It was around sunset on a chilly day in the populous Ndirande Township in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, where a group of cheering boys had gathered around a dusty pitch to watch some of their peers play football. That’s when they pounced.
Picking one of the smallest boys on the touchline, mysterious men dragged their seven-year-old victim away, undisturbed by his efforts to break loose, only leaving behind a dusty trail as they disappeared with their prey into the bush.
The boy tried to cry for help. But only a muffled sound came out of his mouth as one of the men had gagged him until they had brought him into a grass-thatched hut.
That very moment, the other boys realized that their friend had been taken for circumcision. They all took to their heels – some to alert the boy’s parents.
A traditional initiation ceremony – or “chinamwali,” also popularly known as “jando,” in which circumcision is carried out – was taking place quietly in the nearby hut.
Between May and August, local circumcision ceremonies swing into full gear in most parts of the country.
Trespassers are abducted, circumcised and ordered to pay hefty “fees” to elders, locally known as “ngaliba” (surgeons).
Local elders occasionally send boys to capture other boys suspected of not being circumcised in an effort to increase the number of initiates – and raise money.
Elders demand 7000 kwachas (about $18) in fees for the “initiation” of a seven-year-old boy.
“We tried to settle the matter amicably, but the initiation elders were not moved,” the relative of the boy told Anadolu Agency, asking not to be named.
“They demanded their fees be paid in full before they could release the boy,” he said.
“Village headman Mtambalika, the local chief of the area, paid 1000 kwachas [about $2] for the boy’s release,” added the relative.
The parents declined to talk to AA, but the relative suspected that they were in favor of the boy’s circumcision.
“It’s tradition; boys have to be circumcised, especially in the Muslim communities in this area,” he said. “No wonder the parents are quiet about it.”
But one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, Zwelithini Chipembere, has decried the practice.
“Those who forced circumcision on the boy have to pay the price,” he told AA.
“This is total abuse of human rights. No one should be forced to be circumcised,” Chipembere insisted.
“This was an innocent seven-year-old boy who went out to have fun.”
He asserted that the initiation hut had been intentionally built near a school playground, where children can often be found playing.
“It is a serious matter; I am still trying to get more information from the parents and police so we can open a court case,” the lawyer said.
“All I want is to find out who abducted the boy to be circumcised,” he added.
So far, he lamented, no one had been arrested over the incident.
The incident has added fuel to an already raging debate across the country about circumcision ceremonies.
Initiation huts have sprung up to target schoolboys on holiday (May to August), which is a cold season in Malawi – a climate said to make circumcision less painful and make wounds heal quickly, according to a local initiation elder.
The Malawian government is already under fire for moving too slowly in providing free male circumcision services at state facilities.
Earlier this month, the government announced it would scale up a voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) program.
Health Ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali told the media that a massive, six-week VMMC campaign – targeting 45,000 people in six districts – had begun.
“The VMMC campaign is running in the districts of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Nkhotakota [in central Malawi] and in Zomba, Phalombe and Mulanje [in the southern region],” he explained.
Malawi launched its VMMC initiative in late 2011 as an HIV prevention strategy after being convinced by results of three random clinical trials that had shown that the service led to HIV prevention rates of 60 percent.
The campaign also aims to curb forced or unsafe male circumcisions carried out during initiation ceremonies.
The World Bank has agreed to fund the program – to the tune of some $15 million – for the next four years.
“VMMC also benefits the recipient in terms of hygiene, prevention of cervical cancer in female partners, and prevention of penile cancer,” Chimbali said, adding that over 140,000 men in the country had undergone VMMC.
Frank Chimbwandira, director of the Health Ministry’s HIV/AIDs department, said that while the government had excluded some districts in the northern region from the campaign, the project was focused on areas known for high HIV prevalence rates.
But, he insisted, people should understand that VMMC is not a 100-percent HIV/AIDS prevention measure.
“We encourage those who have undergone VMMC to still use condoms in order to stay safe from contracting HIV,” Chimbwandira told AA.
VMMC facilities have been opened in primary schools in order to make the service available to the people, especially the young, he said.
The campaign has received an overwhelmingly positive response, the official asserted, with people flocking to the facilities to receive the service.
As to whether the campaign would bring an end to traditional circumcision ceremonies, Chimbwandira said: “Maybe, because it [traditional means of circumcision] is barbaric; it has to end.”