By Tom Cunningham (Staff Writer)
In June earlier this year, in Nyeri County, Kenya, there were two separate incidents where wives attempted to chop off their husbands’ penises. In the first incident, Anne Njeri attacked Daniel King'ori, her husband of seven years, after she found condoms in his pockets when he returned home from a late-night drinking session. In the second, Valentine Mugure "seriously maimed" Paul Mwangi, cutting his genitals, hands, shoulders, and stomach as he got out of the shower, because she believed he had been spending money on women and alcohol .
I was in central Kenya at the time. The incidents caught my attention (how could they not?) in part because I was researching the "traditional custom" of male and female circumcision in Kenya in the early twentieth century, and "colonial" attempts to modify and abolish this practice . I was struck by the ways in which these sexually-charged attacks in Nyeri bore traces of a deeper history of genital-based violence in this part of the world. Why were these two "unrelated" incidents so extreme? Why did the two women respond to their husband's actions by cutting their genitals?
In the ensuing television reports, newspaper columns, radio-shows, and Twitter and Facebook debates, the prevailing response to the attacks was laughter mixed with condemnation. Few framed the attacks as domestic violence . Many found comedy and a sense of justice in the image of an irate woman seizing and severing the genitals of a confounded, fumbling, deceitful man. Some did, predictably, label the women "hysterical" and "psychotic." In general, though, the women's actions were excused as a legitimate (if extreme) reaction to male misbehaviour. "Men... are not stepping up to being the men they are meant to be" wrote one blogger; "you can only push a lady too far til she gets her to breaking point [sic] ... Remember a cat is playful and harmless till you pin it into a corner, thats when the claws cme out and it pounces on you [sic]" .
This response was informed by a nationwide frenzy over the effect alcohol addiction was having on Kenyan men, and what the deterioration of menfolk meant for the state of the nation. The frenzy was particularly acute in Nyeri County. It peaked in June when the President declared a "war on illicit brews," and introduced new alcohol legislation . Images of inebriated men slouched at a bar or laying in the street like corpses filled the news. Old men and women reminisced of days when men had been hardworking and honest, when their young men walked "straight" and with majesty, and when men from Nyeri had led the fight against British colonisers.
The two grim and bloody moments in Nyeri, in a bedroom and a bathroom, were at once explained by, and themselves symbolic of, a nationwide crisis of masculinity. This is interesting because it was not the first time that people situated the real, material, localised, and painful cutting of an individual's genitals within broader concerns of the social and natural order. Nor was it the first time that politicians, social commentators, and 'ordinary people' fixed their thoughts and actions on the reproductive organs. In some ways, the Nyeri incidents eerily parodied the circumcision ceremonies of earlier times.
From the nineteenth to the mid- (in some cases late-) twentieth century in central Kenya, young men and women had their penises and vaginas cut in great, carnivalesque, celebrations . In some places this happened annually, in others only every four years. They were also heavily gendered festivals, as there were separate ceremonies for boys and girls. A village or community would gather in a forest clearing to sing, dance, and spectate. After bathing in a freezing cold river, the candidates - perhaps five, perhaps thirty in number - would enter a clearing. Amidst the crowd of spectators, they would squat, side by side, with their legs open. To much cheering and singing, a mũruithia (a specialised circumcision 'doctor') would then enter the crowd brandishing a knife. The circumciser would, quickly, cut the candidates and throw away the excess flesh. The candidates would spend some weeks recovering in a protected environment before being readmitted into their communities, "re-born" as new men and women.
The "trimming of the genital organs of both sexes", Jomo Kenyatta wrote in his landmark Facing Mount Kenya, "plays such an important part in the life of Gikuyu people (...) The moral code of the tribe is bound up with this custom"  The physical operation was the culmination of a more extensive period of physical and mental training: "young" "girls" and "boys" were instructed in the habits, behaviours, and rules of interaction appropriate to "adult" "men" and "women." Circumcision marked the candidate's transition from childhood to adulthood, and solidified their identity as a man or a woman.
Foreskins and clitorises were removed in part because they were considered "childish" body parts. They did not simply "represent" or "symbolise" immaturity; they were said to make a person physically more prone to excessive sexual arousal and, hence, more susceptible to lapses in concentration. The act of cutting, too, was more than symbolic because experiencing physical pain was a crucial component of the ceremony. As one of my informants put it: "That pain did something (...) it instilled discipline, it taught boys and girls their place [in society], it made them mature." Indeed, at the moment of being "bitten by the knife" it was crucial that the candidates did not register any pain, express any discomfort, or cry. If they did, they risked being branded a kĩrogi (coward) for the rest of their lives, and discouraged from having children.
In the circumcision ceremonies in central Kenya a century ago, and in the assaults in Nyeri in June 2015, people's genitals were cut. Might we suggest that, in each instance, a purpose of the cutting was to teach lessons about sexual (in)discipline? Further, if, in the traditional rite de passage, genitals were cut as part of an attempt to create particular kinds of gendered persons, was the cutting of genitals in Nyeri an expression of the fundamental limits of those prescribed gender roles? Certainly each instance exposed the immense cultural and social power loaded in this physically small body part. It would be facile to argue for any direct, causal relationship between the incidents in Nyeri and circumcision ceremonies in central Kenya one hundred years ago. But it is perhaps productive, and - if nothing else - interesting to reflect on the way this past resonates in the present.
- Mose Sammy, ‘Nyerification Reloaded: Why Nyeri Women Chop off Husbands’ Genitals’, Standard Digital News, 12 June 2015, <http://www.sde.co.ke/thenairobian/article/2000165332/nyerification-reloaded-why-nyeri-women-chop-off-husbands-genitals> [accessed 4 September 2015]; Maureen Murimi, ‘Woman Chops off Husband’s Manhood in Nyeri’, Citizen Digital, 10 June 2015 <http://citizentv.co.ke/news/woman-chops-off-husbands-manhood-in-nyeri/> [accessed 6 September 2015].
- Joceyln Murray, The Kikuyu Female Circumcision Controversy, with special reference to the Church Missionary Society's sphere of influence, PhD thesis, (University of California, Los Angeles, 1974); Lynn M.Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
- Robert Aseda, ‘Gender Based Violence? Not A Laughing Matter’, Rural Reporters, 26 June 2015 <http://ruralreporters.com/gender-based-violence-not-a-laughing-matter/> [accessed 4 September 2015].
- Seita Liseta, ‘WOMEN IN SUPPORT OF “NYERIFICATION”’, Hero Radio, <http://www.hero.co.ke/women-support-nyerification/> [accessed 4 September 2015]
- Benjamin Wafula, ‘President Kenyatta Bans Second Generation Drinks in Central’, Citizen Digital, 1 July 2015. <http://citizentv.co.ke/news/president-kenyatta-bans-second-generation-drinks-in-central-kenya/> [accessed 5 September 2015]
- Louis Leakey, The Southern Kikuyu before 1903 Volume II (London: Academic Press, 1977); Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (Vintage Books, 1965), Chapter 6
- Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (Vintage Books, 1965), Chapter 6. <http://www.fgmnetwork.org/articles/kenyatta/Kenyatta2.htm>