foreskins help drive politics in kenya

NAIROBI Depending on whom you talk to here, presidential hopeful Raila Odinga is a man, or a boy, with a problem.


Depending on whom you talk to here, presidential hopeful Raila Odinga is a man, or a boy, with a problem.

In many of the tribes in Kenya and across East Africa, the pathway to manhood requires a teenage male undergo a ceremony, sometimes months long, that includes an elder circumcising his foreskin.

In these cultures, if a male’s genitalia remain intact, regardless of his age, he remains a boy and can’t lead other men.

The problem for Odinga, 62, is — you guessed it — he hasn’t walked down this pathway to Manville.

No, I don’t go to his gym. But, regrettably, I do know his genital status, having been told by many people upon arriving here in July that Odinga remains fully intact.

Yes, politics in Kenya hits below the belt.

Propagandists — and let’s be fair, writers — can and do have a field day with this stuff.

But while a commentary on the issues that matter to some communities as the December 27th poll draws near would be, well, insensitive, telling the stories that inform the myths is a great lesson in Kenyan history and culture.

Odinga is from the Luo, one of the largest tribes in Kenya.

The Luo don’t circumcise their members — sorry … citizens — to mark the passage into manhood like majority of the 42 tribes in Kenya.

Instead, they remove six teeth from a boy’s bottom jaw and declare him a man.

Studies have yet to conclude which of the two rites induces screams of a higher pitch, though, if you’re wondering, Odinga is complete in the dental department, too.

Aside from his manhood, because he’s a Luo, Odinga is a perceived threat to the Kikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya.

The Kikuyu have dominated the political landscape here since the British packed up their teacups in 1963 and let the country govern itself.

Fittingly, a popular phrase on Kikuyu lips these days is “One Dangerous Man,” a play on the acronym for the Orange Democratic Movement party that Odinga leads.

Some of the smears are impressively high tech.

“Before concluding that I am hitting the guy below the belt (pun intended) it is him who, on several occasions, have stated this fact and in fact tried to make a case for being uncircumcised,” reads part of an e-mail being forwarded to voters, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

The commission has been monitoring the 2007 election campaign for violence, use of public funds to pay for campaigning, sexism and hate speech.

Its recent report, Still Behaving Badly has several copies of text messages being sent to cellphones here, of which most of the 34 million or so people in Kenya own at least one, if not two.

“We (the Kikuyu) have six million votes. Do you want us to be ruled by an uncircumcised man to take us back to joblessness?” reads part of one message.

Friends I work with say they get up to three messages like this a day.

“We are seeing the rise of what we are calling the politics of the foreskin,” said Kenya National Commission on Human Rights director Maina Kiai of the messages.

“We must stop judging leaders for what is below their waste and instead judge them for what is above their shoulders.”

Still, the dirtiest cuss in Kenya is to call someone uncircumcised. And it seems the slur has real ramifications.

In February, 20 high-school students who were uncircumcised were sent home from their school in a town north of Nairobi over fears other students would beat them.

There are other myths circulating within communities about Odinga, according to a Kikuyu friend, Nga’nga, who lives in Nairobi but visits his home village often.

One of them goes something like, “If Raila wins, all Kikuyu will be forced to wear shorts,” he said.

I gave him a blank stare.


During the colonial times in Kenya, only ‘wazungus’ — Swahili for white people — were allowed to wear pants. Kenyans were forced to wear shorts, which despite what you may think of the climate here isn’t the most appropriate clothing, especially in the winter.

The myth hints that Odinga’s Luo community will lord over the rest like colonizers if he becomes president.

Another fascinating piece of folklore goes back to the 1960s.

Back then a Kenyan prophet named Eliza Musinde founded a religion mixing Christianity and animism that continues to play a role in many peoples lives today called Din Ya Musambwa.

Musinde once said the power of the Luhya, a tribe from the country’s western regions, “will come from the lake,” explained Nga’nga.

Again, I gave him a blank stare.

Odinga’s running mate, Musalia Mudavadi, will become vice-president if Odinga wins the election.

Mudavadi is a Luhya, and Odinga, being a Luo, is from the Lake Turkana area in the country’s northwest.

See the connection? Odinga has unwavering support from the Luhya for this fact alone, said Nga’nga.

And then there is the court trial.

Several Kenyan elders don’t want Odinga to visit a shrine for Musinde because he’s uncircumcised and thus still considered a boy. They recently took the matter to court.

While they lost the case, Odinga still hasn’t gone to the shrine.

 Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.