Raila, circumcision and the Luo

Debate is raging among the Luo community as thousands of its men rush to get circumcised after encouragement by Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

Traditionally, Luo initiation rites do not include the circumcision of males or females. Instead, the tribe has alternative rituals that have been handed down for hundreds of years. These include the removal of six lower teeth.

Prime Minister Raila, who is a Luo and idolized as the community’s kingpin, has come into conflict with tribal elders over his insistence that Luo men be circumcised. Luo elders view circumcision as an erosion of long-held cultural values.

Controversy is growing in Nyanza amidst rumours that Raila is changing Luo culture in order to increase his community’s appeal in the next presidential election. Majority of Kenya’s tribes circumcise males as part of initiation into adulthood.

While campaigning for the presidency in 2007, Raila was attacked by President Mwai Kibaki’s campaign strategists as unworthy of leadership because, being a Luo, he was thought to be uncircumcised. President Kibaki comes from the Kikuyu tribe where circumcision is a very important rite of passage. Without it, a man is relegated to low societal status.

Kibaki’s assault against Raila’s perceived circumcision status drew Luo outrage against the Kikuyu and helped mobilize the community’s votes behind their man. Now, with Raila working as Prime Minister under Kibaki, Luo intellectuals are perplexed at his seeming attempts to repackage the community as a circumcised people.

During political and ethnic clashes following the disputed 2007 elections, Luo men were forcibly circumcised by Kikuyu youths. Many bled to death on the streets of Nairobi’s squalid slums.

Luo elders feel that Raila wants to make the Luo acceptable to the Kikuyu, something that is viewed with intense outrage. The fact that the circumcision drive is spear-headed by the government makes it worse because President Kibaki is a Kikuyu. Luo intellectuals view the circumcision drive as cultural imperialism imposed to undermine Luo values.

While Raila’s ODM party capitalized on anti-Kikuyu sentiments to win votes, Raila’s first born son is engaged to marry a Kikuyu woman. The political grapevine is rife with assertions that Raila’s call for Luo to embrace circumcision is for the benefit of his future in-laws.

The circumcision drive has been marketed as a HIV/Aids prevention strategy in a region with among the highest rates of HIV/Aids infection in Kenya. According to medical researchers, circumcised men have a significantly lower risk of getting HIV/Aids compared to the uncircumcised. It is believed that removal of the foreskin toughens the covering of male genital organs and thus reduces the chances of getting HIV.

Luo leaders have dismissed the research and have cited credible reports showing that circumcision has little effect on HIV/Aids transmission. The protests have not stopped the Kenyan government from promoting circumcision among the Luo. The Turkana tribe in Kenya’s arid north-west does not practice circumcision but they have not been targeted by the government’s latest health campaign.

Meanwhile HIV/Aids experts in Nyanza province say that the rush for male circumcision may actually worsen rather than decrease infection rates. “Circumcision will create a false sense of security and people will neglect other prevention measures such as condoms and faithfulness to one partner,” warns an official. The enthusiastic queues of men waiting to be circumcised at government hospitals and private clinics across Nyanza may lend credibility to such fears.

Supporters of the Prime Minister fear that a cultural backlash could emerge among the Luo and that Raila needs to move cautiously over the circumcision issue. Raila’s leadership of the Luo is virtually unchallenged but quiet murmurings among Luo elders could just be his undoing.

Having come so close to realizing his dream for national leadership, the loss of his core support is a possibility that Raila is best advised to avoid.


11 Responses

  1. Let us applaud the Luo elders. They’re right about circumcision. It is nothing more than a superstitious barbaric blood ritual which robs a male of sexual pleasure.

    Studies disagree, but no properly double-blinded and placebo-controlled study has ever been done.

    Most of the half-million US men who have died of AIDS were circumcised at birth. Circumcision does not prevent AIDS.

    • if at all circumcsion prevents aids better be taken seriously.choose btwin culture and future generation.it will be sad to see future leadership ended by aids.

  2. The Luo’s in Sudan Circumcise their boys and send them to the bush to learn warfare. Here’s proof http://www.gurtong.org/resourcecenter/people/profile_tribe.asp?tribeid=118

    So circumcision is nothing new. Luo’s lost it a long the way while migrating from Sudan.

  3. The Jo-Luo are organized into agnatic lineages and clans which are related through blood and marriage linkages. They organize and identity themselves by age-set, that is, a group of boys who were circumcised at the same time. On attaining the age of 18 the boys go into a 2 week seclusion period in a forest where they acquaint themselves and learn the art of fighting.

  4. The reason Luo have more HIV than surrounding tribes probably has nothing to do with circumcision, and everything to do with fishermen on the lake having a “girlfriend” in every waterfront village who trades (unprotected) sex for fish. It is known that HIV spreads most quickly when it has just been acquired (when “viral load” is high), so multiple partners in a short time are the problem, not a foreskin. National Demographic and Health Surveys show in at least six African countries, more of the circumcised men have HIV than the non-circumcised.

    Another issue is non-sexual transmission, especially through dirty needles. An injection is not the best treatment for every disease. A “needle man” may be injecting death.

  5. The Board of the Demining HIV/AIDS Services Foundation, an HIV service organization servicing the landmine clearance sector in Sub Sahara Africa, has been impressed by the stance taken by the Kenyan Prime Minister regarding circumcision and HIV transmission. Apart from correctly advocating for circumcision as a potent HIV transmission prevetion strategy, The Prime Minister made a bold move by inviting the Luo people to make a cultural rites crossover which we believe must be taken further to a broader transboundary level into Sub Sahara Africa. We are also impressed by the manner in which the Kenyan people debated around the issue and are confident that more men went for the knife in Kenya in an effort to prevent the HIV transmission.

    Thank you
    Board of Trustees
    Demining HIV/AIDS Services Foundation
    Port Elizabeth, South Africa

    • I dont lyk thz at all. The Hiv and aids prevallence in the European nations is below per compared to the Kenyan state. Look at this,are these folks cut? We must enlighten our people especially the youth on abstainance until marriage n being morally conscious. Arogo,Ku

  6. This is a joke. I condemn the luo genital circumcision. The best leaderz of the world arent circumcised, G.W.WASHINGTON,TONNY B.,BARACK OBAMA,etc. This is a joke. You Luo people must protect the Luo Nation’s culture n tradition.

  7. “Neurologically, the most specialized pressure-sensitive cells in the human body are Meissner’s corpuscles for localized light touch and fast touch, Merkel’s disc cells for light pressure and tactile form and texture, Ruffini’s corpuscles for slow sustained pressure, deep skin tension, stretch, flutter and slip, and Pacinian corpuscles for deep touch and detection of rapid external vibrations. They are found only in the tongue, lips, palms, fingertips, nipples, and the clitoris and the crests of the ridged band at the tip of the male foreskin. These remarkable cells process tens of thousands of information impulses per second and can sense texture, stretch, and vibration/movement at the micrometre level. These are the cells that allow blind people to “see” Braille with their fingertips. Cut them off and, male or female, it’s like trying to read Braille with your elbow.” (Gary Harryman)

  8. Much thanks for your post. I believe in the fact that circumcision as a practice while making reference here to the Luo community is a good thing beside their other cultural rites of passage. This is good as long as they can plan for it safely and acceptably or ceremoniously as a community. I am in support of it because it the way forward.

    Thanks. Paul Ajode. (January 09, 2015)

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