Blend of tradition and modernity at initiation centre for teenagers
British writer Israel Zangwil described New York city as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, ethnicities and nationalities in his 1908 novel ‘The Melting Pot’. He might as well have described Nairobi with the same words.
Many people who have found their abode in the city have increasingly turned their back on their own culture. But not everyone.
Three Kalenjin men who had moved to the city and raised their families there, were suddenly struck by the reality of losing their cultural identity.
Rev Javan Tarno, Henry Lelei and Raphael Ndiema’s children had come of age and needed to be circumcised, but they could not quite fit into the rigid cultural setting of the village where their sons were also not accustomed to.
Against the norm, the trio then decided to initiate their sons in Nairobi in 2009 and to preserve the Kalenjin cultural identity, right within the city.
“The teenagers were not ready for the culture-shock in the village. Also the job industry today is not as flexible to allow for a month-long leave. So we decided to carry out the cultural initiation process within my home in Baraka Estate, Nairobi,” said Rev Tarno, an aeronautical engineer and an instructor at Defence Forces Technical College.
It was this single convenient decision that led them to put together a comprehensive curriculum of Tumdo (initiation) to help those in a similar predicament to initiate their children to adulthood culturally without the hustle of having to relocate to the countryside.
And 10 years down the line, it has become a hot cake with parents offering to pay up to Sh100,000 to have their sons admitted to the exclusive camp in Ololua Ridge in Karen, whose forested nature offers a replica of the traditional setting that the old men revered.
Parents in diaspora are now attracted to the Tumdo and a number are jetting in this month with their boys who will be admitted to the Ololua Ridge facility for close to a month before returning abroad.
The Saturday Nation visited Rev Tarno, who is the head of Tumdo, at Letar Printing Press in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, where he was engrossed in printing books, cartons and packaging materials among other things, when initiation is out of season.
He was joined in the interview by a fellow organiser of the annual ceremony, Mr John Letting, and as expected, the duo were highly guarded with information considering that cultural factors surrounding circumcision rites of Kalenjin boys are a secret of men.
“The whole concept of menjo (seclusion) was a school of wealth; to transition into a courageous, all-round, strong and responsible man who can generate wealth. The Kalenjin targeted to circumcise not only physical aspect, but also the mind and the spirit,” Mr Letting said.
For starters, circumcision strongly defines the Kalenjin community and takes centre stage of all the rites of passage. With their Jewish origin, these highland Nilotes have three phases of the initiation rite, each very elaborate.
The first is the preparation stage, leading to the actual procedure, then a period of seclusion which used to last up to six months in make-shift shelters in forests and bushes, away from the public eye, especially of women, and lastly the reintegration of the initiates into their society.
Seclusion is a period of not only healing, but in which rigorous cultural knowledge and practical undertakings happen. Lessons like becoming a warrior, a hunter, subscribing to a higher being who was Aasis (the sun), taboos and being a responsible member of the society are offered.
There were several factors at play in the whole initiation process, among them, when circumcision should happen especially between one age group and the other. The call to proceed with the rites was only done by the elders, unlike today when it happens annually for boys above the age of 12.
The new curriculum taught at the city, however, has intertwined cultural teachings with aspects of Christianity and modern ways of creating wealth.
“We still teach the same cultural aspects except the concept of creation of wealth that has transformed over the years. Unlike the olden days, young men are no longer taught to raid cows from the neighboring communities as a sources of wealth nor hunt game meat to feed their families,” noted Rev Tarno.
They considered that with the changes in the organised political systems over the years, there was need to adopt to the modern times..
The Saturday Nation visited the Ololua Ridge camp at height of the ritual in March to find pensive mothers of the initiates who were at that moment facing the knife, standing outside the gate of the camp as their fathers kept the 65 boys company and gave them the much needed courage to transition.
The first sight as we approached the camp were tens of cars parked under the tree canopies. The mothers, dressed uniformly in traditional regalia, were calming their nerves in groups, almost in a prayer mode.
There sounds of chirping birds and crickets leave an imagination of the cool nights uninterrupted by the bustle of the city and marked with constellation of stars.
Although the programme has tried as much as possible to incorporate culture, being hosted in Nairobi deprives the initiates of certain experiences like putting up their own temporary huts for seclusion called “menjet”. They also miss the involvement of the wider society in the countryside.
So far, 1,200 men have marched out of the Ololua camp with what is believed as the requisite skills to face life ahead of them. Due to Covid-19 pandemic disruption, the 2020 event was pushed to between March and April, 2021.
The institution mentors and follows-up their progress through WhatsApp groups.
“One other thing that the Kalenjins have lost is the communal blessings on their children, which we have re-introduced during our pass-out ceremonies. On their last day at the camp, we hold prayers and offer parental, communal and Godly blessings,” Rev Tarno noted.
The organisers have since introduced similar programme in Turbo, Eldoret, Kabarak in Nakuru, Kitale and Kabianga in Kericho.
Globally, 30 per cent of all males above the age of 15 years are circumcised, according to the global trends by the United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids.
In many African societies, and among certain ethnic groups in other geographical regions, male circumcision is carried out for cultural reasons, as a rite of passage into manhood.