Male and Female circumcision in Africa : origins and foundations

Circumcision and excision are practices in force in the African tradition. Such practices are often criticized, in particular, with regard to female circumcision also known as excision. But how can the existence of these practices be explained? Are they endogenous to Africa or external to the Continent?

Beforehand, it is necessary to know that circumcision and excision are endogenous practices. They were born in Africa and can be explained from the African thought and cosmogony point of view.

As an example, circumcision has been testified from earliest times in the Nile Valley. It seems that it has even come to existence since prehistory. Cheikh Anta Diop confirmed it in Nations Nègres et Cultures, page 206, as he stated that: “Egyptians were circumcised from prehistory”

Circumcision scene in Ankhmahor tomb, Prime Minister (Djati) of Pharaoh Teti, 6th Egyptian dynasty

Female circumcision is the counterpart of male circumcision.

What are the motives of such practices?

The motives behind these practices are related to the Creator’s androgyny. Let us recall that for our ancestors, the Creator is an androgynous being, this means he has a double nature (male and female). It is thanks to this ability that the He-She can create male and female beings; for example: human beings (man/woman). 

And since the human being is a divine being (they come from God) in the African thought, the human being that comes to this world, the male child (boy) or female child (girl) are equal and are equally considered as physically and spiritually possessing this androgynous feature (male and female) like the Creator.

The symbolism of the Creator’s dual male and female nature. From the African perspective dating back from the pharaonic antiquity, the human being is one reflection of the Creator, and therefore possesses (to a certain extent) everything that the Creator possesses including the male and female gender. (Picture: God in Egypt under his female (Aminata) and male (Imana/Amen) appearance).

This de facto original androgyny in the earth agenda was considered by our ancestors as a sexual ambiguity that could be an obstacle to approximation (couples, flirts, marriage…) and fusion (sexual union) between male and female.

This appears normal from this perspective, because for our ancestors marriage is the fusion of the male and female substance in order to merge in one body (androgyny) and reproduce the divine nature of the Creator (male and female); this enables those who have united to perform like the Creator by “creating” that is to say by giving birth to males and females.

Yet, according to this perspective, since human beings were born with this original androgyny, they possess this double nature from their birth date. The possession of this double gender would be the reason why the male being do not feel the need to be close to the female being to merge (since he already possesses the female nature) and the female being would not need to get close to the male being to merge (since she already possesses the male nature). Yet, if these two beings (male and female) were not getting close to each other, there would not be any sexual fusion, so no more children, no more species reproduction, life cycle would be interrupted, human species would disappear in the long term…

The relevance of such philosophical and existential questions, highlighted in the prehistoric African thought in a distant period, led to the emergence of circumcision and excision.

Since they were related to the Creator and spiritual conceptions, both practices were revered by our ancestors and were part of sacred and initiatory rites. For example, male circumcision was part of initiation stages. Thus, every insider was circumcised in Africa. These practices consisted in removing from the male being his female feature for him to become a complete man and in taking away from the female being her male feature for her to become a complete woman.

That would enable both beings (male and female) to feel attracted to each other, to get close to each other (mutual attraction, alliance, union, marriage…) to bring to each other the missing part (male or female), to merge sexually, to reproduce human species…. Therefore, life cycle would not be interrupted, neither would human species disappear.

Since circumcision and excision should be considered as a whole (for the reasons above mentioned), circumcision cannot be without excision (female circumcision). For our ancestors, man and woman being equal, it is therefore logical that the woman undergoes the rituals related to her reproductive organs (excision) in the same way as the man does (circumcision). Cheikh Anta Diop said in Nations Nègres et Cultures page 206 that: “Egyptians were circumcised from prehistory”. Therefore, it means that excision has been practiced from prehistory on the Continent as both rites were performed together. Excision was practiced in the pharaonic civilization. This has been confirmed by Greek author Strabo in his Geography, Book XVII Chapter 1, 29 when he said: “Egyptians raise their children with great care and make sure to circumcise the boys, and even the girls”.

Circumcision and excision are therefore related. Cheikh Anta Diop add in Nations Nègres et Cultures, page 208, “According to the Negroes, circumcision can only be interpreted in the framework of a general explanation of the Universe, that is to say a cosmogony. In particular, the Dogon cosmogony (Mali) according to Marcel Griaule in Dieu d’eau, establishes that circumcision shall be performed alongside with excision to be meaningful; both operations whose aim is to remove from the male his female feature and from the female her male feature. In the archaic conception, such operation aims to make the feature of one gender, in a certain being, to take over. According to the Dogon cosmogony, the being who comes to this world is to a certain extent androgynous like the first god.”

South African Xhosa teenagers during an initiation rite through circumcision

Circumcision and excision are therefore very ancient customs in Africa and are linked to the divine androgynous conception of the Creator (male and female nature). If such conception did not exist, there would not be any excision or circumcision because it would be meaningless.

This is why these customs did not originate from Semitic peoples (Jews and Arabs) since these patriarchal peoples (even though they came to learn monotheism from our ancestors in the Nile Valley) do not have all the same conception of an androgynous God, but rather the idea of a God that is necessarily a male being that is to say “the father almighty” (Yahweh, Allah). This means that these peoples cannot logically explain this rite from the perspective of their traditions.

No text and tradition from the so-called revealed religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) can provide sound and tangible explanation about the existence of circumcision in these religions.

Cheikh Anta Diop continues page 207 by saying that: “we understand why Semitics were practicing circumcision without a valid justification from their tradition perspective. The weakness of the arguments given in Genesis (biblical book) is underlined in that sense: God shall ask Abraham then Moses to circumcise to seal a covenant with him, without the knowledge of what can lead to the idea of covenant in the circumcision considered from the point of view of the Jewish tradition. The strangest thing is that Abraham would be 90 years old by the time he was circumcised (…). Above the legendary details, we could bear in mind that circumcision was introduced in the Semitic culture after being in contact with the Black world…”

Indo-European peoples also came to receive knowledge from the Nile Valley but they were also of a patriarchal culture with their uniquely male God, father all mighty (Zeus, Jupiter…), therefore they could not give a logical, correct and sensible explanation of circumcision or excision from the perspective of their tradition.

This paper is not about defending or prosecuting circumcision or excision as good or bad practices. It rather purports to explain this phenomenon to be understood by a large panel of people and to comprehend the initial idea founding such rites.

Thus, circumcision or excision are not practices of Semitic or Euro-Asian origins as some people may say or imagine, but customs of a Black origin that Africans transmitted to other peoples that they civilized throughout history. Since from the origin and at the cosmogonic level, circumcision and excision go together and are inseparable, the absence of excision would necessarily lead to the absence of circumcision. Therefore, as male circumcision is still practiced today in Africa, it is impossible for excision to have never existed (even if today excision tends to disappear). As a consequence, it is impossible to assert that excision is not an African practice because if it were the case, what would circumcision mean at the cosmogonic level?

In the beginning in the Nile Valley, there were various circumcision or excision techniques. And excision in the pharaonic civilization did not only and necessarily consist in the clitoris removal as many can imagine today.

However this transfer of practice to other people led to different circumcision or excision practices or techniques. Thus, these techniques have diversified from one region and people to others. But all these diversifications are various modes of the same practice (circumcision or excision).

Those peoples have appropriate these customs yet they experience some difficulties in explaining them. This led to different doubtful ways of interpreting them (men’s domination over women, reduction of sexual pleasure, savagery…), misrepresentation of the symbolism, stereotypes and caricature that are still in force today. In the contemporary world particularly, all these critics do not take into account the actual reasons of this practice that only the African culture can explain in a clear and tangible way.

Some young Kenyan Maasai Women during the Etondo ceremony. It is an initiatory rite to adulthood which includes excision. Excision has also been documented among the vitalist  (animist) peoples of the Central African Republic. They explain it the same way as ancient Egyptians were doing so. According to researcher and linguist Jean-Claude Mboli from the Central African Republic, it has been prohibited by President Bokassa. Excision is still found among the vitalist peoples of Sierra Leone. Ugandans consider excision as equivalent to circumcision. This confirms that it is indeed an African practice and shows that traditional excision practitioners do not aim to harm the girl. Neither is the goal to harm the boy while circumcising him.
It is legitimate to denounce the impact of excision on health but it is wrong to use it as a pretext to point at Africans as savage female genital mutilators.
Photo by Thomas Mukoya for Reuters

These customs (circumcision and excision) have experienced different destinies as time and history went on. Circumcision has resisted to time and is still a very much appreciated rite that the majority of young boys of African origin experience. As for excision, this practice has progressively been left behind almost everywhere, even in Africa for aesthetical reasons and for it prevents sexual fulfillment. But such practice is still present in Islamized African countries. This suggests that the type of excision currently practiced would be in the majority the one brought to Africa by the Arabs.

Hotep !

By : Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • Nations Nègres et Culture, Cheikh Anta Diop
  • Géographie, Strabon
  • Dieu d’eau, Marcel Griaule
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