Body Culture in East Africa

Fifth Equator Peace Academy | Uganda & Kenya | December 6-20, 2019

It is by now commonplace to recognize that almost every culture is embodied; i.e. leaves its marks on our bodies. Some of these marks are temporary and easily erased, some are permanent and ineradicable. These marks often play a critical role in defining the boundaries of group belonging; that is to say the boundaries of trust, moral credit, feelings of home and of a shared fate. As such, they also serve as reference points for collective mobilization over contested resources, statuses, and livelihoods. Markers of collective inclusion, they are at the same time markers of exclusion. In many cultures, including those of East Africa, the traditional rite of passage from childhood to adulthood leaves unerasable marks on the bodies of sometimes both men and women. These marks or signs define not only personal choices and opportunities but also political and social life.

In East Africa and worldwide, some of these practices are accepted, others are contested and often condemned. The condemnation of these practices in the name of health concerns, bodily autonomy, and human rights is advanced by global, national, and communal forces. Within this cluster of actors, the State plays a key role alongside international actors, local elites, and NGO operatives.

The tradition of male circumcision, which is widely but not universally practiced, is central to political and social mobilization in both Kenya and Uganda and as such plays a crucial role in the institutions of modernity such as political campaigns, social mobilization, and systems of distribution.

In such countries as Uganda and Kenya female circumcision (commonly referred to in the West as female genital mutilation) has been illegal since 2010 and 2011 respectively, while male circumcision remains accepted. At the same time, among certain communities in both countries–such as the Pokot and Sabiny/Sabei–State policies against female circumcision (FGM) are vigorously resisted. This contestation is the site of one of the major conflicts between modernity as a civilizational project and traditional ways of living.

The Fifth EPA will explore these issues in the Karamoja cluster of Kenya and Uganda. EPA is an affiliate of CEDAR, whose programs combine pluralistic perspectives on religious thought and community with social scientific research on tolerance and civil society. Its goal is to transform both the theoretical models and concrete practices through which religious orientations and secular models of politics and society engage one another. Like those of other CEDAR affiliates, the EPA program combines academic courses with intensive processes that help build groups and develop working relationships across religious and ethnic identities. Its didactic goals are both social and cognitive.

The EPA is a CEDAR affiliate program working in collaboration with Uganda Martyrs University.

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