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Humans

The VaRemba circumcision tradition

November 07th, 2015
in:Humans
by:Henri-Count Evans
located in:Zimbabwe
tags:circumcision, HIV/AIDS transmission, Mberengwa, VaRemba tribe, Zimbabwe

Hidden in the remote district of Mberengwa in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province is the VaRemba tribe that has a long history of circumcising all of their men folk. Today, this tradition reduces the HIV/AIDS transmission rate in Zimbabwe.

Most of the VaRemba now reside under Chief Mposi’s area and some are scattered all over the district but still meet with their tribesmen during key ritual ceremonies. The tribe uses the Zhou (Elephant) totem and claims to have a strong Jewish traditional background upon which their practice of circumcision is anchored.

According to the Zimbabwe National AIDS Council, male circumcision is the surgical removal of the fold of skin that covers the head of the penis (foreskin or prepuce). Male circumcision reduces the incidence of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) such as Syphilis, Herpes Simplex Virus 2 (HSV-2), Genital Ulcer Disease (GUD) among men, and bacterial vaginosis, trichomonias and bacterial vaginosis in their female partners.

As part of the VaRemba male rites of passage boys and men from the age of 12 are taken for the initiation rituals during winter in mountains across the Mberengwa district. It is during these initiation ceremonies that the boys get to be circumcised.

“It is part of our culture that all men in our tribe must be circumcised,” said Tivakudze Zhou, one of elderly tribesmen who strongly believe in their cultural belief systems.

“Circumcision has a lot of health benefits as it helps protect our men against contracting sexually transmitted diseases. It is also a mark that shows that one has fully graduated from boyhood to manhood. After our initiation ceremonies, they will be able to start families because we would have imparted to them the necessary wisdom and skills needed to run a family”, said Tivakudze.

Uncircumcised boys and men are treated as outcasts and immature members within the society. They are stigmatised and under the VaRemba tradition they cannot marry. The stigma causes most boys and men to feel obliged to undergo the initiation ceremonies.

“During our ceremonies we teach the boys how to handle their families and about the deep secrets of our culture,” noted one of the elders Takavada Zhou.

“The circumcision is done during winter to avoid complications after the foreskin has been cut. We also give the circumcised males local herbs to help the wound heal faster”, he added.

While the initiation ceremonies were done for free before, nowadays everyone who goes for the rituals is required to pay US20.00 and buy a white uniform to be worn when they have completed the rituals.

An elderly man from the tribe who requested anonymity for fear of victimisation for divulging the tribal secrets revealed that “during the initiation ceremonies the boys are supposed to remain naked. They must eat meat and peanut butter only”.

The rituals normally take up to three months and are held in sacred mountains referred to as ‘KuGomo’.

When the boys come back from the mountains, they emerge with new names. Beer is brewed for the returnees and big celebrations are held as the graduates wear white shorts and shirts as a sign of their accomplishment. The celebrations are strictly for members of the tribe.

Apart from the boys and men, women also go through initiation ceremonies during the winter. They are trained to be “good wives and we also use that opportunity to test their virginity,” said Traphine Gumbo, an elderly woman who helps in the initiation process.

Improving the male circumcision rate

Circumcision is not a popular practice among the majority of men in Zimbabwe. Though the government adopted medical male circumcision as a way of reducing HIV/AIDS incidence and prevalence more than seven years ago, the adoption has been very low and demotivating.

In 2009, the Ministry of Health and Child Care together with HIV/AIDS implementing partners (Zimbabwe National AIDS Council, the Zimbabwe AIDS Network, the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council and other non-state actors) targeted to circumcise about 1.2 million men by the end of 2015. However, according to the Global AIDS Response Country Progress Report of 2014, between 2012 and 2014 only 176 604 men were circumcised, a sign that the country will not meet this target.

Recently, the government of Zimbabwe, and other cooperating partners such as the Populations Services International (PSI), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have been holding extensive medical male circumcision awareness campaigns, but still with limited success.

Through their traditional practice of circumcision, the VaRemba tribe has immensely contributed towards the national target of circumcising more men in a bid to thwart the spread of HIV/AIDS. In the past the tribe was accused of using the same unsafe surgical instruments to circumcise several males, which was in itself a potential for spreading the virus. The VaRemba community, with the buy-in of the government has since enlisted the assistance of trained medical doctors- of VaRemba origin- in their circumcision efforts so as to reduce complications.

“We now invite government registered medical doctors to come and assist us during the actual circumcision sessions. It is good to note that we have seen less complications and almost zero circumcision related deaths in our community”, explained Takavada.

If the procedure is not done properly, circumcision may result in life threatening complications such as pain, bleeding, haematoma, infection at the site of the circumcision, increased sensitivity of the glands in the penis for the first few months after the procedure, irritation of the glands, meatitis4, injury to the penis and adverse reaction to the anaesthetic used during the circumcision.

Human Rights Violation

Even though the practice has been hailed by authorities, the boys and men are circumcised by compulsion. It is compulsory for every boy and man in the community to be circumcised if they are to be accepted by the tribe.

There is growing resentment from the younger generation that suggests that the process must be done after their consent has been explicitly sought.

The ‘Ngoma Lungundu’ (Sacred Rituals) –as they are known- also involves taking the boys for rituals where they live under harsh conditions in which they are taught on how to be “men”. The boys are sometimes subjected to serious beatings, swim in the cold waters and also run bare-footed as part of the training and initiation.

Article written by:
Henri-Count Evans
Author
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As part of the VaRemba male rites of passage boys and men from the age of 12 are taken for the initiation rituals during winter in mountains across the Mberengwa district. It is during these initiation ceremonies that the boys get to be circumcised.
“Circumcision has a lot of health benefits as it helps protect our men against contracting sexually transmitted diseases. It is also a mark that shows that one has fully graduated from boyhood to manhood."

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