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Chapter 6

Initiation of
Boys and Girls


THE CUSTOM of clitoridectomy of girls, which we are going to describe here, has been strongly attacked by a number of influential European agencies-missionary, sentimental pro-African, government, educational and medical authorities. We think it necessary to give a short historical background of the method employed by these bodies in attacking the custom of clitoridectomy of girls.

In 1929, after several attempts to break down the custom, the Church of Scotland Mission to Gikuyu issued an order demanding that all their followers and those who wish their children to attend schools should pledge themselves that they will not in any way adhere to or support this custom, and that they will not let their children undergo the initiation rite. This raised a great controversy between the missionaries and the Gikuyu. The matter was taken up seriously by both educated and uneducated Gikuyu. Children of those who did not denounce the custom were debarred from attending the missionary schools. People petitioned the Government and educational authorities. During the petitioning period many of these deserted schools and churches were used for storing maize and potatoes. A "gentlemen's agreement" was reached between the Government and the missionaries. The ban on children attending the schools was lifted, but the missionaries maintained that teachers must be only those who had denounced the custom, for they hoped that teachers with this qualification would be able to mould the children in the way favourable to the missionary attitude. People were indignant about this decision and at once demanded the right to establish their own schools where they could teach their children without interference with the group custom. The cry for schools was raised high, and the result was the foundation of Gikuyu independent schools and Kareng'a schools. These schools are entirely free from missionary influence, both in educational and religious matters.

In 1930 the question of the custom of clitoridectomy was raised in the House of Commons and a committee of Members of Parliament was appointed to investigate the matter. The members of the committee included the Duchess of Atholl, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, C. R. Buxton and others. The writer was invited to attend the committee meeting and give the Gikuyu's point of view. It was then agreed that the best way to tackle the problem was through education and not by force of an enactment, and that the best way was to leave the people concerned free to choose what custom was best suited to their changing conditions.

In 1931 a conference on African children was held in Geneva under the auspices of the Save the Children Fund. In this conference several European delegates urged that the time was ripe when this "barbarous custom" should be abolished, and that, like all other "heathen" customs, it could be abolished at once by law. That it was the duty of the Conference, for the sake of the African children, to call upon the Governments under which the customs of this nature were practised to pass laws making it a criminal offence for anyone who should be found guilty of practising the custom of clitoridectomy.

However, this urge for abolishing a people's social custom by force of law was not wholeheartedly accepted by the majority of the delegates in the Conference. General opinion was for education which would enable the people to choose what customs to keep and which ones they would like to get rid of.

It should be pointed out here that there is a strong community of educated Gikuyu opinion in defence of this custom. In the matrimonial relation, the rite de passage [rite of passage] is the deciding factor. No proper Gikuyu would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised, and vice versa. It is taboo for a Gikuyu man or woman to have sexual relations with someone who has not undergone this operation. If it happens, a man or woman must go through a ceremonial purification, korutwo thahu or gotahikio megiro-namely, ritual vomiting of the evil deeds. A few detribalised Gikuyu, while they are away from home for some years, have thought fit to denounce the custom and to marry uncircumcised girls, especially from coastal tribes, thinking that they could bring them back to their fathers' homes without offending the parents. But to their surprise they found that their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, following the tribal custom, are not prepared to welcome as a relative-in-law anyone who has not fulfilled the ritual qualifications for matrimony. Therefore a problem has faced these semi-detribalised Gikuyu when they wanted to return to their homeland. Their parents have demanded that if their sons wished to settle down and have the blessings of the family and the clan, they must divorce the wife married outside the rigid tribal custom and then marry a girl with the approved tribal qualifications. Failing this, they have been turned out and disinherited.

In our short survey we have mentioned how the custom of clitoridectomy has been attacked on one side, and on the other how it has been defended. In view of these points the important problem is an anthropological one: it is unintelligent to discuss the emotional attitudes or either side, or to take violent sides in the question, without understanding the reasons why the educated, intelligent Gikuyu still cling to this custom.

The real argument lies not in the defence of the surgical operation or its details, but in the understanding of a very important fact in the tribal psychology of the Gikuyu-nanely, that this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral, and religions implications, quite apart from the operation itself. For the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy. Therefore the abolition of the surgical element in this custom means to the Gikuyu the abolition of the whole institution.

The real anthropological study, therefore, is to show that clitoridectomy, like Jewish circumcision, is a mere bodily mutilation which, however, is regarded as the conditio sine qua non of the whole teaching of tribal law, religion, and morality.

The initiation of both sexes is the most important custom among the Gikuyu. It is looked upon as a deciding factor in giving a boy or girl the status of manhood or womanhood in the Gikuyu community. This custom is adhered to by the vast majority of African peoples and is found in almost every part of the continent. It is therefore necessary to examine the facts attached to this widespread custom in order to have some idea why the African peoples cling to this custom which, in the eyes of a good many Europeans, is nothing but a "horrible" and "painful" practice, suitable only to barbarians.

In the first place it is necessary to give the readers a clear picture of why and how this important socio-biological custom is performed.

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