Why Zambian Chief Mumena Now Advocates for Male Circumcision

Zambia 2013

By Jennifer James

July 25, 2013

Also published at Impatient Optimists

I can’t imagine that it is a simple decision to make to get circumcised for any adult man, especially when circumcision is not culturally practiced it one's community. But that is exactly what the Zambian government is calling on men to do in order to help decrease the high rate of HIV/AIDS incidence in the country. Zambia has set a targeted goal of circumcising two million men by 2015. Right now the count stands roughly at 340,000. There is still much work to be done.

Known as “MC” for short providing a more easy and gentler way to discuss male circumcision, increasingly Zambian men are learning the benefits of being circumcised even though some of their centuries’ old cultural roots dictate otherwise. Little by little Zambian men are realizing that today is a different time. It's not just technology that is changing, but also health. Circumcision may not have been a choice decades ago. Today, it's a means to a longer life. Backed by years of research, male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 60 percent according to the World Health Organization.

Chief Johnathan Eshiloni Mumena: His Story

In the wooded highlands of northwestern Zambia live the Kaonde, a community of 60,000 people. Its leader, Chief Johnathan Eshiloni Mumena, is now an outspoken proponent for “MC”, but his advocacy didn’t happen overnight. In fact, during the course of his decision-making process to be circumcised he was faced with many consequences including the risk of angering, and being impeached by, the elders who entrusted in him the care of their culture and possible impeachment. 

Chief Johnathan Eshiloni Mumena

Photo: Jennifer James

Chief Mumena would not have heard the call to advocate for male circumcision if his then 18-year-old son had not come to him seeking permission to be circumcised. Like any father, Mumena wanted to know why and how was he going to get it done. Traditionally, circumcision ceremonies for young men in some African cultures require a month of full devotion to manhood away from community and most importantly it signifies the passage from boyhood to manhood. He knew his son didn't want to be away from the community that long.

His son told him he was going to get circumcised at a health clinic and detailed the reasons why; that male circumcision decreases the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission (by 60 percent as aforementioned). He also told his father that male circumcision decreased the risk of passing cervical cancer onto women. After hearing his son’s appeal, Chief Mumena gave his son his blessing, but asked one thing from him: to tell him how everything went afterward.

When Chief Mumena ascended to the Kaonde throne he knew he wanted to focus on community health programs from HIV/AIDS, maternal health, rural development, to water and sanitation. “People kept dying,” Mumena said. “If the people that I lead are dying then there would be no chiefdom.”

It never occurred to him that he would take up the cause of male circumcision.

In June 2011 at the age of 47, Chief Mumena, with the council of Dr. Manasseh Phiri, who I mentioned in an earlier piece, helped him learn more about “MC” and then undergo the procedure. After being circumcised Chief Mumena brought together his people at a meeting to discuss the importance of male circumcision. Even though he was Chief, he was still nervous about the outcome of speaking about circumcision, something the men in his community did not culturally adhere to. After his talk, twenty-two men signed up immediately to be circumcised at a health clinic. And because of peer-to-peer influence Kaonde men are signing up by the thousands to also become circumcised, even men as old as 83. “It has become the ‘in’ thing now,” Mumena said.

Where once the Kaonde men looked at neighboring groups that did circumcise as primitive, now they realize male circumcision is a matter of life and death. “We adopted “MC” as a survival strategy,” Mumena continued. Now, he has been called upon to teach other ethnic groups in Zimbabwe and Namibia about the effectiveness of male circumcision.

What started as a conversation about male circumcision with his son has now become Mumena’s international platform to save more lives.  "Social change is about leadership," he said.

I am reporting from Zambia as an International Reporting Project Fellow.

More from this Reporter

From Other Reporters in This Country

Also appeared in…