Boys under the blade


Wawonii boys PHOTO/Brooke Nolan

Ibu Ratna and I entered the house. The room was full of people. It was noisy and hot. People had come for the free circumcisions. The penises of boys between the ages of nine and twelve were being cut on the creaking wooden table in the corner. On the table were old rags, open packages of needles, bloody bandages, dirt and dust. The room smelled of fish, which was what usually went under the knife on these tables.

Ibu Ratna is a civil servant from the Department of Health. She was on Wawonii, an island in Southeast Sulawesi, for the afternoon to deliver free medication for the event. Two young men in their twenties held blades and needles over the penises of the half-naked boys. Ibu Ratna pushed me through the throng of people who had gathered to watch.

I thought of the circumcision ‘ceremonies’, ‘rituals’ and elaborate-sounding ‘rites of passage’ I’d read about in anthropological literature before coming to Wawonii. This was something else altogether. The boys were cut briskly, cotton wool was dabbed on bleeding flesh, crying boys given pink lollipops and urged to pray. There were many boys to get through and Ibu Ratna and her colleagues intended to be back on the boat to the regional centre of Unaaha on the mainland before sunset. No one wanted to spend a night on an island where nothing happened, a place routinely mocked by Health bureaucrats for its apparent backwardness.

Compared to the boredom by which afternoons in Wawonii were often characterised, the blunt cutting and bleeding of genitals was a real spectacle. In Kendari, nearby on the mainland, you went to the cinema to be entertained by horror films in the afternoon. In Wawonii, it happened right before your eyes, for free. Well, not quite. The boys were certainly paying. They would continue to pay as they hobbled around gingerly, legs wide apart, barely able to walk over the coming days. Most of them would need time off school. Some would end up at the clinic, presenting infected genitals to nurses. As with every spectacle in Wawonii, this one was noisy, exhausting and dirty. Children tripped over each other and the women prattled as the makeup they had applied (perhaps to show the bureaucrats from Unaaha that they were not in fact ‘backward’) dripped off their faces. The men were in a cluster at the doorway, smoking limp cigarettes, spitting and giggling whenever someone said something lewd, which was often.

In places where nothing happens, the bar for what counts as entertainment is set very low. In theory, as Wawonii people explained to me, circumcision was an Islamic ritual, but in practice it just seemed like something for people to do, a way of avoiding boredom (at home) or exhaustion (in the rice fields).

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