Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Circumcision & Tradition

Recently, we had a score of botched circumcisions to fix at the clinic. Men old and young were limping in for help. I’m not sure what started it all, perhaps a traveling circumciser was passing through town, and the deal was too good to pass up. All I know is, you get what you pay for.

These guys paid in pain.

I happened to be passing by when Dennis was working hard to fix one of them-- A two year old in a tremendous amount of pain, was screaming and flailing about. I asked what was wrong, and they explained his circumcision had not worked. Apparently, his family decided to tie off the foreskin instead of cutting it. The precipice became swollen and could no longer retract. It was ugly.


The boy was so small, we had to carefully calculate the dose of sedatives we gave him. But after the first dose, he continued to wrestle and fight. Sedating him twice worked like a charm. His mother held his shoulders and two adult men held his legs, until the medicine took effect. Then he slept through the procedure.

Poor thing. He probably had no idea what was happening.

As Dennis snipped and sutured, a conversation flowed easily around the room. Circumcision is a hot topic among African males, I’ve determined.

How and when it is done differs drastically depending on the culture. Tradition plays a strong role; men don’t have a choice. It is made for them my the social mores and traditions of their clan.

-- “Wow, that looks painful,” I said, trying to muster more indignation than I really felt. I asked Dennis to explain how he was going to fix the enlarged and swollen glans.

-- “It’s not hard, we just have to snip here,” he said while indicating the anterior flop of foreskin, “Then it’ll expand, allowing the glans to slip back into place.”

Honestly, as I watched him work I was impressed at how quickly things improved.

Manual, one of the translators, asked me if men are circumcised in the States.
-- “Yes, but it’s commonly done when the child is very young. It’s rare to have a man do it later in life.” I added with more conviction then I felt.

An interloper and fraud, what right did I have to talk of foreskins? What do know about circumcision trends in the US?

But did it stop me? No.
Dennis, our Kenyan clinic officer, explained that in Kenya, it’s commonly done at 15 years old or later. He explained that a man MUST be cut or he isn’t a man. It’s a rite of passage. “They even invite women to come and watch,” he added, “because that way the men cannot cry.”

Cruel but effective, if you ask me.

Both Manual and Gabriel, two of our Sudanese translators, explained that it’s normally done in the early teens in Sudan. It’s done without anesthesia, and is, also, for all the world to see.

-- “So, is every Dinka circumcised?” I asked them.
-- “No. Some regions of Southern Sudan don’t do it.” explained Manual. “But men have to do it here,” he added, “If not, the women will think they are funny and won’t have sex with them.”
-- “Oh....” I nodded as if I understood.

Easy laughter rose from the room. This was a topic worthy of discussion. It was no more private than asking the football scores of a recent game.

Laughing, Gabriel continued: “Here if a man is a guest in the house and uses your basin to wash in, and you see he is not circumcised, the basin becomes defiled and you must break it into little pieces immediately after he’s finished.”

Manual agreed but added: “But if you go to Rumbek (a town 5 hrs drive away where it’s also predominantly Dinka), if a man is circumcised, they will tease him and call him names. They may even chase him from town.”

Surprised that it’s not culturally across the board for the Dinka, I asked them to elaborate.  Basically, he who is cut is laughed at by he who isn’t and vis-versa.

“What about the women?” I ask, trying not to sound too interested.

“Oh, some women get circumcised around here, if they are Arabic. Dinka women do not,” Manual said confidently, “We don’t do that.” 

I thought so... but it was good to hear all the same, especially from this very Sudanese man.

Later on, I asked Sabet and one of our Ugandan workers about it. Sabet agreed with what Manual and Gabriel said. It varies widely here in the South.

But Abraham, a Ugandan pastor working on staff, surprised me the most. He explained: “A man doesn’t have a choice in Uganda. It’s done publicly. Plus, if they see a man has not been circumcised, they will do it for him by force.” My eyes widen at the thought of 10 men holding another down and going at his jewels with a knife. It sounded barbaric.

Laughingly he added: “And they don’t care how old you are. They’ll even do it once your dead.”

I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining a corpse getting trimmed about the edges in order to be worthy of burial... but who am I to comment?

Tradition. Tradition is a powerful thing. And circumcision... well, that’s not as private a thing as I once believed.

By the way, the little boy got his proper snip and stitch, and left in a lot less pain than he arrived. I’m sure in time, he’ll make sure his boys are snipped and stitched as well.

It’s tradition!