Out Goes the River, In comes The Christian Rite of passage

Source: Nairobi Star
Wednesday, 23 November 2011
At the beginning of November, Elijah Kamunya, an accountant with a fast growing Nairobi firm, took ten days off, to spend some quality time with and psychologically prepare his 14-year-old son for the ‘rite of passage’.

Unlike in his father’s case when he had to go ‘to the river’ to undergo the painful experience of a traditional circumcision, Kamunya’s son would after the father-son bonding, go for a ten-day camp at the PCEA Kahawa Farmers Church, where he would eventually become a man.

The ten-day programme would include counseling, the physical circumcision by qualified medical personnel, healing under the care of male nurses in a hospitable environment and teaching of life skills and advice from religious leaders, young professionals, teachers and motivational speakers.

“These days, parents are so much engrossed in their work, businesses and social activities, that they barely spend any time with their children. Some will not even tell you whether their children are in Class 5 C or D.

“But the rite of passage being a turning point in everybody’s lives, I decided to take time off to prepare my son mentally and ensure he was in the right frame of mind before leaving for the camp and manhood. I was also involved in the organisation of the actual event at PCEA Kahawa which happens to be my church,” Kamunya explained to the Star last week.

The PCEA rite of passage programme that started at the PCEA Lay Training College based in Kikuyu 11 years ago was initially meant to assist single mothers who did not have husbands or uncles who could take their children through the circumcision ritual.

Following its successful conclusion, word went round fast and in the second year, many low end parents from Nairobi who wanted their sons circumcised but did not have the room to keep them during the healing process, came knocking.

“By the third year, the programme was so popular and the numbers so many that we were thrown into a crisis. More than 1,000 children sought to be admitted into the programme, a number that overwhelmed us. Eventually we were forced to divide them into two groups,” the programmes manager at PCEA Lay Training Centre Mwangi Kariuki said.

According to Mwangi, candidates in the 10-day rite of passage programme that now include boys and girls are taken through orientation and counseling in the first three days (both boys and girls), essentially going through “traditional, Christian and spiritual circumcision that prepare the boys for manhood and girls for womanhood.

“As the boys go for the actual physical circumcision and initial healing, the girls are taken through a series of life skill topics by qualified lady professionals. No subject is taboo and questions are asked about the meaning of the changes occurring in their bodies, such tendencies as lesbianism and why it is prohibited, masturbation and the effect of pornography among others,” explained Mwangi.

Kamunya hailed the church programme as well rounded in that it also deals with the issues of drug abuse, sexuality and relationships and “all with a religious touch.

“The people who take the boys and girls through the programme are informed and understand that parents today treat their children with kids’ gloves, something we were told in a parents seminar before the programme started should stop and parents should let the children grow responsibly instead of looking at them as toddlers even when they were all grown.”

Kamunya recalled how the traditional circumcision that he went through did not prepare him for anything positive in life except for the fact that he got circumcised. “In our case the circumcisers and our mentors ensured that the process was unnecessarily painful.

“The mentors also introduced you to all the wrong things in life including forcing girls on you (‘kuhura mbiro’) and teaching you how to smoke. It was hammered into us that we were now grown men who should act tough even towards our own parents. We were taught to especially disobey our mothers and generally act like bullies. The process was also unnecessarily prolonged as the mentors sought to get as much as they could from our parents.”

Peterson Mwai, an insurance executive in Nairobi, chose to take his “going 14” son through this year’s PCEA Kahawa rite of passage programme, because “today’s parent does not have the time to impart the values we so generously received from our parents.”

Mwai admitted that today’s generation of parents believed it was much busier than the previous one and hence the need to accept that there is a gap in the relationship between parents and their children and that someone with expertise should step in and fill that gap.

“Going to the doctor for a simple surgery is just one step, but when we talk about ascending to another stage of life, we are talking about change in the value package.” That is why he thought it wise to give his son the benefit of this programme.

He added that unlike in the traditional ways, the mentors in the PCEA rite of passage programme are people who have undergone training on what was expected of young adults and current lifestyles.

Mwangi revealed to the Star that in the Kikuyu programme where the programme is organized by the PCEA Lay Training Centre and those to be initiated are accommodated at Musa Gitau Primary School, the boys are circumcised by doctors and taken care of by qualified male nurses from the Kikuyu PCEA hospital.

But way before the actual event takes place, the centre organizes monthly seminars for the parents of the children to be initiated from May, up to the time they bring their children.

“In these seminars, parents are taught how to relate with their children when they graduate from boys to men and from girls to women. We discuss such issues as the responsibility of the father to his son and mother to daughter as well as issues that parents might take for granted including the dangers of giving their children junk food.

“When they come, the boys are for example shown how junk food that make them gain weight affect their private parts while the things that girls used to be told to go and ask their aunties are taught here by professionals”.

The schooling the children get relate to the challenges they are expected to face in their future including adjusting to high school as most of them are those who have just sat their KCPE.

“They are taught how to protect themselves without being violent and if for example five boys who have been through this programme meet in one high school, they will ‘gang up’ and block any harassment by older students,” explained Mwangi.

Some of the other subjects discussed and emphasized on are the effects of drug abuse, the youth and crime “where we even bring in armed police officers who talk to them about the dangers of youth crime and show them how dangerous a gun is so that they can avoid being swallowed into criminal gangs”, African traditional values, human sexuality, abstinence, reproductive systems, the danger posed by HIV and Aids, and development of Christian integrity among others.

Mwangi’s centre boasts of receiving boys even from among the Maasai, mostly brought by worldly exposed mothers who want their sons to have hygienic circumcisions and to be taught Christian values and life skills. This is often done with the tacit approval of husbands but severe opposition from some uncles.

Five years ago, when the Kanyariri St Joseph ACK Church in Kiambu opened its own dispensary on the church compound, it also started a rite of passage programme that runs like the PCEA one every November. The Mt Kenya South diocese, to which Kanyariri belongs, started the ACK programme in 2002.

According to the treasurer of the dispensary Josphat Mochai, the programme was started in the appreciation that children transiting from primary to secondary schools had a lot of problems coping and needed to be given guidance and counseling in advance.

“When the child moves from primary school to secondary, he also loses touch with the parent as most go to boarding schools, so we have to prepare them for the next stage in life and the challenges they would encounter without the full time presence of the parent”.

The Kanyariri programme that takes between 8 and 10 days, runs on practically the same principles as those of the PCEA, but also engages young men of repute from the church to have ‘man to man’ talks with the just circumcised boys for three days as they recuperate.

Programme chairman at the church Francis Wandere Mwangi confirmed as did Mwangi of the PCEA centre that the Christian rite of passage that is inter denominational had spread and been accepted across central province.

Wandere said the feedback they had received in the five years the programme has been in place was quite positive and parents had reported their children becoming even better behaved than they were before circumcision or change from girl to woman for the girls.

“We are told that children change so much that even hitherto hostile children who would not listen to parents before, become humble and responsible as opposed to the ‘I am the man now’ attitude”, added the PCEA centre boss.

Adherents of the PCEA and Anglican churches in central Kenya have fully embraced this rite of passage programme, even as the Catholic Church takes it up (the Kikuyu Catholic Church is doing its first programme this year) and it is hard to hear of any traditional circumcision ritual taking place anywhere in the province any more.

Charges for the church packages range from Sh5,000 to Sh6,000 for girls and Sh7,000 to Sh8,000 for boys.

Not to be left behind, ‘kiama gia athuri’ (the council of elders) that is to be found in all areas of the province is now trying to reclaim the right to transit boys into men and have with what they claim is the assistance of the ministry of public health, organised to have their own event this November at the Kahuho High School grounds in Kikuyu.

As Kamunya prepares to join his son on the last day of the camp, we wish father and son luck as the former teaches junior how to slaughter, skin and make the various cuts of goat meat, hope their bond will forever last and that as he graduates, what the son has been taught at the camp will make him a truly better man.


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One Response to "Out Goes the River, In comes The Christian Rite of passage"

  1. Hugh7 says:

    Odd that physical circumcision is being pushed as “Christian” when St Paul said “…if you become circumcised, Christ is no value to you.” (Gal 5:2). He, and most of the church ever since, have only been concerned with “circumcision of the heart” a circumcision “not made with hands”. But never mind, now they can wheel up HIV as an excuse, though the claim that it offers any protection (and only to men who have unprotected sex with an infected woman) has a very shonky base. The impulse to circumcise is irrational and hard to stop once it is customary.

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