Male circumcision in Owambo - Part 3

By Petrus Angula Mbenzi
April 2013
While the boys had to observe silence and taboos on food and drinks, women of fertile age were altogether banished from the proceedings.

The symbolic act of being swallowed by the “big bird” was carried out simultaneously with the circumcision: It signified ritual death and possession by the bird spirit. The bird-men sounded their bullroarers to drown the cries of the boys as they were cut. The men acting as birds helped in holding the boys down during the operation, so that they would not struggle to free themselves.

After the circumcision, a proper ritual chase would follow, which resembled the struggle of the Ombandja girls in Ohango when they fought to free themselves from the officiates of Olufuko.

On the following day, a sheep would be sacrificed and, from its hide, belts were made to provide supernatural protection. After the wounds had healed while spending some time in the circumcision camp, the boys would be summoned to walk about in the country for a number of days. After this, the attention of the birds would turn “outward”.

This part of the ritual was identical to the procession of the “big birds” in the rain rite described by Hahn. Both took place in July before the sowing season. The circumcision birds made noisy sounds and, like the ‘rain birds’ and those in the female initiation, they could not be seen.

Sound was produced by blowing into “bark whistles” to warn people to keep out of the way. During this period, before the final purification, the boys were regarded as supernatural beings. (Loeb, 1962: 238) Loeb suggests that the neophytes had entered a sacral and liminal state after having been possessed by the “big birds” at circumcision.

When initiated, the boys, in turn, would perform the role of the big birds; blowing whistles and using their newly acquired spiritual power.

They would travel across the country acting like big birds, painted with white ashes. They were called ‘iihana ngolo’, (sing. oihanangolo); a name more commonly used for girl initiates in the liminal period of their initiation ritual.

Birds represent spirits in a number of traditions the world over. The use of bullroarers to represent spirit intervention in circumcision rituals has also been found far away from the Owambo orbit.

According to a number of narratives from Ondonga, Uukwambi and Ombalantu, the sound of big birds was produced by elders officiating at the ritual before, during and after the actual cutting into the boys’ penises.

The Uukolonkadhi word for big bird, ‘edhila’, was not spelled out but the onomatopoetic term ‘omangololi’ (rattlers) (Uukolonkahdi, Ihuhua, elc 1118:1580) was used. The same term for the bird was used in the female initiation ritual in Uukwanyama [mentioned above].

Birds were not mentioned in the descriptions from Uukwaluudhi but the boys were told “you are eaten” to indicate that spirit possession had taken place.

In Ombalantu and Uukolonkadhi, the boys would take over the bullroarers and play them at a later stage of the initiation process.

As in the Uukwanyama tradition, they would stay at an initiation camp. After recovering from their operation, they would travel across the country.

Although male initiation was no longer practised in Ondonga at the turn of the last century, there are many descriptions of how it was done earlier. It took place at a spot called ‘omwandi gwaalumentu’ under a special tree close to the grave of King Nangolo dh’Amutenya - Omwandi gwAalumentu is in the Oniipa Constituency.

This tree still exists. One wonders why it has not been declared a heritage site yet! The tree was renamed because its initial name was found offensive.

According to Fiina Mbenzi (1997: Personal Communication) who settled there with her parents from Onayena in 1932, the tree was called ‘Omwandi gwoondha’ (tree of penises).

Christian converts found this name unpleasant, hence the renaming. Mbenzi adds that the boys, after the operation, would wash themselves in Ontinda yaalumentu; a pool next to Josefat Uupindi’s homestead, which was one kilometre away from Omwandi gwaAlumentu.

Circumcised men were called ‘aakuluntu’ (sing. omakuluntu) or “adults”. They would now stand above other men in society and would make customs-related decisions. It was from their ranks that judges (aatokolihapu) and Head Diviners (oompulile) were chosen (msc Liedker: 1).

Circumcised men were a power category on their own, with capabilities related to the spiritual realm. To what extent they formed a secret society would be a topic for further investigation.

Mbenzi lists the privileges enjoyed by the circumcised men:
• They could partake the in hunting activities.
• They could become kings or chiefs.
• They could become seers for the king.
• They could map out homesteads.
• They could bless or curse children.
• They could become traditional healers.
• They could become soldiers.
• They could perform any ritual. PF