Bukusu Circumcision


Bukusu Initiation / Circumcision

***** Location: Western Kenya
***** Season: Cool dry season
***** Category: Observances


Bukusu circumcision usually takes place in August of every even year.

Mud is used for three purposes : 1) to prevent excessive bleeding after the cut, 2) to prevent the candidate from blinking or wincing, and 3) to commemorate what Mango (the hero who originated the rite) did in order to kill the monstrous serpent that had for a long time terrorized Bukusu people and their livestock -- he anointed his whole body with mud to rid his body of the human odour; in this way, he approached and killed the serpent without it detecting his presence.
You see the same tactic being used in "The Predator" by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

You can see the circumcisor with embalu or the circumcision knife. The circumcisor in this photo is Packson Wanjala Namukongo of Bungoma.

© Patrick Wafula, 2006



According to Bukusu Oral Tradition, circumcision was originated hundreds of years ago by a brave young hero named Mango, who killed a monstrous serpent (yabebe) single-handed. For a long time, this serpent had terrorized the Bukusu by killing them and raiding their livestock, but there was no one who could kill it. Mango killed it using a sword at its cave, which has now been preserved as a sacred place under the name Mwiala wa Mango -- Mango’s Cave. This cave is in Bungoma. It is said that after killing the serpent, he was regarded as the most valorous Bukusu man that ever lived. When Mango was asked what could be done for him so as to be commemorated as a hero, he demanded that a permanent mark be made on his body: that his foreskin be removed (sikhebo or circumcision). His demand was fulfilled and ever since, Mango decreed that in order for any young man to be called an adult, he must undergo circumcision.

According to Bukusu Oral Tradition, there are five rites in a Bukusu circumcision ritual.

1. Khuchukhila
A Bukusu circumcision rite cannot be conducted without the traditional brew called kamalwa, which is made from maize flour and millet (limela). Khuchukhila, therefore is the day when this mixture of fermented maize flour is fried and put in many pots and drums and mixed with millet (limela). But there is one special pot for the circumcision candidate (omusinde), who must be the first one to go to the river and bring the first water to be poured into this mixture (khuchukhila). The brew in this special pot is used by the circumciser to bless (khubita) the circumcised soon after circumcision. Since kamalwa usually takes about three to four days to be ready, khuchukhila therefore is the first momentous signal to all and sundry that the candidate has only a few days before he faces the ‘knife’.

2. Ebukhocha:
This is a critical ritual, which is only performed by the candidate’s maternal uncles. One of the candidate’s mother’s brothers is appointed to conduct this noble ritual whose paramount importance is to remind the boy that he does not only belong to his father; he belongs to his mother as well. This ritual takes place at the candidate’s maternal uncle’s home and it usually takes one day. A bull or bullock is slaughtered and its brisket (luliki ) worn around the neck of the candidate. The candidate then, accompanied by his maternal uncles, is escorted back to his father’s home, of course with the brisket still around his neck.

3. Likhoni:
On the evening or night that the candidate arrives from ebukhochaa, another rite called likhoni follows immediately. Another bull (provided by his father) is slaughtered and the brisket is replaced with the bull’s stomach (likhoni). Soon after the second bull’s stomach has been put in the boy’s neck, the Bukusu sacred circumcision anthem (sioyayo) is sang. From this stage onwards, there is no turning back by the candidate. He must be circumcised, even if it is by force. Immediately after likhoni, then khuminya or special circumcision dance, which lasts all night, follows. This dance is accompanied with abundant feasting. People sing and dance around the candidate as well as eating traditional meals and drinking kamalwa until dawn.

4. Esitosi:
At dawn, the candidate is allowed an hour of rest before he is taken to the sacred river—esitosi. No woman is usually allowed beyond this point. While at the sacred river, the candidate is usually stripped naked and pasted with very cold, black sacred mud. This sacred river or brook never dries up. If it dries up, it is believed that all the candidates who were served in it would consequently die. The sacred mud ensures among other things that the candidate does not bleed excessively and his eyes do not blink. The sacred mud also commemorates what Mango did to defeat the serpent: he plastered himself with mud in order to rid his body of human odour, thus approaching the serpent undedected. Soon after the pasting of mud has been perfected, a special kind of grass called lunyasi lwa ututu is put on a mound of mud at the center of the candidate’s head and then the sacred circumcision song is started as the boy is led back home to face the ‘knife’.

5. Sikhebo:
When the candidate arrives back home, he faces the circumciser. This is done in the open with the entire community as a witness. As the boy approaches home, he is met by none other than his father. His father then carefully guides him to the center of the curious and expectant eye witnesses. Usually there is a special spot marked with white flour where the candidate is positioned and made to stand straight upright, facing east. Facing east has a deep meaning in Bukusu community: first and foremost, it signifies the direction where the Bukusu community came from. Secondly, it figuratively signifies that a new member has entered the adult community (symbolized by sunrise). The circumciser and his assistant then emerge from their secret hut and take between 2 to 5 minutes to cut off the foreskin (khukheba or sikhebo).


There are 8 Bukusu circumcision age sets, namely the Sawa, Kolongolo, Kikwameti, Kananachi, Kienyekeu, Nyange, Maina and Chuma. Each set group is recognized by a special phenomenon e.g the 1998 one Sawa Bomb Blast to mean the 1998 August Bomb Blast and Chuma Makendo of 1976 because of the Chebukube smuggling of coffee between Kenya and Uganda.

According to Packson Wanjala Namukongo, a circumciser from Bungoma, the Bukusu traditional circumcision has been affected drastically by the HIV-AIDS pandemic and poverty: “At the moment, it has disintegrated because of HIV Aids” He says, “Nowadays most people prefer sending their children to hospitals. As for us traditional circumcisers performing at home, one must have a license from the Ministry of Health. And in order to be granted this permit, one has to go through a training in which we are taught mostly about hygiene and safety of the children. Another reason why many Bukusu people are opting for hospital is the high expenses involved in performing this rite—on average, it costs between thirty to forty thousand a rite.

© Patrick Wafula Wanyama 2006


Traditional circumcision a health hazard

August is circumcision season in Bukusuland, which covers mainly the Western Kenyan districts of Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. The circumcision of boys is at the centre-stage of every debate in villages here. Young boys aged between 12 and 14 years are bracing themselves to undergo one of the most respected and popular occasions. "About 8,000 boys from the community are ready for the 'cut'," discloses 70-year-old Masinde Wanyama, a member of a Bukusu council of elders from Naitiri, Bungoma district. "

But, unlike the previous years where we used to perform the rite traditionally, most boys, this time round will go to hospital for the operation," he adds.
This new development is a contravention of norms, but Masinde continues to explain: "We have to weigh between culture and survival. There is the AIDS scourge threatening to wipe out the whole generation, we are told that our style of rites passage is one way of transmitting the virus. If we subject our children to risk who will perpetuate our generation?"

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Of the other communities of Kenya, almost all practise male circumcision -- and whether they do so or not, is very important to them, as it constitutes one of the major dividing lines between the ethnic groups of Kenya.

The most notable exceptions are the Luo (who in the old days at initiation used to extract the front teeth of their young men, in order to protect them against death by tetanus -- this is no longer done). There is a movement now to encourage Luo men to undergo circumcision, as medical trials have shown this affords a certain protection against HIV and AIDS.

Female circumcision (or female genital mutilation) is now outlawed, and in Nairobi, this practice has almost disappeared. Countrywide, it is estimated that it is still practised on some 30 % of Kenyan women aged 15 to 19 years, very few of them being Luhyas (the Bukusu belong to the Luhya ethnic group). There are varying degrees of severity of female genital mutilation.

season words, said he
and opened a new book --

Isabelle Prondzynski

Things found on the way


a young Bukusu
circumcisee smeared with mud --
circumcision rite

© Photos and haiku : Patrick Wafula, 2006


Related words

***** Bukusu Culture in Kenya

***** Mud (Swahili : matope)



Anonymous said...

thank you for the indepth analysis however there are some areas which need clarification these are there is need to indicate the specific songs sang at different stages eg omusinde okhabanga lelo bwasiele khulalola, before sitoosi, yaaah khwera omuruwa, tindo mwana wefwe munyanye and the penultimate soiyayo.

My take is that these songs are very significant and need documentation.

second the role of women during this rite has not been highlighted despite the fact that they have an outstanding role. Wanyonyi Francis Nairobi

Anonymous said...

One function of the songs is to give the 'omusinde' courage. They also serve to redicule some undesirable behaviour in the society.

I agree, women have a very important role. The auntie(called senge), the sister to the father of the initiate is the one who ullulates after the ceremony(initiation) while the mother is supposed to sit still until she hears the ululation. can somebody expound on this please?

Isabelle said...

More reporting and pictures here, in the Daily Nation (2008) :