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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

There is Nothing like a Good Circumcision

There is a moment in "Can't buy me Love" when Ronald Miller, played by Patrick Dempsey, tries to woo Cindy Mancini by learning the dance moves to a local TV program he thinks is bitchin'. Little does he know that the program he is watching isn't American Bandstand, but rather a local Tucson African dance symposium filmed in a nearby convention center. Probably. The lighting was dark. It felt like PBS.
What ensued was one of the great prom memories at Tucson High School, and for that matter the entire generation of moviegoers.

Fast forward to 2010's Cultural Week at Kyambogo University: This is March Madness, College Bowl Games, and Tribal Warfare mixed into one peaceful, delicious delivery of Ugandan culture. The dance moves are better than advertised and the costumes are simply stunning. Dempsey doesn't have a thing on these artists. And he knows it.

Some quick snippets from the past seven days:

  • Twenty four tribes singing the Kyambogo University anthem in consecutive order while locals slashed the grass adjacent to the main stage. Why they picked the exact same time to compete for attention highlights the disorganized nature of what goes on here from day to day. Pick any other spot on campus and the choirs are heard loud and clear. But since four men in bandanas and dark sunglasses had hand mowers the size of chainsaws, unless you were within twenty feet of the stage, you heard nothing.

  • The three judges for each competition were seated on red plastic chairs in a pool of mud. They didn't move or suggest another spot to adjudicate from. They just sat there. For hours. Judging in the mud.

  • Tribal Dancing. The outfits were tremendous. The dancing was tremendous. The pageantry, the atmosphere, the beer tents, the vendors selling sausages, liver, and beef on sticks...check, check, check. Two of my students danced for the Ateso tribe from Eastern Uganda. Great outfits, white face and chest paint, fake beards, wonderful symmetry. I enjoyed their dances for a good hour as they practiced and played their version of the guitar, by plucking two metal instruments on a wooden block with their thumbs.

  • Miss and Mister Culture 2010, proudly presented by Good African Coffee...The coffee that will keep you up while you wait for Miss and Mister Culture to finally begin. 

The proceedings only started three and half hours late. Not bad. Plenty enough time for me to be called mzungu eleven hundred times, develop lower back pain, resort to sausage for dinner yet again, guzzle three local stouts from a pony keg, and nearly sprain my ankle falling over discarded maize. I was so tired before the girls came out in their evening gowns that I nearly missed them entirely. When they began the talent show and a rotund co-ed began lip-syncing to a provacative 90s boy band tune, I had seen enough.


But tonight they saved the best for last: ON THE MAIN STAGE...A LIVE CIRCUMCISION!!!


I was in my office with Mariah, explaining the many ways to hook a reader in the introductory paragraph of an argumentative essay, when Olivia walked in. I assumed she wanted advice on her upcoming essay. It was an hour before class and my office hours were officially over.

Olivia: Sir, the circumcision.

I nearly swallow my own tongue.

Olivia: We take you? It goes on now.

Me (grabbing my things in a rush): I guess I probably should.

4:40 p.m.

In a field of mud and wet grass, three tents surround the main stage. Students and locals flood the grounds, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the "candidate". A good thousand people are on hand. There is nothing like a good circumcision.

We meet up with students Maxwell, Anita, and Damalie, and walk as close as we can to the center of the muddy ring. A man on the microphone was speaking Gisu, the local language of the Bagisu people of eastern Uganda. Circumcision is their bread and butter. Some tribes can dance. Some can sing. The Bagisu can cut.

Me: Does he bleed?

(Laughter from everyone within twenty yards)

Olivia: You ask obvious questions, sir.

Me: I don't know how to tell you this but this is my first circumcision.

Meanwhile, tribal men in shorts, holding sticks and branches of a local tree, painted red and white from head to toe, taunt the audience. One of the bigger ones gulps from a chalice, spews the backwash into the masses and stomps mud into the crowd.

There is nothing like a good circumcision.

We keep waiting for the candidate. I'm checking my watch. Seventeen minutes till class. Then fifteen. A large mob of tribesmen storm into the crowd, holding their sticks, chanting, scaring the crowd, then come rushing down the wet hill pretending to have the candidate in their midst. Our hopes go up, then are dashed. Each one of the tribesmen seem to be on HGH. Or meth.

Then, finally, from behind a classroom, in the middle of a swarm of male bravado, The Candidate arrives.

(There is nothing like a good circumcision)

"We now..cut...life!" the MC yells.

Olivia (turning towards me in amusement): It's translated from our language, but it sounds funny I think.

Me: Pretty much.

The Candidate is not a boy. He's a man. A shirtless, shoeless, ripped young man, wearing a simple cloth to cover his jubblies. He holds a staff in both hands and runs to the center of the pit. His tribesmen whoop and holler. People cheer. Mud splashes. Men, women and children lean in to get a closer look. I stand on my tiptoes, very amused, hanging back about thirty feet from a man's foreskin. There is nothing like a good circumcision.

The circle around the candidate shrinks until you can only see his face, painted white with red lips. He looks up to the sky, determined, firmly plants his bare feet into the mud, raises his staff with both arms above his head and....


Then we went to class.

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