Thursday, December 29, 2016


Kerry asks us if we’d like to go to a ceremony. What kind of ceremony? I ask. A circumcision. Like a bris? Will there be bagels?, I joke, but nobody gets it. No, nothing like a bris. Gabriel, one of the Samburu guides, piles a bunch of us in one jeep, a second group go in another and we start driving. I’m sitting behind him but I pull up as close as I can to ask him the million questions that have my brain buzzing. How old is the boy being circumcised? Between 13 and 17. Samburu warriors, which is what one becomes after the circumcision ceremony, have three weapons, the club, a beautiful foot-and-a-half long branch with a rounded knot on the end, a spear and a machete. They are all used for self-protection out in the bush. The club, called a roongoo, is used first — thrown at the charging animal, then the spear and, if it comes down to it, the machete for hand to hand combat. He goes on to say that kids here only start school at seven or eight. The walk to school may be quite long and they only go when they have learned enough tricks from their dad as to how to survive an animal attack.

Is it scary for the boy? I ask him. For two weeks before the ceremony, boys and men from neighbouring villages come to visit and sing him songs of bravery to bolster his courage, he tells us, by way of an answer. Two people of confidence are chosen by the boy or his family to attend to him during the ceremony. One holds his back and another holds his right leg during the circumcision, which is only attended by men. From that day on the two will serve as godparents of a sort for the boy. I was chosen to hold the back of one of his relatives, he says, and that is why we have been allowed to attend today. If the boy blinks or winces, or demonstrates even the slightest indication that he is in pain, the ceremony ends, the guests all leave in disgust, he brings eternal shame to his family and suffers a humiliation that will follow him for the rest of his days, Gabriel tells us. Have you ever heard of it happening? I ask. Never, he responds. Is there a set age for a girl’s circumcision? I ask, thinking there is only answer that will satisfy me. No, he says, if a boy is being circumcised, for reasons of practicality, his sisters’ will be done on the same day. But they are allowed to cry and go on as much as they want, Gabriel reassures us. I hold my tongue about the world of difference between the removal of a skin flap and the excision of an organ.

After the ceremony, the boy and other recently circumcised boys will be given a couple of days to heal and then they head off together to spend a month surviving in the bush. They used to have to kill a lion to become a warrior, Gabriel says, but in recent years with the growing population of people we realized that we would soon run out of wildlife. When the boy returns intact, the village sacrifices a calf is in his honour. The now-warrior cuts a piece of flesh from the beast and offers it up to his mother as a token of gratitude for raising him and that is the last meal he will eat from his mother’s kitchen. He is allowed to return for drink — tea, water or milk — but from that moment on he is on his own.

After an hour of driving through the bush, along rutted tracks and dipping in and out of dry riverbeds, we pull up outside a little village. We park beneath an eight foot high length of barbed wire strung between some trees to stop any marauding elephants. We’ve seen the damage they can do on our walks — skeletons of trees, dessiccated trunks, limbs ripped to shreds. The perimeter of the village is fortified with thorn bushes five feet high and a couple of feet across to discourage leopards or hyenas or lions from making a feast of the village’s cows or goats. Gabriel explains that if an animal manages to get through the thorns, the dogs will raise the alarm and the men will be up in a flash to defend the compound.

As we get out of the car we are greeted by a dozen women singing a call and answer song. The call is done by a young woman with a sweet, high voice and the rest answer. They are all dressed in bright colours, some with necks adorned with intricate beading. They come out and each of the women in our group is taken by the hand and escorted back through a narrow opening in the hedge. They launch into another song for us while Gabriel explains that the first was a song of welcome. The smallest kids stand glued to their mum’s legs or strapped across their back in folds of colourful fabric. One of the women wears a t-shirt with the letters Stop F.G.M printed boldly across the front. Could she be quietly making a statement or is she simply wearing a a free t-shirt?

They sing and sway, thrusting their head forward on the beat. They get us to clap. They giggle as they struggle to remember the lyrics of songs sung only on circumcision day. They pull us into a dance where we stand in a circle and hold each other by the elbow. At some point in the song, a point which was very clear to them and less clear to us, they cross the circle to bash knees with a woman on the other side. Kerry and her husband James later explain that it has something to do with claiming one’s cow’s superiority over another’s. The hut we stand before, the first hut on the right as you enter the village always belongs to the first wife, Gabriel tells us. Subsequent wives will be housed in the next huts. The mother of the boy who was circumcised this morning dips in and out of the hut and joins in the singing. Her husband is perched on a stool in the shade of a nearby tree with one of his older sons. He looks tired but proud.

We walk around the village which is perhaps six little huts within the thorn hedge. There are three corrals of similar thorn inside the perimeter. One for the goats, one for their kids and one for the cows who have been taken off to graze where the rains have come.

We go back to the house of the circumcised boy and are invited inside. It is dark, Gabriel warns us, but your eyes will get used to it. The round, red soil hut, maybe ten feet across was built by the wife, whose duties also include getting the water every day, collecting the firewood and doing all the cooking. The structure is branches surfaced in mud on the inside and out. I can’t even imagine how much water the poor woman must have had to collect to make it. We step inside and it is as black as night. There is a little alcove to our left as we squeeze through a very narrow passage into the main room. On the floor, in front of us, is the mother sitting, tending the fire. To our right, behind her, is a platform made of branches covered with cowhide and another similar one across the hut. When our eyes adjust we see that there are people lying down on the one behind her and we are encouraged to go take a seat on the one opposite. The group of us entirely fill the her small home. The people on the bed opposite are the boy who has been circumcised and three of his recently circumcised peers. Gabriel asks them their ages and they are all 16 or 17. There is a bit of grimacing as they shift, with legs well apart, on the bed. They smile good-naturedly and answer Gabriel’s questions. The smoke from the fire wafts through the space. There are pint-sized openings in two of the walls and through them pour shafts of light spinning in smoke. It is quite hot and the air is quite still and it’s hard to breathe. The mother holds a gourd in one hand, withdraws a burning a stick from the fire and pokes it into the gourd which she then quickly caps. She is heating the milk, Gabriel explains, to make it last longer. The gourd is going to go out into the bush with the boys when they leave her.

Gabriel asks us if we have any more questions. I ask her if the mother is sad the day her son goes off. He declines to ask, answering for her, no. I would have liked to ask the mother.

We hand over the little solar lamp we’ve brought to thank the mother for letting us invade her space and her important day. She thanks me very graciously and all I can think is of all the other things I should have brought her.

We step back outside and say our goodbyes and thank yous. Just outside the compound is a week-old camel lying in a thorn pen. When our Samburu friends open up the pen, it pokes its head out and cries out in fear. Seconds later, answering her calf’s call, the mother comes charging at us through the bush. The baby has a little drink and one of the village girls brings out a plastic container to milk the mother as she nurses.

We drive back in the waning day, this time up on the roof. The wildlife is out. Dikdiks, gazelles impala, zebra, hares run for cover at our approach. The rock formations pepper the horizon, the red soil is aglow in the setting sun.

We fall asleep to the sound of frogs chirping and a leopard prowling along the opposite bank.

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