Dr. De Cock Praises The Cut

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Who would have guessed that the good Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, director of H.I.V./AIDS for the World Health Organization, would have been so presciently named? A study in Kenya and Uganda by the National Institutes of Health has found evidence that circumcision might reduce a man’s risk of contracting HIV from heterosexual sex by as much as fifty percent. Dr. De Cock reckons that men should not now assume that their circumcised penis has become a kind of magic bullet which they can shove around willy-nilly. Rather, it is, he says, “… a potentially important intervention.” Alas, his caution is correct.

The very same New York Times now trumpeting The Cut some years ago reported another study whose conclusion was quite the opposite. This one after studying almost the same number of men in the US as this more recent one studied in Kenya and Uganda, found that circumcision not only does not lead to lower rates of STDs but that their incidence is actually higher among the circumcised. Quite mysteriously, it also found that circumcised men were much likelier to engage in, to quote the NYT, ‘a varied repertoire of sexual practices, including oral sex, anal sex and masturbation.’ I wonder what Dr. De Cock has to say about all this and perhaps less pertinently, but more interestingly, whether he is circumcised or not.

To digress slightly: what kind of teasing was poor De Cock subjected to in school? I can just hear the jeering chorus, “De Cock, the Cock, De Cock, the Cock…” It must have been hell for the boy, and I am deeply ashamed that I should find it so funny at my age.

Anyway, hard on the heels of the pro-circumcision study, two of the larger HIV/AIDS funds are considering paying for The Cut in high-risk countries. Daniel Halperin, a Harvard HIV specialist extraordinaire, excitedly responded, “I have no doubt that as word of this gets around, millions of African men will want to get circumcised, and that will save many lives.” That is the kind of enthusiasm displayed by a man who got The Cut as an infant in a bright shiny hospital. Not as a teenager by a circumciser who declared the use of anesthetic to be unmanly as yours truly lay trouser-less, sweating onto the cold plastic of the hospital cot and praying to the gods for a last minute reprieve and failing that at least an injection of painkiller.

I really could not have guessed that my being tricked into the little Kiambu clinic was in fact a considerate attempt on the part of my father and uncle to reduce the number of Langerhans cells I had and thus potentially save me from future HIV infection. Yes, I was tricked, deceived, lied to, bamboozled, led astray, run amuck.

I had just completed my Certificate of Primary Education exams and found my dear father waiting in his car, a big smile on his face. “Would you like to go to town for an after-exam treat at Wimpy and then go visit your granddad’s clinic?” he asked, hugging me to him. A few hours and pints of blood later, I was a man.

Perhaps a twelve-year old man who had briefly fainted from blood loss, but a man nevertheless – and it should be noted that I took the procedure with nary a sound (this is a very important fact, perhaps the most important of all to those of you unused to male pride in enduring pain for no great purpose.) I was finally free of those troublesome Langerhans that had up to then called the underside of my foreskin home. I wish Dr. De Cock had been around then so that the procedure was paid for by American money, in a clinic that insisted on the use of anesthetic and kept me far from the trickery of my father who to this day chuckles every time we drive by the stone and corrugated iron building that used to house my late grandfather’s clinic.

Jamhuri Day Party in Addis Ababa

Last night I attended the Jamhuri Day party at the Kenyan Embassy in Addis Ababa, an event which is on every diplomat’s and Ethiopian taxi driver’s calendar. There were at least five hundred people who attended and the food and the tusker were in full flow. So much so that I heard myself, as if from afar, roaring all manner of greetings to people that I knew. ‘Welcome to Kenya,’ I would find myself shouting repeatedly to every Ethiopian acquaintance or friend who attended the event. I steered them this way and that, pointed out the banana trees and asked, ‘do you like those Kenyan banana trees? how about this Kenyan building? And Kenyan food, do you like the food? Isn’t the music lovely? Hey how about that ambassador? Coolest diplomat in town right?

It went on this way, fuelled by the generous portions of tusker that I was pouring into myself, and I fear that I was probably the most fearful bore of the party. I was having fun though and I think in some way I was revenging for being made to answer all the foreigner/ferenji questions that come at me on a daily basis. For instance, not a day or two pass without my being asked whether I like injera. Now the answer, and not just for the sake of politeness, is yes. But this question, I think, is really not about injera but about what I, a foreigner, think of this country. There is no option to say no because if there is one thing that some months of being here have taught me is that non-Ethiopians walk on egg-shells around Ethiopian pride. It’s all good though. Pride is good. I guess.

Anyway, back to the party. A young Kenyan who I suspect is a student at the university sauntered up to the bar and stood alongside me. He had short dreadlocks, and had a dark sweater with green, yellow and red stripes worn over a squat, powerful frame. He was very drunk as became apparent when he slurringly and quite belligerently ordered the bartender to pour him a drink. But the bar, he was told, was closed even though the bartender was busy serving me and others – who were all to a man in ties unlike this young revolutionary. He did not take it lying down: ‘Pour me a fucking drink,’ he shouted. The drink, gin, was poured with him insisting that it be filled to the brim. Once it was in his hand, he dashed it to the ground and screamed, screamed is the exact word, ‘to Dedan Kimathi!’

The bartender, a peaceable man till just then shouted back, ‘why you pour drink? Who is this Kimathi?’ Their back and fro, full of outraged explanations by the student and complete confusion on the bartender’s part, entertained me for a full fifteen minutes before we all staggered away to dance to Lingala.

A couple of hours later, this young Dedan Kimathi was spotted fast asleep on embassy grounds. One of the Kenyan diplomats took the opportunity to deliver a lecture on the importance of handling your liquor well – met by slow nods from Kenyans in the circle who were too drunk to do more than mutter guilty agreement. But this group of inebriates came alive in protest when the diplomat made to wake the young man up and kick him out. ‘He is in Kenya,’ ‘how can you kick him out of his own house?’ These and similar remarks came fast and furious so that the diplomat eventually backed down, probably having decided to do the kicking out more discreetly. But the incident seemed to me to speak to a certain, increasing Kenyan ownership of our spaces, and an unwillingness to accept the official point of view. Or am I romanticizing and over-interpreting a small, meaningless incident?

Charm kills art and I fear it has murdered in Addis Ababa

I was recently rewatching Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when a friend of mine, who is on a one-year writing fellowship in London asked whether he should move house to Oxford so that he could commute to London for his classes. Oxford, which is a city that I enjoy and like, is ever associated in my mind with charm. As in walking its cobblestones always yields the thought of how charming it is. Yet this I suspect is not what Oxford is at all, its charm is a velvet glove worn over a monstrous self regard which like all malign things that are English is hidden by a facade of good manners and prettified surface.

In any case, here is what the character Anthony Blanche says to Charles Ryder, a modestly famous artist of famous country houses played by Jeremy Irons: “I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

This charm is what I have been seeing in many of the galleries I have visited here in Addis Ababa. The artists seem captive to a desire to please and delight, and little more, so that canvas after canvas, all somehow avoiding the world the artist lives in, become like a giant lie that soothes so that it can sell. Charm, in addition to being a facet of personality, is a magic with dangerous, hypnotic qualities. Who would want to hypnotize if not for the purpose of some sort of harm? Charm as magic in the hands of the pleaser and delighter, the artist who avoids honesty, who steers clear of controversy at all costs, recruits him into society’s ruling army of dissemblers. In fact the dictator is more honest in his manipulations and betrayals than is the artist who paints little cute flowers as tanks roll by in the streets.

It was not until I met Richard Onyango (old NYT review) in Nairobi this past weekend that I was able to recognize what I had been seeing in so many galleries here. Onyango’s art is the practice of honesty and it shines through. His life with Souzy Drosie is captured in all its pain and frustration and happiness. His painting of a KBS bus evoked in me such a powerful memory of a day in which death missed me by an inch and ploughed its tons of metal into a schoolboy who was standing less than two meters from me. Onyango does not charm, he delights and challenges and makes me feel that I must be more honest in my writing, and yes, to be a bit dramatic, in my living as well.

(Btw, here is another great quote from the Brideshead Revisited series. This time by Father Mowbray: “But yesterday I got a real eye opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.”)