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Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 17:13 UK

Kenyan MPs admit to circumcision

By Muliro Telewa
BBC News, Kisumu

Top politicians from Kenya's Luo community have publicly admitted to getting circumcised as part of a campaign to tackle HIV/Aids.

Luhya boy at his circumcision ceremony
Unlike the Luhya, circumcision is not a rite of passage for the Luo

Standing before an audience of 500 in the western city of Kisumu, including Prime Minister Raila Odinga, three government ministers and an MP said they had secretly undergone the operation.

A further five MPs pledged their intention to have a circumcision - after seeking medical advice - as part of a push to promote the culturally taboo practice.

Researchers say it reduces the risk of HIV infection among men, although they stress that using condoms is far more effective.

A high prevalence of HIV has been recorded among the Luo community and the government has recently introduced a programme to promote the practice to curb the spread of Aids.

Unlike the nearby Luhya community, who last month turned out in large numbers to undergo circumcision in an annual festival, removing the foreskin is not performed as rite of passage amongst the Luo.

The politicians said they had never publicly spoken about being circumcised in case it cost them their political careers.

Since I got circumcised, even my wife can tell you that she is very comfortable
Youth councillor Robert Ogol

Luo elders at Monday's meeting looked on with disapproval, evidently finding the lack of respect to cultural values distasteful.

As far as they are concerned, the health ministry has ridden roughshod over their objections by offering free circumcisions in Nyanza Province.

The backing of the politicians - including Mr Odinga's brother, an assistant minster who agreed to undergo the procedure - is a boost to campaigners who want Luo elders to endorse the plan.

Snub

Some Luo men have decided to ignore the elders' warning that it is against the community's traditions.

Riaga Ogalo, chairman of the Luo Council of Elders,
Luo elders fear the practice erodes cultural traditions

Hundreds of young men have begun to turn up for circumcision at public and private hospitals.

Robert Ogol, a youth counsellor, is one who has snubbed the advice.

He accuses the community's elders of being afraid of change and says young men should be allowed to make their own decision about the practice.

"I got circumcised while I was already married. Since I got circumcised, even my wife can tell you that she is very comfortable," he says.

The government hopes that at least two million men will eventually be circumcised in the province.

At the Lumumba Health Centre in Kisumu, more than 80 medical practitioners have already received training.

"We are teaching young men and older people about circumcision. They usually come for circumcision of their own free will," says Wycliffe Omondi, one of the doctors providing training at the centre.

Candour

Nearly 1,000 men have been circumcised since March and medical workers receive two days of training, he says.

Raila Odinga
All there is to circumcision is availing your male organ for the foreskin to be removed, like 'ting' [snip] and it is all over
Prime Minister Raila Odinga

However, the Luo Council of Elders is not convinced that circumcision lowers the risk of infection.

"I don't think it will be a solution to fight the spread of Aids," said Joe Asila, a pastor and Luo elder.

"Other communities practise circumcision, but there is still a high prevalence of HIV/Aids," he said.

Other opponents say that once young men are circumcised, they will stop using preventive measures during sexual intercourse.

Doctors have warned that circumcision only offers 60% protection and that the use of condoms and other measures is still necessary.

At the six-hour circumcision meeting, Mr Odinga did not reveal his circumcision status, but he attempted to calm community fears.

"All there is to circumcision is availing your male organ for the foreskin to be removed, like 'ting' [snip] and it is all over," he said.

Elders have said free circumcisions should not be compulsory or included in the government's policy on HIV/Aids.

Minister for Public Services Dalmas Otieno (left) and Oburu Odinga
The politicians were unusually candid at the six-hour circumcision meeting

Despite the politicians' candour, it was still not clear whether the elders would endorse it.

But Riaga Ogalo, chairman of the Luo Council of Elders, appeared to have softened his position.

"People must be assured that this is purely a medical cut and does not in any way mean that Luos have changed their cultural values," he said.

If the council does give its full backing, Mr Odinga will go down in history not only as Kenya's first prime minister but as the politician who overturned centuries of Luo tradition.


SEE ALSO
Circumcision diary
30 Nov 07 |  Africa
Kenya struggles to combat HIV
31 May 06 |  Health
Mass circumcision to fight Aids
07 Jun 07 |  Africa

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