The Many Ways Society Makes a Man

How does a 21st-century boy reach manhood? In some cultures the rite of passage is clear. In others, not so much.

Shadrack Nyongesa’s appointment with the knife was set for shortly after dawn.

Since the previous morning, the uncircumcised 14-year-old from the Bukusu tribe in western Kenya had been jingling a pair of feathered cowbells against metal braces lashed to his wrists. As he pumped his arms and danced on a dirt yard under a mango tree outside his father’s house, older friends and relatives paraded around him brandishing sticks and guava branches and singing songs about courage, women, and alcohol.

In the afternoon Shadrack and his entourage made a ritual visit to the home of a maternal uncle, who gave him a cow, but not before slapping him in the face and barking that he looked like a sissy, not someone ready to become a man. The boy, who had asked to undergo sikhebo, the Bukusu circumcision ceremony, could not hold back tears. But he looked more angry than afraid, and when he returned to his father’s house, he jingled the chinyimba bells with new vigor and danced with the brio of a bravura showman.

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