A Blog Post by Matthew Cole: How to Become a Man, Samburu 101
A week or so ago, I had the honor and pleasure of attending a unique tradition in Samburu culture. Before I begin, I will preface by saying that out of respect to Samburu and this emotional day, I did not take any pictures. To start, one must understand a little about Samburu culture and society. Samburu society is what is known as a “gerontocracy”, that is, the society is governed by male elders and in order to gain respect and social status, one must move up the social hierarchy. The mid tier of this hierarchy, is that of the “moran” or warrior. And the ceremony/process to become a moran is that of a circumcision. Yes, you read that right, circumcision. It occurs every 15 years or so and I happened to be lucky enough to come to Samburu in a circumcision year. As the ceremony happens so sparsely, boys aged anywhere from their preteens to their mid 20’s can be circumcised. Those going to be circumcised can easily be identified by the green beaded necklace they wear draping down their backside. The first step for the boys is to make a multi-day journey (by foot) to the northern part of Samburu in search for a sticky gum from a specific tree. Then, they must hike out to find sticks to make a bow and arrow that they will use in a later phase of the ordeal. They often leave before first light, (which occurs at about 5:15 am around here) and can be heard singing as they walk together as early as 4:30. On the morning of the ceremony, they head out early to gather water in their gourds. When they arrive back, the actual ceremony begins.
First, the current morans fashion a quite rudimentary set of sandals out of goat and cow hide for the boys to wear. Then, after donning these sandals, the initiates, each with at least one current moran by their side, run outside of the manyatta (the Samburu word for village) where the cows are and then chase them to the center of the manyatta. Next, each mother (or stepmother) of the boys takes a gourd and fills it up with cows milk. All the while, the current morans are chanting supportive songs for the boys to encourage them. In the days and weeks leading up to the circumcision, each mother must build a “boma”, a traditional hut made of sticks, leaves and cow dung for her boys that are being circumcised. Once all the materials are gathered, it takes roughly 4 days to build depending on the size. Some families have just one boy, but other families have multiple boys being circumcised. Thus, each boma has the appropriate amount of beds in it for the boys.
While the milk is being procured, each boy lines up in front of their respective boma as the time actual circumcision draws near. I was actually quite impressed with how sanitary the procedure was, considering the circumstances. The person doing the circumcision was a trained health professional, most likely a clinician, and used a clean knife and clean latex gloves for each procedure. All the used equipment was disposed in a sterile box, much like you see in any doctors office. Anyway, when it comes time for each boy to be circumcised, they first take a drink of the milk that their mothers fetched from the gourds, then the rest of milk is dumped on their faces. After this, the boy is lifted up by three morans, one at each leg and one at the torso and placed in a seated position on top of a cow hide. The man holding the torso, holds him in such a way that the boy is being held up by the man. The man in this position is usually a father figure, but not the boys actual father and becomes not unlike a godfather seen in western religions after the ceremony. Then, the surgeon (if you can call it that) comes over and performs the circumcision itself, all which lasts about 7 seconds. The boys try as hard as they can to show no emotion, and the majority of them have what can only be described as an 1000 yard stare during it. Then, the new circumcised boys are carried by the cow hide into the boma and laid to rest on a bed where they will spend the rest of the day. Then, the surgeon makes his way to the next boma, and the process is repeated until all the boys have been circumcised. The village I was in is rather large and so a crowd of 50 or so men followed the surgeon to each house to cheer and support the boys. The fascinating thing to me is that there is so much build up and anticipation to this ceremony, and yet, the actual circumcision takes less than 10 seconds. It would be anticlimactic if it weren’t for the intensity caused by the crowd watching on.
After the commotion has died down, it is time for the boys to eat their first meal. The older men round up the cows and apply a tourniquet around each of their necks. After the coronary artery is well exposed, one of the men fires an arrow from point blank range into the artery which causes blood to come gushing out. Gourds are then filled up with this blood which in turn, is the first meal of the newly circumcised boys. At the end of the day, the current morans gathered for a traditional Samburu song and dance that was nothing short of magical.
In a few days time, the next step for the boys as they recover is to fashion bow and arrows out of the sticks and gum they have collected and hunt for birds around the area. It’s less about the actual hunting and more just giving the boys something to do as they recover. Then, in about a month, they will go through an additional small ceremony and officially become morans. This won’t be the last circumcision ceremony I will attend while I am here, but it might be the largest, as 57 boys were circumcised, on a day I will truly never forget.