Kagure Mugo
Kagure Mugo

What good is tradition if we lose a penis?

Recently a young man lost his penis.

The member in question was lost during an initiation ritual and when he attempted to ask the elders what to do about it (raising the matter in a public forum) he allegedly received a beating.

The reason he got this beating? Because by speaking out the initiate was allegedly “shaming the custom”. He loses a penis but he is the one who shames tradition.

Something seems off. This is clearly a case gone completely awry.

But this is sadly not an isolated incident. In 2013 a study showed that 175 initiates in Pondoland had been admitted to hospital with complications and that 25 eventually lost part or their entire penis.

When someone loses an organ it’s time to figure out if we are doing it right or if we should be doing it at all. To rethink a custom or part of a culture that has become more harmful than helpful.

Or even useful.

As an African woman I am no stranger to the push and pull of cultural practices. I’m offered certain pieces of meat due to the fact that I am a girl (kidneys are apparently “girl meat”). Also there is the fact that boys are told they are older than me purely by virtue of their gender.

I was once instructed to get my younger cousin (my junior by three years) food because “he is a man’ and thus I must serve him and give him the same respect as an adult. Frankly I am not sure how much of a man he was at the time with his lack of direction in life, extreme laziness and socks that smelled like a cesspit in summer.

That boy could get his own food, to hell with what culture said.

I had worked hard in university, paid my own rent and did not have funky feet. He should have gotten me food.

But I cannot lie, I am partial to some aspects of tradition and culture. I am of the nostalgic school of thought that holds firm to the belief that colonisation wrecked an idyllic life filled with homesteads, cows and nomadic tendencies. I also feel that they do have something to teach us in this day and age, for example the idea tied to respecting the aged as they have a wealth of knowledge.

In looking at tradition there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water but we do need to look at the role a particular practice plays in society.

Case in point, polygamy.

What is the real reason for the act of marrying more than one person in this day and age?

Men (and women) across the continent use the “culture” card but culture does not exist in a vacuum, it is there for a reason.

Back in the old country (as they say in Russia), polygamy was seen as empire building, a full house was a powerful house. Children were seen as a source of wealth. But in this day and age does this argument carry any weight? One need only look at the price of higher education and the fact that some children stay at home for extended periods of time, sometimes till the ripe old age of 30.

The average child is more of a financial drain than anything else.

Furthermore with the rise of the “absentee father” one really has to question whether men can really be entrusted with the responsibility of children in multiple households when some can barely tackle one. The strange thing is it is often these very men who are the most vocal, the men who can barely hold down one household are the ones who want multiple ones.

Other reasons for polygamy hold equally as little weight and include the following:

* As a form of birth control for women: We have the pill now.

* For political alliances: You can join your local political party and let them align (see: DA and Agang, EFF and PAC). Elections on May 7, hope you have registered to vote.

* Agricultural manpower: Children helped farm the land for food. I challenge anyone to go to their local Pick n Pay with more than two family members and then explain this to me as a justification for polygamy.

* For male sexual gratification: This is probably the most laughable. We are in a post-sexual revolution world and the some statistics indicate that a high percentage of heterosexual women have never had an orgasm. Handle one woman first, then we talk.

Despite the reasons given for polygamy becoming obsolete the practice seems to have morphed into something a little less homely and a little more seedy.

A Bill was passed in Kenya recently allowing for the registration of polygamous marriages. The level of respect for the custom that forms a part of this practice was shown when a member of parliament said “when you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way, and a third wife … this is Africa”.

Men seem to have forgotten the reasons for polygamy are not to have more than one warm body to share your last name and your bed. There are social, financial and emotional responsibilities tied to it.

And if we are going to have polygamy then we should also look into the idea of polyandry. It, too, has historical cultural roots. Furthermore, with the economic empowerment of women I challenge anyone to say they cannot run more than one household. I personally believe I could handle a stable with the right planning, an Excel sheet and weekly Pilates to remain limber.

And, truth be told the economy, is just not what it used to be. It’s all very well and good for Jacob Zuma, he has Nkandla.

Certain traditions need to be looked at in their modern context. It is not a disregard for culture it is simply good sense. Simply doing something for the sake of doing it does not make it right, it just makes the person doing it seem somewhat mindless. Culture is not static. Understanding the reasoning behind it is what gives the custom true weight, not its supposed “timelessness”.

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  • 67 Responses to “What good is tradition if we lose a penis?”

    1. Rodney #

      Dear Mark, Sorry about the delay in responding. It was not petulance but I have been away enjoying a few days of carnal pleasure. But, please, Mark, no more. As Queen Gertrude might have said: the gentleman really dost protest too much. To use your own words: men who have never had circumcised sex “have no way to compare…” Charlotte has got it spot on with her quote from Dr Chris Smith (The Naked Scientist.)

      BTW I have just read a book ‘The Venetians: A New History: From Marco Polo to Casanova’ by Paul Strathern.’ in it I learn that uncircumcised, promiscuous Casanova, disease-ridden with STDs, died at age 59 after the life of seduction (and disease). His teeth began to fall out, and he suffered from diminishing sexual potency, all this with his foreskin intact. And here I am, in my dotage, carrying not one iota of infection, and still having fun. Go figure!

      This is beginning to sound like religious fervour and I will not be drawn into that. Leave it alone, Mark. By protesting too much, doest thou say more about thineself than others?

      April 28, 2014 at 6:49 pm
    2. Mark #

      Dear Charlotte,

      Hope you had a chance to watch the video. Regarding Dr. Chris Smith, let’s firstly look closely at the language he is using: “He said from a scientific, and his, point of view, it was safer to be circumcised and the earlier the better. He considered it more hygienic, much easier to prevent genital infections and also from the carrying and passing on one of the main causes cervical cancer to women.”

      So let me get this straight: this is a scientist and he is claiming a cure for hygiene, genital infections (all?) -and- even cervical cancer (hm, what else can we throw in here…), and he doesn’t deem the SA public worthy of any references? Why not? His language should be: “Based on our current findings, we may be able to suggest that….however, I stress that this may change according to future research.” Listen closely to scientists talk – they do it modestly (“I could be wrong but ..”), not because they don’t know, but because good academics have to be skeptics. They get peer-reviewed and laughed out the house if not. This is obvious, but ok, people only need one book to tell them the earth is 5000 years old. Pretty arrogant to think he can get away with this here though.

      Not only that, he is adding “and his, point of view,”! A scientist wants to give us his “point of view”? Must be joking! This man has a Phd, he should know better. So what is it exactly then: scientific evidence, or his point of view?

      April 29, 2014 at 2:21 pm
    3. Mark #

      Continued: This is not about some product preference. This has a major impact on men’s – and women’s- lives, and he wants to give us his “point of view” without serious references and his absolute assurance! Sorry, but this is unprofessional. Any academic reading this would know what I mean. As I mentioned before, to treat those without such an education as not worthy of that scientific modesty and source back up, throws up a lot of new questions as to how he regards SA society. He is English. Most of England is genetically intact. Do you seriously think the average reasonably educated Englishman is going to willingly fall for that? So why does he think he can pull it off in Africa? (one UK scientific finding: http://phe.oxfordjournals.org/content/6/1/90.abstract)

      When Rodney mentioned “penis envy”, he inadvertently hit the nail on the head. It is widely known that most circumcisers are circumcised themselves. Why is that exactly? And if Smith is not, then he should put his money where his mouth is and have himself done.

      Things get more interesting. Take a look at Smith’s sponsors (http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/about-us/thanks/wellcome/). Numerous links online show the trust’s “interest” in African circumcision. Here is one – click on “Grant Support” for a pro-circ Southern African campaign – look at bottom: Wellcome Trust. Here again: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002212

      April 29, 2014 at 3:06 pm
    4. Mark #

      Oh my, a hilarious spelling mistake: “genetically” should of course be “genitally”! If only I could edit.

      April 29, 2014 at 3:08 pm
    5. Mark #

      Charlotte: “from a non-scientific point of view, whether circumcised or not, it would be impossible for two individuals to compare the extent of the sensation of an orgasm. How could one?”

      Women could compare dryness (in similar age group), they can compare orgasm experienced or not. Pretty simple really. The foreskin rubs certain vital vaginal places. Areas not otherwise.

      “And how could any man decide for himself whether from an orgasmic and carnal perspective, it was better to have been circumcised or not? … ” Simple. Look at the facts – see what highly erogenous zones have been cut off. Now what is more likely then? You tell me. “Unless he had had a circumcision as an adult,” – finally an ethical context – “… had sex before the procedure and then again afterwards, would he be able to compare the difference in the ‘pleasure’ ” Men have done just that and I can quote numerous forum members in deep depression over it (by the way, their phimosis only needed some skin stretching. Problem solved!). Circumsexuals – men who enjoy pain & mutilation are a different category entirely – not average behaviour.
      “.. that sex is all in the brain. ” Brain yes, but in the context, apparently insinuating something more. So the thousands of men who have been cut so tight their erections are painful, aren’t really experiencing that pain? You seem to assume much about a) men b) mutilation c) need for sexual and bodily integrity. Perhaps you didn’t mean to!

      April 29, 2014 at 3:33 pm
    6. Mark #

      To return to the African “circumcision” campaign and Smith’s “confident” urging: according to the following source, African men are not convinced. All that funding money spent is perhaps not working out too well. “Now researchers say campaigns in Swaziland, Botswana and Malawi are failing due to concerns from men, communities and countries about whether medical male circumcision is appropriate
      for them”. One African man said it perfectly: “They tell you to circumcise and also use condoms, why?” said one uncircumcised man … “This thing is not 100% effective so why don’t you just leave the circumcision thing and condomise?”
      Pg 8: http://www.malecircumcision.org/country_updates/documents/HATIP_205.pdf

      I cannot help wondering why you (“now let’s put the subject to bed”) and Rodney (“Leave it alone, Mark.” and “But, please, Mark, no more.” – wow, outrageous!) are telling me to stop writing here. This topic hardly ever gets dealt with, certainly not at this detail. This effects millions of lives and you want me to keep quiet. Why exactly? Why do you both feel so uncomfortable that I have presented my case here? If you really didn’t want to communicate further, then why still read or comment here? So you can post, but I can’t reply? Is that fair? And what are you Rodney insinuating with: “…By protesting too much, doest thou say more about thineself than others?” Last I checked, I didnt need a mentor and did have free speech.

      April 29, 2014 at 4:15 pm
    7. Mark #

      All I have basically argued for is that every man is entitled to his own self-mutilation through his own decision – as an adult. No one has the right to make that decision for another, so why make it on infants? Maybe that “get ‘em while they are babies” attitude “Dr.” Smith so crudely recommends, is because they are defenseless then. They can’t say no. Hm?

      Most people don’t know that this is more about cutting. The foreskin is fused to the glans (normally until sometime pre-teens, roughly). It is actually so to prevent infection from faeces, etc.The nerve-saturated area is ripped off. How long does that take? How painful is that? Then only cut. Babies scream for a reason, and when they stop they have gone into shock. Some “doctors” take more than others and scrape away every loose bit of skin they can find. That is why there are gradings – from CI-1 upwards. They took more than asked for by parents? “Oops, oh, well.”

      Whatever people may wish and even urge for, men won’t stop agitating. Those men that are happy with their circ are absolutely entitled to that. Those who aren’t however, have the right to demand control over their own bodies – starting as babies. This topic is important enough to be debated. Posters here would prefer that bush circumcisions be seen as dangerous because not in hospital. Not so. Example 1: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/rabbi-sued-allegedly-severing-newborn-penis-article-1.1561056

      April 29, 2014 at 4:51 pm
    8. Mark #

      A quick search online provides just some examples of many more:
      Ashton Rhodes loses penis
      http://www.wmctv.com/story/23899878/a-look-ahead-mother-claims-doctor-disfigured-son-after-botched-circumcision
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32xzVmC7Zv8
      Trucker loses penis
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14619926
      Young boy loses penis:
      http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/archive/boy-undergoes-surgery-to-reattach-penis/

      Deaths:
      http://www.circumstitions.com/death.html

      This link shows botches by “doctors” and are quite common in forums. By the way, it has two messages asking if you don’t mind seeing graphic material:
      http://www.circumstitions.com/Restric/Botched1sb.html

      There are many complications. One “doctor” who circumcises even warns about them beforehand. A legal precaution perhaps?
      http://www.drbehrmann.com/New/Circ.html

      “Risks

      As with any surgical procedure, circumcision carries some risk. Parents considering the procedure should be informed by their physician of possible complications, which may include:

      ¨ pain,

      ¨ hemorrhaging,

      ¨ infection,

      ¨ injury to the penis during the procedure.

      ¨ difficulty urinating, and

      ¨ deformity and scarring of the penis including removing too much or too little skin.”

      April 29, 2014 at 5:17 pm
    9. Mr. Direct #

      @Mark

      My sympathies on your parents poor choices.

      I find it amazing that religious organisations, who believe God to be infallible, second guess His design for the male penis by cutting parts off. The fact He included it in our design means that it has purpose, else why would He waste his time?

      And if you are not a God fearing man (which you have already stated of course), if the foreskin served no purpose, it would have simply vanished over time in our natural evolution. Would it not?

      Surely scientist’s opinions are not nearly as compelling as religion or evolution, are they?

      And to the author, I think traditions are all good and fine if they improve quality of life, i.e. rites that benefit the community overall. I do not think we should keep traditions that cause pain, suffering, or loss of life. There is no way to tell whether a spiritual leader is listening to the voices of your ancestors, or whether he is just plain crazy. Better safe than sorry I think.

      April 29, 2014 at 5:21 pm
    10. Baz #

      @mark you have your opinion,like anyone else. I thought one could air one’s view on any topic but it seems that your opinons only count. Secondly, Ihave a healthy attitude towards life and in general, not screwed up on sexual matters. This perticular subject is
      not easy for our majority who are still into traditional way of doing circumcizion. And in recent medical reports : males are encouraged to go the medical route.
      I merely came from a different angle. Enough said.

      April 30, 2014 at 11:03 am
    11. Mark #

      Hi Baz, of course you have every right to your opinion and the way you feel about your body. Please understand I am debating you, not because it is anything personal, but this topic has (yes traditionally) always been played down. I am hard on the topic, not people. Men are told to man up and are reduced to some abstract idea of “circumcision”. Most people have no idea how varied the mutilation is.

      There is only one book on restoration (mitosis – cells divide and cause new skin growth) called “The Joy of Uncircumcising” by Jim Bigelow. It does not show the latest methods, nor can it help with so many individual problems. So, the only we get get that info is on forums. Guys need advice because no average doctor has a clue about this. One photo I shall never forget – it looked like a carrot peeled with a very blunt knife (a Mohel). But it’s all “luck of the draw” how much “doctors” take away too. My JHB butcher, whoever he was, was “merciful” and left me with a full frenulum and some delta. He knew the value of these bits. But no one has any control over who does what.

      I have to accept & restore. However, I must also out of principle stand up for the many guys in far worse situations than I and for those born everyday into this barbarism. It’s a meat market under “tradition’s” & “medical” guise – power and money. How can I be blithe and uncaring? USA -117 die every year, NBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ833NuSptI

      April 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm
    12. Mark #

      Hi Mr. Direct,

      Thanks for your thoughtful and caring post.

      I am afraid people are unaware of the level of complexity that this issue involves – emotionally, physiologically and psychologically. Once one starts delving past the surface one is left horrified and shocked at the gaping wound this leaves on men. And each time it is slightly different – from the level of mutilation, all the way through to how their parents react. Men often have to come to terms with somehow being ‘alone’ in a dark territory their parents have no interest in entering. They may have their own denial, or they may simply not care enough, or know how to care.

      I have no idea how any doctor inflicting this can live with their conscience. I certainly wouldn’t change places for any amount of money. They know the anatomy. I hope my butcher enjoyed his Mercedes, or whatever. But it’s a pile of scrap metal now and he still has to sleep at night.

      The next time you need a check up, ask first if he (or she) circumcises. Then let him know why you won’t be continuing with his practice. Like anything, it will always only be the person in the street, the consumer and patient who will change society, bit by bit. It is impossible to change everything in one go, or to buy ethically each time, but if we make even slight changes it will have an impact on a greater scale – the powers and perpetrators finally must react too. People start waking up.

      Thanks again.

      April 30, 2014 at 2:10 pm
    13. Mark #

      Youtube commenter:
      “All I can tell you is that at 13 when I first started masturbating, I had a tight foreskin which I couldn’t retract. I would masturbate by manipulating the end of the foreskin. I remember that it would bring me great pleasure, a tingling sensation that would make it very easy to ejaculate, but which I could control through speed of movement as I had feedback. Now imagine if the doctor had just asked me when I was 14 to stretch my foreskin instead of cutting it off and I had then experienced sex/masturbation with a retractable foreskin, which would bring even more sensation. Instead he duped my parents and myself into the ‘just a little snip’.

      When I took off the bandages, my heart leapt into my throat. My mother couldn’t believe what had been done either. From that moment on I have felt no sexual pleasure. I knew when I saw it that that was the case. Once I had healed and tried masturbating I had my fears confirmed. There is no erogenous tissue left. No frenulum. No ridged band. The ridged band and frenulum are where 99% of the pleasure comes from. My penis isn’t 100% numb but it’s been turned into a non-sexual organ, in effect, because any tissue that’s left is external and feels no different from the skin on my arm.”

      Another:
      ” … As someone who’s been intact (and was cut without my informed consent), I can state categorically that it destroys sexual pleasure. Destroys. ”

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqVx-Wlza2s

      April 30, 2014 at 7:37 pm
    14. Mark #

      “If there is enough groundswell opinion, the courts will jump on board.

      The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan said concerning social rights, ‘The Church usually arrives far too late and quite out of breath.’

      The Courts are not far behind. They do make social reforms but they do it late. They do consolidate social reforms, but they generally don’t make them. So the task for us is to raise social awareness so that when a case comes at the right time, it is able to be pursued and the court will finally say that the rest of the law is actually right. That religious violence (circumcision) against children is not permitted.”

      For that matter too then on cultural, traditional or so-called precautionary “medical” grounds.

      “The Assault We Ignore”
      A presentation given by James Chegwidden Barrister on 17th September 2013 at Keele University, Staffs, U.K. to the Genital Autonomy conference “Children’s rights in Europe: recent developments”. The presentation covers the current law surrounding male circumcision in the U.K.
      http://vimeo.com/78999394

      May 4, 2014 at 2:30 pm
    15. Mark #

      Further international legal developments can be found here:

      http://www.arclaw.org/recent
      Attorneys for the Rights of the Child

      May 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm
    16. Baz #

      @ Mark hope someone sends a copy of embarrassing bodies, not sure of the series number and episode but recently, watched this specific episode- low and behold , a man in his forties was having major problems with his foreskin etc……
      He was advised to under go circumcision. The result apparently, assisted him from further hassles and restored his sexual activities back to normal.
      Of course this is a case in a million- my point is; circumcision can be useful in isolated cases like this one.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:52 am
    17. Joseph Coates #

      @ Baz June 16th comment….it’s the 2nd series 2nd episode of the abovementioned programme–but it’s their down under series…..I too, happened to have watched this by accident- not everyone’s favourite…but someone has to assist with such problems.

      June 17, 2014 at 11:23 am

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