Circumcision Rites, Ceremonies & Practices


Not for the faint-hearted or squeemish


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Enzyklopädie vielsprachiger Kulturwissenschaften / "Kultur" in ... - [ Translate this page] ... Die Xhosa bezeichnen daher den Begriff "Kultur" mit ... ein solcher Erwählter, sich der Initiation zu unterziehen ... South Africa" in: The Europa World Year Book 1993 ...



The Abakwetha

Catherine Stewart



The Xhosa-speaking peoples inhabit the Eastern Cape from the Kwa-Zulu Natal border to the Eastern Cape Zuurveld.
A boy among the Xhosa is a 'thing' and not a person until he has been through the Tribe's circumcision rite.  This rite is known as the UKWALUSA (circumcision) or the ABAKWETHA ritual and it is the most important event in any male's life.  The full ritual is spread over a period of about 3 months.
The event usually takes place in the boy's late teens but sometimes, when they are particularly wild and cannot be controlled by their parents, boys are put in earlier to sober them up and to instill responsibility into them. 


The interesting part about the rite is that it indisputably does have this effect.  The reason is not because of any punishment or discipline that is exercised over the initiate in the school itself but purely, it seems, because of the psychological power the rite has. 


There have been cases of widows whose sons, without a father's restraint, were quite out of control and spent their time thieving and getting up to all the mischief imaginable, who in the end were physically caught by the men of a kraal and taken struggling and shouting to the surgeon with his sharpened assegai.  They were in each case completely reformed as a result of the ceremony.
The surgeon arrives at sunrise and as he passes the family huts, the women start wailing.  Those whom he passes have to be careful because he flails his arms and his assegai around, not worried about injuring anyone.
As he comes in sight of the initiates he screams viciously referring to them as 'dogs' and 'things'.


The operation is done with a sharpened blade and the boy must not cry out or even flinch in pain. 





As he operates the doctor says, 'You are a man!' and throws the excised portion on the ground in front of the boy who has to repeat, 'I am a man!' as he picks up the portion and holds it in his clenched hand. 


After this, the initiates have to go in different directions and bury the portions in an ant heap where the ants will eat them up so that a sorcerer cannot find them and make medicine from them.  If the portions were used for such a purpose then the initiates' wounds would never heal.
The wound is bound with special leaves supposedly having healing properties and mud is then packed over it.
The surgeon then smears a mixture of ant heap and water on the face and chest of the initiates and makes them drink a mouthful of the mixture.   This makes their hearts hard like an ant heap, so that they won't be cowards in their future lives as men.  It also prevents them from being dizzy.
The initiates are next painted white with chalk or clay from head to foot and then they wrap themselves up in their new blankets so that they will not catch cold.  They are then lectured on being honourable Xhosa's and the father of each initiate pays the surgeon 50 cents.
Traditional circumcision of Xhosa abakhwetah is causing physical and emotional damage to some initiates.  A number of these young men die or are mutilated for life.  Despite this aspect, initiation remains an essential rite of passage to manhood and cultural identity.
Twice a year, hospital wards fill up with young men suffering the agony of circumcisions that have gone wrong.  They arrive severely dehydrated or with sepsis and gangrene.   Sometimes the young men recover, but every initiation season in the Eastern Cape, at least four or five initiates die.  Scores remain mutilated for life. 
Most of them arrive at hospitals seriously ill.  They are there as a last resort, having delayed their admission dangerously.  Once delivered at the hospital entrance by family or friends, the young men are often abandoned. 


The wards become wards of shame and the young men sink into deep depression.  They are in hospital because they were desperately ill and often close to death, but it is an option most initiates do not want to consider. 





Even if they are not opposed to it, their traditional attendants, family and peers usually are ... so the young men prefer to stay in the bush, suffering excruciating pain in silence, trying to make themselves believe it is all part of becoming a man.  But neither this stoicism nor the society that endorses it shows mercy in the tragic circumstances. 


Young men who have been hospitalised not only have to suffer the trauma of severe mutilation or even amputation of their penis, they are also ostracised and denied the dignity of being called men.
Initiates are looked down on for going to hospital and they are often made to believe it is their fault that they are suffering complications.  It is said they have done something wrong and are being punished for it ... or by natural process of selection, they are being shown up as too weak to qualify as men.  They face a bleak future.  Those young men who have survived have had to draw on great strength of character to face society again.



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Black Eros

Boris de Rachewiltz



After isolation, during which the boys are frequently beaten with sticks, and suffer tests of ant bites, and resistance to fire etc.. The circumsiser nearly always comes from the class of blacksmiths, and wears a costume made from vegetable fibres.


In order to obviate complications for the candidates, the circumciser is required to maintain absolute chastity for 5 days preceding the operation, and for 10 days afterwards.


He approaches each candidate in turn, holding his knife in one hand, while he pinches the prepuce with the other, saying "Today we are playing, but tomorrow I shall cut."


The iron surgical instrument is heated on a fire close at hand. Then suddenly the circumciserand his assistant appear, the candidates are made to sit one by one with their legs apart.


The assistant holds each one down in turn, as the circumciser approaches holding the red hot instrument in his right hand. With the other hand, he pulls the prepuce forward and suddenly cuts it off.


Among the Dogon, the circumciser is an old blacksmith who works with the aid of a small iron hatchet. Their candidates drink the water in which the instrument has previously been immersed, as a potion to ease the pain of the wound.

Among the Namshi of Sewa, the circumciser pulls the foreskin forward, and cuts, while holding the knife in his right hand. He makes a series of cuts in order to expose the phallus completely.

With the Dogon, it is the circumciser's custom to place the candidates prepuce in a loop knot, the other end of the string being tied to his left foot. He pushes the foreskin into the middle of the knot, and telling the boy not to cry out, severs the flesh with a single cut behind the knot.

The Janjero, apart from circumcision, also practise the removal of the nipples, and a testicle.


The Sabey practise public circumcision. Immediately after the operation, the candidate is made to jump about, and must continue to do so,until the elders ask him to sit down.


The bravest Gisu ask to be operated on in two stages. First the upper part of the prepuce is removed, and afterwards the lower. Some Kikuyu lose courage on the second day, and remain half circumcised.





Directly after the operation the wound is treated.


Among the Dogon, one of the elders makes a powder of a goat's excrement, with which each father dresses his son's wound.


The Malinke wash the wound with water in which the saba fruit has ben partially dissolved, the wound is then bandaged with the leaves of the same plant.


The Rega sprinkle pepper and salt on the wound. During convalescence a special diet is enforced, and severe physical tests continue.


The Mangia are made to extract honey from beehives, without wearing any protection.


The Mbundu and Dogon continue to flog the boys.




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White Boy Circ'd in Kenya at 14


I was raised in Kenya, in the tea-growing area near Kericho.


Although people from many other parts of the country came to work on the tea estates, the land belonged to the Kipsigis people, and they are still the predominant local tribe.


For them, circumcision is integral to being considered an adult member of the tribe.

Initiations were held in the long school holiday at Christmas.


The day I arrived home from boarding school, having turned 14, my friend Kiplangat met me in an excited mood. "I told my father I wanted to go for circumcision, and now it's all arranged for Friday.


He has told your father I'm ready. You could ask him if you can come to watch. If you really are as brave as you claim, you can join the ceremony with me and prove it."


So this was it! If I pulled out, I'd lose my friend, and I'd lose face with his father, with his family, with all the Kipsigis lads I knew, and especially I would face embarrassing references and taunts about my childish uncut cock from the older Kipsigis boys. I told myself that they often exaggerated their bravery in the stories they told about their own initiation.

In the evening there was a party at the farmstead.


We initiands were naked except for body-painting in traditional patterns. When we did our dance the older boys joined in, and there was a generally bawdy mood, and an electric sense of erotic tension.


The onlookers included several girls, and we were the subjects of their ribald comments. As the one white skin present my member was the subject of special interest, with comments such as: "Look at his mambarit. I've never seen a white mambarit before. It's not as big as Kiplangat's."


Mambarit, obviously meaning penis, was a word I had not heard used before.


At about midnight we were taken, still naked, to the specially-built initiation hut, where we were closely questioned about our sexual experience.


Each of us in turn was led to a stool covered with nettles, and we were made to sit down four times. We were told that the nettles would stop the flow of blood after the circumcision, but their main function was obviously to test our stamina, and the elders discussed our reaction to the pain.

At the first sign of dawn we were led down to the stream. The older boys escorting us told us to have a pee and to wash off our mud decorations. They made us stand in the water until our legs hurt with the cold. When they finally let us out, they made us wait in line while they again stung our foreskins with still more nettles.


The Master of Ceremonies, Arap Rono, made us do the initiation dance, moving so that our genitals swung up and down until they slapped against our stomachs. Soon my penis was no longer small and shrivelled, but hung long and loose.


Then he told us to stand in line facing the rising sun, and a crowd of men and initiated boys gathered in front of us to watch. Kiplangat was on the right, I was next, and the other three lads were to my left, the smallest last.


Looking down, I could see that my foreskin was red and heavily swollen from the nettle-stings, and these also showed on other parts of my body.



Arap Rono moved along the line, pulling firmly on each boy's foreskin and then making a small cut across, level with the base of the glans -- it was no more than a nick, and I thought, "That's not too bad". But of course it wasn't the proper circumcision yet; it was just to show where the circumcision cut would be made.


Then we were told to sit down with our feet well spread and our knees bent, and were supported from behind by one of the older men, in my case Arap Rono and in Kiplangat's, one of his uncles. As we got settled I saw the circumciser waiting in the doorway of the hut, brandishing his knife.

When we were all settled, he called out to the onlookers to be quiet, squatted down in front of Kiplangat and got to work with his knife.


Quickly, before I expected it, he moved in front of me. I could feel all eyes on me. The intensity of the moment was electric. I concentrated on keeping my eyes fixed on a marker and managed to remain motionless and silent.


I could feel him pull my foreskin forward hard and cut across it at the end. I felt him cut again and a third time, but it was no more than 20 seconds before he moved on to the boy to my left. Only then did the stinging pain hit me.


I turned to watch and saw him make three strokes of the knife, one from each side and one underneath.


Then I looked down to my penis to see what had been done. The end of the foreskin had been cut away to a line about level with the middle of my glans, which was covered by a whitish layer of inner skin extending to just beyond the tip of the glans. The whole thing looked ragged and I felt very vulnerable. At first blood trickled from the end, but after a while this stopped.


The nick which had been made at the start was now no more than a line of dried blood, some way from the cut edge of skin. So, the operator had taken less of my foreskin than Arap Rono had wanted!


I gripped the shaft of my penis firmly and pushed the skin forward. The pressure seemed to ease the pain and the bleeding stopped.

We sat there until the middle of the morning while the temperature rose. I had almost dozed off, when the circumciser suddenly reappeared.


He sat down again in front of Kiplangat and told him to hold still. His uncle sat behind him to support him, entwining his legs to immobilise them. Arap Rono took up a similar position behind me.


This time the circumciser took five or six minutes to do his work, during which Kiplangat sat looking stoically ahead. When it was my turn, I resolved to watch what he did, rather than stare away.

The circumciser pressed back the skin around the wound (undoing my efforts to pull it forward) and used his knife to scrape the exposed tissue, removing the dried blood in the wound. Then he pinched up the whitish skin which still covered my glans, trimming away every bit to a line just behind my glans rim. It was extremely painful as he scraped and cut -- far worse than his first cutting.


The most painful part was as he cut at the loose skin underneath, and the frenum. Several times he poured some cold water over the wound from a bottle he carried. When he had trimmed away all my foreskin to his satisfaction, he pulled the shaft skin forward, pinched it and made a cut about an inch long in the loose skin on the top of the penis, where it had been nicked. This cut was parallel to and about an inch from the cut edge of shaft skin. He pulled the skin further forward and forced my glans through this new cut.



The effect was to seal the wound with a neat line just behind my glans!
Later I found that the skin on the upper side of my shaft was pulled tight, but there was still a bunch of fairly loose skin and an open wound underneath, from which blood dripped for a while.

Despite the agony of the pulling and cutting, I knew that I had to keep still, or maybe the knife would slip, perhaps cutting into my glans: that I wanted to avoid at all costs.


When the circumciser at last finished cutting the fourth and then the fifth boy, we were helped to our feet and led to the shady side of the hut to rest. By now I was extremely tired, hungry, dizzy from the operation and from sitting in the hot sun, and shivering with shock.

Arap Rono examined my penis carefully, then looked me in the eyes and said, "He cut you well, and you did not flinch, even at the second cutting. You were a wazungu, but now you are a Kipsigisindet': -indet means "one who is strong in something", so this meant "a real Kipsigis" who had earned this title as he was circumcised.


That was a very proud moment in my life, marking an end to all the slighting comments implying immaturity (usually asides in my case, but open insults to Kiplangat). It marked my acceptance as a full member of the tribe.


Despite all the pain of the past night and the cutting which I had endured in the early morning and again just now, it all seemed worth that quietly spoken accolade.


I was thrilled and elated.



 German readers can read this text in their own language

Click on the link below:



 Enzyklopädie vielsprachiger Kulturwissenschaften / "Kultur" in ... - [ Translate this page] ... Die Xhosa bezeichnen daher den Begriff "Kultur" mit ... ein solcher Erwählter, sich der Initiation zu unterziehen ... South Africa" in: The Europa World Year Book 1993 ...






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