Absolute freedom arrives in my African hamlet when the lad with blazing loins is ushered into the seat of respect and acknowledgement, but without any power to exercise or fatten. Power can be fattened also, no? Like if you don’t exercise it I mean. Anyway as the herd of mixed heritage Borana, Guernsey, Friesian and other indiscernible crossbreeds graze in our small corner of Western tropical Savannah, a lark sings by the brook mimicked by the caw-caw of the resident irritant, the African crow. Of course the shepherd’s mongrel is not too far away, lapping in the stream to mitigate the effects of midday heat. Now this is not a dog you can tag with any breed name; no dominant species stands out, but to instill fear in the human species he has been given the name ‘chui’ meaning leopard. My people have a habitual mastery of dysfunctional irony.
But this is the happy life, serene and detached from the rigors and severity of city living with its fumes of toxic emissions and the effluence of the affluent, sometimes seen being carted away by brown-coloured exhausters otherwise called honey-suckers. The cities reflect the hearts of their inhabitants by the look of their streets and how the nobodies are treated. The heart has seen it all. And had enough. In this sleepy Shamoni village much respite resides in the mud-walled, iron-sheet-roofed abodes that dot the landscape; each with a main house and an outhouse for cooking at the three-stone fireplace and sufficient tinder to last a couple of months. You and your briquettes, maintain right there in your suburban apartment.
The outhouse also roosts the pigeons, doves and chicken. Chicken were a constant fixture as pets, as producers of natural manure with which to grow vegetables, for the occasional egg-meal treat, as a source of material for clothing and ornaments, and as a source of an honourable quick meal when a distinguished guest sauntered into your homestead. And they did multiply rather quickly when the system worked, where just about all the eggs were for hatching by whichever hen was brooding. You would know there were chickens around especially after an attempted raid on the local coop by an unlucky hawk, which left the resident jogoo repeatedly asking ‘koko-koko-koteek?! as any good resident protector-cockerel would do, loosely translated into humanspeak as ‘kusimba kwene kuleeko?!’ or ‘the T9 itself, where is it?!’ That homestead set-up was only tweaked when the male child came of age, was confirmed to be of real courage, and set himself up in a lion-house separate from his father’s, to start practicing his roar in anticipation of littering the world with his loins’ seeds. Until then, solace and simplicity rule.
Suddenly the reverie is interrupted by the temporary reign of the heathen, as is the norm in the eighth and twelfth months of every even year. Cowbells reverberating through cane plantations herald the arrival of the master-cut party. But before we get to the cut, the intoxicating drumbeat reigns supreme as the monitor lizard speaks, palm to skin. This reptilian skin is what covers the Isukuti hollow cut from the trunk of a tree for the trio of drummers in colobus-skin headgear, much like daddy-bear, mummy-bear and baby-bear of English folklore. There is a herald of sorts blowing through an antelope horn. No it’s the horn of a famous champion bull, seeing as handling of wildlife items is now gravely outlawed. Much like having women anywhere near this master-cut party.
Alas, safari ants are up the trousers of the village and it is suddenly alive like the tail of a recently-departed gecko. It is the season of the rite, and the boys clanging the metal rattlers and jingles on both their wrists have made the decision to stand upright and be counted in the cut. And when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear, which dissipates in the cacophony like a fart in the wind. The jingles incessantly go ‘mbepeh-mbepeh-mbepeh-mbepeh’ while being politely egged on by the muffle of the daddy-drum. When the busaa reminds the horn-blower of its presence in his bloodstream he integrates lips and horn for a healthy roar, while other gases – evidence of his body’s guilt of porting yesterday’s evening meal into this early afternoon – escape from his rear, expertly muffled in the cacophony of which he is a key creator. But come to think of it in retrospective onomatopoeia, the ‘mbepeh-mbepeh’ also sounds like ‘pembeh-pembeh’ depending on your heritage and hearing; for locals it mimics the name of a brand of maizemeal consumed by weaklings in towns and cities. Nothing close to the grade-1 posho from the local mill.
The purpose of this homage to their uncle’s homestead is for him to sponsor the rite, which he will promptly do with a few crumpled notes pushed into the boys’ khaki shorts, and the slaughter of a bull; bravery is an expensive character, and is still rewarded in these parts. Beads of sweat glister on his determined visage, painting salty streaks down the sides to his set chin in the pre-cut dance as he blows on his whistle as if to call the circumciser to come and be done with the deed. The 6-man orchestra plays a melody honoring one Shiroya, great ancestor of the boy’s soon-to-be tormentor, the circumciser; Shiroya’s name still a spellbinder that drives debilitating chills down the spines of many lads. Nevertheless not long afterwards before dawn breaks on one of the mornings this boy will stand smeared head to toe in mud and among the proud men, shielded by the bunch that fears no blood, and facing the rising sun will arrogantly stare down the pain as it sears through his manhood and numbs his spine. The mud will help prevent excessive bleeding after the cut and prevent the boy from wincing or blinking. There will be no pain thereafter as the man under a spell and brandishing the blade crushes leaves of magic and rubs the green juice on the proud would, for disinfection and coagulation. After the surgeon’s warrior cry of success and as the day breaks, the pounding feet will raise clouds of dust in an infectious rhythm set forth by the lizard skins, and the sound will streak every soul within hearing as blood soaks the ground and the music pursues the frame into involuntary spasm. There really is no cure for the intoxication of this beat.
Tonight, under the clear skies with the pause of short rains, while the untested and the underage pretend to slumber, the village virgins will be more voluptuous, less coy at the dance, and their gyrations will pry at obscenity. The fermented maize-millet intoxicant will flow freely, and so will natural lubricants. Yes, this dusk will see the suspension or absolute loss of chastity. And as the ground swallows up the proud blood, from it shall rise the next warrior class. This is their sunset dance bequeathing prince-hood.
This blood business is inexplicable across the continent, and not easy to fully grasp its hold and connection over the life and soil of Africa. In most African cultures the new mothers of yore had their midwives bury the placenta of their newborns at the back of the hut in the moments following parturition, and days later she would also bury the umbilical cord symbolically at the base of a stout tree or an economic plant with propensity for posterity. But let’s get back to the present, where scions of the lords and kings have been admitted at the grand Western hospitals for anesthesia and sleeping pills, that the reputable surgeon in white coat, latex gloves, an intoxicated scalpel and sterile theatre can kill the thing and bring it to life again in the young man’s blissful unconsciousness. The question to be asked of the member will be if it will ever be a full-blown normal organ after such a chemical assault, considering that the offensive skin will not be buried into the ground but incinerated and disposed of as meaningless ash. The elite will nevertheless celebrate the transition of milestones. Just like the peasants in Shamoni village.
Alas on the other side of the village as silence and darkness surreptitiously settle to snuggle with each other, the surreal living beings will demand and extract faith in beliefs that give structure to life as they know it and meaning to their bland existence. It is crucial, essential and needed. This is the centre of all pre-logical thinking, when the idea of nature itself declares no distinction between subjective and objective impressions and perceptions; when inner and outer worlds coalesce with no obvious dividing line between one’s mental reality and that of a passing T9 or leopard, or bat flying over a hut, or a clump of maize husks holding a party for driver ants. Encounters of a fraction of each day will confront both conscious and subconscious, sometimes more, other times less. But the consultations will be intense especially in times of setback, in moments of shock, in another’s demise, or in the intensity of the spell called love. More often than not the transactions will be nightly rather than daily, as necessity and fear beat a path to the shrine under the cover of dusk. After all, the fetish must be stroked in moonlight.
Then it will dawn as light tropical rain, sustenance of this community, further sinks the shed blood into the ground and clears all traces of this biennial ritual; the gods in these parts know that sunshine all the time makes a desert. Disappeared the act, except in the proud hearts of the initiates, the groin scar a lifelong memory of their new status. The rain will be a bother to the man with no seed in the ground. The village will nevertheless revert back to its sleepy state where time stands still and is perpetually two-dimensional – its length measured by rhythm of the sun, and depth measured by the rhythm of passion; only occasionally interrupted by the rattling of Massey Ferguson tractors as they haul trailer-loads of sugarcane to the nearby sugar factory. And the caw-caw of the resident crows. And the ‘kusimba kwene kuleeko’ after the hawk had a successful raid. Today the new men will dine with the warriors of the land at the table of meat-eaters; the proud land in integrating their blood, acknowledges that capers can also be princes.