19 December 2005

Kenya: Why the Church is Taking Charge of Boys' Initiation Rites

Nairobi — As the country grapples with the deeply rooted Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), efforts being applied to eradicate the vice are now being replicated to phase out traditional circumcision among boys.

Peter Ng'ang'a, John Githaiga and Francis King'oina congratulate each other after receiving certificates on completion of a training and initiation programme at Eastmore High School in Nakuru.

And the Church, which in recent years faced a lot of opposition from most communities in Kenya when it introduced an alternative rite of passage for boys, is slowly, but steadily winning the war.

The churches have aggressively fought this age-old norm, gradually replacing it with a modern, safe and effective method of initiating boys into manhood.

From secluding initiates in hospitals after undergoing circumcision, the churches have now gone full throttle, taking charge of circumcision ceremonies deep in the bushes and subsequently stealing the thunder from traditional circumcisers.

Consequently, the notion that only those who have undergone traditional circumcision are "real men" over those who choose the modern method may eventually be wiped out. One church that has successfully embraced this new method , and is winning praise, is the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.

"Since the year 2001, we have taken close to 4,500 boys through the alternative rite of passage and the current demand for this programme is great," said Haggai Nderu, the programme facilitator in Eldoret.

In an interview with The Standard at the church where 59 boys are undergoing the rite, Nderu said their war, in stemming the now dangerous traditional methods of circumcision, was unstoppable.

"I call them dangerous because through them, the deadly HIV/Aids virus can easily be passed onto our children right under our noses. Who will take the blame for it if not us," he said.

Stemming the tide

Nderu added: "There is also evidence that the traditional methods have transformed boys into chauvinists, young men who will not take instructions from their parents or seniors and instead opt for their own way of living, ending up in self destruction".

He said it was out of the realisation that nothing was being done to stem the tide that the church, like others countrywide, decided to act.

"The men in the church sat and came up with the idea, which was sold to the church. It was positively received and we immediately took it," said Nderu.

It first involved getting the church members into the programme and the first initiates were the church's former Sunday school children.

A year or two later saw many other Eldoret residents, even choosing to circumcise their children through the church. The Kalenjin are among communities in Kenya that still practice and uphold traditional circumcision for both boys and girls.

"It has become routine now. When December approaches, parents come to church to register their children for circumcision and we do not discriminate. Anyone can bring his child to us," Nderu said.

Like joining a boarding school, the boys report to the church after their parents have paid a fee of Sh4,000 each and are thereafter prepared for the all-important occasion.

The money goes towards operational costs that include feeding the initiates, hiring a doctor and counselors, among other expenditures.

"We first counsel them about what they are about to go through before a qualified doctor performs the circumcision," said Nderu.

The boys, recruited into the two-week programme, are aged between the 13 and 16 and most of them are usually Standard Eight graduands.

In the first week, the boys are left to heal, a period where they interact with each other. What follows is a week of intense counseling and teaching.

During the second and last week, the boys wake up early to worship, pray as well as read biblical scriptures. At 8.15am each day, they assemble at the church's conference hall for an hour of devotion and Bible study. At 9.15am to 12.45pm when they break for lunch, the boys go through various lessons on subjects related to their circumcision. The lessons go on in the afternoon from 2pm to 6 o'clock.

Counseling and teaching

The subjects taught include responsible citizenship, personal hygiene, manhood, youth and money, effective schooling, time management as well as guidance on career.

Others include lessons on spiritual growth, cults and occults, traditions, drug abuse, communication, HIV/Aids and STDs, community service, peer pressure, crime and how to relate with the opposite sex.

Nderu said other lessons taught have been borrowed from the traditional methods of circumcision like teaching the boys how to slaughter a goat.

"We do not want them to discard their traditions. This is because even though some of their aspects are retrogressive, there are some positive ones that are useful to the boys in future," he added.

After they have had supper, the boys either watch videos or retreat to their "dormitories" with educational books and magazines supplied by the church, which they read before retiring to bed after saying prayers.

When The Standard visited the current group of initiates, they were busy learning the connection between the Biblical way of circumcision and the current practice.

Save for the wraps around their waists, the boys would easily pass for students attending tuition or attending a seminar.

And unlike the traditional rites where initiates spend up to a month in the bush under harsh conditions, initiates in the new method are ready to "graduate" after two weeks when relatives and friends throng the church for celebration.

The Government, through the Provincial Administration, is among those hailing the circumcision method as "the most appropriate one in this era of HIV/Aids ".

Uasin Gishu District Commissioner, Gitonga Rukaria visited the boys and gave them fruit juices and biscuits donated by Ukwala Supermarkets.

"Our children are born into a world in which moral values have been polluted by emerging lifestyles that are very harmful. Accordingly, we have to apply such techniques to save them from doom," he said.

The DC noted that the youth face the threat of "extinction" through HIV/Aids and said every effort initiated to prevent such a calamity would be fully supported by the Government.

"I want to assure you of the Government's support for this programme. This generation (of the initiates) could be holding the key to the discovery of an Aids cure. We should not let them die. If we do, we may never have a cure," said Rukaria.

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