Circumcision

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Circumcision once played an important part in Pende men's initiation, although it is now performed at birth. Each village had several men skilled in this delicate operation, and for the occasion they painted their faces with white and red and donned the crimson feathers of Lady Ross' turaco ordinarily worn by men who have killed dangerous animals or who have committed homicide in battle. They may have worn masks as well to render them, as Mudiji-Malamba (1989) asserts, “unrecognizable and terrifying.” As circumcision began, men loudly played drums and sang, “Malenga, the first boy to be circumcised, suffered greatly. Oh, the circumciser was a leopard.” As the boys were circumcised, an nganji raffia mask appeared, but only partially costumed. The boys were distracted from their pain by learning that the mask was danced by a man they knew; during the operation, other nganji masks danced in the space between the initiation camp and the village and were especially aggressive to passersby. The initiation continues to flourish today among the Eastern Pende although it has been divorced from circumcision itself (see Strother 1998, 2007).