You are here:

Print this Page

Chapter 6 -- cont.

At the time of the surgical operation the girl hardly feels any pain for the simple reason that her limbs have been numbed, and the operation is over before she is conscious of it. It is only when she awakes after three or four hours of rest that she begins to realize that something has been done to her genital organ. The writer has learned this fact from several girls (relatives and close friends) who have gone through the initiation and who belong to the sane age-group with the writer.

When the girl wakes up the nurse who is in attendance washes her with some kind of watery herb called mahoithia (drainers or dryers). After the washing the wound is attended with antiseptic and healing leaves called kagutwi or matei (chasers or banishers). The leaves are folded together, about two inches long, hall an inch wide and a quarter of an inch thick; then they are dipped in oil, maguta ma mbarikii (Gikuyu castor oil), to prevent their sticking on the wound and also to prevent the wound from shrinking. The bandage is then placed on the wound between labia majora to keep the two lips apart and prevent them from being drawn together while the wound heals.

The girl sits down with her legs closed together so as to keep the bandage in position. Frequently the girl is carefully examined by the nurse, and whenever she urinates, the nurse is there ready to clean the wound and put on a new bandage. The old bandage is hidden away to ensure that no man shall cross over it or put his foot on it for such a act would bring misfortune to the man or to the girl.

For the first week after her initiation the girl is not allowed to go for a walk or even to touch with her bare hands anything in the way of food. The nurse puts the girl's food on a banana leaf, called ngoto or icoya, which serves as a plate. The leaf is lifted to the mouth without the girl actually touching its contents with her hands. The food eaten by the invalids is supplied by the parents, relatives and friends. The initiates, both boys and girls, eat collectively all food, irrespective of where it comes from, for all contributions are kept in one place in charge of the nurses and shared in common by the initiates, who refer to one another as sisters and brothers. The invalids are entertained by their sponsors, who sing them encouraging songs, in which they bring out vividly the experience they gained after they were circumcised, that in a few days their wounds will heal and soon they will be able to go out jumping and dancing. These songs have a great psychological effect on the minds of the initiates, for they strongly believe that what has happened to their predecessors will also happen to them. With this in view their thoughts rest not on the operation, but on the day when they will again appear in public as full-fledged members of the community.

On the sixth day the sponsors make a full report to the ceremonial council; if all initiates are well and can walk, a ceremony of gotonyio or gociarwo (which means to be entered or born) is arranged on the eighth day. If all are not well the ceremony is postponed unfit the twelfth day, for no ceremony would be arranged on the seventh, ninth or eleventh day after any event has taken place. Uneven days are considered by the Gikuyu to be unlucky for embarking on any important business.

On the day appointed the parents gather at the homestead of the irua, bringing with them presents in the way of beer (njohi or ooke), bananas and vegetables. The ceremony consists of killing a selected sheep, the skin of which is cut into ribbons (ngwaro) which are put on the wrists of the boys and girls. The elder who has adopted the children at the time of irua stands at one side of the entrance of his wife's hut, while his wife stands on the other side facing him. The rest of the elders with their wives stand in the courtyard in two rows, facing one another. The children are called to appear before the elders. As they pass through between the two rows, the elders utter blessings and at the same time touch them on the head with sacred leaves called mataathi and maturanguru. At the entrance of the hut the mother and father put the ngwaro on the wrists of the boys and girls as they enter the hut. After the initiates have entered the hut the mother and father follow them. The two go to bed while the children remain seated. The door (riige) is closed and silence is maintained, both by those inside the hut and those outside. In a short moment the mother begins to groan as though she were in great pain; the father gets up and opens the door quickly. He calls out for mociarithania (a midwife), an elderly woman, who comes in carrying the gut of the sheep which has been killed. It is placed on a hide where the mother is sitting. Another woman comes in and cuts the gut. At this juncture the boy initiates emit a roar as of a lion, gethamaro, and the girls join in applauding with Ngemi-a-ri-ri-ri-i-ri. After this the gut is cut in a long ribbon, and while the initiates stand in one group close together the ribbon encircles them, being tied so as to cover the navel of those on the outside of be circle. They stand in this position for a few minutes; then the midwife comes along with a razor dipped in sheep's blood and cuts the ribbon in two. This symbolizes the cutting of the umbilical cord at birth. This is done to express the rebirth of the initiate. Another woman then comes carrying the ceremonial leaves (mathakwa) sprinkled with blood, in which she wraps the ribbon which has just been cut. This is similar to the afterbirth, and is put on the mathakwa and carried outside to be buried. When the woman appears outside, the parents, who are still seated, give a round of applause, saying: "Ciana irogea ohoro, thaai-thathayai Ngai thaai" -"Peace be with the children, peace-beseech ye, Ngai (God) peace."

After this the elder who has adopted the children comes out with his wife, followed by the children. They form a big circle round the fire on which the sheep's meat has been roasted. An elder of the ceremonial council takes the chest of the sheep which has been roasted (gethori) and stands up facing Kere-Nyaga, with both hands held aloft. 'The elder sings a hymn, offering prayers to Ngai. He tears pieces from the meat with his teeth, spits them on the ground, starting from north, east, south, west and ending north. He hands over the meat to the elder of the homestead and his wife, who follow the same example. The two then, holding the meat together, pass it round to each child, who tears the meat in the same manner. The elder and his wife address tile children as: "My tribal son" Or "my tribal daughter"; the children answer: "My tribal father" or "my tribal mother."

The words used are: Father to son: "Wanyu-Baba"; Son to father: "Wanyu-Baba." Mother to son: "Wakia-wa"; son to mother: "Wakia~Maito." Mother to daughter: "Wakeri"; daughter to mother: "Wakeri"; Father to daughter: "Wakia-Mwari"; daughter to father: "Wakia-Baba."

This signifies that the children have now been born again, not as the children of an individual, but of the whole tribe. The initiates address one another as "Wanyu-Wakine," which means "My tribal brother or sister." When the ceremony is completed all burst into ritual song. They bid farewell to one another and then leave the homestead under the escort of their relatives. On the arrival at their respective homes a sheep or rat is killed by the parents to welcome them home again and anoint them as new members of the community (koinokai na kohaka mwanake or moiretu maguta). At this ceremony the parents are provided with brass ear-rings, as a sign of seniority. This is done when the first-born is initiated.

For a period of three or four months, according to the rules of various clans, the initiates do not participate in any work. They devote most of their time to going around the district singing the initiates' song called waine. In this several groups take part. The song takes place in the field and is performed only in daytime. The initiates stand in a big circle holding several sticks (micee) in their hands. A bunch of micee is held in the left hand while one stick is held in the right hand. In this manner the initiates beat the micee according to the rhythm of the song. The inner circle is kept clear for the favourites from various groups-namely those who were the first to reach the sacred tree. They enter the circle two by two, a boy and a girl. As they appear in the arena the sticks are beaten rhythmically by all, while at the same time they utter compliments. These meetings afford the initiated boys and girls opportunities of coming into contact with and knowing one another intimately.

At the end of the holiday period, a day is fixed for the initiates to return to the homestead where the irua took place. Here the final ceremony of cleansing or purification is performed. This is called menjo or gothiga. Up to this time the initiates have been regarded as children (ciana) or new-corners (ciumeri), and, as such, they cannot hold any responsibility in the community; for they are in their transitional period. Neither juvenile nor adult laws can be applied to them, and thus they form a sort of free community of "merry-go-round."

On the day appointed for the ceremony, people gather from far and near to join in the festival dance in which the "new-comers" are introduced into the community. The ceremony consists of shaving the heads (kwenja) of the boys and girls. The clothes and ornaments worn during the transitional period are discarded; their bodies are painted with red ochre mixed with oil, after which they are dressed in new clothes. The boys are provided with warriors' equipment; the girls are adorned with beads, armlets and other adornments. Then they are led to the dance, where they are introduced to the assembly as full-fledged members of the community. While the dance is going on, mothers and fathers partake of a feast of beer-drinking (njohi), which usually takes place during all solemn function.

The wound normally requires a week to heal, but of course, there are some cases which take longer, generally due to negligence on the part of the girl or the nurse in applying the healing leaves in the proper way. Such cases are few, but result in a septic condition, and the formation of much scar tissue on the area of the labia majora, which may make childbirth difficult. Cases of this nature sometimes find their way to hospitals and attract the attention of both the missionary and official doctors, who then and there, without careful investigation of the system of female circumcision, attack the custom of clitoridectomy in general, asserting that it is barbaric and a menace to the life of the mothers. To strengthen their attacks on this custom, these "well-wishers" have gone so far as to state that almost every first child dies as a result of this operation at the time of initiation, and that the operation is more severe today than it was formerly. Irresponsible statements of this kind are not to be taken too seriously, for it must not be forgotten that very few of the normal cases of childbirth ever come to the notice of European doctors. The theory that "every first child dies as a result of the operation" has no foundation at all. There are hundreds of first-born children among the Gikuyu who are still living, and the writer is one of them.

The missionaries who attack the irua of girls are more to be pitied than condemned, for most of their information is derived from Gikuyu converts who have been taught by these same Christians to regard the custom of female circumcision as something savage and barbaric, worthy only of heathens who live in perpetual sin under the influence of the Devil. Because of this prejudiced attitude, the missionaries are at a disadvantage in knowing the true state of affairs. Even the few scientifically minded ones are themselves so obsessed with prejudice against the custom that their objectivity is blurred in trying to unravel the mystery of the irua.

With such limited knowledge as they are able to acquire from their converts or from others, who invariably distort the reality of the irua in order to please them, these same missionaries pose as authorities on African customs. How often have we not heard such people saying: "We have lived in Africa for a number or years and we know the African mind well."? This, however, does not qualify them or entitle them to claim authority on sociological or anthropological questions. The African is in the best position properly to discuss and disclose the psychological background of tribal customs, such as irua, etc., and he should be given the opportunity to acquire the scientific training which will enable him to do so. This is a point which should be appreciated by well-meaning anthropologists who have bad experience in the difficulties of field-work in various parts of the world.

Previous Section
Main Chapter Index