; the monkeys are hunted specifically for this occasion.
The day approaches with surprisingly little fear and trembling. The night before the ceremony is probably the most grueling; the participants have to dance and prepare all night till the sun rises. The events begin shortly after sunrise. The participants clad in their outfits line up in an open area of town. They are cheered on by a multitude that includes their family members as well as other random community members; every one is welcome. The people who have honor to performing the rites are specially chosen and trained elders.
The moment of truth arrives. There is a stage where the elder stands; he backs the crowd about ten meters away. In turn, each participants walks to the stage with his own knife, looks at sun in the horizon, places both his hands on a stand at a level just beneath his breast line and experiences the ultimate act. The process takes about 3 minutes. During this time each person does not flinch, sob, cry or show any expression associated with pain, and keeps his eye on the sun in the horizon. After each participant the performer washes with soap and warm water and moves on to the next. During my time, we all had a successful transition. Then the big party began. Anyone who fails is called a coward, ridiculed and becomes an outcast for disgracing the culture. Usually, everyone is successful since there are various stages of screening to ensure that only people who are ready get to the stage.
There is no anesthesia or pain medication used in the process. There are only very few complications; some may bleed too much while others may collapse dues to exhaustion from staying up all night. Occasionally, health workers are available for people who may bleed too much, but we also have local herbs that help. Rich people may also buy some pain medication and pay for stitching. Otherwise, there is no role for health workers; they do not perform the ceremony. However, it is also well known that some elders may be bribed to allow a select few to receive local anesthesia before, but this is all behind the scene.
Circumcision is a vital part of our culture. You cannot become a man without undergoing the ceremony. You have to feel the pain that your father and uncles felt. Anyone who successfully goes through with the ceremony can defend his family and the community in the face of any obstacle. Even doctors have said that circumcision is healthy and it prevents the spread of HIV. I don’t look down on people from other cultures who do not get circumcised or are circumcised as babies, but for people from our culture, you cannot not do the ceremony. You will forever be a coward and cannot own much, hold an important position or have a voice.
Quote of the day:
I got the knowledge freely and I pass it on freely, or the knowledge dies and decays with you as you end up in heaven or hell, whichever is closer. Prof. B B. Infectious disease consultant at Mulago