When PM Raila Odinga declare that the LUO, TESO and TURKANA should circumcise as a matter of medical emmergency in the fight against AIDS, I cringed on several counts:
1. Circumcision is not just a physical process, it is a passage and a spiritual transformation for the youth among those communities in which it is practised.
2. The Luo the Teso and Turkan never practised it. In fact their Bantu neighbors consider them incomplete men for not having gone through it. During the last crisis in Kenya, a number of Luo men were victims of hooligans who cut them with crude weapons publicly in the name of initiation.
3. There are other cultural practices and beliefs among the Luo that have acted as efficient vehicles for the AIDS VIRUS to spread, and which vehicles have not been loudly condemed. These are
a. Widow inheritance
c. the tragic confusion of AIDS for Chira (a spiritual curse)
4. It is politically a minefield: even the venerable LUO COUNCIL has been unwilling to endose the circumcision message (see Kenyan reporting on this---through Google search). To the council, a circumcised Luo is not a Luo.
http://www.lulu.com/)], and one of its chapters delt at length with the issue of Luo circumcision. The intension was to bring to the fore the various conceivable points of view in this debate. Because of the life-and-death nature of this issue, I append the chapter below for evryone's benefit. Read it and join the Elder, and Prime Minister, Raila Odinga in the debate of the moment.
Last year I published the novel THE WISE ONE OF RAMOGILAND, [Lulu (
Joseph R Alila
(Author: THE WISE ONE OF RAMOGILAND; http://www.lulu.com/)
The New Ratang’a Declaration: To Circumcise or Not *
Some cultural issues can never be resolved. One such outstandingissue is "Whether a Luo Male Should be Circumcised or Not."
The Ramogi of old had fought over whether to take their sons to school or not; whether to take their daughters to school or not; whether to initiate their young men and women or not (an activity that involved the extraction of the lower incisors plus one canine on either side); and whether to be Christians or not. These fights were won by the change-minded individuals, who, for example, foresaw long-term benefits to taking both girls and boys to school. And that fight over extracting lower, front-center six teeth would end because it didn’t look right to lose that many teeth, and still be beautiful (excuse me). Moreover, the argument that the extraction created a gap through which to pass liquids to a bedridden man, had lost to modern, medical-intervention techniques. The argument that it was a tribal mark of significance in a battlefield, lost ground to a century of relative intertribal peace, thanks to colonization, and then the birth of the Nation in that order. The dental work must have died in the 1980s.
But these cultural fights do not compare with the next generation of cultural fights precipitated by new venereal diseases. These deeply ingrained cultural practices at the center of the current fights have a religious dimension to them. These are the fights over whether or not to abolish polygamy among the Ramogi people; whether or not to abolish mandatory widow inheritance by kinsmen of a late husband. But both practices have proved to be efficient vehicles for the transmission of the new STDs, thanks to the increasingly lax-and-liberal, national morality.
Now, among the Ramogi people, Christianity had faced polygamy and widow inheritance headlong, but never won the battles because both practices had strong spiritual underpinnings to them. Among the Ramogi people, polygamy was a literal projection of power by the man because a larger family meant more men to fight wars, men to protect land, and women to own land. Polygamy also ensured genetic variety (a rainbow of bloodlines) for long-term survival of the clan: the Ramogi peoples married from outside the wider clan (exogamous). Moreover, people related through intermarriages would not fight one another.
The protagonists further argued that an orphaned child had a better survival chance under a polygamous home. The same protagonists would argue that inheriting a widow within a clan ensured the protection of the widow against abusive husbands.
It also gave the widow automatic, and enforceable, power over her own wealth and children. To ensure this control, tradition dictated that future children born between the woman and the widower must still be born in the commonwealth of the late husband—the new husband only playing a procreative, caretaker role.
Furthermore, among the Ramogi people, in any marriage, sex serves four, often, overlapping roles: There is ceremonial or ritual sex, like the conjugal activity on seeding the new earth, or on bringing the harvest home. There is procreative sex in an effort to get a child. There is sex for pleasure, as when a man must visit this or that woman in the name of fairness to all in a polygamous family unit. Finally, sex is often used as a vehicle for intimate communication between the spouses: an aggrieved woman must expect her husband by her side; a woman with a material problem would want to whisper about it with her husband in her arms; a man burdened by the complexities of the world, and aiming to use a woman’s black goat for a religious ceremony, had better chances with the woman in his arms.
In polygamous homes, achieving and maintaining order and discipline naturally meant having well-defined laws on property ownership, power structure, communal justice, and inviolable spiritual laws of life in marriage.
Observing these laws openly elevated marriage to a divine institution (as intended in the Bible), and polygamy to a complex religious institution. Polygamy is not just about sex, just as any marriage is not just about sex. Any marriage is about life. The killer STDs of the day threatened the very existence of polygamy and marriage in general, because STDs threatened life. The Wise One witnessed the beginning of a time when the Ramogi people would struggle with questions arising from this religion turned curse—marriage: Whether polygamy is a threat to life, and whether mandatory widow inheritance is a threat to life.
But the most vexing and most complex question posed to Ramogi’s Sages of the day was "Whether or not a Luo should Circumcise." The Ramogi people do not circumcise their children. But should the Ramogi people circumcise their males as a matter of medical expediency? Perhaps, yes. But that would lead to an identity crisis. Now, other than a language that is being eroded by urbanization, the foreskin is the only thing left that differentiates a Ramogi Warrior from his Bantu neighbors.
Ramogi communities had privately mulled over this challenge until it came to the public domain, thanks to a declaration by a group of inebriated Councillors in what became known as "The New Ratan’ga Declaration."
This matter caught the attention of The Wise One because the declaration had been made in her backyard.
One Councillor Agutu of Jokamlai Ward had invited friends (mostly fellow Councillors) from across the land to his Victory Party. Having eaten very well, the party would make its way to Ratang’a Market for some beer. It transpired that there was a spirited discussion among them as to whether the Ramogi should be circumcised or not. They would (perhaps while under the influence of alcohol), craft a declaration (subsequently distilled by a naughty Journalist) to the following effect:
"Due to The Overwhelming Medical Evidence for the fact that the rate of AIDS Transmission is Higher Among Uncircumcised Heterosexual Males than Circumcised Ones, We the Grandchildren of Ramogi Ajwan’g Declare that All of Us and Our Offspring Should be Circumcised as a Matter of Medical Necessity."
The New Ratan’ga Declaration was published by both the Local and National media of the day. The reaction to it would spill over international boundaries and generate a very lively debate in the virtual world (cyberspace).
There were a few issues in the declaration that had raised a few eyebrows, and led to a general war cry among the children of Ramogi.
The authors of the declaration that had touched on a whole people, were some "minor" Councillors who had no authority to speak for all of the Ramogi People in the world. For one, few people had the knowledge about the veracity of the "overwhelming medical evidence:" Who had carried out the research? Who were the participants? Then there was the question of how to achieve mass circumcision of adults without proper hospitalization, and the danger of mass bacterial infection?
More important to the Ramogi people, was how to separate the person from himself. A Ramogi is not a Ramogi without his foreskin. It perhaps is OK to be circumcised before knowing a woman. How would a man circumcised in old age react to his wife? Nobody had answers to such questions.
A flurry of regional meetings would be held across Kavirondoland, in cities in the Nation, and among the Ramogi people in the Diaspora. Chat Rooms and Blogs were not spared the passionate debate. "Onagi. Be men at last. Get circumcised," taunted one Jamwa (Alien) . . . "We will divorce you if you dare," screamed a Ramogi woman in www.onagidotkom.
Eventually, Ramogi Elders and Leaders from across the land would converge on Ratang’a from where the ill-received declaration had originated. Because of the acrimony against the councillors, The Wise One would give her well-considered opinion, but only in private.
Here is a sample some of the Council Proceedings on the matter of Whether Luo Men Should Circumcise or Not.
Elder Chien’g: Clr Agutu you and your friends started all this. Do you want to apologize to this caucus before we address the issues on their own merits?
Clr. Agutu: MPs (Members of Parliament), Leaders and Fellow Councillors, I am anxious to apologize to all of you, and to the Ramogi people for what transpired in my home when a number of you were my guests. This apology is deserved because what we thought was a civilized discussion of what was already in the public domain, eventually made its way to the print media and airwaves. What pains me is the fact that my private opinion turned out to be a public position of all the politicians across Ramogiland. However, . . ."
Elder Chien’g: You mean all that appeared in the papers was your own opinion?
Clr. Agutu: Yes. I told my friends that I am a Rayuom (naturally circumcised), and don’t regret it. (There were a few giggles from reporters and some young women).
Elder Chien’g: I have no comment about that. You may continue.
Huma MP: It is your testimony that you indeed made a verbal declaration?
Clr. Agutu: Yes.
Huma MP: What do you mean by being naturally circumcised?
Clr. Agutu: I am naturally circumcised.
Elder Chien’g: That is possible, Bwana MP. And he is not going to prove it to your satisfaction. Not here (There was laughter).
Clr. Agutu: I want to ask the gathering to proceed.
There was a hushed silence.
Clr. Mary Oguta: (A Nurse by training) Councillor Agutu, is it true that there is some medical evidence to support the declaration?
Clr. Agutu: I am not a doctor. But those in the know have made the claim. Call in some of our doctors. Let them give evidence.
Elder Chien’g: We have many issues here. But can’t we start by declaring that The Ratan’ga Declaration was a farce that should never have been?
Clr. Agutu: I disagree. Let it be recorded that I have apologized for the embarrassment the whole community has suffered as a result of the words of the declaration. We are not the only race with foreskins. But let us debate the matter on its own merit because the disease is real and has no known cure. Any weapon that can be used against the disease must be considered. Let us take the evidence.
Elder Chien’g: And make another declaration?
So the debate raged on among politicians, all of whom claimed to be speaking in the people’s interest. Very few would directly support the declaration, yet all recognized its merit. It was an election year. As most politicians do when they don’t want to take a position, they called in experts in Medicine, Culture, Oral History, Trauma Psychology, Cultural Sociology, Sage Philosophers . . . the whole host of them.
The first to present a professional position was a doctor.
Dr. Oyum: Whereas circumcision does not prevent AIDS, the transmission of HIV virus is reduced in relative terms among circumcised heterosexual males than in the control group. That has been the common finding among various research bodies and universities worldwide. The warmth in an enclosed foreskin offers an ambient environment for the multiplication of the virus as it tries to locate punctured or bruised skin tissue. Exposed to the air, the virus dies in no time at all.
He proceeded to quote a number of publications that made no sense to most of the leaders. But his argument was very compelling. He also submitted that circumcision of male infants is now the standard in developed countries.
For a few minutes, nobody asked a question. Then, Councillor Mary Oguta, a politician and a retired Nurse, picked up the interrogation of Dr. Oyum:
Clr. Mary Oguta: Your sources recommend female circumcision?
Dr. Oyum: No. It won’t make a difference, given the nature of the female anatomy.
Clr. Mary Oguta: Who was part of the Control Group?
Dr. Oyum: The Uncircumcised Males.
Clr. Mary Oguta: Do you recommend the circumcision of all males?
Dr. Oyum: If they want to. It can be done. I don’t want to use the word "recommend" for all depends on corrective human behavior. I mean a moderation of our lifestyle.
Huma MP: Have you thought of the consequences of circumcising a forty-year-old man?
Dr. Oyum: What do you mean?
Huma MP: Doctor Oyum, think of all that could go wrong.
Dr. Oyum: They would get used to it.
Clr. Agutu: Are you circumcised?
Dr. Oyum: No.
Clr. Agutu: Why?
Dr. Oyum: Because I decided to watch my lifestyle (laughter).
Clr. Agutu: Don’t you think circumcising an adult would rob him of his image?
Dr. Oyum: I am not a psychologist, Councillor.
Clr. Agutu: Thank you, Dr. Oyum.
Dr. Oyum was excused. A psychologist from a local university was sworn in.
Clr. Agutu: Dr. Rapemo, what is your position on the circumcision of adult men?
Doctor Rapemo: It would rob them of their image, and confuse their self-worth.
Clr. Agutu: What do you mean, Doctor?
Dr. Rapemo: The foreskin is like a cloth. The victim would suddenly feel naked. I believe his spouse may even fail to recognize him.
Clr. Agutu: What do you mean?
Dr. Rapemo: He may even fail to perform. Become aggressive. Be unsure of himself. Become withdrawn. He won’t be a Ramogi anymore.
Clr. Mary Oguta: Thank you. But has anybody done any research into this?
Dr. Rapemo: No. I am just projecting laboratory findings with some animals.
Huma MP: Some animals?
Dr. Rapemo: Yes, some rare monkeys with a foreskin like male humans.
Clr. Mary Oguta: What were your findings?
Dr. Rapemo: They became aggressive, moody and withdrawn from female partners (laughter from observers).
Clr. Mary Oguta: I see that you have no lower teeth (laughter from observers).
Dr. Rapemo: Sure. They were extracted in my teen.
Clr. Mary Oguta: You liked the experience?
Dr. Rapemo: No. But I took it as a right of passage. I struggle with goat ribs, though (Laughter).
Clr. Mary Oguta: Are your children circumcised?
Dr. Rapemo: No comment, Councillor (he said looking in the direction of Clr. Agutu)
Elder Chien’g: Thank you for your contribution.
Having listened to twenty professional witnesses, on the final day of the three-day conference, the caucus would listen to cultural experts. As expected, the cultural experts opposed anything that would, as they put it, "make a Luo male less of a Luo."
One old woman declared, "Having married a Jamwa (circumcised alien) by mistake, before meeting my Luo Warrior, I cannot recommend a Jamwa as a son-in-law."
An old man declared, "I would rather die than become a Jamwa."
To these elders, circumcising the Luo man would change him for ever. It was the last thing a Luo needed. The Luo must find an alternative to circumcision. The politicians were particularly against anything that would have angered the electorate in an election year. If there were any pro-circumcision forces in the gathering, they had shrunk back to their shells.
Finally, the chairman declared that the elders had appointed a committee that would visit with some "wise elder" in the community, and several other "wise men" in the land. He promised a statement on the "way forward" at a later date.
Now, The Wise One, always weary of publicity, had invited eight Ramogi Elders from across the Land, to her home. They had been part of the caucus. Three of them had visited her before.
"You have only one option if you don’t want to look like a fool," The Wise One judged, after listening to the six ‘White Hairs,’ all men and women on top of their game. The group included an Engineer, a Lawyer, a Doctor, a Cultural Philosopher, a Psychologist, and a Historian. Clrs. Agutu and Chien’g were also in attendance.
"What is that?" the Lawyer asked.
"Stop meddling in the people’s affairs. Let the people decide what they want to do with themselves and their sons," she said to the surprise of a number of the White Hairs. Most of them had assumed that as a traditional spiritual counselor, she would take a conservative anti-circumcision position.
"We stand aside as our people perish?" asked the Cultural Philosopher in disbelief.
"No. Look for cures. Tell people to change their lifestyles. If they want to circumcise their sons and themselves, let them do so. But we cannot tell an adult to get circumcised," argued The Wise One.
"I am indeed surprised that with all the medical evidence for circumcision, you still can take such a stand." That was from the Lady Doctor.
"I hate to say. But I don’t know how to read a doctor’s language. But my radio tells me that circumcision would save only twenty people out of a hundred. That is not good enough. I wouldn’t circumcise a whole pulation for that. Not while men still house ten women, men still cheat on their wives, women still cheat on their husbands, men are still drunk eighteen hours a day, and men still dance to every unclean, rich widow," The Wise One parroted in unmistakable disgust.
"But if changing lifestyles can do eighty percent why not let circumcision do the other twenty percent?" asked the ever analytical Engineer.
"You got me wrong, Mr. Engineer. Let people circumcise if they want to. What I don’t want is a mass transformation of the Ramogi male into what he was not supposed to be. Circumcision of adults will have consequences we have yet to know: At least, we know that they won’t go to work for some two weeks or longer," The Wise One offered.
"Our Doctor knows that some wounds may not heal because of preexisting conditions or unintended cross infection: those are his words; not mine," said the Psychologist.
"And our Lawyer friend here would perhaps be overwhelmed with women seeking divorce from their changed men," The Wise One said to a prolonged period of laughter.
"And we don’t know how a man circumcised in his old age would behave toward everyone else," said the Psychologist. "All we know is that, like Abraham of old, he would be a changed man." To this came another round of applause.
"A circumcised Luo man will not be a Luo anymore," said the Oral Historian. "But as the Wise Lady says, we cannot stand on the way of change. It would also be wrong to force change upon a people. Let it come, if it must, gradually."
"Thank you, my friend," joined the Cultural Philosopher. "Let change be gradual. There is already a lot of change in Luo Culture: Not long ago, the Luo buried their dead in their houses so as to protect their bodies from beasts of the wild."
"What is that?" asked the Doctor, who was the youngest among them.
"Just what I said," responded the Cultural Philosopher.
"Not long ago we removed our lower teeth. We don’t anymore. As you can see, out of the nine in this room, the younger five have all their lower front teeth intact. That is what we mean by gradual change: Nobody passed a Ratang’a Declaration banning the dental practice. But it died because it hindered the modern Ramogi from achieving fluency in the spoken English." There was a little truth in the last sentence. Luos have had trouble pronouncing a word like "shilling:" it came out as si-li-ng. As to whether the dental work was responsible for the minor linguistic malfunction is highly debatable.
"Clarify the burial remark you made earlier?" demanded the Lawyer.
"My friends. Many cultures in Northern Africa buried their dead in tombs," responded the Cultural Philosopher. The Luos were no exception. If you imagine that it was unhygienic, please back off. The grave was L-shaped with the leg where the body rested outside the house."
"As you can see, Clr. Agutu, it is wise not to issue a declaration for or against circumcision," said The Wise One.
"I get your point, Wise One," said Clr. Agutu.
"Inconvenient practices will die naturally. Some virulent killer-disease ended burials in houses without anybody passing a declaration," added the Cultural Philosopher.
"What message do we take back to the caucus?" asked the Lawyer.
"That the matter has been passed on to local experts for a careful study. But meanwhile, people should change their lifestyles," offered The Wise One.
So, the matter was left to rest: with the experts. Since then, some of the Ramogi people have been quietly circumcising their newborn sons as they await the word of the experts—they continue to wait long after The Wise One had passed on to the land of the spirits.
(THE WISE ONE OF RAMOGILAND; by Joseph R. Alila, Lulu Books; http://www.lulu.com/)