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Where circumcision is elaborate, sacred task done by a ‘chosen few’

By Alexander Chagema | Dec 18th 2021 | 3 min read

Francis Chivolo, a Tiriki traditional circumciser at Machina in Lurambi. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Francis Chivolo Mwambushi cuts a regal figure in his traditional regalia, complete with accoutrements.

The 79-year-old man is a Tiriki traditional circumciser who has plied his trade since 2003. The Tiriki are a sub-tribe of the Luhya tribe in Western Kenya.

Mwambushi’s family migrated from Tiriki when he was a young man and settled in Emachina village in Kakamega County.

Together with other families that had settled in the area earlier, they resolved to continue their strict customary circumcision rites that have transcended centuries.

“I am a Tiriki circumciser and traditional healer. I inherited this business from my predecessor in 2003. Unlike traditional leadership that is hereditary, it takes community elders to choose a circumciser whenever the incumbent wishes to hand over the baton,” said Mwambushi.

He said the Tiriki conduct the circumcision ceremony every five years.

“Ideally, we do not circumcise boys below the age of 10 years. In exceptional cases where a total orphan is due for circumcision, it can be performed at the age of nine years,” Mwambushi said.

At that age, they believe the boys are teachable.

Kapunyonje shrine where initiates assemble for circumcision at Machina in Lurambi. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The Tiriki are among the few communities that have stuck to their customary ways of doing things. While the coming of Christianity changed the perspective of some communities, the Tiriki have not deviated.

The rite of passage is an elaborate process among them. On the eve of the circumcision day, the young boys spend the night in the home of an elderly woman. The next morning, the initiates strip naked under the watchful eyes and instructions of older men known as vadiri (caretakers).

They then move in single file to the home of the circumciser who, by prior arrangement, would be fully kitted for the ceremony and waiting in his homestead.

“The morning chill numbs their senses and lessens pain. When they are brought here, they walk around two special trees planted together atop a rock in my compound before heading out to the circumcision venue to face the knife,” says Mwambushi.

The trees, Musunzu (Crotone tree) and Lusiola (Markhamia lutea), are traditionally known as Lusambwa. Every circumciser must have them in his compound.

“Before that, they must go through a specially created passage made of grass on either side of which elders, who oversee the entire process, stand,” says Mwambushi.

“By the time they are ready to leave my compound, I will have moved to the gate where incantations are made as I sip a special mixture of herbs, honey, and millet flour from a traditional gourd and spray the mixture on the head of each initiate as they walk by me,” Mwambushi explains.

Thomas Ingara showcasing a special garment given to him as a reminder of his responsibility to conserve Tiriki cultural forests and culture. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

The circumciser then heads to the circumcision ground by the river, where there is a special shrine for such ceremonies. The shrine is a thick forest of lianas and an assortment of indigenous trees.

Nobody is allowed to enter the forest apart from the initiates and the circumciser.

“Before the advent of HIV/Aids, we used to do the cut with a traditional knife that has a special place in my house and could only be touched when the circumcision period came. Nowadays, every initiate brings his razor blade. We dispose of them by burying in the shrine,” he said.

“After circumcision, I administer herbs on the cut skin to stem bleeding. If I fail to do that, the boys could die from excessive bleeding,” Mwambushi says.

According to Francis Majoni, an elder in Emachina village, Mwambushi has a clean record.

“I have known him since 2003 when he started practising. He is very thorough, and we have not had any death in his hands. He is a sociable man who also doubles up as an effective traditional healer,” Majoni said.

The circumciser observes the boys for two days before taking them to another location known as itumbi (campsite), where they stay for one month.

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