By Sheila Waswa with Ogova Ondego
Published December 7, 2016
Two centuries after being opposed to African rites of passage, especially circumcision that they termed as ‘ungodly’, ‘satanic’ or ‘unChristian’, mainstream churches in Kenya appear not to just have embraced this African ritual but are practising it in the 21st century.
Among the Christian denominations that organise and take young people through the customary practice the white missionaries who brought Christianity to the ‘Dark Continent’ condemned in the 19th and 20th centuries include Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Roman Catholic Church (RC), and Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM).
Social commentators are questioning just what could be driving an entity that sanctioned any of its members for practising ‘primitive’ rituals like circumcision into embracing it; could the motive be commercial or is the Church bent on diluting African cultural practices in one of the worldâ€™s most religious nations? So strong was the Churchâ€™s opposition to African traditions and customs in Kenya that some converts who wanted to remain both â€˜Christianâ€™ and â€˜Africanâ€™ broke away to form what came to be known as independent African churches and schools.
Kenyan-born John Samuel Mbiti, an expert on African religions and philosophies, argues that circumcision was a community affair that enabled the initiate to holistically grow from childhood to adulthood in social, religious and physical aspects of their lives.
Mbiti, an academic, former professor of Theology and Comparative Religions, ordained Anglican priest and leader within the Ecumenical movement whose books include African Religions and Philosophy, Introduction to African Religion, and Bible and Theology in African Christianity, contends in the definitive African Religions and Philosophy that circumcision symbolised much more than just the outward cut on the genitals: it introduced the initiates to the art of communal living when they were withdrawn from the community into the forest or specifically prepared huts after circumcision; taught the initiates their rights, obligations and obedience; prepared the initiates in matters of sexual life, marriage and procreation; and exposed the initiates to hardships and how to endure them, among many other lessons.
So how similar is the circumcision contemporary churches are promoting in Kenya with what Mbiti describes in African Religions and Philosophy?
James Mworia, a member of PCEA in Ngong Hills on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, says the PCEA initiation programme which is run under the men’s fellowship, exists to fill in a gap caused by the breakup of the traditional family and community setup.
“Modernity demanded that people had to leave their traditional ways and therefore the church had to step in to administer the rite,”Mworia, a former chairperson of the men’s fellowship who also participates in the programme as a trainer, says. “We were equally concerned about giving guidance to boys who lack the ‘Father’ figure in their lives.”
Mworia says that the programme, which takes place in November and December every year, “trains children” in areas like “leadership; expectations of adulthood and the role of the individual in the society; family values and parent-child relationship; and sexuality.”
Boys who have just graduated from their initiation programme on November 17, 2016 under the ACK Emmanuel Church and ACK St Barnabas Church in Ngong Hills describe their experience as being “educative.”
“We were taught how to be men and to tackle issues that affect men,” a 13-year-old boy says. “I, like my colleagues, didn’t have to endure lots of pain because our doctors used drugs to numb our nerves unlike in traditional circumcision exercise.”
Girls go through what is termed as “alternative rite of passage”: they are guided on life but without any part of their bodies being cut as traditionally happens among the AbaKuria, Somali, Maasai, AGikuyu, AKamba and Kalenjin communities.
The Reverend Patrick Gaithoni of ACK says his church uses a primary school as its seclusion centre for both boys and girls.
“Here, the girls join the boys three days after the latter have been circumcised to attend both joint and separate classes,” he says. “The focus is on Christian values as the foundation of a fulfilled adult life.”
Critics, however, accuse churches of encroaching on the territory of cultural leaders instead of playing their own role: spiritual guidance and nourishment. They contend churches are driven more by “commercial” than by “altruistic” reasons .
The churches charge each initiate between Sh6000 (about US$60) and Sh12000 (about US$120) to go through the two-week ritual. Many clinics in Nairobi and its environs charge between Sh500 (US$5) and Sh1500 (US$15) per person undergoing circumcision. This fee, however, covers the operation and medication only.
PCEA charges each boy and girl Sh8500 (US$85)and Sh6000 (US$60), respectively, to go through the rite of passage it organises.
Is this ripping off parents and guardians of initiates?
Hardly, James Mworia responds.
“The boys are circumcised by hired professional doctors. Minders are also hired to look after them especially at night so that in case of any incidences they could contact a doctor. Other expenses go into their meals, drugs and, trainers and counselors who take them through life lessons,” he says.
But that hardly placates critics and social commentators who argue that churches are sidelining community leaders as advisors and gate-keepers in the administration of such a crucial rite of passage. Experienced older men and women, for instance, do not feature anywhere in the programme to give further insight whenever and wherever needed.
Pastor Benson Wendo of CITAM in Ngong Hills describes circumcision through churches as a “delicate matte”.
“Circumcision should be a responsibility of parents and the extended family. When we conduct circumcision for our boys, we are fueling the notion that circumcision is paramount for every Christian boy which is not the case. Communities that don’t circumcise their males could feel alienated,” Wendo says.
He equally expresses his concerns over children whose parents cannot afford the amount of money charged for the programme: “When boys are left out of a rite of passage which is almost compulsory because every other boy is going through it yet they cannot afford, it becomes a basis for division.”
Traditionally, because circumcision was considered a community affair, every boy had to go through the rite at the same time with members of his age-group. Money or wealth was never a basis for an individual to be left out or to earn preferential treatment.
In the Akamba Community, for instance, Mbiti points out in African Religions and Philosophy, that the initiation ceremony is sponsored by a family that at the time doesn’t have an initiate; an act that is considered a great privilege.
The adoption of western lifestyles–formal education, cash-based economy, urbanisation, individualism, nation-states–across Kenya has led to the break-up of the supportive community set up; extended family and erosion of traditions, customs, and values. It could be this vacuum that Christian denominations like ACK, RC, PCEA and CITAM are trying to fill by taking on the role formerly played by cultural leaders.