The Kuria live in Tarime district of northern Tanzania. Like other African tribes they have particular cultural practices, which include circumcision for males and genital mutilation for females. Circumcision is removal of the foreskin of the male sexual organ and the partial or complete removal of the clitoris or labia for females. This practice is done as an initiation rite into adulthood. Any youth who did not undergo this rite was despised and called murisya, if male, or mosagane, if female. Children of uncircumcised mothers were considered a curse and would be killed or sent away from the land while the mother herself was to be expelled from the area because she was regarded as a curse and could rarely be married.1
Ritualistic Nature of Circumcision among the Kuria
Circumcision for males and females was not a mere rite of passage from one social status to another. It included worship of ancestors. It was a symbol of purification of girls and boys to fit in the Kuria society. Men and women were not allowed to marry if they had not gone through circumcision. There was a strong belief that only circumcised women could give birth properly.2 Moreover, an uncircumcised woman (mosagane) was not allowed to participate in any kind of celebration in the society. Circumcision could only be done during even numbered years (years which end with 0, 2, 4, 6, or 8) and was normally done from September to December of those years. No person was allowed to undertake the practice in any other month. Before the practice, selected elders would consult the spirits3 and ask their permission to perform it.4
Initial Adventist Involvement in the Issue of Circumcision
When Adventist missionaries reached Kuria land, they did not have an easy start. Hoeschele writes that “The Kuria were much more conservative people than most others with whom Adventists had begun to interact.”5 Adventist missionaries were unable to handle the circumcision issue in the early years. It was after World War I that Adventists began to get involved in the issue. At this time F. G. Reid, who served Utimbaru in the Tarime district, Musoma, took the initiative to discover ways in which the issue could be resolved. In his interview with church members he found that the issue was critical. The large majority of girls continued to undergo circumcision, and there were few Adventists who abandoned the practice.6
Direct Adventist Response to the Circumcision Issue in Kuria
The church continued with this battle and in the 1950s those who underwent this practice were expelled from the church. In 1960 Kuria pastors came to the forefront in condemning female circumcision. These included Pastors Mispereth Rutolyo, Raphael Megera, and Zephania Bina, among others. The church condemned the practice because it was a pagan practice that involved ancestor veneration. However, the leaders did not succeed because parents argued that their children always chose the practice on their own. In 1968 a meeting of Adventist church districts among the Kuria was convened in Nyariso under the chairmanship of Pastor Petro Marwa. Several decisions were reached, as follow:7
Whereas [female] circumcision is an uncivilized practice which defiles spiritual things and inserts barbaric manners and customs into the pure church of Christ, we completely reject female circumcision from today according to Kanuni za Kanisa [the Church Manual] and any parent who circumcises his girl or who participates in any plans concerning circumcision will consequently be disfellowshipped from the church. And any girl who will hide and is circumcised without her parents’ knowledge will hence be made like a heathen. And every Christian parent shall take strong measures concerning his daughter who will be circumcised without his permission. If not, the church will make a case for him out of it.
Our male children should be circumcised in a hospital at any time of the year without waiting for the uncivilized practices and sacrifices to the ancestors. Further, a parent is not supposed to take any steps to invite people and to make a feast after his child is circumcised.
We ask our field, East Nyanza to meet with the area Commissioner of North Mara and request him to inform all the Vice District Commissioners of Kuria that nobody should circumcise a child of an SDA Christian without the permission of his parents.
Despite these decisions, the practice did not stop; accordingly, some church members were expelled from the church until 1974 when the church at the union level resolved the issue by the following decisions:
WHEREAS the Christian faith demands leaving heathen customs, and
WHEREAS the circumcision of both males and females is many times connected with witch doctors, rites and curses, and
WHEREAS many times health and child bearing are adversely affected in females,
VOTED: That we strongly recommend that this practice be condemned by the work of education and counsel; that only recognized medical personnel carry out circumcision of males and that females not be circumcised.8
In addition to the support of the union through these actions, a statement was published in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th edition, chapter 15, which contained additional guidelines for the Eastern Africa Division. The statement says:
Though in circumcision there are normal Biblical teachings of preparing boys and girls for their life, because of bad customs and traditions that are associated with paganism and superstition, it not good for Christian youth to be involved in such practices. If for health reasons boys are compelled to be circumcised, they should go to hospitals. For girls, circumcision is a bad tradition, we therefore pronounce that we forbid the practice. Teachings that have been given to our youth in Adventist youth clubs will prepare them to fulfill their responsibilities in the society.9
Lessons from the Church Response
All cultural practices have some background to them. Such practices need profound analysis to discover their relation to Christian religions. Circumcision among Kuria is rooted in ancestor veneration. It is therefore hard for an African religious community such as the Kuria to abandon a practice that had to do with the veneration of ancestors.
The Adventist Church did well to recognize that the practice was against the true worship of God. Native pastors unveiled the paganism of circumcision and helped the church fight against it for it went against the biblical standards of morality that the church upholds. In the early years of dealing with the issue of circumcision, the church did not succeed in stopping the custom by applying sanctions, because parents argued that their children had undergone circumcision on their own. This was a calculated defense against the decision to disfellowship parents whose children had undergone the procedure. The experience has shown that it is hard to eradicate wrong practices by solely imposing rules and regulations and disfellowshipping the erring members. A more successful approach includes continued education and counseling to bring better results.
It is further noted that the decisions that were made at the Nyariso meeting in 1968 that included representatives from all parts of the Kuria district did not bring the desired results. The people who were present at the meeting had no power to enforce the voted decisions because the instructions stipulated in church policy were not supported by the local leaders. Fortunately, the church in its second meeting in 1974 took a different approach that was better received by the local members. The church still condemned the pagan practice, but also provided support through education and counsel. This approach is clearly reflected in the statement that was published in the Church Manual, 18th edition. The statement commends teaching girls and boys in Adventist youth clubs. Adventist youth clubs will help future members abandon traditional circumcision practices while growing in understanding of the gospel message.
Boylan, Jessie. “RIGHTS-TANZANIA: ‘I Feel Like Less of a Woman.’” Inter Press Service News. December 12, 2009. Accessed January 9, 2019. http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/12/rights-tanzania-i-feel-like-less-of-a-woman/.
Hoeschele, Stefan. Christian Remnant-African Folk Church: Seventh-day Adventists in Tanzania. Netherlands: Koninklijke Bril NV, Leiden, 2007.
Machage, James C. Madhara ya ukeketaji wanawake. Morogoro: Ufunuo Publishing House, 2013.
“Mkutano wa Wajumbe Toka kwa Makanisa ya Kuria, Juni 16/1968—Nyariso.” Correspondence of the Secretary, Worker Files, MC.
Mwongozo wa kanisa, toleo la 18 kiswahili. Morogoro: Tanzania Adventist Press, 2010.
Jessie Boylan, “RIGHTS-TANZANIA: ‘I Feel Like Less of a Woman,’” Inter Press Service News, December 12, 2009, accessed January 9, 2019, http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/12/rights-tanzania-i-feel-like-less-of-a-woman/.↩
Stefan Hoeschele, Christian Remnant-African Folk Church: Seventh-day Adventists in Tanzania (Netherlands: Koninklijke Bril NV, Leiden, 2007), 279-280.↩
James C. Machage, Madhara ya ukeketaji wanawake (Morogoro: Ufunuo Publishing House), 42.↩
Esther Marwa, interview by author, Tarime, Mara, Tanzania, August 27, 2018.↩
“Mkutano wa Wajumbe Toka kwa Makanisa ya Kuria, Juni 16/1968—Nyariso,” Correspondence of the Secretary,Workers Files, MC.↩
Tanzania Union Minutes, April 1974, no. 638, 23-24.↩
Mwongozo wa kanisa, toleo la 18 kiswahili (Morogoro:Tanzania Avdentist Press), 216.↩