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Of Circumcision and Taxes

With Barack Obama's successful election and the hope and inspiration it ignited in Africa, it was only inevitable that forgotten conversations would be remembered, radical arguments would be renewed, and people would have more enthusiasm in proposing and debating ideas.

It is with this background that I recently found myself in a hearty discussion about the greatly flawed (italics mine) notion of black inferiority. And by black I mean people of African descent. As conversations go, ebbing and rising with the passion of each speaker, changing course rapidly as new insights or defeated rationale are encountered, so did this one. Eventually we ended up on the very delicate topic of female circumcision.

Now, I was having this discussion with a very smart, very liberated lawyer who also happens to be a woman. Needless to say, such discussions can very quickly and very easily go off track unless the words that are coming out of one's mouth are considered carefully and sensitively before their utterance.

The precursor to the discussion on female circumcision was a statement to the effect that "The white man helped Africans by causing the abolition of practices such as female circumcision."

It is an oft repeated statement varying only in the degree of praise accorded to the 'white man'. As stated previously I was having this discussion with the enlightenment of the AO (After Obama) era. I therefore started thinking harder about the statement. What would we feel about the practice had the white man not colonized us? Was the practice inherently abhorred by women? What was the actual raison d'etre for the practice?

With this discourse I share with you my surmise, warning beforehand that it was conceived in the over-active imaginative part of my brain and that I do not forward it as an argument but rather as the result of me challenging myself to think harder about things (even if the conclusion is not necessarily right).

Most citizenry accept taxes as a necessary although, not enjoyable obligation owed to the state. Tulipe ushuru, tujitegemee broadcasts Kenya Revenue Authority from their website. A neat argument which goes on to say how there would be: no roads, no hospitals, no schools; were it not for taxes. Simple enough and thus every year billions of shillings are collected from wananchi and funneled through the state coffers towards public expenditure.

Of course it helps that there are massive structures and institutions set up to facilitate collection and dissuade avoidance. From ensuring the employer pays his employees' taxes before he pays them their salaries, to banks insisting that companies wishing to open bank accounts have a Tax PIN certificate, to the ETRs, upfront custom duty payments, and a host more set ups. And where these don't suffice, a prize is always at hand for the top tax payers.

And for the wily, uncooperative, or just plain evasive we (through our "elected" representatives) have passed a number of laws to punish those that do not adhere to this "self-evident" tax argument.

In summary, we have a practice that is institutionalized, accepted though unwanted, suffered by the individual for the good of the community.

Of course it would be incomplete if I neglected say that the tax regime is not free from abuse, and by broad consensus most of us believe it is designed by and favoured for the rich and powerful.

So what does all that have to do with female circumcision?

Is it possible that female circumcision was designed with a similar rationale?

Picture this:

It is 1805, the Ameru community has been living on the Nyambene hills, growing bountiful crop and protected from their enemies by altitude and geography. Water is plenty, streaming down from the snow capped mountain where Murungu resides. Yet their community is waning, year by year, becoming smaller and smaller, forgetting their customs and losing their identity.

The Njuri Ncheke (council of elders) are constantly worried in their deliberations. It was not long ago that their people escaped from bondage from Arabs at the coast and migrated to this place. Others came from the North, pushed by Oromo warriors whereas still others came from farther south, seeking arable land. They managed to cobble together a community who called themselves the Ameru. Although there are now five clans who are part of the Ameru, their diverse origins mean that it is a loose coalition. Looser now as wandering Borana from the hinterland with their herds of Zebu and Chuka from the south with their bronze hoes are marrying Meru girls.

Girls are leaving Nyambene to go and increase the clans of others. Whole generations of future Ameru never to be, as the women shun their Meru men in favour of the warriors from other tribes.

Soon the Njuri Ncheke fear, there will no longer be a Meru identity, once again the Ameru will be dispersed like the wind to the four corners of the earth to suffer the same wandering homeless fate as their bajuju (ancestors.)

They need to do something quickly, to come up with a way of coalescing the community, of making sure that the vessels of the next generation (young women) marry within the community and abide by its tenets, of perpetuating the customs and beliefs of their people. They consider many options, and realize that the best option would be something which the whole community can participate. It must have a reward and punishment mechanism to induce people towards it and penalize those against it. It must require personal sacrifice yet ensure communal benefit.

The Njuri Ncheke love their community and would like to see it live on for many more years, strong, proud and self-sufficient. Their decision is made, even though they know that some will come to say it is designed by men to favour them.


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