The Cutting Edge – Observation of a Maasai male circumcision ceremony

It is night. Not just any night, but “bush” night, which means the only light is the flickering flames of fire and the dim, steady glow from the few kerosene lamps around the camp. we drink our chai (tea) and kahuaa (coffee) to warm our insides against the wind that sweeps across the plains of Simanjiro as our fellow Maasai, Alterere and Leiyo, hurry us on our way… we’re going to be late.

We jumped to our two-tone pickup. Our rude Maasai friends comically desperately try to negotiate mine and my sister’s two front seats to no avail, reluctantly jumping into the back. We head into the night in search of the telltale gleam of eyes in our headlights, weaving and bouncing along the unforgiving road. There is no one in our way, no one to cross our path, no one hitchhiking as is often the case here during the day. It’s around 9 pm when we get to the boma (Maasai people) and quickly discover that we have missed it: the ceremony is over. Now what?

We sit in the car, surrounded by Maasai, waiting for Hassan, who will determine our next move, occasionally waving at a faceless arm curiously navigating through the pitch darkness and out the window. I wonder how they live in such darkness at night and realize that modern technology has spoiled me. Outside our car, there is some kind of gathering, we hear the murmur; the torch flickers on and off, briefly exposing a face, eyes, and a set of teeth, but that’s about it. Other than that, it is the night that prevails. Hassan is out of the car, talking to the elders and doing his much-needed PR to get us permission to enter the ceremony. From time to time he sticks his head in to give us an update: “…there were already four circumcised boys here…they all can’t walk and are in bed…the doctor is still here…we have been invited to another ceremony…”. He then returns to the abyss of darkness.

It is important to note that among the Maasai, respect and communication are not only extremely important, but two ruling forces in their lives. The first half of any meeting is usually devoted to greetings and formalities. Nothing is too important to run away; here we are in “African time”, and so we continue to wait. It is arranged after some discussion and clarification with the elders that we will follow the doctor (is he certificate?! not sure…) to a neighboring boma an hour and a half away. Once again, the headlights light our way and we set off after the medic and his team. While I mentioned that nothing is too important to rush, I didn’t say that nothing is too important to rush. to. I had (until this moment) never seen any African show any sense of urgency at all, but this doctor gave new meaning to the phrase “…out of hell”. Our vehicle occasionally slows down to maneuver smoothly over a pothole or hole in the road and within seconds the dim red taillights we’re following are out of place. On numerous occasions we are left only with its sedimentation to continue. Then, like a beacon in a storm, we make out the lights in the distance, the car weaving through the bushes. The hour-long chase (as it happened) is interrupted by a few cowering hyenas trotting down the road and (finally) when the “getaway” car breaks down due to a broken front wheel axle (shocking). This led us to be the only vehicle, immediately promoting from being ceremony-observing mothers, to actual forerunners of it! I, more sombre in my metaphor, compared us to the horsemen of the apocalypse for these young people about to suffer what I imagine is insurmountable pain.

We arrived at the boma with butterflies in our stomachs, again in complete darkness, with the faint sound of a sinister rhythmic chant. “Must be the guys about to be cut…” I speculate in a whisper. But as we get closer to the sound, we see a picture against the moonlight of a group of about eight morani (Masai warriors) in a circle (a circle is usually the way they not only build their villages but also their ceremonies). The singing and chanting never fails, with one vocalist screaming solo and the others playing in unison afterwards. The sound is guttural and hypnotic, actually quite captivating and beautiful despite the fact that the language of the Maasai is foreign to us. After doing some research, we find out that the Morani don’t sing at all, instead verbally insulting the two. Leoni (uncircumcised) who are stark naked in the center of it all. We learn from Hassan that this is done in an attempt to irritate the children enough to endure the pain that awaits them, the nudity is to expose them to the cold in an effort to numb them. All the tribulation can be compared to frat hazing; However, you can imagine the college “bonding” ritual pales in comparison to this esteemed ancient rite of passage.

Another click of a flashlight confirms it: in the center of the circle are two skinny, trembling bodies whose lanky arms are crossed over their private parts. The light goes out again. The chant continues and another flash of light exposes the chattering teeth (it is freezing) and the whites of his eyes. I’m so nervous about these two guys that I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the moment ahead. Circumcision is performed with a razor, without anesthesia, and if a boy lets out a howl, shudders, or shows a tear, he has failed this test and is expelled from the village, greatly embarrassing his family. I can’t help but think that these young people (9 and 13 years old) are too young to carry such an enormous responsibility.

Finally it is time to wash them and my friend Leiyo leads me by the hand to the area outside the boma where the ceremony will take place. It is done outside the village because only after undergoing circumcision can they be invited back into the boma, this time as men. The doctor has a flashlight now and the area is pretty well lit. The boma men begin to crowd around as two cowhide mats are placed on the ground and each chattering boy is led to one. The women are in their huts (forbidden to see this ceremony) – the laments of the mothers mark the screaming wind. The feeling I get in the pit of my stomach can be compared to the feeling you get when watching a movie in which a brave character is stoically led to the guillotine: a feeling of sadness, anxiety and wanting to end the whole ordeal. as soon as possible.

The children sit on the mats, legs spread out in front of them, their upper bodies in the strong arms of an uncle. In this particular case, their faces are covered with their shukas (traditional masai cloth). I hold my breath. The doctor exposes a new razor that shines in the light and does not rush to cut. The first boy is tough, he doesn’t even move a toe or clench his fist when the razor makes its cuts. My tense body doesn’t relax until I find out what happened. Apparently his mother found out about this too; her sobs of pride, joy, and relief echo through the night.

The second boy, very small, has my stomach in my throat with the first cut as he lets out a breath that sounds through clenched teeth. He lets out a few more of these and I’m almost sure he’s snapping. When all was said and done, the elders spat on the ground around him, forcing me to believe that he had failed, but I am wrong. Spitting is a form of respect, and the boy (who, as we’ll see later, is given some leeway by his young age) has shown his vigor and bravery.

They take them to recover with their mothers who are waiting for them and that’s it. The actual circumcision only took about 15 minutes, but we found that the hazing we’d gotten into had been going on since 6pm (it was now past midnight), so it’s actually an all-day event.

The whole ordeal left me with a surreal feeling that was only dwarfed by the tremendous relief I felt for each child. I immediately felt connected to the Maasai and particularly the children for allowing us to witness the most important event in the life of a Maasai man. It was incredibly sobering and reminded me how beneficial and socially solidifying rites of passage are. I cannot think of a single event in the life of the average American that harbors the social significance of this event that I have just described. I can’t help feeling that perhaps we are missing this idea or construct that strengthens bonds and builds character the way Maasai circumcision does. He was not barbaric, rude, pagan, or fanatic; he was, in fact, quite the opposite. The extremely rare event I was lucky enough to witness is not just soul-building, pride-engendering and it’s so completely admirable… it’s, in a way, even beautiful.

If you would like more information on how to experience something similar for yourself, please contact Tropical Trails Safari Company located in Arusha, Tanzania.

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