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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 12:02 GMT
Circumcision row divides Kenya town
By Noel Mwakugu
BBC News, Meru

The serene atmosphere at Kiriani High School, on the outskirts of Meru town in eastern Kenya, has been disrupted by a row over whether the school should admit uncircumcised male students.

Boys at Kiriani High School
The principal was worried about bullying at the school
The controversy started when 18 students who had just been admitted into the secondary school were sent home after it was discovered they were uncircumcised.

The principal at Kiriani High School, Kithinji Ngaruthi, said in a letter that their presence in school would lead to unrest.

"Just as you cannot keep your elder son who is circumcised with your younger son who is not, this also applies in the dormitory," he said in a letter to the students' parents.

For the Meru community, like many others across Africa, circumcision marks the transition from boy to man.

War songs

Local resident Gilbert Kenyua told the BBC News website that trouble started during a shower session when one of the boys was discovered to be uncircumcised by the other students, who started called him names and demanded that he left.

Sending students who are not circumcised is a recipe for chaos
George Njagi, local elder
"They started chanting war and circumcision songs that terrified the boy who rushed to the principal's office and was later followed by 17 others who had also not undergone the ritual," he said.

The boys had to spend the night at the school boardroom in fear, he said, and the head teacher had no option but to send them away.

But ministry of education officials have condemned the decision.

Education Minister George Saitoti says the action was uncalled for nowadays and against ministry regulations.

"We abhor such a practice and we shall not give any chance to this kind of primitive action in our schools," said Mr Saitoti.

Meru elders, however, agree with the decision, saying boys who have been circumcised and those who have not should not be allowed to mix.

"With boys when they finish primary school, they should be circumcised immediately and the teacher is very right because it is very risky to mix the boys, if they did maybe they could have circumcised them," said local elder Titus Munde.

Everyone in the area, he said, is well informed that uncircumcised boys cannot be sent to boarding schools.

Risky

Another elder, George Njagi says uncircumcised boys, known as mwiji, cannot participate in the same activities with those who have undergone the ritual.

"They cannot bath together, share towels and on some occasions sit together to discuss issues.

Circumcision is not a requirement for one to be admitted to high school
Beatrice Adu
Regional education director
"Now in this scenario sending students who are not circumcised is a recipe for chaos, especially when it is a known fact that bullying new-comers is prevalent at our schools," he said.

If the principal had not acted, then there would have been trouble at the school, he said.

But unlike some who support the decision to send away the students, Mr Njagi concedes that the procedure followed was not appropriate.

"I think parents should have been called in to discuss the situation and this may have contained the situation quite early," he said.

Regional education director Beatrice Adu says the boys' experience was an act of bullying and those who threatened to circumcised them were the ones to be punished.

"Circumcision is not a requirement for one to be admitted to high school," she said.

Mrs Adu insists that Kiriani High School is a public institution that cannot be run according to certain cultures and if unchecked the trend could incite problems at other learning institutions.

She said the principal has been reprimanded but did not specify the disciplinary action to be taken.

'Lives saved'

But this action may not go down well with some people living near the school.

"I think the teacher did not do anything bad, he saved the boys lives. Their parents should take blame for this, because they should have alerted the school administration to the boys' status before hand, maybe this could not have come up," said Anne Kaaria.

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Some say that the boys may not have been circumcised because of the cost involved in the huge ceremony.

Normally the event is marked with a massive feast - cattle and goats are slaughtered and large volumes of alcohol is served alongside assorted meals for the relatives who come to attend.

Apart from the main ceremony, parents also pay for the upkeep of the boys as they heal, since they take special meals and this may take two weeks.

"The exercise can cost between $400 to $700 and not many people can afford this. You need to save for this occasion," said Meru resident Martin Kiogora.

Mr Kiogora argues that maybe when confronted with the choice of paying the secondary school fees for their boys and the feast, the parents opted to pick education ahead of an expensive cultural practice.

It can cost $700 to send a child to a boarding secondary school in Kenya.

The cost includes tuition fees, uniforms, bedding and transport among others.

Circumcision ceremonies in the area are usually held in April and others argue that the boys' parents may have been waiting for this period.




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