Wednesday, January 12, 2011


If I could cue a sound to play when you opened this page, it would be that cheesy thriller-movie BUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMM.

Actually I'm pretty sure that's possible, but I'm way more interested in doing other things than figuring out how to do that.

SO. A warning: this post will include graphic images and photos. Knives. Penises. Blood. It's kinda like when they play Schindler's List on public TV and they say "we're showing this unedited 'cause it's important" and whatnot. But, I mean, I went through this 25 years, 1 month and 1 week ago, so no big deal to me.

On with the show.

In Kapchorwa is one of the only three or so tribes (out of ~40 in the country) that practices male circumcision. The ceremonies only happen every other December, and only for the month of December. As per my last post, I was up in Kapchorwa to meet with a potential partner. When he noticed my interest in the pre-circumcision parades we were seeing around, my host (the head of the organization) invited me to attend the ceremony for fourteen boys in his village the next morning at 7am. I was leaving for the States the day after, but decided that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as build my personal relationship with this potential partner. I've had very few opportunities to experience real "cultural" experiences since I've been in Uganda - so I accepted his invitation.

One of the pre-circumcision parade. The 16-18 year old kids who are going to be snipped sing, dance and walk for 24 hours before their ceremony. My guess is that the idea is to get them so exhausted that they couldn't even be skittish if they wanted to come time for the ceremony.

The to-be circumcisees are marked by being painted with a special type of white river mud

The next morning, I walked out from my hotel at 6am and, unable to find a boda-boda that early, footed the hour trip to Kapchesombe village.

On the walk...

I found my host at his neighbor's compound, looking a bit worse for the wear. Apparently while the boys are out parading all day and night, the village men are boozing and partying it up at home. Hah!

The setting. My host's neighbor's compound. Fourteen patches of dirt - one for each boy.

And the tools...
each boy has his own knife.

My host told me that the boys would be marching up from the village soon, so I should walk down and parade up with them. Apparently they were on their way back from a special (cold) river in which the boys are made to soak for a while to numb them and lower their pulse a bit.

On the walk, I saw rural electrification in process

And here they come...

This is a video, click to watch some parading

barley interlude...

Back at the compound, I was ushered front and center - they wanted to make sure the muzungu was primely placed for photography.

The surgeons and their setup

Probably a couple hundred people watching. In the words of my host: "they're all here to see who is weak". Yeesh.

Each boy would walk in, one at a time, holding a stick with a monkey's tail in both hands at about nipple-height, and with their eyes plastered to the sky. The boy is led to his place, and the surgeons do their business remarkably quickly. The boy then steps forward one foot at a time, puts his hands high above his head and says (in his local language) "I am a man of this tribe and I will defend this land". And none of them even flinched. Pretty impressive.

And it begins. No anesthesia.

This is also a video. Click if you're feeling brave

The surgeons would quickly wash their hands between each operation, and use a different knife for each. Interestingly, the surgeons had some special, fine dirt that had apparently been sterilized by burning which they would throw on each boy's penis in order to give them grip. Charming.

A few minutes after being cut, each boy was brought a chair and a blanket. It was pretty impressive to watch them just sink into the chair (and then put the blanket over their heads to inspect their wounds) - they were clearly massively exhausted. I can only imagine after 24 hours of singing, dancing and parading then the massive adrenaline boost of the deed itself.

The audience

The village men congratulate some seriously shaken-up boys

I like this picture - mostly the boy in the foreground

The monkey-tails in the air are a group of boys who will be doing the deed the next day.

Congratulatory collections

If you've made it to the end of this post, then I congratulate you on your tenacity. It was pretty funny how many of the villagers approached me after the ceremony to ask what I thought - clearly thinking this must be something completely foreign and terrifying to me... I casually responded that I'd been through it all yeeeeears before. Hah!

Afterwards, I had a nice cup of tea and some toast with my host and some of his friends, and then hit the road back to Mbale for a meeting, then on to Kampala, and then home!

A day in the field: Kapchorwa

Firstly: three weeks in America was amazing. Good beer, good food, good family and good friends, good conversation.

(does the order of those things say something ill about my priorities in life?)

But I'm not going to get into it too much, because it will just make me homesick.

I spent the couple days before home in Kapchorwa, in the East.

(I wonder what language that map is in)

The goal of the trip was to meet with a potential partner organization and learn more about their operations.

On the way out, I had to stop for a meeting in Mbale. Kapchorwa (about one hour East of Mbale) is a pretty big coffee-growing region, and Mbale town is the biggest, most commercial town in the area. Unusual, then to walk across scenes like the below in Mbale town - a woman on the street in Mbale hulling coffee beans.

After my meeting, hopped in a tiny minivan with 15 of my closest friends for the ride up to Kapchorwa. At least I got shotgun and had the internet to entertain me.

How do you get 16 people in a tiny damn minivan? Well, having a guy straddle the shifter certainly helps.

There are so many captions I could give to this photo that I'm just not even going to try.

The plateau up ahead is where we're headed. Most of Uganda is at about 3000 feet of elevation, Kapchorwa is at about 6500 feet (and, incidentally, where Uganda's most successful athlete of recent years hails from).

Obviously we needed to stop to get tomatoes from some street-side hawkers. Sometimes I'm not such a fan of having my personal space violated.

In Kapchorwa is one of the few tribes (of about 40) in Uganda that practices circumcision. It's a majorly important event for the people there, and something that's only done in the month of December, every second year. Through the couple days I spent in Kapchorwa, we saw scores of these little parades of singing, drumming and dancing groups of 16-18 year old boys and their relatives, getting ready for their upcoming ceremony.

Finally to Kapchorwa, a meeting and to a hotel.

Another damn sideways-made bed. Well, made in more of a square, actually.

Had a nice walk

Learned some things.

Kapchorwa town


I'm tired! All I want to do is crawl into bed - I don't want to have to UN-make it and RE-make it first!

My room did have a TV at least... caught a bit of Monday Night Football. Wait, what?

Next morning, walked down to meet with some folks about barley

Guy I was supposed to meet was an hour and change late. Gave me lots of time to make (16!) phone calls... and play with barley.

Phone calls and a thresher From The American People

You're welcome!

Dude shuffling through the barley to aerate it and help it dry

Bagging up the barley once it was dry enough

The gentleman I was meeting with had this poster in his office. Uganda: the shining yellow beacon of "Moderately Low" hunger in Eastern and Central Africa

Finally headed out to the field with a couple of people from the potential partner to visit some barley farmers and learn about the attempts at commercial barley farming by small-holder farmers in the region.

Crop diversification - banana trees (for matoke) and cabbage between

This image is so... African to me.

One of the guys I was with loved this image as indicating the effects of commercial barley farming on the region. In the foreground is a more typical, traditional home. In the background (just above-right from the foreground house, with a light blue roof) is the home of a clearly much wealthier farmer. The difference between the two? A marginal difference in elevation and an entrepreneurial spirit - the latter farmer has been commercially growing barley for a few years now. Pretty impressive.

and theeeeen...

doin' business with a wheeling dealing rogue agent barley-buyer. All serious business is done over bottles of Coke. Obviously.

Barley drying in his compound. Dude has done quite well for himself. He does some farming for himself but has also started buying up other farmers' barley and maintaining enough stock to be able to draw attention from the big buyers in the area. He controls enough volume to be able to pretty much set his own price. It was cool to see some tangible effects of the family's entrepreneurship - a newly-built home and the wife had just finished her degree in education.

also I love bougainvillea.

I learned how to test the moisture content of barley with my teeth.

Wheeling and dealing

"How do we get as much barley as we can from this guy, then put him out of business so he stops driving up prices?"
It was pretty cool seeing serious business being done. The culture of productivity in Uganda can often be pretty lackluster, but these guys were out to make it happen.

The family does some coffee production too. A coffee huller out back

Matoke (banana) trees

Nice new home and rainwater collection container

On the road again, through Kapchorwa.
Harvest time.


more barley!



All to produce six bags of barley, to be sold for 550 - 600 shillings per bag. That's a whole harvest for about $1.55.

I found myself being stalked by a solid gaggle of village kids. I don't like taking pictures of kids (poverty-porn and whatnot), but was pretty amused by the situation so wanted to try to get a photo of the situation. I tried to hold the camera all casual-like next to my side and take a picture past me, of the kids. The result:

"What's the muzungu taking a picture of over there?"
Apparently I wasn't as sneaky I thought. Hah!

The crop in question

Small-holder agriculture for miles.

Cabbage and donkeys

More, uh, barley.

Think we can drive across this?

By the end of the day we were calling it the Suzuki Mountain Goat

A frequent scene: a couple of adolescent boys walking around with skirts and sticks. Why skirts? Well, would you want to wear pants after having had your foreskin removed sans anesthesia? Why sticks? What better to smack your own ankle with to stop yourself from getting an incidental erection, which would be incredibly painful post-circumcision?

The household of one of the barley-buying agents

And that was about that. Pretty fascinating day... but not nearly as fascinating as the next day.

Stay tuned...