To make men who could run a hundred miles on a handful of millet and a spurt of cow's blood, the Kalenjin tribes employed powerful means. The most potent was ritual circumcision.
To come of age in much of East Africa, a boy between 12 and 20 must command himself to remain stoic while an extremely sensitive part of his body is slowly cut away. Sir A. Claud Hollis, a British diplomat, wrote of Nandi circumcision in 1909: "The boy's face is carefully watched by the surrounding crowd of warriors and old men to see whether he blinks or makes a sign of pain. Should he in any way betray his feelings, he is dubbed a coward and receives the name of kipite. This is considered a great disgrace, and no kipite may ever attend another circumcision festival." Or claim full rights as an adult.
Boys are prepared with months of seclusion and instruction in the ways of the tribe. "Circumcision parallels what the military does to a draftee," Boit has said. "The elders shave his head, give him a new name and subject him to rigorous discipline, all to remove his individuality and replace it with a new identity of toughness and obedience."
Kibor was circumcised at 14. "Some other boys and I. It was important," he says. "But everybody does it." So how could it be extraordinary? Kibor doesn't think it the most difficult thing he's ever done. It was not as hard, he says, as leaving his childhood home to go to a distant school. The discomfort of running he does not see fit to mention.
"Once you feel the sweetness of winning," Ndoo has said, "running is not what you call pain. The pain is losing. Most of them don't even think about what they are feeling...until you ask them."
So widespread is circumcision that Kenyans can seem rather offhand about it. CIRCUMCISION RITUALS IN FULL SWING, reads a headline in the Daily Nation. "December is always a busy month...."
The story, by Waigwa Kiboi, details how the Kuria tribe near the Tanzanian border practices not only male but also female circumcision, or clitoridectomy, which is outlawed by the government. "As you walk along the roads," writes Kiboi, "you will see young men and women dancing wildly as they surround the initiates, who, despite the pain and bleeding, walk home majestically."
"There is no way," says Nelson Monanka, a farmer, "that girls can command respect here if they are not circumcised and ready for marriage."
Marriage means farm labor and childbearing. Circumcision, one is told, allows women not to be distracted by concern for their own pleasure. It lets them be good wives. In this way, and in many others, the plight of Kenyan women is dismal.
"Parents acquire cows as dowry," says Boit, "as the bride price for a daughter. It makes a wife more of an economic object than a partner in a joint venture."