On the outrageous politics of the foreskin: A brief account

Male circumcision

Nurses carry out voluntary medical male circumcision procedures on students at Kiamaina Secondary School in Bahati, Nakuru County on November 16, 2014. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Many Luo males have undergone circumcision as a routine surgical matter.
  • The language of circumcision is still understood to refer exclusively to the Luo.

A  strong indication that the election campaign season is in full cry is the precipitous descent below the belt of our political discourse. Discourse slipped down a normative incline into vulgarity and repulsiveness. It has alighted upon genitalia, animating most intemperate interventions that are being presented as politically imperative.

You don’t have to be an officious Freudian or risible feminist to appreciate that anchoring political conflict around the privates is aimed at injecting gendered unpleasantness into contests. Referencing circumcision implicitly installs phallic associations in the framework of evaluating political leadership, with significant negative implications for female political participation. Among men, it designates the phallus generally and the penile foreskin in particular as the site of histrionic contestation, with strong xenophobic potentialities.

There are religions that make male circumcision mandatory, just as there are cultures whose rites of passage demand the cut. In both cases, the status of a phallus with respect to the religious or cultural norm becomes central to judgements of a man’s conformity. In systems where religious, cultural and national identities are fused, circumcision and the condition of male genitalia acquires disproportionate social significance.

We are as yet undecided whether Kenya is one nation, or a confederation of tribal nations. A lot of the incoherence in our political discourse is, therefore, connected with the difficulties we encounter in evolving appropriate vocabulary to facilitate effective canvassing of uncoordinated or competing aspirations. Just as we attempt to develop sophisticated tools to enable our society entrench freedom and democracy, it appears equally crude implements are fashioned at the same, if not higher rate.

Circumcision slur

The first significant political conflict among Kenyan Africans is, arguably, the Kanu-Kadu rivalry, which was driven by the latter’s suspicion that Kanu was basically a Kikuyu-Luo duopoly. Yet within Kanu, a blistering contest for power among the constituent ethnic hegemons not only threatened the viability of the independence movement, but the very stability of a new-born state.

It must have been in this crucible of bruising animosity that ethnic differences between the principal communities were cast in high relief and invested with unprecedented political salience and potency. Indeed, the conflict gifted us with the most enduring ethnic stereotypes that litter the vulgar vernacular of our intolerance and incivility.

It is important to appreciate that the circumcision slur is principally aimed at the Luo and is often politically motivated. A number of Kenyan communities which do not practice circumcision are generally exempt from the fray. Secondly, 2022 is not 1966 in many important ways. Many Luo males have undergone circumcision as a routine surgical matter devoid of the ritual context.

In addition, the biggest political target of this scurrilous phallic obsession, Raila Odinga, cannot be described as reticent in his responses. His standard repartee has been that it is unbecoming of men to be preoccupied with his, or any other man’s equipment. If anything, Odinga adds, women – who seldom participate in this discourse – have a legitimate basis to remark on the matter. It is a defensive intervention calculated at instilling confidence in males from non-circumcising communities.

More importantly, in 2008, Odinga invested tremendous political will into a government voluntary medical male circumcision project in the Nyanza heartland of his Luo community. As a result, the project exceeded its target, with more than 950,000 men getting circumcised between 2008 and 2013.

Circumcised Luo males

To do this, Odinga had to forcefully surmount resistance, then led by the Luo Council of Elders, the community’s putative custodians of ancestral mores. Following the swift ejection of hesitant members, a new chair of the council supported the project, on condition that it would not be deployed to anchor any derisive narratives regarding the community or its members’ non-circumcising traditional culture.

There are circumcising communities in Kenya with less than a million members, both male and female. Arguably, the number of circumcised Luo males far exceeds the size of entire communities. Yet the language of circumcision is still understood to refer exclusively to the Luo, and appears to be activated only when stakes are high, almost always in political contests.

Which leaves us with an ineluctable conclusion: reference to circumcision in our sordid vernacular is purely political, and has no relationship whatsoever with the status of any Luo’s instrument. Offensively, the referent penile foreskin is short-hand for imagined fundamental incompatibilities, and fictive irreconcilable differences. Defensively, the foreskin has been appropriated to invoke the exclusion, contempt and repression that is claimed to have characterised traditional political attitude to the Luo since 1966.

It doesn’t matter how many Luo males are circumcised: as long as there are people shameless enough to deploy this crudest of repertories, and as long as there are enough people susceptible enough to take offence, we’ll be periodically frogmarched to assemble on opposing flanks and to take sides in the outrageous politics of the foreskin.

Mr Ng’eno is an advocate of the High Court and a former State House speech writer. @EricNgeno