The Power of The Drum
“If they want order they have to stop that drumming,” Erik, shouted over the noise. I was happy my co-worker had insisted on coming. I needed a little Ugandan explanation to make sense of what I was seeing. For the last two hours the police had been trying to move a large crowd that had already been partying for six days, out of the party, only to stand in a long line and be let back in again through a security checkpoint. The group consisted mostly of already drunk men, there to celebrate the commencement of circumcision season. This happens every two years and is extremely important to the Bugishu people. If you are Bugishu and you die uncircumcised, they will circumcise you before they bury you. It is your test of manliness and your introduction to manhood. Traditionally upon completion you are given land, cows, goats, and the blessing from your family and clan leader to start your own life. This year the president of Uganda, Museveni, was supposed to attend the event, so the weeklong party was interrupted by his Excellency’s need for people to pass through a security checkpoint. People were not happy. They shouted their political views. They complained that their food would get cold. They claimed the land as their own and not that of the president. But finally they gave in and had started to form a massive line behind a single portable metal detector, set up on a stretch of dirt road leading into the celebration. All was going surprisingly well when a truck of to-be-circumcised boys arrived armed with a big drum. The rhythm instantly infected the crowd. The line became a horde, hands in the arm, hips jerking, feet moving. The foreign machine was knocked over, dragged a bit, as the drum continued and the crowd continued toward the entrance. There was nothing left for the police to do. The people flooded in. Circumcision Day had officially begun. “That’s the power of the drum” Erik exclaimed, grinning.
For this entry I have to shed a bit of the anthropological, introspective tone; let me be real, this shit was crazy! (ok, ok, as well as culturally fascinating)
Boys and men were finding all kinds of ways to show their fierceness and strength. One man walked around with a giant log on this head. Another waved a hoof with raw meat still hanging off. More raw meat was displayed as a man carried it, high above his head, hanging off of a wooden spear. Men carried gourds filled with a warm thick millet brew that they share amongst themselves. The boys dance and dress as warriors. Their steps must shake the ground to prove their menacing might. They were draped in beads and decorated with cowry shells and animal hide. But, some boys had an additional accoutrement: a headdress. Going along with the traditional theme, you could suppose this headdress was made out of other natural materials. No, this headdress was a crown of dollar store rubble (of course there are no actual dollar stores here): Christmas tinsel, cheap plastic baby dolls, light bulbs. A mane of goat hair completed the glory.
Erik and I, as if spit out of a tornado, tumbled into the first seats available as we entered the relative calm of the gated ceremony area. This area was for government officials and special guests. I hate to admit it, but I was able to use my “WP” (white privilege) to walk in uninvited and remained unbothered. As we sat awaiting the string of government speeches, the men around us started, one by one, to unsheathe their knives. Photographers rushed over. I quickly started to feel out of place. A man, clearly agitated, quickly motioned us to a new seating section labeled “Invited Guests”. As I looked back to where we had been sitting I saw the sign “Traditional Surgeons”. Err… oops!
I was later able to speak with one of the traditional surgeons in depth. He informed me that traditional surgeons usually do most of their initial practice on the necks of chickens. He told me that they sterilize the knife if they are circumcising a Muslim, but it is Bugishu tradition not to sterilize the knife. So the knives used in the ceremony are intentionally not sterilized. A traditional surgeon carries many knives because a new one is used on each new boy. He also explained that most of the surgeons are called upon by spirits. Ancestors usually come to you in your dreams. He elaborated “it doesn’t matter if you are in London or California, the spirits of your ancestors will find you and they won’t let you rest until you do as they wish and become a traditional surgeon.” He told me that a man that becomes a surgeon without the blessing of the spirits is dangerous because he is working alone. This surgeon assured me that he could drink gourds of millet beer and when he went to “operate” he would be perfectly sober and controlled because it would be the spirits with him guiding his movements. I also learned that the spirit of wanting to become a circumciser could possess women. But women are not allowed to become circumcisers and this condition must be treated. Thankful this spirit has stayed far away from me; being a circumciser looks terrifying, but of course not as terrifying as being circumcised in public.
The circumciser has throngs of people pushing closer to see the action while they are making their delicate cuts. The boy being circumcised must remain perfectly stoic; they cannot grimace, flinch, shy-away or yell. If they do, they bring shame to their family and a bad omen to the clan. They can be beaten for this offense. They cover their wound with a cloth and wait there in the midst of everyone for the major bleeding to stop. The party continues, the drum beats on…