Traditionally, young Gīkūyū men underwent coming of age ceremonies, Mambura ma irua, that included the surgical removal of the penis’ foreskin. These ceremonies and their preparations were protracted processes that took the better part of a year. The circumcision ceremony itself was like a capstone that topped and finished a carefully constructed arch. Much like an artist brings out a perfect sculpture from a rough chunk of marble, or a stone mason carefully brings out a polished stone from the rough quarried stone, so too were the boys polished into men, gūicūhio.
On the chosen morning when the circumcision ceremony took place, the boys trooped to the river very early in the morning as when Maara went to throw away his dying mother¹. In that early chill, the water flowing from God’s seat, Kīrī Nyaga or God’s sleeping hides, Nyandarwa, was ice cold and when the boys dipped themselves up to the waist, they came out numbed to face the circumciser’s knife. Even after weeks and weeks of preparation, it was a painful experience. The real test was facing the knife without flinching. The boys would stand up straight with the river behind them and with their faces unblinkingly looking straight up to the hills. The sponsor or supporter, Mutiiri, of each boy would stand behind him, (without touching him) and the circumciser would move quickly from boy to boy with the same knife. The women at a safe distance up the hill would look down and break into song. The boys too would sing much later after healing during the cerebrations that on that day, as they went down the river in great trepidation but also with expectancy, that a tiny ant seemed to them the size of a buffalo
Today very very few if any Gīkūyū would question the need for the cut but many have questioned the need for it to be so painful. Almost all boys in Gīkūyūland today face the knife not at the river but in a medical doctor’s operating table under local anaesthesia. The pain of the traditional circumcision has been reduced to a minimum. And it is not just in the circumcision ceremony that pain has been banished but in many aspects of the lives of modern Gīkūyū. The modern medical doctor has come to deliver us from pain just as the new religion has come to deliver us from evil. Women today dread the traditional delivery method and are more and more opting for a caecilian section, CS, rather than undergo what they call the messy and painful ordeal of a natural childbirth. Those suffering from headaches, toothaches and similar minor pains have found salvation in the pain killer. Pain has been equated to sin.
What many people are not aware of is that much more than pain is killed by the pain killer or anaesthesia. By embracing pain and suffering as part of the human experience, we gain and learn a lot from this landscape of pain. Someone said, “What happens does not matter much. What we do with what happens matters everything” It is the same with pain and suffering. It is what we do with the pain that matters everything. In today’s feel good and painless culture, this is a concept that is hard for many to contemplate less comprehend. Imbuing pain with meaning makes it no longer pain, but a necessary part of our experience. Victor Frankl a long time prisoner in Nazi concentration camps went through brutal cruelties and torture. He came to believe that “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” He was able to bear the most horrendous pains in the concentration camps because he drew meaning in the pain. Thus according to him even when one is confronted with an incurable disease, such as an inoperable cancer, just then, one is given a chance to actualize the highest value, to fulfil the deepest meaning. Pain ceases to be pain to who has given it meaning and a purpose. Many women have testified to the deep joy and spiritual upliftment they have gained from exploring the full wonder and pain of natural childbirth. Many people including I Mūkūyū, testify to the deep awakening of something beyond verbal description of venturing into this wilderness of even a little pain like a toothache. Of cause there is for everybody an unbearable pain, a threshold or precipice, but it is now a proven scientific fact that one lowers this threshold of unbearable pain every time one takes a pain killer. It would be sad that after such powerful lessons from their culture the Gīkūyū were to arrive at the point where the USA is today – a national epidemic and crisis of pain killer addiction.
What is drug addiction or substance abuse? Isn’t it a failure to confront emotional pain and the seeking of an artificial bliss through drugs? Isn’t it a running away from a life challenge and taking the easy way out? Confronting challenges and dealing with them is much harder than just running away. Drugs make life easy. Ultimately they deny life the chance to an exploration of depth and meaning.
Did not the Hebrew prophet lead by example by embracing pain, and by using it as a tool to spiritual salvation? The man of sorrows met pain unflinchingly. The Gīkūyū boys of old likewise learnt that there are times when one is called upon to bite the bullet, when one is called to embrace the crown of thorns. By bravely embracing – not merely bearing – the crown of thorns, it transforms into the crown of salvation, the crown of glory.
Kamarū sung that it is good, very good, that the Gikuyu undergo circumcision. Kūrua ruo, circumcising the pain, is to face the pain unflinchingly and in so doing destroying its power over you.
Gīkūyū kūrua, nīwega nīwega mūno!
¹Riria Maara ateiire nyina, (When Maara went to throw away his mother)– Very early in the morning when young men took the cattle to the licks because they wanted to be there and done before the Maasai brought their cattle from the plains. It is told that Maara who did not want his ailing mother to die in the Nyumba as this would contaminate the house with a taboo requiring its destruction, took her to the forest and laid her on a path where the cattle would pass and they trampled her to death. Not only did he get rid of his mother but he also got paid by the herdsmen for killing his mother. The time is before twilight which would make it around 4 am. It is still a popular idiom for that early morning.