Abaluhya Circumcision Rituals

The Abaluhya people are the second largest ethnic group in Kenya and account for 30% of the population. The ethnic lives mainly in Western Kenya in the counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia, Vihiga, and some parts of Trans Nzoia and Nandi counties. Although they can also be found in other parts of Kenya as well. The Abaluhya community is composed of various dialects which include Bukusu, Maragoli, Banyala, Banyore, Batsotso, Gisu, Idakho, Isukha, Kabras, Khayo, Kisa, Marachi, Marama, among others. The Bukusus and Maragolis are the largest groups in terms of population.

In August and December, during the school holidays, the Abaluhya people are known to take their young sons through circumcision ceremonies. The ceremonies are spectacular and involve a display of cultural festivities which include songs, dances and feasting. On the day of the ceremony, the young sons from this community begin their journey early in the morning by going to their uncle who would offer them presents – usually a calf, chicken or a piece of meat from a sheep which they hang around their shoulders. The presents received acts as a form of authorization to be initiated to manhood by their uncles. Later, they are taken to the river where they are dipped in chilly water both as a sign of courage as well as for the purpose of numbing their bodies in readiness for the cut. At the river, they are adorned with decorations on their body with mud including the face, and a hide skin wrapped around their waists.

The most important thing in this ceremony and which is important for this context is the song and dance that is performed in this ceremony. The dancers, who comprise of young men who have undergone the rituals, and girls slightly older than the son undergoing the ritual. The songs are accompanied by drums called Isikhuti which in most cases is a set of three drummers beating the drums in a certain style. The songs and dances are meant to encourage the son undergoing the ritual to be strong, for strength is a sign of manhood. Also, facing the cut is a sign of great strength and manhood.

While this is such an important cultural ritual in the Abaluhya community, if faces extinction due to various factors. First, there is cultural erosion caused by intermarriage, integration, urbanization, assimilation into other communities and of course the digital age which demonizes such cultural practices. Some of the parents of these sons of these parents prefer their sons to be taken to the hospitals to face circumcision. Such sons would essentially not be considered courageous or “men enough” later in their lives because they failed to face the circumcision ritual. As a result, the songs, and the dances also face distinction. It is for these reasons that this cultural practice should be considered in the list of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage for it to be safe guarded. One important thing is to make the ceremony safe for the sons of the Abaluhya community but retain the cultural aspects in danger of extinction.