What follows is a descriptive report of what we have learnt and seen during the last two days (on the 23rd and 24th June 2019) of this famous yet fossilised ceremony at Mbomo, where the passage from childhood to adulthood of 7 candidats (boys whose age was between 10 to 15 years old who have decided voluntarily to undergo the ritual) took place. Since male initiation is a partially secret rite, occurring in hidden places of the African rainforest or simply in closed protected huts in the village, we will recall the most prominent characteristics and details of this ritual narrated mainly by Goma’s father, one of the event organisers.
Circumcision is often done for religious and cultural or traditional reasons, which includes being part of rituals or rite of passage to adulthood. In Mbomo this particular ceremony is voluntary, which means that, compared to other cultures and tribes, there is not fixed age to undergo the entire process and it is only when the boy decides to be ready to deal with this that the whole ceremony starts. Even though the decision is completely up to them, if they postpone their choice they are considered, regardless to their age, badly by the community and they will be fooled by the others. The ritual in Mbomo lasts 4 days, usually during the long dry season from June to August, and it is generally a big party for the whole community, especially the last day when the actual circumcision takes place and the village participates dancing, singing and drinking local palm and corn wines (it also unfortunately usually marks an increase in bushmeat hunting because they tend to celebrate the more they can with these “delicacies“). It involves different demonstrations of bravery and manhood to confirm that the initiate (candidat) is ready and worthy to become an adult member of the community and the actual cutting, while a pivotal moment in the circumcision ceremony, is just a small component of the whole process. All the challenges start in the late afternoon/evening and they last till the next morning when the candidats are then cleaned down to the river by people having this specific task (taking care of the candidats) and then have enough time to rest and recharge their batteries to be ready for the next challenge. They spend their 4 days altogether in a special hut built only for the ceremony. The very first step toward adulthood requires the initiates to get and stay covered for the whole night and beginning of the next day with chilly. When we got to Mbomo the very first day of the initiation rite we were with guests (Alice and Adi as guides, Sylvie as our camp manager at Ngaga) and we were invited by Goma’s father to “meet” the initiates: the boys were almost naked, they had only a sort of skirt, some lianas over their chests, a kerchief to cover their heads, an ankle bracelet and a genet skin on their side to give them strength and courage and they were not allowed to lift their eyes and look at anyone (black magic is a very popular belief in Congo and not looking in the eyes means no ways to get touched by magicians and féticheuses). When we arrived there were women dancing and singing to give them enough energy for their first day of initiation, and other women were busy cooking saka saka and manioc close by. From a culinary perspective in fact in every circumcision ceremony there are the so called famous trois pièces that has to be served to guests (not having these delicacies is considered a shame): saka saka, manioc and dried fish. All the village usually “invites” itself to the big feast and the host family (Goma’s in this specific occasion) has to provide some food (we already mentioned the famous three pieces that never have to be missing throughout a circumcision ceremony) and some local drinks (palm and corn wines) for everyone; on the other hand, everyone has to help out on some tasks and bring an “envelop” with some money. The initiates were escorted back after having spent some minutes out from their hut; the strong smell of chilly before leaving unpleasantly reminded us their first step into the ritual. Other tests may include: not eating and drinking for a prolonged period of time and challenges where they must endure the pain without tearing, wincing, flinching or falling. Goma’s father was one of the event organisers and he was hosting the big party giving the possibility to all families to get their children initiated. We received the letter of invitation to this particular ceremony mainly because two members of Goma’s family are currently working with us and they had to invite us as part of their “extended family”; to get the possibility to partake this experience we also had to get there with at least a member of our local staff to be welcomed and to respect the community rules.
The initiation rite to adulthood is a very important step into their communal lives because it generally marks the difference between being accepted or not by the whole community. The forth and last day is the most chaotic, messy, wild, crazy and frenzied. Women performing polyphonic songs, children all around clapping their hands following their mothers, men drinking and dancing. We found ourselves in the middle of this thrilling scene in the hottest time of the day. One by one all the candidates follow the same procedures and the same stages before the actual cutting of the foreskin (performed by traditional doctors and anaesthetists whose medicines all come from the forest): in another special hut built for the ritual their bodies are covered with palm oil and colouring substances (a red colour obtained by grinded lianas and barks); their faces turn white due to a mixture of water and clay mud; on their forehead EKO-… indicates their number in the process; the previously mentioned good luck charms are still in the same position. They walked once the boulevard in front of the hut designed for the circumcision and then, after some dances along the same boulevard and around the main centre of the ceremony performed mainly by women and children, they reappeared on the shoulders of a person selected for this special purpose. We thought he was a member of his family, like a cousin, an older brother, an uncle, but Goma’s father told us that it is the family of the candidate that chooses who has to carry his child toward the final step of the ceremony. They started dancing in an uncontrolled way, shaking colobus’ hairs all around, throwing them towards the crowd to show their courage and readiness to become a man. They danced with the whole village around, always on the shoulders as being protégé and protected from the heat of the Sun with a huge umbrella. As he approached the “circumcision” hut the village started to fall silent; the actual cutting has to be done in absolute silence because the community has to be sure that the boy doesn’t show any sign of pain or suffering. The actual cutting is performed in a special hut and we could not ask any more details about how it is done. After the cutting the candidat was escorted to the river to be washed by some of the eldest and the whole performance started again, with women dancing along the boulevard to introduce the next candidat.
The possibility of partaking in such a characteristic ceremony in the village of Mbomo was for the whole guiding team such an amazing and extraordinary experience. We felt privileged to be invited, we got to know a lot more about this ceremony and the way it works, we finally felt welcomed by the whole village, we shared with them some dances and the joy of this debatable yet special moment of their communal lives.