By Shirley Genga
There are people in many parts of the world who view their culture as the ultimate, an immutable part of their lives that is cast in stone. But what if that same culture is the one thing that kills its people?
This is the question Chief Eshiloni Mumena of the Kaonde people of Zambia was forced to ask himself after his 17-year-old son asked to be circumcised.
Historically, his kingdom does not subscribe to the rite. Why did his son put such a heavy responsibility on the chief’s shoulders?
In granting his son’s wish, Mumena decided to dare his culture and even brave stigmatisation in order to save lives.
Studies have shown that circumcising adult heterosexual men is one of the most effective ways to fight Aids by reducing the chances of infection by 60 per cent or more.
A United Nations report released in 2010 indicated that universal male circumcision in sub-Saharan Africa could prevent 5.7 million new infections and three million deaths over 20 years.
This finding has encouraged many hitherto uncircumcised Kenyans to opt for the knife in a widely acknowledged successful campaign.
So months after the report was released and internationally welcomed as a frontier to contain the epidemic, it was Mumena’s time to take charge, and show his people the way.
But how does one tell people who have never practised circumcision to do so? Mumena was convinced, but could the people listen to him?
“My son explained to me why he wanted to be circumcised. I did my own research and confirmed everything he told me. I found out about the benefits and the role circumcision played in the fight againstzzzzz HIV infection, I knew it was something I had to champion. And since I am not just the chief but the custodian of culture in my kingdom, it was a serious undertaking . . . like going to war,” he said.
Mumena held a village meeting where he told his people about the benefits of circumcision. He weaved the message cleverly. He told them how other villages from far away lands had embraced the practice and had, as a result, contained the spread of Aids. The people listened.