Sunday, March 20, 2011


In December of 2010, I had the honor of witnessing the climax of a two day Bagisu circumcision ceremony: the circumcision of four boys ranging in age from 13 to 18. The experience remains the single most cultural event of my Peace Corps service. The event took place in the lush farming communities outside Mbale, a large town on the slopes of Mt. Elgon.


The photos in this blog post are graphic. They show male genitalia during and after the procedure. There is a knife. There is human flesh. There is blood. If you have a weak stomach, are offended by the site of a man's penis unaccompanied by the vows of marriage or are simply not interested in exploring the topic, I urge you to close the page and wait for the next blog post.


For the Bagisu tribe there are few events more important in a boy's life than his circumcision. Like the Vision Quest right of passage for a young Native American, the circumcision pushes a Mugisu over the threshold into manhood. While permitted between the ages of 9-18, the most common age range starts at 14. There are men known to dodge the ceremony, but they are viewed as cowards by their community (I was told a story by a local about a man who left Uganda on travel while young and missed his time-frame to undergo the procedure. Upon returning to the country he was captured and taken to the east where he was forced to partake... but this is likely a fabrication to engage in conversation with a white-dude.)

Circumcisions ceremonies only happen during the even numbered years. They happen all year, but December is the most popular month on account of everyone who hasn't been circumcised in the previous 11 months rushing to get it done.

Here's how it goes: You, my dear reader, are going to dance a while in their shoes...

Two days before the event, you begin to dance around, run around, walk around, dance around, run around, walk around. Slowly the crowd picks up in numbers behind you. The rules dictate that you cannot be sedated for the cut, so one can only assume that the dancing is to numb you with exhaustion.

After two days of dancing, you pay a visit to the highlands of the mesa above your villages to cover yourself in mud and yeast from the local beer that you will drink after the event, you continue to dance around, run around, walk around with what has now become a huge crowd behind you. The drums are kickin. The people are screaming, shouting, singing, talking. All of a sudden, a few white people turn up to see the spectacle. You are too tired to care, but if you could, you would probably be proud to have them along... at least, that is what the white people gather by how warmly they are welcomed into the crowd.

The oldest boy.

The youngest boy.

The group moves forward. The crowd is thick. Each boy holds a stick which he periodically slams together after jumping into the air and shouting. Intense.

The crowd behind you grows and grows. You are in the final hours now, and the intensity of the drums and dancing keeps you moving. It is your heartbeat. You are only awaiting the call from the surgeon saying he is ready for you.

The call comes. You turn down a dirt road. Suddenly, half the crowd splits to the right. Nearly all the women and children are gone now. It is just you, the boys soon to be men, encircled by other boys and men.

The procession. Almost completely boys and men now. Only a few girls remain.

Turning off the road, we cut through a banana plantation and casava field. Men began to scream and shout. Our pace quickened. Men began to beat the ground with sticks. The drums became louder.

A crowd gathers around each boy, tugging at his pants to expose his penis. It must be easily accessed for the procedure, now only a few minutes away.

More beating of the ground. More cheer. You are nearly to the huts, and you see a crowd has gathered. People use branches to sweep the ground before you. There are four rectangular pieces of fabric with dirt (to absorb) in a pile on one side and clean (for you to stand on) on the other. The two white men and woman that have been dancing behind you are now ushered directly in front of the mats. The crowd is pushing, screaming. The white people have their cameras out, they are snapping away (they are encouraged by all that are around them: "Do you see?! Take the snaps! Take, take!").

There are no speeches. The circumcisions begin immediately.

The rule (only one): Before, during and after the cutting - Not a sound, not a cringe, not a change in facial expression. You are allowed to place a stick over your shoulders to pull down upon, and that is all. If you break this rule, you are deemed a coward for the rest of your life. (People are VERY serious about this. Only the youngest of boys are granted some slack in the matter).

You look to the heavens. Say a prayer... and it begins.

The surgeon grabs the tip of your penis, stretches it outward away from your body. Lays the blade upon your skin and cuts cleanly through. Your penis snaps back into your stomach. The hand grabs it again, on the side this time, cuts towards you, 1-cut, 2-cuts, 3-cuts. It is over.

Your eye's never leave the sky. You've not even blinked an eye. You are a man.

#1. The circumcision and the final product.

Cool. Calm. Collected. Not a flinch or sound.

#2. I was taking video before this picture. Again, he is completely at peace... on the outside.

#3. During and after.

#4. The youngest boy. Some slack is granted to the youngest boys. The boy's face, before and after, says it all.

It is over. You are now a man (and you will walk around in a skirt for the next month to prevent chafing).



The rice-sack showing the blood absorbed into the sand.

People begin to walk up and congratulate you. Hand you money. Someone wraps a blanket around your shoulders and gives you a place to sit.

Gifts are given.

Congratulations all around.

A man arrives with soda for the youngest boys...

...and locally brewed alcohol for the older boys.

Young boys and girls look on in wonder. One day, the boys will be standing where you are now.

The surgeon returns with an egg for each boy. He smears egg yoke on the exposed skin.

More congratulations. (Notice the touching of the left hand to the right forearm, a sign of respect).

And that about sums it up.

All in all, we danced for about 2 hours before we witnessed the climax of the two days. We were pushed straight to the front where the action was, and we were told to take pictures and video so we could show our friends and family... like I said, the Bagisu are EXTREMELY proud of this event.

Afterwards, I asked for a drink the celebratory locally brewed alcohol!... it was awful. But my whoops of excitement after imbibing set the crowd off in stitches of cheers and laughter.

While talking to a village local chairperson, the inevitable question arose: "So are you circumcised," he said to me.

The moment of truth... was I man enough to confess that I am not actually a man in his eyes?

Hell no!

"Of course I am!" I replied.

Phew! Dodged that angry mob!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I awoke two mornings ago to a rumbling. I was buried in sleep, so when I sat up and looked around, the muffled sound coming through my ear-plugs and the strange motion of the bed confused me. Was I dreaming? Was I just experiencing that buzzing sensation that usually accompanies too few hours of rest?

As the fog cleared, I realized that my bed WAS in fact shaking. So, in my blurry state, I thought of the only possible cause:

Shit-me. There is a VERY large, very ANGRY animal under my bed going bat-shit crazy on something…

After 7 or so seconds, everything stopped. Peace returned. I was fully with it by this point. So I began rocking myself violently forward and backward trying to get my bed to shake… you know… to see if I could do what the animal had done.

“Come… on… you… stupid… bed… SHAKE!”


Jesus, man! No Godzilla-cockroach could have done that! No rat either! A grizzly bear, maybe.

(But that was as improbable as the cockroach-rat theory… because grizzly bears do not live in Uganda.)

So I went out on a limb, referenced a bit of 8th grade earth science and some more advanced geological theories I’d recently read at the suggestion of Michelle, and stuck it all together with crazy glue…

EARTHQUAKE!! The spirit of California! Here in Uganda as an alarm clock!

“UHHP ‘N ATTEM’ BOY! SUNZ AWMOST UHHP!” (The spirit has a Franklin County, Virginia accent).

Crazy as it sounds… it put my grizzly theory to shame.


I quickly shot off a text to my safety and security officer with Peace Corps (he had already heard the news). I sent another text to Devon #2 to make sure the whole Rwenzori range had not collapsed onto its side thus flattening her and her college (Nope. Still two Devon’s hanging out in Uganda… not that I’m sad or anything. But it would have made for a great story… *sigh*)

Checking the Daily Monitor yesterday, it looks like the epicenter was north of me by a few hundred kilometers in the Rift Valley near Lake Albert. It seems the spirit of Cali, lacking energy after a long trip, only had it in him (her? it?) to rock a 5.0 on the Richter scale.

No need to worry. I am alive, well and only slightly shaken (sorry… I had to.), but that is better than stirred, right Grandpa? (“Boooooo!” *dodges rotten tomato*)

Mainly I am just impressed with the natural power of the earth.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Death Tax

Walking to school yesterday, I heard a distant wailing. I walked onward.

Passing the hospital, I turned to my right and saw a small crowd of villagers gathered around a small building at its southwest corner.

The morgue.

A death in our town.

The wailing is unsettling. It isn't blood curdling. It is chilling. It resonates deep within you and arouses the rarely thought about fact that we are mortal.

At school, the Director of Studies walked into the teachers lounge at lunch and wrote a short message on the board. One of the staff members aunts had passed on.

"Eh! You see that?" My counterpart Chris says to me. "They want to collect money from us..."

In times past, a death, like a wedding, would be cause for living family member to ask for small donations from the community to cover burial expenses and whatever else might involve in the official wrapping up of a family members life. A small basket would be passed around, and members would donate what they could.

But fraud arose. People announced deaths that did not actually occur. They collected money for burials that would not take place. And the public grew weary of making donations unless they new the person explicitly.

"... but they will take money from our accounts whether we want to give it or not," Chris continues.

Puzzled, I ask, "They can do that?! Just take money? FORCE a donation?"

"Of course. They who pay can do whatever they want."