Feature Article of Wednesday, 29 July 2009
Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi
Last week, the Swedish parliament voted to allow the circumcision of boys in state hospitals even for reasons that are not medical. Hitherto, circumcision was allowed and covered by state health care benefits only in cases where a doctor has determined that there was a medical reason for the operation (for instance, where the foreskin has not been properly formed and may hinder the performance of one’s natural calls). The new law means the county authorities will have to pay for such operations. The law says that anybody with a special permit from the Social Services can perform such an operation on a boy who is under two months as long as a doctor or a nurse is responsible for pain relief during the operation. Boys who are older than two months shall be circumcised only by doctors. The law is to prevent the illegal, and often dangerous, operations people (mostly immigrants) do at home far away from the prying eyes of the authorities.
But many Swedish doctors have vowed never to carry out such operations. The doctors describe it as an encroachment on the child’s rights since it is performed without the child’s informed consent. Some of them even call it child abuse and compare it to the barbarity of female genital manipulation (FMG). Some county authorities, facing tight budgets, have said they have far more important things to do with their resources than spend them on unnecessary operations.
This Judeo-Arabic cultural practice (it is mentioned in the Talmud and even though it is widespread in Islam it is not mandated by the Qur’an and is, thus, not a condition for conversion to the faith), which many of us in Ghana take for granted, is not such a clear cut thing in several other societies. Many Ghanaian families in Europe have had to pay exorbitant fees at private hospitals to have their baby boys circumcised. Some of them even complain that the circumcisions are not properly done (not the Ghanaian way, that is) since some Jewish doctors leave too much foreskin in place. Some African families take the plane back to the wretched home countries they left for better conditions in the countries built by the “uncircumcised infidels” so as to have a “proper” circumcision. Many of these families never stop to ask themselves if it is at all necessary to circumcise a boy. They not only take it for granted; they think they are doing a tremendous service to the infant boy.
But this is a society where most boys are not circumcised. The circumcised boys grow up and are the odd ones out in school whom everybody turns to look at in the shower after the day’s workout. This is just the opposite of the situation back in Ghana. We all still remember in secondary school the boys who cannot bath with us or do so only under the cover of darkness. They will never allow you to see their things. We called them all kinds of names: Kortibortor, Bolobolo. This has even been carried on to the pages of ghanaweb where the perpetrators only serve up their own ignorance. When it becomes too much for them in secondary school, some of these boys go to the hospital to be circumcised. Even after the wound is healed, their problems are not ended in the bath house. Everybody can see the newly circumcised penis which looks like a male agama lizard – a pink head on a black body.
Those Ghanaians who argue that circumcision is essential find reasons, other than the purely cultural, to back up their arguments. The most often cited is that it makes for great personal hygiene. That argument is faulty. Body hygiene is a very individual thing. A guy who is very clean about his person will also keep his uncircumcised penis clean at all times. A dirty guy will remain dirty even with his circumcision. Some argue that the circumcised penis makes the cleaning process easier. But is that a sufficient enough reason to go through the traumatic experience of operating away the foreskin, especially in adult age? Then there is the argument that girls enjoy a circumcised penis more than a non-circumcised one. Even if the girls tell you it feels better with a circumcised penis, they just only want to make you, the man, feel fine or, at best, it may just be some psychological hangover from the pressures of the society. If anything, the guy with the foreskin should enjoy more since all the sensitive nerves are still in place and this may have a positive impact on the girl’s own pleasures. But I guess many girls can’t even tell the difference. The “pro-circumcisionists” these days have a new argument they are quick to point to. They say research, starting in South Africa, has shown that circumcised people are less prone to contract the AIDS virus than non-circumcised guys. The fact is that, the research evidence is far from conclusive. I am not too sure if an adult who has been having sex with his foreskin on all his life will suddenly become less susceptible to contracting the virus if he has the foreskin removed. At any rate, I will be wiser to take more concrete steps to avoid contracting the virus than resting assured that circumcision will give me protection.
But there is evidence that circumcision can be dangerous to your life even if the Surgeon General didn’t say so. There have been a few botched circumcision operations that leave the victim paralysed for life without the ability to have sex. For an operation that is medically unnecessary, that is, indeed, a very high price to pay. It is possible that even the most experienced wansam can miss the path of his or her knife and cut some vital veins that will seriously dampen your capacity to enjoy sex. Of course, you may never know that. You do not need to have the full pleasures of a true orgasm to father children. In the unhygienic conditions in which some of the traditional operators perform (poor water, dirty knives, dangerous medicine, etc) you actually stand the risk of contracting HIV or some other disease from an infected knife. Fortunately, I am not aware of any tribe in Ghana that performs puberty rites that involve the boys going into the bush for several days and coming back all circumcised – probably with the same dirty knife. The cells on the head of your penis are extra sensitive. Nature made it that way for your maximum enjoyment and created the foreskin to protect this sensitive part of your anatomy. Taking away the foreskin removes this protective shield leaving the head of your penis open to the elements which will make sure that the top skin gets hardened thereby losing some of its sensitivity. The psychological scars left, especially when the operation is done in late boyhood or adulthood, can be enormous. Even if you do not believe in those psycho-dynamic theories of a Freudian bent, you will still wonder if a boy of two weeks, forcibly circumcised against his will, will not carry some scars in his subconscious for the rest of his life. It is not for nothing that our mothers threatened us as boys when we were too naughty to have our penises cut even though the wansam came around last year, unannounced, to circumcise all the two year old boys in the village leaving behind a vale of tears and snotty-nosed boys sitting in water with gentian violet in every household as he proceeded to the next village carrying along with him his instruments of torture. What did it matter that he would not come again until just before the rains the year after the next to “clean” all the boys born after his last visit?
The case for the barbarity of FMG has been convincingly established. But there are certain forms of female incision that are only symbolic and do not involve the removal of the clitoris. Such FMGs are, in many respects, far less horrible than the forcible removal of the foreskin on an innocent boy’s penis. Shouldn’t such female mutilations be allowed if we don’t find anything wrong with the far more barbaric male circumcision? If FMGs of all kinds are wrong, then the circumcision of small boys is also wrong unless there is a medical need to do so.
I do not know all the reasons why some ethnic groups in Ghana will never install someone as king or chief if he is circumcised. But I suspect there may be some very noble reasons behind this age-old custom. If we must choose one of us as a primus inter pares, then there must be something special about that person. He shall be perfect. No knife shall touch him. He may not bear any marks on his body and he shall not be deformed in any way. He is the symbol of something essential in our collective psyche. By that same reasoning, members of the families in which royalty is embedded shall not be mutilated in any way. What a noble idea, I say. What a noble idea!
They say circumcision is still widespread in the US. There is a certain paradox here. The USA may be more technologically advanced than much of the “old Europe” but there are many respects in which they still lag behind Europe. More Americans than Europeans still believe in God and they go to church more. Most European countries have banned capital punishment but many US states still forcibly put people to death as a form of punishment. And more Americans than Europeans forcibly circumcise their baby boys even though there are absolutely no medical reasons for such operations.
I wish to end this piece with the tolle (already known to some of you) about the guy who, in his old age and to stop people, including girls, laughing at him, went to the hospital to get circumcised. Unfortunately, he told the doctor he wanted to be castrated. The doctor, surprised, asked him if he really wanted to be castrated and he said yes, he had decided firmly on it. So he was castrated and would spend a few days in the hospital. The following day, his friends came to visit him. One of them asked: “Joe, how did the circumcision go?” Joe half raised himself from the bed, looked a few seconds into the air and with a grave mien said: “Ahaaa... CIR-CUM-CI-SION! That’s the word!!!” It was too late. Like castration, circumcision is an irreversible operation.
Do I blame my parents for circumcising me when I was just a few weeks old? No, but that is only because I have forgiven them for not knowing any better. But now, I know better. Even though it has been part of our culture since time immemorial, there is nothing obvious or given about it. That is why the decision to circumcise your baby boy, especially in Europe, should be taken with great circumspection. If I should have another baby boy in this society, I will leave his thing in its pristine state and not circumcise him so that he will grow up like all the other boys he will go to school with. If he comes of age and wants to get circumcised, that will be HIS decision to make, not mine. My “two cents” (thanks, Lola, Washington, for this your favourite expression) are surely on the Swedish doctors who have vowed not to perform the operation on innocent boys.
Kofi Amenyo (firstname.lastname@example.org