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A Kenyan Rite of Passage

In this series, thoseinvolved with CLC foreign missions profile one aspect of our overseas endeavors.

The early morning light would not be seen for another few hours. The songs and dancing, clanging of pangas (blades), and the jingle of the bells began at midnight at home and would proceed into the early dawn. The steady thrum of distant voices chanting and singing grew ever closer. Torches and flashlights crested the hill illuminating a parade of people in strange clothing, and three boys with white mud painted all over them. For someone unaware and unfamiliar with what was happening at the time, I entertained the possibility that I was no longer welcome in this community and that they were finally coming to do away with the lone foreigner in their midst. My fears were quickly allayed as they proceeded slowly but resolutely past my home along Matunda/Konambaya junction and toward the river where the young candidates would take the plunge. The frigid waters shock the nerves into submission before the ceremony begins. It is the wisdom handed down from prior generations which informs them that it is best to stay in the water until numbness has set it in. Also, the water serves as a symbolic washing away of youthful adolescence before entering into the next phase of life.
This is the ritual whereby boys of a certain clan in the western region of Kenya are initiated into manhood. The Bukusu clan has held on to this circumcision custom throughout their history. Even though the advent of great industrial and technological change and the introduction of Western customs and medicinal practices have changed much in rural western Kenya, this ancient rite of passage has remained. Before heading out on their nighttime trek to the river, the elder male members of the boys’ families gather around and tell stories while collectively drinking bushara from one giant pot. I still don’t know exactly what bushara is, but it has the intended effect of enlivening their dance and causing them to sweat profusely. This will culminate in a trek to the river for the deed to be done.
Meanwhile, the professional circumciser has been sharpening his blade in preparation for the pivotal moment. What seems like an eternity of waiting for those boys is now over. With a flick of the wrist it is done, and the boys walk backwards into their home to begin the recovery process. Gifts of money and other material blessings are bestowed on them as a reward for their symbolic transition into adulthood and as a consolation for the pain which they endured. Their greatest consolation now is that they are adult members of the family. True men, according to tradition. Some dismiss this ritual as being out of touch with modern life, a relic that should be left in the past. Members of other clans or tribes view this as nothing less than barbarism.
Some ancient customs are worth remembering. God gave the rite of circumcision to His Old Testament people Israel out of His faithfulness to them. For them, it was much more than a rite of passage. It would serve as a physical declaration that He had separated His people from the rest of the world.
To His New Testament Church, God has given the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is far more than just a rite of passage or a transition into another phase of life. It is certainly very symbolic, but it is no mere symbol. In Baptism we are given much more than just a ceremony and a remembrance of things past. God gives more than any material blessing He can bestow to relieve our pain. He washes away our sin. He gives us a place in His kingdom, the richest spiritual benefits, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

Michael Gurath is pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and a visiting missionary to Africa.