It is night. Not just any night, but a “bush” night, which means the only light is the lick of the flames of fire and the constant, dim glow of the few kerosene lamps around the camp. We drink our Chai (tea) and kahaua (coffee) to warm our insides against the wind that sweeps the Simanjiro plains as our fellow Maasai, Alterere and Leiyo, rush us on our way … we are going to be late.
We entered our two-tone pickup. Our ill-mannered Maasai friends comically and desperately try to negotiate my and my sister’s two front seats to no avail, reluctantly jumping to the rear. We head into the night looking for the telltale glare of the eyes in our headlights, spinning and jumping down the unforgiving road. There is no one in our path, no one to cross our path, no one hitchhiking, as is often the case here during the day. It is around 9 at night when we arrive at the boma (Maasai people) and we quickly find out that we have missed it: the ceremony is over. Now what?
We sit in the car, surrounded by Maasai, waiting for Hassan, who will determine our next move, occasionally waving to a faceless arm that curiously navigates through total darkness toward the window. I wonder how they live in such darkness at night realizing that modern technology has spoiled me. Outside our car, there is a kind of meeting, we hear the murmur; the torch flashes on and off, briefly exposing a face, eyes, and teeth, but that’s about it. Apart from that, it is the night that prevails. Hassan is out of the car, talking to the elders and doing the necessary public relations to get us permission to enter the ceremony. Every now and then, he pops his head out to give us an update, “… there were four boys already circumcised here … they all can’t walk and in bed … the doctor is still here … we have been invited to another ceremony … “. Then return to the abyss of darkness.
It is important to note that among the Maasai, respect and communication are not only extremely important, but two ruling forces in their lives. The first half of any meeting is usually devoted to greetings and formalities. Nothing is too important to run away; here we are in “Africa time”, so we keep waiting. It is arranged after a discussion and clarification with the elders that we will follow the doctor (is it him? certificate?! I’m not sure …) to a neighboring boma an hour and a half away. Once again, the headlights illuminate our path and we take off after the medic and his team. While I mentioned that nothing is too important to rush, I didn’t say that nothing is too important to rush. for. I (up to this point) have never seen any African show any sense of urgency, but this doctor gave a new meaning to the phrase “… bat from hell.” At times our vehicle slows down to delicately maneuver over a pothole or hole in the road, and within seconds the dim red taillights we are following are out of place. On numerous occasions we were left alone with the dust that settled to continue. Then, like a headlamp in a storm, we spotted the lights in the distance, the car weaving through the bush. The hour-long chase (as it came to be) is interrupted by a few cowering hyenas trotting across the road and (finally) when the getaway car breaks down due to a broken front wheel axle (shocking). This led us to be the sole vehicle, immediately promoting us from being mere observers of the ceremony to the true omens of it! I, more somber in my metaphor, compared us to the horsemen of the apocalypse of these young people about to suffer what I imagine is insurmountable pain.
We arrived at the boma with butterflies in our stomach, again in complete darkness, with the faint sound of rhythmic and ominous chants. “It must be the boys about to be cut …” I speculate in a whisper. But when we get closer to the sound, we see a picture against the moonlight of a group of about eight Morani (Maasai warriors) in a circle (a circle is usually the way they build not only their villages but also their ceremonies). The singing and chanting never falter, with one vocalist yelling solo and the others chirping in unison afterward. The sound is throaty and hypnotic, actually quite captivating and beautiful even though the Maasai language is foreign to us. After some questions, we find out that the Morani are not singing at all, but are verbally insulting both of them. Leoni (uncircumcised) who are completely naked at the center of it all. We learn from Hassan that this is done in an attempt to irritate children enough to bear the pain that awaits them, nudity is exposing them to cold in an effort to lull them to sleep. All the tribulation can be compared to the hazing of brotherhood; however, it can be imagined that the college “bonding” ritual pales in comparison to this ancient and esteemed rite of passage.
Another click of a flashlight confirms it: in the center of the circle are two scrawny, trembling bodies whose slender arms are crossed over their private parts. The light goes out again. The chant continues and another flash of light exposes teeth chattering (it is freezing) and the whites of your eyes. I am so nervous for these two guys that I am overwhelmed by the weight of the moment ahead. Circumcision is performed with a razor, without any anesthesia, and if a boy cries out, flinches, or lets out a tear, he fails the test and is expelled from the village, greatly embarrassing his family. I can’t help but think that these young people (9 and 13 years old) are too young to carry such a huge responsibility.
Finally it is time to wash them and my friend Leiyo leads me by the hand to the area outside the boma where the ceremony will take place. It is done outside the village because only after circumcision can they be invited to return to the boma, this time as men. The doctor has a flashlight now and the area is pretty well lit. The men of the boma begin to huddle around as two cowhide mats are laid out on the ground and each chattering boy is led to one. The women are in their huts (forbidden to see this ceremony) – the laments of the mothers mark the screaming wind. The feeling in the pit of my stomach can be compared to the feeling one has when watching a movie in which a brave character is stoically led to the guillotine, one of sadness, anxiety and the desire to end the entire ordeal. as soon as possible.
The children sit on the mats, their legs spread out before them, their upper body in the strong arms of an uncle. In this particular case, their faces are covered with their shukas (traditional Maasai cloth). I hold my breath. The doctor exposes a new razor that glows in the light and does not rush to cut. The first child is tough, he doesn’t even move a toe or clench his fist when the razor makes its cuts. My tense body doesn’t relax until I find out what has happened. Apparently his mother found out about this too; her sobs like songs of pride, joy and relief echo through the night.
The second, very young, has my stomach in my throat with the first cut while he lets out a shallow gasp of air that sounds breathed through clenched teeth. He blurts out a few more of these and I’m pretty sure he’s crying. When all was said and done, the elders spat on the ground around them, forcing me to believe that they had failed, but I am wrong. Spitting is a form of respect, and the child (who, as we will see later, has some leeway due to his young age) has shown his vigor and courage.
They take them to recover with the mothers who await them and it’s over. The actual circumcision lasted only about 15 minutes, but we found that the hazing that we had entered had been going on since 6pm (it was now past midnight), so it is actually an all-day event.
The entire ordeal left me with a surreal feeling that was only overshadowed by the tremendous relief I felt for each child. I immediately felt connected to the Maasai and particularly the boys for allowing us to witness the most important event in the life of a Maasai man. It was incredibly humbling and reminded me of how beneficial and socially solidifying rites of passage are. I cannot think of a single event in the life of the average American that harbors the social significance of this event that I have just described. I can’t help but feel that maybe we are missing this idea or construction that strengthens ties and builds character in the way that Maasai circumcision does. He was not barbaric, rude, pagan, or fanatic; in fact, it was the opposite. The rare event that I was lucky enough to witness is not just soul building, pride and extremely admirable … it is, in a way, even beautifull.
If you would like more information on how to experience something similar yourself, please contact Tropical Trails Safari Company located in Arusha, Tanzania.