Three boys draped in snow white robs with matching caps, stand before a solemn congregation. Their heads are bowed and hands clasped. The boys have undergone a rite of passage — circumcision.
The venue is Nomiya Church, in Ajigo, Siaya County and the congregation is giving them a grand welcome following their heroic act.
Here the cut is taken so seriously, uncircumcised boys are neither allowed to partake the Holy Communion nor hold leadership positions.
For the past 100 years, Nomiya Church (Luo word for I was given) has been circumcising its newborn baby boys despite protests by Luo culture custodians who believe male circumcision is alien tradition.
Long before campaigns for Voluntary Male Circumcision started, a good number of members of the Luo community have been silently undergoing the cut, courtesy of Nomiya Church.
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In keeping up with the Old Testament traditions, the church has been circumcising new born boys. In the beginning, pioneer church ministers met strong resistance from the local culture custodians who said the male cut was a foreign ritual.
But the church stood its ground and circumcised thousands of new born boys, until the traditionalists gave up the mission to stop them. Other denominations criticised them but they soldiered on.
And the church has no apologies for what they do despite going against the norm.
Nomiya Church’s Rule Dean John Otieno says in Genesis 17:10-11 God commanded Abraham and his descendants to circumcise every male as a covenant.
“This was a covenant between God and Abraham, and as descendants of Abraham, we have been conducting circumcision of male infants on the eighth day after birth,” says Otieno.
So how do they undertake the exercise?
For the safety of those being cut, it is done by trained practitioners called Sharif after the boys have been baptised. And not just that. The Holy Spirit is also involved.
“Circumcision is a delicate process and we only allow those who have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to do it with close supervision of medical officers,” explains Otieno.
He says when one wants his son circumcised, they first inform the church elders. Thereafter, Sharif will be contacted.
After circumcision, the child and the mother are kept in seclusion for 30 days to prevent them from engaging in “unholy” acts.
“We usually conduct counselling to couples to allow them commit themselves to this covenant. The mother and baby are kept in a place where only a few people are identified by the church to look after them,” he explains.
During this period, the mother is not allowed to attend any public gathering, go to church or even touch the bible because she is still unclean. However, she is allowed to cook her food and wash her clothes.
“In any case the mother of the baby dies before the end of this period; we conduct prayers for the baby before we break off the days of seclusion. In case the woman’s husband dies while she is in seclusion, we allow her to attend the burial,” says Otieno.
A man whose son and wife are in seclusion is not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke and engage in sex.
On the 31st day, the baby is presented at the sacrificial table known as ‘mesa mar misango’.
Roasted meat of a ram or cockerel is served with chapati.
“One bird is burnt to ashes while another is roasted and eaten. Nobody is allowed to talk at the sacrificial table because this is a moment we communicate with God,” he explains.
According to Samuel Oluga, the priest in charge of Ajigo diocese, this ritual has played a key role in reproductive health promotion especially male circumcision which has been proven to reduce HIV transmission significantly.
And the beauty of their practice is that unlike traditional method that exposes one to infections, it is done under safe and hygienic conditions.
“To avoid botched operations, we work with trained medical practitioners,” says Oluga.
Every year, 500 children undergo the safe cut. To make the practise more widespread, they are seeking to partner with the Ministry of Health which is tasked with rolling out Voluntary Male Circumcision programmes that target Nyanza.
Mrs Mary Ogutu, a member of the church and a counselor says there is need for the government to establish counseling and testing centres in Nomiya.
“Circumcision, HIV counseling and testing go hand in hand and given that Nomiya Church supplements the Ministry of Health’s services, such facilities are crucial here,” she says.
Besides the circumcision rites, Nomiya Church is also known for its controversial cultural practices.
For example, the church allows polygamy, with men allowed to marry as many as 20 wives. It also prides itself as the first independent religious institution in Kenya that accepts wife inheritance.
A widow from the church can be inherited 70 days after the death of her husband.