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Heralding the beginning
of adult life, circumcision is regarded by the Maasai of Kenya as a rebirth, a new road to the ways of maturity. They believe that the male or female youngster who undergoes the agony of such an ordeal with courage will
be able to endure the challenges of life and uphold the proud reputation of the Maasai people.
For both male and
female initiates, circumcision takes place at dawn. A boy, usually between fifteen
and eighteen years old, undergoes the operation outside the main gate of his family’s cattle enclosure. Taunted with
insults by his friends to build up his resistance, he must endure the cutting without flinching to prove his bravery. If he cries out, he will bear the shame for the rest of his life. A girl, between the ages of twelve
And fourteen, undergoes
a clitorectomy inside he mother’s home. Without anesthetic, her clitoris
and labia minora are cut away by the female circumciser, but, unlike a boy, she is permitted to express pain without dishonor. Both males and female go through a healing period of up to six months, a time that
serves as transition into adulthood. The girl remains in seclusion, and the boy
joins the collective activities of his age mates. Following this period of recuperation,
males become warriors and females enter married life.
A Maasai warrior
may not marry until he graduates from warrior hood, in his late twenties or early thirties.
Prior to this, he may only have sexual relations with uncircumcised girls between the ages of nine and thirteen, who
cannot become pregnant. For the Maasai, pregnancy out of wedlock is strictly
taboo. At the onset of menstruation, girl are circumcised and must leave their
warrior boyfriends to prepare for marriage with older men who are selected by their parents and may be twice the girl’s
has practiced a highly controversial issue in contemporary western society, female clitodectomy for centuries. Without undergoing his painful ritual, a girl will not be considered a woman, will not be permitted to
marry within Maasai society, and will not be able to bear legitimate offspring. A
Maasai girl who refuses this rite of passage will be ostracized from her community and alienated from her cultural tradition.
ON THE THRESHHOLD OF MANHOOD
The initiate rises
just before dawn and bathes, using water that has been kept outside all night in a bucket containing an axe head to make the
water colder. His body numbed, his age mates to toughen him for the ordeal that
lies ahead insult the boy relentlessly by his age mates. As a parting gift from
his mother, he has been given the hide of an unblemished ox, on which he will sit during the cutting. Accompanied by his father,
the boy walks to the entrance of the family cattle kraal. Already in attendance
are the initiate’s close male relatives and the circumciser, who has been brought in from the Ndorobo tribe especially
for the occasion. He will be paid one goat for every operation he performs. Women are forbidden to come to the cattle kraal for the duration of the ritual.
THE FIRST CUT
between the legs of the back supporter (left) so that he is prevented from making even the slightest movement, the initiate
prepares himself. The circumciser throws a libation of the chalk and milk over him and calls out, “one cut” so
as not take the boy by surprise. He then puts a knife through the boy’s foreskin, and when the cutting is complete,
a flap of skin is left beneath the head of the penis – a unique feature of Maasai circumcision. With the entreaty, “Wake
up, you are now a man,” the circumciser indicates that the initiate is free to leave.
Still in great
pain and weak from shock, the initiate is carried is carried back to his mother’s hut to nurse his wound and rest. He
receives a ritual calabash of fresh cow’s blood to restore his energy. Treated like woman recovering from childbirth,
he is carefully looked after by his family and restricted from performing certain tasks. As a reward for his bravery, his
father may give a cow or a goat. This experience will serve to remind him of his youthful courage for the rest of his life. After healing, the initiate is allowed to have sexual relations for the first time.
A CROWN OF BIRDS
camps, the age mates of the initiate arrive to celebrate his entry into manhood. Each guest wears as headdress of colorful
stuffed birds and has his face painted with white markings to indicate his intermediate status between adolescence and warrior
hood. When the initiate has healed sufficiently to be able to walk, he goes out
to hunt for small birds. Shooting them with a bow and blunt arrow, he eviscerates the carcasses, stuffs them with ashes and
dried grass, and ties them to a circular frame, which he wears as a ceremonial crown.
If he has withstood circumcision unflinchingly, he may wear colorful birds, symbolic of courage, but if he has cried
out, his crown will be drab. It may take up to forty birds to complete such a
Dressed in dark
blue, an initiate paints white chalk designs on the face of a recently circumcised age mate.
For protection during this vulnerable period of transition into warrior hood, both young men wear their mother’s
coiled brass pendants against their temples.
During the healing
period the newly circumcised boys roam Assailant, chasing young girls and shooting them with blunted arrows. Each time an initiate hits a girl; she must five him one of her beaded finger rings to wear on a band around
his head or on a finger. The greater his collection of rings, the more admired he is as he enters the most exciting period
of his life being a Maasai warrior.
THE CRY OF PAIN
and washed, a young girl sits in the darkness of a hut before a female circumciser, surrounded by her family. A especial curved blade is used to cut away her clitoris and labia minor.
No anesthetic is given; the only concession to the girl’s pain is that, unlike her male counter part, she may
cry out without disgracing herself.
During the cutting,
she screams in pain and appeals to her relatives to let her go but they continue to hold her down, believing the procedure
to be in her best interests. The excision competed; the girl rests in her family
hut. At the end of the day, she inspected by the female elder. If the circumciser’s
work has been carried out satisfactorily, the girl is free to resume her recuperation; if not she faces a repeat of her earlier
ordeal. During her weeks of recovery, she is secluded with her family and other
initiates. Dressed in dark blue and wearing a beaded band around her head
she is not allowed to be seen or spoken to by men, other than immediate relatives. She
receives gifts of livestock to honor her new status and can now look forward to marriage and children of her own.