Among the Rendille community in Kenya, a person’s role in society depends on their age-set and gender. There are special events, some held more than a decade apart, during which the community conducts several rituals to initiate people into the different age sets.
One of those rituals is circumcision, where boys and young men are initiated into becoming warriors.
And as CGTN’s Susan Mwongeli reports, the last time a similar event took place was 14 years ago.
Stephen Orguba, area Chief, Sacradala: “After 14 years we inaugurate a new age set through circumcision. It’s an important mark from childhood to adulthood. Those that are circumcised are considered adults just like the same way we say a child is under-18, the circumcised boys now above 18.”
Although the event was clashing with the school year calendar, some 9,000 boys living in various mobile clan-based villages were due to be circumcised this year.
It’s a unique and elaborate process that must take place against all odds…. even in the middle of a pandemic.
“Failure to circumcise, you will always be considered a child in our community,” says Orguba.
One characteristic of initiation in the Rendille culture is the infliction of pain…
The boys are expected to endure it without complaining, in a display of masculinity.
Leringan Leburcha, elder, Trigamo: “The whole point of this initiation is to harden the boys, to make them warriors. Once circumcised, the boy gets respect from the whole community. It’s like a training ground for the military. You see how Kenya has its own military; these boys are our troops. Say for instance another community, like the Somali or the Borana, comes to attack us. These boys will be in the frontline to protect the community.”
Given the areas with harsh climatic conditions that this pastoralist community inhabits, fighting between ethnic groups is common, as they compete for the limited resources.
So being a warrior is an important and much-respected title for Rendille boys.
Before the main initiation event, the boys have to fetch wood, which will be placed at their doorstep to symbolize their readiness to take part in the ritual.
Although this is a community with a highly patriarchal culture, I am privileged to be allowed to accompany the boys, albeit from a distance.
“I notice Joseph Burcha, a 15-year-old initiate. Unlike his peers, he appears eager to take part in what awaits him. We have a chat as he heads out into the wild,” CGTN’s Susan Mwongeli
There has been a drive across Kenya to encourage people to opt for clinical circumcision, but members of this community have been slow to take that up…… They insist that circumcision under anesthesia cannot equal the traditional one.
After each boy has collected enough wood, they return to their manyattas. At slightly past two o’clock, a call to assemble.
One by one, each set of boys walks to a special sanctuary to receive blessings from their elders.
Here emotions run high … excitement building up to a crescendo.
The boys are also given words of advice, taught self-control, endurance, and also leadership.
The other stage is when the boys undertake a long trek to fetch what they call sacred water. It’s quite symbolic as they do so they do it as a group, giving each other encouragement, especially for the younger ones who might be terrified of what awaits them.
Each boy has a special gourd, containing milk which they will mix with the water from the well.
It is to be used right before circumcision….in a cleansing ceremony.
Back at the village… a series of rituals begins. The boys must shave their hair in readiness for the new status that awaits them.
They will also need to go out to fetch all the livestock.
For the Rendille who are a pastoralist community, livestock is an integral part of their lives and an event as important as circumcision cannot take place with the livestock away.
It’s at this point that one by one the boys undergo the cut in a process that takes a minute or two.
Stephen Orguba, area Chief, Sacradala: “Those circumcising are well trained… they come from a specific clan blessed with that knowledge. In the time I have been here, we have never heard of any complications as a result.
For the next 10 days, a minimum of 80 boys will be circumcised from each Boma per day.
Joseph is now a Moran …. He will stay at his manyatta under the care of his mother, until he recovers fully, which should take a whole month…
Joseph Burcha, Initiate: “I’m really proud of myself. I have not just been circumcised; I have been given property too … Now, I will defend all the Rendille across the world, I am responsible for this whole community, even for the ones that come after me, I will make sure I take care of them.
While some of these rituals have been criticized for being outdated and at times even harmful… This community says it’s not ready to abandon its traditions. For them, this ceremony contributes to their identity as a people, and gives them a more respected social standing.