Cut or Uncut?

At the risk of anachronism, and the worst kind of uninformed politics, it might be worth attempting an experiment about the meaning of African morphologies. An article in the Daily Nation, provocatively opens,

American foreign aid will soon shift to an unlikely aspect of Kenyan culture — male circumcision.

Nearly Sh350 million out of the Sh25 billion which the United States gives Kenya to fight Aids will now be used to make circumcision more widely available to men.

The dramatic twist in the Bush administration’s financial support is driven by recent studies in Kenya and elsewhere which show that circumcised men are far less likely to contract the virus that causes Aids.

A senior official with the US Agency for International Development told the Washington Post that funding for the male cut will amount at first to only a few hundred thousand dollars a year, but will become “an important part” of the American anti-Aids programme in Africa in the coming years.

I have thought about male circumcision for some time—in the context of the Luo/Gikuyu leadership divide, in terms of the rural/urban creations of Nairobi masculinities, in the important, if incomplete, shifts from riversides to hospitals. Much of this still remains to be written, though Kenyan historians have mapped the ethno-national creation of contemporary masculinities.

I am more interested, though, in how African morphologies continue to be an object of fascination for the west. Any student of Kenyan history knows about the complex politics of circumcision, from how debates over women’s bodies led to the creation of independent schools (here, the language of fgm may be appropriate, but I wonder how much women’s welfare lay at the center of these debates, or whether they were, in fact, struggles between men—religion vs. tradition, shall we say) to how missionaries attempted to sanitize circumcision rituals.

While the more familiar colonial language of sexology may be absent from recent scientific assessments—no speculation over penis length of thickness, for example, no salacious porno-reports—I remain startled that studies about circumcising Africans are prominently displayed in western media. Although the report I cite above comes from a Kenyan daily, news about circumcising Africans made the front page of the online edition of the New York Times a few months ago.

To be sure, the news is couched in a more advanced, life-saving science, yet it still remains incredibly invasive. The language of cut/uncut, familiar from my ventures in gay cruising, becomes an opportunity to speak about African sexuality. On the one hand, I support any and all life-saving measures. On the other hand, I think about the coercive measures—funding opportunities—that ignore any and all possible cultural and traditional attitudes toward circumcision. Of course, the specter of castration is never far.

Here would be my uninformed question: at the opening of the 21st Century, why are African penises front-page and policy-driving objects of western fascination? Is there not something absurd at the spectacle of men lining up to have their penises observed (“cut, one extra dollar, uncut, sorry, no more money”)? To be sure, I have ventured an absurd, idiosyncratic take on the bind between science and policy, the affair between African morphologies and U.S. interests. Here, of course, it is not simply that Africans may have to choose between saving their lives and altering their bodies, though that concern is primary, but about the ongoing way African morphologies continue to function in the “new,” but oh-so-familiar idioms of western science.