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Kenya - tribes and traditions
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Elephants at Ambroseli National Park, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. Photo by JS Amoghavarsha, released under Wikimedia Commons

Cultural history and geography

map of Kenya

Kenya, like many African countries, is a product of colonialism. The British East Africa Protectorate was established in 1888, and renamed Kenya after Mt. Kenya in 1920. (Mt. Kenya is the original African name of the mountain, Kenya's highest.) The country achieved independence in 1963.

Outline map of Kenya, from the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA)

Kenya contains about 40 different tribal groups, and all except two, the Luo and the Turkana, practice circumcision. (The Luo, as we will see, dispute this, regarding their ceremomy, which does not involve cutting, as equivalent to circumcision). This page focusses on the two best-known circumcising tribal groups, the Maasai and the Kikuyu, both of whom practice a rather unusual 'keyhole' method of circumcision. But this is not the norm for Kenya as a whole and in fact for many tribes the actual method is rather irrelevant, it is the result that counts. The Meru people, who live on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, circumcise boys between the ages of 13 and 17, but three different techniques are used at different locations or population subgroups. Two are 'conventional' differing only in the amounts of inner and outer skin removed, the third is a variant of the 'keyhole' technique. [1]

Traditionally in Kenya sexual intercourse is prohibited before a boy is circumcised, and in rural societies this is often still the case, but in the city environment such customs cannot be enforced. HIV infection is rampant, and many parents therefore seek infant circumcision for their sons to provide a degree of protection. Also, many boys, while participating in the traditional rituals, now have the actual operation done under modern medical conditions [1]. The following accounts of traditional practices must be read in this light.

Maasai            Kikuyu            Luo


The Maasai people live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They originated in the north of Kenya and have migrated southwards along the Great Rift Valley to their present location. They are herdsmen and count their wealth by the number of cattle they own. Many of them maintain their traditional existence, helped by their proximity to the Maasai-Mara national park, a major tourist attraction for its wild animals. Their villages have also become tourist attractions in their own right. During their southward migration they assimilated the Oldorobo people who were skilled metal workers and therefore provided them with valuable skills. They are often the traditional circumcisers.

Masai Ole Ntutu buffalo dance.jpg

The Maasai are among the world's tallest people at about 1.9m (6'3" in the old money) for an average man. Here the men are performing a 'Buffalo Dance' which, like most of their dances, involves a lot of jumping on the spot.

According to anthropologists Felix Bryk [2] and Boris de Rachewiltz [3] handling the penis is forbidden as being unclean - the latter takes this as a prohibition on masturbation. (As such it would probably be about as effective as the very similar Jewish prohibitions, and Bryk himself mention young Maasai boys retracting their foreskins to appear circumcised.) Maasai boys have an ingenious solution - they get together in groups and use forked sticks to manipulate each other to orgasm. Post-circumcision it would be difficult to make this work, but after circumcision masturbation is out of the picture - sex with women is permitted.

Circumcision is a crucial and eagerly-awaited stage in a boy's life. The start of a boy's initiation is Enkipaata (pre-circumcision ceremony), and is organized by fathers of the new age set. A delegation of boys, aged 14 to 16 years of age, would travel across their section land for about four months announcing the formation of their new age-set. The boys are accompanied by a group of elders spearheading the formation of the new age-set. The age-set is a fundamental part of Maasai social organization.

In traditional society girls were also subject to 'circumcision' (clitoridectomy) - this is now illegal but may still happen in isolated regions. This usually happened at a younger age than the boys' circumcision, and girls do not have an age-set - they adopt their husbands' age-set. [4]

The actual operation is only a part - albeit an important part - of the series of initiation ceremonies. The boy is taught practical skills both as a future warrior and as a cattle farmer, he learns esoteric secrets of the Maasai religion which cannot be revealed to strangers or layoni (uncircumcised boys), and he has to participate in tests of his strength and endurance. Before the operation the boy is shaved totally, head, pubis and facial hair (if he has any). The actual procedure takes place early in the morning and the boy cools himself with cold water to numb the pain (and reduce bleeding).

Samuel's circumcision

This account is of the circumcision of a young boy named Samuel [5]. His Maasai name, given him at birth by his father Koyati, was Parasayip. His full Maasai name was therefore Parasayip Ole Koyati, Ole meaning 'son of' in Maasai. Maasai children get a new, most often biblical, name when they start school.

We first meet Samuel outside his father' s manyatta while he is home from school during the Christmas holidays. It is December 10, two days before the Kenyan Independence Day. Samuel is a slim athlete of 14 and fairly fluent in English. After the holidays he goes back to school. He is aiming for top grades in order to get a scholarship for further studies to become a veterinarian. But before resuming school he is to be circumcised. Not that he wants to become a moran, he tells us; he just wants to be a man, because only then will he be respected by the Maasai.

As we talk to him I remember how another Maasai, Tepilit Ole Saitoti, recalled his father' s admonitory speech before he was circumcised: "Tepilit, circumcision means a sharp knife cutting into the skin of the most sensitive part of your body. You must not budge; don' t move a muscle or even blink. The slightest movement on your part will mean you are a coward, incompetent and unworthy to be a Maasai man. Ours has always been a proud family and we will not tolerate unnecessary embarrassment, so you had better be ready. Imagine yourself alone remaining uncircumcised like the water youth (white man). I hear they are not circumcised. Such a thing is not known in Maasailand." After a pause, he continued: "The pain you will feel is symbolic, it has a deeper meaning. Circumcision means a break between childhood and adulthood. For the first time you will be considered a grown up, complete man. You will be expected to give and not just to receive, to protect your family and not just be protected. And your wise judgement will for the first time be taken into consideration. If you are ready for all these responsibilities, tell us now. Entering into manhood is a heavy load on your shoulders and especially a burden on your mind."[6]

Undoubtedly Samuel has received the same admonition from his father. And he has certainly been told by the morans that the operation will be dreadfully painful, but that it will not be unbearable. Or as the Maasai say, typical of their cattle culture, "Only blood will flow, not milk." They have asked him if he was a orkirkenyi, one who has had intercourse with a circumcised woman - if Samuel has admitted such an experience, his father, mother and the circumciser will have taken a cow from him as punishment.

Samuel' s ordeal starts at noon in the hut of his mother. First Samuel' s father' s first wife has her hair wetted with milk and is clean-shaved. Then she does the same to Samuel' s biological mother, his father' s second wife. Finally she shaves Samuel' s head. Then all three have their heads painted with red ochre. The first wife then takes the young boy through the gate of the manyatta and together they catch three grasshoppers which are put into a mini-calabash sealed with cow dung. After the circumcision the grasshoppers will be released into the calf pen where they will be trampled to death by the calves. This is to symbolise that the young man's cattle pastures will never be hit by locust swarms or famine.

Samuel is now dressed in a black goatskin toga and sent out to collect an olive sapling to be his firestick, a stick used to make fire and also symbolizing the links between generations. When he returns, his metamorphosis is striking. He no longer smiles or talks; he is alone in the crowd of his people. And they do not communicate with him either, except for occasional derogatory or abusive words, like "you coward, you stupid boy." This is their way of encouraging him, of strengthening his resolve and thus preparing him for the coming ordeal.

Very early next morning, a good hour before sunrise, Samuel leaves the manyatta in company with newly-circumcised boys of his age-set. They go to the river where Samuel chills his genitals with the intention of easing some of the pain of the forthcoming operation. This completed, they hurry back to the manyatta where the preparations are in full swing. In the middle of the manyatta among the fifty-odd cattle which are just awakening, a half-circle of olive saplings has been prepared. Inside the circle stands the circumciser and an elder of his father's age. As Samuel enters the manyatta, he grasps an ox hide and throws it down like a rug into the half-circle. For a moment he stands still, as if in a trance, while ice-cold water is poured over his head from a very special pot. This pot was the one that had contained his placenta and had been kept just outside the gate of his family's manyatta all these years. Samuel then throws himself down on the hide and the elder supports him from behind. Immediately the circumiser goes to work. He spreads the boy' s legs, wets his penis with milk and then sprays it with a white powder. With quick, professional hands he cuts a semicircular slit at the base of the foreskin and threads the penis head through it. Then he removed all but the ventral 'seam' of the foreskin. This ndelelia - a good inch-long flap of skin - is left to chase evil spirits out of a woman' s vagina during intercourse and to protect him against venereal diseases. Supposedly it also gives women added pleasure and so makes them prefer the morans to uncircumcised males.

During the surgery, which takes less than two minutes, Samuel does not utter a sound, twitch a muscle or make the slightest grimace which could reveal pain or weakness. From his appearance you would swear that he has been properly anaesthetized. As he is helped into his mother's hut afterwards, he is complimented for his bravery by all the onlookers and his mother is repeatedly told what a good son she has raised.

The circumcision ceremony is not just an ordeal for the one being circumcised. Judging from their reaction, it is also an intense emotional experience for the other young men; something like a religious revival meeting. Some of the young morans become very excited and a few throw themselves on the ground as if having epileptic fits, with their bodies shaking in muscular spasms and froth appearing around their mouths. During the ceremony they drink a soup made from the bark of the kiloriti bush which is said to have an invigorating effect. Our guide, who grew up with the Maasai, has enjoyed it several times during his youth but cannot recall any special effect.

Samuel does not bleed much during the operation. The circumciser explains that Samuel ate some special red berries the day before the operation which, together with the powder used during surgery, effectively prevented bleeding. However, when the powder is tested under proper medical conditions, it proves to have no anti-bleeding effect. Thus it appears most likely that both the lack of bleeding during the surgery and the fits of the onlookers are caused by something similar to self-hypnosis. Furthermore, danger, fear and cold are known to constrict the blood vessels of the genitals through sympathetic nerve stimulation.

After the circumcision, Samuel's mother treats his penis with warm milk, fresh cow's urine and mildewed dung. A strong, young ox is bled and Samuel is offered the fresh blood to drink in order to regain his strength. Two days later we meet him out walking with other newly circumcised boys, mbarnotis. And of course we ask him the obvious question.

"Was it painful?"

"Yes," he replies.

"But you did not show any pain?"

For a moment, Samuel looked at us with his dark brown afro-asian eyes.

"No, I didn't." And after a silent pause, "You don't."

One would fear that the lack of cleanliness during the operation would inevitably lead to infections. However, only in rare cases do infections occur, the reason being these boys' natural resistance, together with the use of fresh urine, which is almost sterile, and of mildewed dung, which may contain anti-microbial substances.

Circumcision of an older boy

(Neither boy is Samuel).

The foreskin is pulled out to its full (almost unbelievable)
length before the cut.

To see the full-size image right-click and select 'View Image'
The cut has been made and the glans pushed through the hole.
A small 'tail' of the foreskin is left hanging down.

To see the full-size image right-click and select 'View Image'
After the operation is finished the boy is helped back to his mother's hut.

After healing is complete the boy is a moran (warrior). Defending his village and raiding other tribes would be his traditional role, but there is little demand for those skills at present. More importantly, he is now treated as an equal by adults, and consulted in all family matters. Girls admire him, and he can have sex and get married - often to a much younger girl. He is also free to have intercourse with any other woman of his age-set - that is the wife of any of his fellow initiates. Any children fathered this way will be raised by the husband as his own. However he and his family will still live in his father's compound. Only when he becomes an elder, in ten years' time, will he set up his own home. [4]


Young Kikuyu boy.
To see the full-size image right-click and select 'View Image'

The Kikuyu coming of age rituals have both similarities and differences to those of the Maasai. They, too, have age-sets covering about 5 years, but the girls have their own age-sets, they do not take the boys'. It must also be said that the Kikuyu traditions have declined to a much greater degree than those of the Maasai, so what is described here is largely historical. They do, like the Maasai, have organizations devoted to preserving the traditions, but they are mostly preserving the memory and meaning, rather than the practice, of these traditions.

Kikuyu boys still do get circumcised, but generally in hospitals. Girls, thankfully, generally do not. The Kikuyu operation was particularly drastic, involving removal of the clitoris and all the inner labia. The account that follows describes how it used to be.

Male age-sets were much older than those of the Maasai, covering young men aged 18 to 22. The circumcision ceremony was preceded by days of music, singing and dancing, called the 'Great Dance' by English observers. The Kikuyu names were matuumo, preliminary dances during the days leading up to the eve of the circumcision ritual, and mararanja, the dances that continued all night prior to the early-morning operation. On this final night all restrictions on bawdy language were lifted, symbolising that the initiates were entering into their sexual life. The singing and dancing ceased when the operations began [7]. Sadly, it seems that the Great Dance was the first part of the tradition to be abandoned.

Kikuyu circumcision candidates

Young Kikuyu men awaiting circumcision. They are distinctly well-endowed!
Photo from "Africa Drums", by Richard St. Barbe Baker (1920s).

As with the Maasai, the actual operations began at dawn, and the candidates would cool themselves in a river to numb the pain and reduce bleeding. Unlike the Maasai, they had no requirement to shave and still had hair.

circumcision operation

The actual operation (left) is described in [7]. "It was performed on a group of male age-mates by a Muruithia waarume (professional operator) who ,with each initiate’s body firmly resting against a male mentor, would seize the boy’s prepuce with his left hand and insert his forefinger into the opening of the foreskin, pulling it forward and stretching it to its limit. He then would cut a slit across the back portion of the prepuce on the upper surface and at right angles to the length of the penis. With the slit in place, he hooked the glans penis up through the slit so that it was exposed. The entire foreskin was left bundled on the underside in what is known as a ngwati (exciter), which was left in place for the rest of the man’s life". This led to a members of other tribes describing the Kikuyu as 'having two penises'.

Photo from "Africa Drums", by Richard St. Barbe Baker (1920s).

These young men would spend 8 days in seclusion after their circumcision, being coached in lore and religion by their mentors. These mentors were the only channel of communication between their charges and the outside world. They took great care of their charges and ensured that they were well-fed with their favourite foods. They became trusted advisers to both the boy they mentored and his family, so that either side could be confident to contact him for advice when needed after the mentoring period was over [7].

Unlike most other East Africans, among the Kikuyu circumcision did not immediately permit either full sex or marriage. The boys became warriors, anake, which has little relevance today, and couldn't marry until thay were near the end of their warrior period [8]. Instead they had a practice called ngwiko or fondling, essentially interfemoral coitus [3][9]. The unmarried anake lived in communal huts, thingiras and girls would come to visit them there for ngwiko. Both references quote Jomo Kenyatta, first President of independent Kenya, on how it worked.

The boy removes all his clothing. The girl removes her upper garment, nguo ya ngoro, and retains her skirt, mothuru, and her soft leather apron, mwengo, which she pulls back between her legs from behind and fastened to the waist, thus keeping mwengo in position and forming an effective protection of her private parts. In this position the lovers lie together facing each other with their legs interwoven to prevent any movement of their hips. They then begin to fondle each other rubbing their breasts together, whilst at the same time they engage in love-making conversation until they gradually fall asleep.

Here it gets amusing. The author of the Gīkūyū Centre article [9] (who from context appears to be female) treats this as 'Tantric love' with no ejaculation, and goes on to cite Indian sources for the practice. However de Rachewiltz [3], page 240, quotes the next sentence from Kenyatta's article: "Sometimes the partners experience sexual relief but this is not an essential feature of the ngwiko". That is getting a bit more honest! Realistically, this was the men's sole source of sexual relief. They would participate in ngwiko on a very regular basis with a range of partners. Any attempts to forcibly take things further would result in being excluded from the circle, so they played by the rules.

According to de Rachewiltz, when the man is at last permitted to marry the presence of the ngwati (dangling foreskin) is initially a hindrance to full intercourse. Given that the hymen was removed in her 'circumcision' this seems surprising, and he is surely exaggerating when he says that sometimes full penetration is not possible until she has given birth to her first child.


The Luo are the fourth largest ethnic group in Kenya (Kikuyu being the largest). Kenya's original government, post independence, was based on Jomo Kenyatta (Kikuyu) as President and Oginga Odinga (Luo) as Vice-President. The two subsequently fell out but the Luo remain very active in politics and also in academia. Barack Obama Snr (father of the US President) was a Luo. [10]

In the eyes of other Kenyans, the Luo do not circumcise, and that is a real political problem since having a leader who is uncircumcised is like having a child in a position of responsibility. However, the Luo do not see it that way. For them, having an uncovered glans is just as essential for matrimony as it is for other Kenyans. The difference is that they do not employ professional circumcisers, the boy's peer group looks after the process. Dan Omondi K’Aoko [11] describes a number of ways that this is achieved, from forcible retraction to the use of biting ants or thorns. The practises used vary between regions but many of them seem just as painful as regular circumcision.

However, with the current push in Kenya for VMMC (Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision) to combat the HIV epidamic it seems likely that many Luo now get a conventional circumcision in hospital.

References and Sources

Many of the references cited here have contributed widely to this article, beyond the actual text citations.

1. Judith E, Brown, et al. 2001. Varieties of Male Circumcision, A Study From Kenya. Sexually Transmitted Diseases 28, 608-612

2. Felix Bryk, 1934. Circumcision in Man and Woman: its history, psychology and ethnology. Translated by Felix Berger. New York: American Ethnological Press. Facsimile reprint New York AMS Press, 1974

3. Boris de Rachewiltz, 1964. Black Eros, Sexual Customs of Africa from Prehistory to the Present day. Translated by Peter Whigham. London: Allen and Unwin.

4. Maasai Association Ceremonies and Rituals

6. from: My Life as a Maasai Warrior, by Tepilit ole Saitoti. Quoted by Jens Finke in Maasai feature articles - Circumcision.

7. Michael N. Mbitoa & Julia A.Malia 2009. Transfer of the Kenyan Kikuyu male circumcision ritual to future generations living in the United States. Journal of Adolescence 32 39–53

8. Kikuyu circumcision.

9. Gīkūyū Centre for Cultural Studies. Kikuyu Sexual Practices

10. Wikipedia Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania.

11. Dan Omondi K’Aoko 1986. The Luo Circumcision Rite. Nairobi. Kenya: Frejos Designgraphics. Download here.

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