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10 Remarkable Rites of Passage from Kenya

Updated on July 30, 2015

Adulthood is not All Smiles

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Introduction

While almost all cultures across the world observe unique rites of passage that allow adolescents to transition from childhood into adulthood, Kenya is one of the last remaining countries where truly remarkable adulthood induction ceremonies are still practiced. Initiation ceremonies in Kenya are more often not only meant to initiate people into adulthood, but also to showcase cultural superiority, personal bravery, religious devotion and sometimes "Man versus Nature" trivia. Below is a detailed focus on the ten Kenyan tribes that shelter the most obscure and bone-chilling rites of passages.While almost all cultures across the world observe unique rites of passage that allow adolescents to transition from childhood into adulthood, Kenya is one of the last remaining countries where truly remarkable adulthood induction ceremonies are still practiced. Initiation ceremonies in Kenya are more often not only meant to initiate people into adulthood, but also to showcase cultural superiority, personal bravery, religious devotion and sometimes "Man versus Nature" trivia. Below is a detailed focus on the ten Kenyan tribes that shelter the most obscure and bone-chilling rites of passages.

Kikuyu

The Kikuyu tribe aggressively pursues circumcision as a means of transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Circumcision is the most unifying custom practiced by the community, binding initiates to a life-long age-set. Traditionally, circumcision was performed on both boys and girls; the circumcision of girls was however phased out somewhere in the mid-twentieth century. The initiates are expected to wake up early and soak themselves in a nearby water source in readiness for circumcision. The cold water numbness the body easing the pain felt during the lengthy procedure. Circumcision for the Kikuyu is not a simple cut-and-go procedure; the initiator is expected to craft a "Pressure Knob" carefully from the foreskin. The pressure button rests on the lower side of the penis and is supposed to intensify sexual intercourse for both husband and wife. After circumcision, the young man is subjected to a sleepless, one-week of healing. In modern times, circumcision is mostly performed in hospitalities where doctors do not craft pressure knobs; which is a cause of ridicule. Failure to get circumcised because of financial reasons or fear is unacceptable, and can result in physical violence and public humiliation.

Kikuyu Initiates

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Kikuyu Circumcision

Bukusu (Luhya)

According to the Bukusu culture, it is the adolescent boys who determine when they become men. A boy who feels ready to get circumcised approaches his father to make preparations for the initiation ceremony. The initiate's father then gathers the necessary items for the ceremony a bull, a he-goat and traditional beer. The bull is slaughtered a day before the boy is circumcised by the boy's uncle in honor of his nephew. The father of the boy makes an unusual necklace from the bull's genitalia that is awarded to the initiate. On the circumcision day, the boy is taken early in the morning to a nearby river. At the river, he is smeared with mud on the face (especially on top of his nose), hands, and chest by one of his older male cousins. Afterward, the boy is matched naked or in a blanket to his father's compound; on the way he is expected to play the jingles as the villagers sing and dance. The boy is circumcised either looking up or away for the initiator; he remains stills and doesn't move for any sign of fear would disgrace the family. Once circumcised the boy is awarded presents for his bravery, first by his father and second by others in attendance. The circumciser later counsels the initiate as he consumes the traditional beer prepared by the boy's father. He is then taken to his hut where he remains until he is fully healed.

Luhya Circumcision Procession

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Bukusu Circumcision

Kalenjin

The Kalenjin strictly believe in the circumcision of both male and female adolescents. Girls are circumcised as a way of controlling their sexual urge; that in turn diminishes the chances of infidelity once they enter into marriage. In the 1950s, girls were warned if they didn't get circumcised their clitoris would cause their husbands to become impotent. Furthermore, the girls were teased their clitoris if not removed would continue growing to an undesirable size. The initiates are subjected to a lengthy isolation period that is meant to strip them of all childish mannerism and unhealthy family dependency. After circumcision, the initiates are secluded from the rest of the communities for months during which they are offered instructions on how to lead proper adult lives. The isolation period is riddled with perils and nerve-wracking problems that challenge the initiates' decision-making skills. Traditionally, the male initiates were also offered warrior training to form the next lineage of protectors for the community. After the lengthy segregation period, the initiates return to their village as adults ready for marriage and parenthood.

Kalenjin (Subgroup; Nandi )

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Kalenjin (Nandi) Circumcison

Maasai

The Maasai are arguably the most iconic people in Kenya, their culture has realized international recognition, but little is known about their initiation ceremonies. Circumcision is performed on both boys and girls in spite of public outcry against Female Genital Mutilation. After circumcision, the boys are required to join a band of warriors referred to as the Morans. Traditionally, newly recruited Morans were required to demonstrate bravery by hunting lions. Years of hunting have made lions extremely wary of Maasai warrior; as such, they tend to bolt whenever they spot Morans. Conservation effects by the Kenyan government have made it illegal for Morans to hunt lions, although there are isolated cases of lion killings linked to cultural rites of passage. After circumcision girls are considered ready for marriage and womanhood. Due to strict policing, Maasai families circumcise their daughters in secrecy. According to the Maasai culture, an uncircumcised girl is a child who is unworthy of marriage, and a cause of shame to her family. Desperate parents are readily taking their daughters into neighboring Tanzania where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not carefully monitored as in Kenya.

Maasai Morans Jumping

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Maasai Men go Against 15 Lions for Meat

Turkana

The Turkana people are a pride lot, who believe in communal superiority over other Kenyan communities. These people have over the decades tried to conquer the harsh lands surrounding Lake Turkana (avoided by other communities) with petite success. As such, it is only natural that this community should practice an initiation rite that defies those practiced by their neighbors. Almost all tribes in Kenya document the transition into adulthood through circumcision; excluding the Turkana, who regard induction by circumcision as a pervasion. In the place of circumcision, the male initiates aged between sixteen and twenty years are subjected to a simple yet essence initiation ritual. Blue ochre mud hats are placed on the heads of the initiates' heads, and with that the boys are ushered into adulthood. After this simplistic ceremony, the initiates are allowed to handle a proper spear in place of the wooden imitations towed by boys. If a boy fails to undergo the initiation ceremony, he is forever mocked and ridiculed by his age mates.

Turkana Celebratory Dance

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Pokot

The passage of girls into womanhood in the Pokot community is considerably complex and stressful. Rite of passage into adulthood for a Pokot girl is ignited when the girl's suitor arrives at her father's compound accompanied by several other men. The dowry is agreed upon in terms of goats, camels, and cattle. The animals are awarded to the girl's family over a period of several weeks. The last of the dowry is brought on the morning when the suitor comes for his bride. Before the two are united in marriage, the girl is expected to undergo a ritual that confirms that the girl has transitioned into womanhood. For this ritual, the initiates are isolated from the rest of the community for one month. A week before the marriage ceremony the girls are laden with colorful bead necklaces, head ornaments and dressed in animal skins. At some point, the girls are expected to beat a ceremonial bull using their fists as a way of demonstrating newfound strength. The day before the close of the ritual the girls walk in a line and sing songs for an entire night. The prolonged singing and walking is meant to demonstrate the girls' commitment to their adult lives; it is the most important stage of the whole coming of age ritual. Once the ceremony has ended, the girls are women ready to be united with their husbands in marriage.

Girl Tries to Escape Forced Marriage

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Pokot Initiation rite for Boys

Giriama

The Giriama are the second largest tribe in the collective unit referred to as the Mijikenda. Circumcision is only performed on boys in the Giriama community. The circumcision celebration is a men's only affair. Women are not allowed to join in the actual ritual, but they are allowed to sing and dance in celebration of the ceremony. The boys are handled by their male relatives throughout the ritual; women are believed to bring bad luck to the ceremony. Some people argue that women would be overwhelmed by the circumcision and be drawn to tears causing the initiate to cry as well; an act that brings shame to the family. On the circumcision day, the initiates are comforted and prepared for the ordeal by their older male relatives. During circumcision, boys are instructed to sit on mats with arms drawn back, and legs split apart. Upon completion of the induction ceremony, the boy is escorted to a hut where he remains until his fully heals.

Ceremonial Dancing Among the Giriama

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Luo

The Luo people do not observe the practice of initiation by circumcision. However, given the medical advantages of circumcision many Luo people have in recent years embraced the practice. According to Luo Culture, initiation into adulthood was performed through teeth removal. Initiates were offered sex education before the initiation ceremony in separate gender groups. Sex education was provided by the grandparents of the initiates. On the day of the initiation ceremony, a skilled and experienced individual was tasked with the duty of removing the six lower teeth of the initiates. The initiates had to demonstrate bravery by holding back their tears throughout the process. All six teeth were removed without the provision of any pain-relief medication. An adolescent who refused to go through with the initiation was branded a coward, alienated by his/her age mates, and denied the right to enter into a marriage by the community elders. Due to the barbaric nature of the practice the Luo community abandoned the remove of teeth decades ago. Presently, the Luo people do not have a uniformly recognized cultural ritual that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Traditional Luo Culture

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Borana

The Borana tribe continues to grow smaller by the day due to intermarriage and assimilation by neighboring tribes. The circumcision ceremony is organized for boys aged between 13 and 15 years old. On the circumcision day, the initiate is instructed to take an icy bath early in the morning and stand still in front of the cattle shed. The boy is then blinded folded by a skilled man who will be performing the circumcision. Initiates are not allowed to witness what is being done to them, as it can cause them to get scared and attempt to run away. Once the foreskin is removed, it is handed to the initiate's mother who kisses it as a way of blessing her son's adult life. The mother then ties the foreskin to a heifer as a call for fertility and prosperity for her son. The cow selected by the mother is then awarded to her as a gift by the son. The gift demonstrates the son's appreciation. Afterward, the initiates are treated using resin to stop the bleeding and lead outside the village for the reminder of the day. Under shady trees, the initiates are expected to hunt for lizards and birds using bows and arrows. The hunt symbolizes the start of one's life as an independent adult. In the past, girls were also circumcised, and their legs tied together using traditional ropes for the remainder of the recovery period.

Borana Women Celebration Dance

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Other Borana Coming of Age Rituals

Ameru

The Ameru critically value the role a woman places in the society; traditionally, entering into womanhood was not an easy task. A year before the actual circumcision, the girls were required to undergo a tattooing ceremony. The tattoos were made through painful cuts to the abdominal region; the cuts were made in a straight line, in total the initiate received four parallel lines. This painful tattooing ritual was supposed to prepare the girl for the actual circumcision ceremony. The girl was expected to kneel in front of the tattooist with both of her hands raised. Her right hand was supported by her suitor's spear while her left hand rested on a warrior relative's spear. The cuts were made from the middle of the abdomen all the way to the back without touching the spinal cord. If the pain became too much for the girl, her suitor would kneel down and receive the cuts on his shoulder as a sign of heroism and bravery. Nevertheless, the girl would be forcefully held, and the tattooing would continue in spite of her protests. The following year the girls were circumcised by senior women in the community. During the ritual the clitoris and Labia Minora were carefully removed; a considerably painful ordeal not to be equated with the tattooing ritual.

Ameru Woman

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    • David Rugu profile image
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      David Rugu Ngigi 2 years ago from Kitui, Kenya

      Thanks a lot Buildreps..it an honor to receive feedback from an avid reader.

      thanks again and expect more from me in future.

    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

      Very nice Hub with great intentions, although I must admit I just skimmed it (lack of time). I usually drown in large chunks of texts and start to skim then. I like it when authors cut the text into smaller paragraphs. Nevertheless thanks for the effort!