Meaning and purpose of female circumcision in Kenya Female circumcision is known to be practiced in a number of African countries and the Arabian Peninsula. The practice does not only differ from one country to another, but even within one country, the practice differs from one community to another. In Kenya, circumcision for girls and boys is part of the initiation ceremonies that mark a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood for both boys and girls. Not all Kenya communities make this rite with circumcision. The term "circumcise" means the cutting round a circumference and it is well understood when used in connection with the cutting round the foreskin of a male organ. In Kenya, female circumcision is of three types:
(a) The partial removal of the tip of the clitoris as was practiced by some communities in Kikuyu land and by some ethnic groups near the coast.
(b) The total removal of the clitoris and partial removal of the inner lips or labia minora, or the total removal of the clitoris and removal of most of the labia minora and part of the labia majora as was practised by ethnic groups such as Kisii, Akamba, parts of Kikuyu, Meru and Embu.
(c) The total removal of the clitoris and the total removal of the labia minora and part of the labia majora and allowing the labia majora to grow together leaving just a small gap for menstrual flow as was practised in the Nubian communities in the North of Kenya.
Among the communities that practised female circumcision as part of the rite of passage to adulthood, people attached deep meaning to the act of initiating girls into adulthood. The excision of the clitoris or the labia majora or the labia minora by itself did not carry great significance. It was the teaching that accompanied the act as amongst the Meru. In Meru, initiation is regarded as the turning point from childhood to adulthood. Without that you will continue to be regarded as a child and your conversation and talk would be regarded as childish. Female initiation was taken seriously. All who were not circumcised were despised. An uncircumcised girl was thought to have no knowledge of anything and so was given no responsibility.
The Wapokemo did not circumcise girls but "when a girl reported to her mother about her first menstruation, the mother would contact the girls who were already menstruating in the village. These unmarried and menstruating girls were called "magalitama". The girls would wait until one day and they would go and carry the girl to the bush very early in the morning. The girl would be made to lie down and she would be rubbed around her private parts with "itching grass". The grass would cause the girl to scratch her parts and they became very swollen. As the girl scratched her parts and cried, the big girls would be abusing her but the girl was not supposed to say anything to her elders. In the evening the big girls would march the initiate home with her private parts swollen. At home the girl would go to sleep with her grandmother, who would now continue teaching her on responsible adulthood."
The Wataita circumcised girls when they were very young, from 3 to 6 months of age by making a very small excision of clitoral tissue, but when the girls were about to menstruate, they participated in a special training session called "mwari". This special teaching was so important that if a girl did not go through it, it was not possible for her to get married. The girls who had not received this teaching were referred to by a special name, "mkele". The session could be as long as one to two years. During that time the girls stayed in-doors and were taught many issues in responsible parenthood and issues just concerning their conduct. The "mwari" was not only for girls, but for boys as well, but boys did not stay in for a long time. A girl who had gone through mwari became a completely changed person. It has been identified here that the most important thing in circumcision for girls was the teaching about responsible adulthood. Some communities, though, laid a lot of emphasis the clitoris in order to reduce sexual desire among girls. Our ancestors and our great-great grandparents may not have had our knowledge about the physiology of the sexual organs but they somehow knew that the clitoris helped in female sexual excitation.
This may have been observed from the fact that the clitoris also became erect when sexually stimulated. In many countries a woman was not supposed to show by action or otherwise that she was desirous of her husband. She was not supposed to show that
she enjoyed the sex act. Among the Wakamba it was believed that a girl who was not circumcised would become more desirous of men. The removal of the clitoris therefore would reduce that desire. It was along the same lines that the Nubian community sewed up the labia majora after excision of the clitoris .... labia minora (infibulation). This was to prevent sexual relations before marriage. As long as the lips were sewed penetration by the penis was not easy and an operation was needed. This was happily done at the time of marriage not before.
The Nubian community thus had no problem of proving whether or not the girl was a virgin at the time of marriage.......... she was sewn up anyway. Some infibulation was made possible by simply placing tightly together the girls private parts............... removing the clitoris and the labia minora. The legs were tied together for two or three weeks to let the two parts....... this time the girl would receive special care to ensure that she was capable of urinating.