During the past seven years, millions of men and boys have been circumcised in eastern and southern Africa. The aim is to rein in the region’s HIV epidemic, but the motivations of the volunteers are myriad and complex. I visited Zimbabwe this past July, and it seemed that every stop on my journey revealed another way of looking at the procedure. What started as a public health campaign had become a cultural phenomenon.
In cities the motives are modern. At a circumcision clinic in Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, I meet an HIV-negative man named Decent, who is married to an HIV-negative woman. He tells me that he wants to get circumcised to support his country. At another clinic, a poster featuring Napster, a popular DJ, hangs on an office wall; the celebrity promotes circumcision with the words, “I Did It For My Wife.”
At another stop I am introduced to a music idol who goes by the name Jah Prayzah. He went public with news of his circumcision in the hope that he could encourage others to have the procedure. A tall 27-year-old with a wide smile and a sharp gingham suit, he tells me his main motive was to reduce the risk of cancer for himself and his wife. Prayzah has recorded an advertising jingle for the circumcision campaign: it plays regularly on the radio, and he has performed it at appearances with the poet Albert Nyathi and soccer star Hardlife Zvirekwi, who have also publicly announced their recent circumcisions.
Far from the city, circumcision is accomplished by ritual, not radio. One morning I leave Harare in a pick-up headed toward the remote south-eastern corner of the country. With me are officials from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Welfare and a nonprofit called Population Services International (PSI), which manages the circumcision campaign. It is dark by the time we arrive at the Shangani tribal homestead, and our bags are covered in a thick layer of dust. As we sit in the idling truck on the outskirts of the homestead, awaiting permission to proceed, I hear chanting in the darkness to my right. The ceremony that the Shangani use to usher boys into manhood is in progress.
Soon I hear a strange whipping noise, and a small group of young boys cross the road in front of us. The dim lights inside the car illuminate the source of the noise: the boys shake reeds as they walk, to signify their recent circumcision. The noise alerts others to their presence; women must kneel and hide their faces when the newly circumcised pass by.
To our left I see the glow of a fire where women are cooking food for the men. Soon, one of my companions tells me, they will carry the meal across the road, singing as they walk. They will wait with the food, singing until they hear the men sing back as they emerge from the camp to fetch the meal, departing before they arrive in order to avoid eye contact.
The rituals and teachings passed to boys during the ceremony have never been disclosed to women or outsiders. A boy can join the camp any time after it starts, but once he enters he cannot leave until the ceremony ends in August. Once completed, the camp is burned to remove all trace of its contents.
This secrecy was one reason why the Shangani initially resisted bringing the ceremony in line with modern medical standards. In negotiations with Chief Sengwe, who governs the homestead, PSI officials and others had to navigate a thicket of protocols and customs. On one occasion, the officials were trapped in a circle of tribesmen who refused to let them leave the homestead. They eventually convinced Chief Sengwe to allow PSI to set up a medical circumcision tent in the outer circle of the camp. The clinicians are the rare outsiders allowed inside the ceremonial camp, and even they are forbidden from the innermost area.
Eventually we receive permission to proceed, and drive to the Chief’s home. We left the nearest town that afternoon, and the house is the first I have seen since that looks like it could survive a storm. We leave the car for the first time since night fell. It is cold and I feel hedged in by the silent landscape and a sky screaming with stars. We are six kilometres from the Limpopo river now: we could walk south to South Africa or east to Mozambique.
Chief Sengwe invites us to sit around a campfire, joined by his aides and some children. I’ve been told not to make eye contact with the Chief and I’m not even sure if I should look at him at all. But I sneak a peek and am surprised by how normal he appears. His blue cotton fishing hat gives him a grandpa-ish feel, and his yellow jacket, which features a South African flag on the sleeve, looks like the remnant of a sports kit. I am given the seat of honour: a chair next to the Chief, which I am later told is a rare position for a woman.
The meeting begins with a round of clapping. Through a translator, Chief Sengwe tells us how glad he is for the medical services that PSI has provided. He also praises his tribe’s safety record. Unlike the Xhosa in South Africa – among whom botched circumcisions and hypothermia have caused multiple deaths during manhood initiation rituals – no Shangani boy has ever died from the procedure. The Chief is telling the government people that the tribe, though grateful, did not need help. He takes a very long time to convey the sentiment.
The initiation ritual is integral to Shangani manhood, the Chief then explains to me. A boy cannot become a Shangani man without being circumcised. He’s not concerned about the health benefits, he adds. “We would not think in terms of protecting us from HIV,” he says. “This is cultural, it’s a way of living.” The Chief knows young people are straying from the tribe’s traditions, including circumcision. “If my culture were to die I would be disappointed even in my grave,” he says. “But as long as I’m living, I don’t think that will happen.”
After we talk he engages the public health officials in a lengthy conversation about when they will provide the T-shirts for the camp’s closing ceremony. Not long afterwards, a PSI official in our group asks me about the cough drops I’d mentioned having when the Chief said he was getting over a cold. Gifts are important to the Chief and to PSI’s relationship with him; the official had bought groceries for him before we left town. He encouraged me to make a gift of my Halls. I add some headache medicine, which earns me a slow handshake and a look in the eyes.
On the way back to the truck, I ask the Chief’s top aide, David Mugwadi, about the origins of the Shangani. He tells me that the tribe is descended from Abraham. “That is why we follow this practice.” By “this practice” he means circumcision, of course. The Old Testament tells the story of Abraham’s covenant with God, and the command to circumcise every male as an expression of that bond.
I have been wondering for months why some African tribes practise ritual circumcision – why removing the foreskin has come to symbolise manhood and loyalty. But Mugwadi’s explanation is a surprise. I grew up in a Jewish home, and would have been circumcised at infancy if I’d been a boy. If our histories were correct, my parents’ decision would have been rooted in the same ancient events that have brought Shangani boys, year after year, to a secret camp by the Limpopo river.