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Health Transit Rev. 1997;7 Suppl:337-60.

Aspects of male circumcision in sub-equatorial African culture history.

Author information

1
Health Transition Centre, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University.

Abstract

This paper describes the general cultural background of male circumcision for the Bantu speaking peoples of sub-equatorial Africa. Where the contemporary cultural context of male circumcision is now variable and often transformed amongst groups who continue the practice, traditional practices were commonly of a particular and rather narrow profile linked to the toughening, training and initiation of male adolescents into warrior status. For those groups the normal social context of circumcision was in the adolescent rites of passage typically called 'initiation schools' in the ethnographic literature. These in turn were highly associated with 'age-grades', age ranked male cohorts whose membership was defined by participation in the same initiation schools in the same year. Linguistic evidence suggests the schools and circumcision are very ancient and typological arguments suggest that those Bantu groups which do not circumcise males have abandoned a once more widespread practice. In the main, the Bantu groups which do not circumcise males belong to certain contiguous linguistic groups and their neighbours from amongst bordering Bantu subgroups. Almost all groups which have abandoned male circumcision have also abandoned initiation schools and age-grades. This constitutes a culture area in terms of those dimensions of those societies. Circumcising and non-circumcising groups are suggested to have their distribution due to diffusion of loss and it cannot be expected that differential risk behaviours in relation to HIV infection will be found to sort similarly amongst Bantu-speaking or other African peoples. But such mapping, for those who would do it, can now take place with the knowledge that a cluster of cultural traits typify the non-circumcising Bantu groups.

PIP:

The contemporary cultural context of male circumcision among the Bantu-speaking people of sub-Saharan Africa is variable and often transformed among groups who continue the practice. Longstanding tradition, however, was to toughen, train, and initiate male adolescents into warrior status. The normal social context of circumcision was in the adolescent rites of passage known as initiation schools, highly associated with age-grades, age ranked male cohorts whose membership was defined by participation in the initiation schools in the same year. The linguistic evidence suggests that these schools and circumcision are very ancient institutions and practices among the Bantu. Bantu groups which do not circumcise males have therefore abandoned a once more widespread practice and belong to certain contiguous linguistic groups and their neighbors from among bordering Bantu subgroups. Almost all groups which have abandoned male circumcision have also abandoned initiation schools and age-grades, major components of traditional culture.

PMID:
10173099
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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