Traveling north from the city of Arusha, Tanzania, one passes by the world-famous Ngorongoro crater and the vast plains of the Serengeti before coming to Musoma. The town of Musoma is located on the shore of Lake Victoria, the third largest lake in the world, whose size is greater than Britain and Germany put together.
The local people’s livelihoods are tied to the lake, as most of them are engaged in fishing, the main business that provides commerce to the town. The Mara region, home to Musoma, borders Kenya and part of the different ethnic people who live in Tanzania also live in Kenya.
There are many ethnic groups in Mara, but the major one is known as the Kurya tribe. Within this tribe, there are multiple ethnic groups that have identified themselves with the location where they live.
Each ethnic group speaks the Kurya language, but there are some differences depending on the specific dialects. These ethnic groups also have different cultural practices, such as how they conduct funeral services, their customs for when a child is born, and other manners of celebration.
Circumcision, performed on both males and females, is a major cultural practice throughout the Kurya ethnic groups. It is such an important practice among the community members that when an uncircumcised foreigner comes to live among them, he or she is forced into circumcision.
How Circumcision Affects the Church
Churches are affected because their congregations are forced to undergo the ritual. During the season of circumcision, church attendance drops until the season is over.
To prevent this situation from continuing, there is a need to provide continued education, especially among children, so that they can change the society in the long run. It is important to start investing in small children, and we are working hard to protect children and act as their advocates.
Circumcision in the Kurya Tribe
Male circumcision is practiced all over the region, and female circumcision is practiced in some places like the Serengeti and Tarime districts where the Wakira, Wanyabasi, Wanyanchoka and Watimbaru ethnic groups are found. These are also the ethnic groups that fight each other from time to time.
A person being circumcised is expected to be very brave and not display any sign of fear. When being circumcised, an individual is expected to stay still and not show he or she is experiencing pain. There are people who watch to see that the person being circumcised observes the rules.
Women who circumcise others are known as “Omsali” in the Kurya language, or “Ngariba” in Kiswahili. Not every woman can be Omsali; this is a clan right that is passed down from one generation to another.
To perform the circumcision, the Omsali used to use a sharp piece of metal, which was prepared by special people. But nowadays they use a razor blade when circumcising women and a knife for men.
Why Are Men Circumcised?
The cultural norm is that men should be circumcised. If a man dies and he is not circumcised, he will be circumcised before he is buried..
Circumcision is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. After circumcision, the boy is no longer considered “mrisya” (a child) and has the freedom to make his own decisions. If a man is not circumcised, he is considered to be a child, even if he is over 50 years old. It is a great insult to address a man as “mrisya.” It can even ignite a great conflict, leading one person to kill another person.
Circumcision gives men the freedom to participate in funeral services. A man who is not circumcised is not allowed to come near a dead person. Circumcision gives men permission to participate in civil wars. And, circumcision gives a man the right to look after the family, which means he can marry.
If a man is not circumcised, he does not know in which age group to belong, and no girl will agree to be married to man who is not circumcised.
Women do not like to be married to a man who was circumcised in a hospital. They say they feel like they are being married to their fellow woman.
Why Are Women Circumcised?
Female circumcision is also regarded as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. It is rare to find a girl above age 10 who is not circumcised, and this can explain why there have been early marriages and young mothers who are less than 18 years old.
Female circumcision is done to make women less sexually active because many men spend a lot of time away from home when they go away for wars and battles against other ethnic clans.
They also perform female circumcision to try to make women not go outside the marriage and have extramarital affairs.
Women from other tribes who are married to Kurya and are not circumcised will be circumcised when giving birth.
Preparation for Circumcision
Circumcision is prohibited in July and August. Circumcision is also prohibited during years ending in the number 7, because a year ending in number 7 is considered to be a bad year.
Traditional leaders consult the spirits. The traditional leader goes to a river (Nyesiba River, in Baribari village) to ask “the snake” if it’s safe to do circumcision in that particular year.
The traditional leaders ask this question by placing two empty calabashes (a type of gourd) by the side of the river, and then they go away. The next day they come to see what has happened, and if they find the calabash full of water, they consider the year to be good and circumcision preparations continue.
But if they find the calabashes half full, they know the year is not good and they perform cleansing rituals before they continue. The cleansing is done by consulting traditional medicine men, who announce that a person (normally a pregnant woman or a young man) in the village will die. Once the chosen person dies, the cleansing has passed and the circumcision process continues.
If individuals die before they have healed from the circumcision, they will not be buried in their village. The burial will be done secretly in a neighboring village.
If the other village discovers this, they will find a way to retaliate against the people who buried their dead. This has been one of the main causes of the endless conflicts among the ethnic groups.