Circumcision Festival: Mbale, Uganda

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The stifling morning air churns with excitement, energy and the sweet smell of homemade hooch. The road is coated with drunken pilgrims seeking refuge, dancing and chaos inside the gates. A sea of blue and green monitors the scene ready with cattle-herder’s sticks and AK-47s to beat any civil unrest – which might be detrimental to the elite minority -into the muddy dust at our feet.

As we enter we are greeted by one of the boys – soon to be cut into manhood – ‘training’ and collecting donations before the ceremony. They travel in what could be described as little less than a ball of energy and bravado.
The boy stands dressed in an outfit that symbolizes the strange new world we live in where tradition and globalization are welded together with Mary Shelleyesque undertones. The boy stands with traditional beads around his neck and ceremonial clothes consisting of goat’s skin and shells. He wears a headdress of luminous purple tinsel and energy-saving light bulbs and above the traditional brass bells strapped to his thighs sit a pair of blue Arsenal football shorts.

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He starts dancing before me and kneels while banging two sticks together above his head as his relatives stand around him dancing. His demeanor and actions were a paradoxical mixture of begging and boasting as I slipped 500UGX into his palm.

As one walked around the event it became abundantly clear that it consisted of chaotic enjoyment but with barbaric overtones. As the morning progressed and the cheap alcohol flowed, the event seemed clearly more about enjoyment and craziness than about tradition or circumcision.

The circumcision itself was more of a side-note, or an after-thought. It was overshadowed by meaningless, long-winded and repetitive speeches allowing politicians to relish in their own voices. They entered with the military force of a coup d’état and bulldozed everyone in their path before taking their place in ivory trucks at the other end of the barbed-wire fencing.

To be honest, the circumcision itself wasn’t an act that could be described as little more than ceremonial butchery without anesthetic or professional treatment. If the newly-born ‘man’ shows any signs of pain (or even blinks) during the ‘cutting’ they are stripped of all masculinity in the eyes of the community.

To put it simply, I found it an interesting spectacle to observe. However, it showed a side to Uganda that I wasn’t altogether comfortable with.

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