It passed from generation to generation without pen and paper, with ceremonies and stories holding it together.
“People are custodians of their culture; that is why it has survived,” Chief Mumena says. “If they did not believe in it, it would have been wiped out under colonial rule.”
Chief Mumena is the eleventh chief of the Mumena Royal Establishment, a kingdom of the Kaonde people in Zambia. He is in Washington this week attending the AIDS conference, and was on his way to talk about his work to promote circumcision, first among men of his tribal kingdom, then across his country, and now, that he is in Washington, across the world.
His journey here has been complicated through, because circumcision was not part of Kaonde culture. Making the cultural relevance of that clearer are the fact that two tribes that neighbor Chief Mumema’s kingdom in Zambia’s Northwestern Province circumcize young men as a part of a rite of passage into adulthood.
So when Chief Mumena’s 18-year-old son came to him in February 2011 to say he wanted to be circumcized, the Chief was unsettled.
“It was an invasion of our culture,” he said. “We looked down on male circumcision as barbaric, as primitive.”
He also was afraid for his son, as he had no information on the procedure at all.
“That was the beginning of my journey,” he said.
He called a physician friend in Lusaka, Manassveh Phiri. Phiri, a longtime AIDS activist explained the science, recounted the research — the procedure lessened a man’s chance of acquiring AIDS by 60 percent, reduced chances of cervical cancer among their female partners even more.
“It wasn’t about turning my back on being Kaonde, it was about survival,” Chief Mumena says now. “Without it, we would be wiped out.”
HIV prevalence in Zambia hovers around 14 percent of the population and cervical cancer, an opportunistic HIV infection, is the number one cancer killer of women there.
“We needed real protection,” the chief says now. “We had condoms and abstinence, and you realize people do not abstain, anyway. It was more of an attitude.”
He shakes his head now, and smiles when he said he was converted by his son. “The young were ahead of us. They were setting a trend.”
On June 2 last year the Chief got himself circumcised. The annual Kaonde traditional ceremony came three weeks later, and he invited representatives of a medical nonprofit. Thirty men walked down the road to the clinic to get circumcised that day.
For his part, he redefined cultural adherence. “I love the Kaonde culture and I want to enjoy it to the fullest,” he said. “They need to be alive, to enjoy their culture.”
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