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Honeyguide Newsletters: Spring 2001

About Africa

Reflecting on the joys of the day and anticipating the adventures of tomorrow.

The Honeyguide: Spring 2001
A Glimpse into Maasai Circumcision Ritual

[The following is excerpted from a interpretive story written by Another Land Cultural Guide, Joseph Saning'o, who serves as the Project Director of the Maasai Cultural Resource Center.]

Maasai boys are circumcised between the ages of seven to ten years old, every one to three years - after it has been determined that it is time for a new generation of warriors. After circumcision, boys cease to be children and become junior warriors with all the rights and responsibilities associated with the position. Girls are circumcised after they begin menstruating, and do not have to wait for a prescribed time period.

Maasai women are not allowed to witness male circumcision, as men are not allowed to view female circumcision. However, all women are allowed to witness female circumcision. The boma where it takes place hosts a big celebration and a decorated flag is displayed to signify that everyone in the area is invited.

[Note: Boma is the traditional living enclosure still utilized by the majority (80%) of the Maasai in East Africa. It consists of a circle of huts, built by the women who live in them, surrounded by a thick, thorn bush fence to protect the inhabitants from animal predators and invaders. In the center of the huts is another fenced enclosure where the cattle sleep at night, doubly protected. Goats and sheep usually have one or more enclosures in another section of the boma.]

The boys ceremony actually begins the day before the operations are performed. The boys are shaved by their parents and dress in black and traditional sandals made of cowhide. The boys go outside the boma in the evening with a man chosen to accompany them to look for grasshoppers to kill. This signifies the last time they will take part in childish activities such as chasing insects. Also, this signifies that they will no longer kill insignificant bugs, but will kill predators that threaten people or livestock such as lions, leopards and cape buffalo. Finally, they shoot a homemade, toy arrow back over their shoulders to show that they are leaving behind childhood to advance into warrior hood.

The women of the boma slaughter a sheep of each boy where the circumcised boy will recover. The meat is shared amongst the women, including consuming the raw liver and kidneys and drinking the fresh blood - all considered delicacies to the Maasai.

The evening is when the excitement begins. All the boys in the area who have already been circumcised arrive in a group, singing traditional songs, dressed in black, and wearing wide beaded belts and ostrich feathers and stuffed bird headdresses. When they get near the entrance, the boys to be circumcised must run out to meet them, rip off their black togas and throw them to their agemates. The 'victims' are then paraded into the boma, naked and encircled by the others. Any time another group of their agemates arrives, this process is repeated. For the rest of the night, the boys are taunted and insulted while naked in the center of the circle. It is believed that this treatment will embarrass and anger them enough to withstand the pain of circumsicion with no anaesthetic. At some point during the night, they are allowed to sleep, but are woken up again before dawn and the 'torture' is continued until first light. . . . when the operations are performed.

Traditionally, the Maasai would hire an outsider to perform the circumcisions, usually a Dorobo (another tribe). But these days, a Maasai man performs the operations. The day before, he can be found inside the boma, sharpening his knives on a rock. He is paid one goat for each boy.

How these boys can endure such pain when they are only teenagers is hard to imagine. With no anaesthetic other than cold water splashed over their loins, they sit impassively, not even flinching, during what seems like an eternity. Yet, is really five minutes or less. To show evidence of pain is a disgrace, and any boy who does will be ridiculed by his agemates for a long time. After the operation is complete, the boy is helped into a hut where he will recover.

When all the boys are finished, fresh cattle blood is collected for the new warriors to drink. This is done by shooting the animal in the jugular with an arrow specially designed to penetrate only deeply enough to pierce the vein. It is believed that this helps compensate for the blood they have lost during the procedure. They are also given melted sheep's fat from the previous day's slaughter to help speed their recovery. In the center of the boma, a small fire is built for each boy, and a piece of foreskin that was removed is burned, while prayers are recited for a complete and speedy recovery.

Now that the 'work' is done, the rest of the day is spent drinking locally brewed alcohol made from roots, sugar and water, slaughtering animals for the feast, cooking, eating, dancing and singing. Everyone sings and dances at Maasai ceremonies. Warriors dance with young, uncircumcised girls. The warriors show their prowess by jumping straight up into the air, the higher the better, and the girls by flipping their headdresses with one another. The women gaiter outside each hut housing a recovering boy to dance beside the tree planted outside the entrance. At one point holding onto the tree while jumping up and down.

The girls' circumcision ceremony is similar, except they don't have a group of agemates who come to taunt them all night long since they are circumcised as they 'come of age'. Girls are also allowed to show pain during the procedure by kicking and/or screaming. Female circumcision takes place inside the entranceway to her mother's hut, rather than just outside the gate of the boma. But once the operation is complete, the ceremony is the same.

It is impossible to explain with words what it is like to be in the boma amongst all of the simultaneously occurring songs and dances. The Maasai use no instruments other than their own voices, but if you couldn't see that, you wouldn't believe that it's true. Each group has its own songs . . . the warriors sign proudly about their past performances during cattle raids or lion hunts and the girls brag of their boyfriends.

As you look around you at the well-jeweled, toga clad warriors leaping into the air, the young girls decked out in their finest beaded collars, necklaces, headdresses, and belts, the circumcised boys in their black togas, white painted faces, beaded belts, ostrich feather and stuffed bird headdresses and the colorful everyday dress of the rest of the guests, it is hard to imagine that this is really happening. Add to the scene the rhythmic singing and chanting, and the effect becomes truly dreamlike. It is an opportunity is step into another world, that as Westerners, you can only watch on television or read about. The energy of such a scene penetrates your being. It is an incredible experience!

About The Honeyguide

The Honeyguide - a monthly email newsletter - is named after the Greater Honey Guide, a bird that has developed the remarkable habit of leading tribespeople to wild bees' nests, with the promise of honeycomb and grubs once the humans have opened the nest and taken the honey. The complementary relationship shared by bird and human represents the newsletter's goal - to periodically lead readers to new and timely bits of information about East African wildlife, culture, and travel.

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