LUSAKA, Zambia (RNS) African Chief Jonathan Eshiloni Mumena will eagerly tell you about his ivory Star of David ring and the Texas flag on his tie.

Chief Jonathan Eshiloni Mumena (far left) risked impeachment from his Zambian tribe when he decided to undergo adult male circumcision, now an evangelist for the practice. Photo by Melody Wilson, International Reporting Project

Chief Jonathan Eshiloni Mumena (far left) risked impeachment from his Zambian tribe when he decided to undergo adult male circumcision, now an evangelist for the practice. Photo by Melody Wilson, International Reporting Project


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But Mumena’s real passion has recently turned to advocacy for adult circumcision to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

In some African countries, tribes have shunned circumcision because it was seen as a Muslim practice or was simply considered primitive.

“We thought they were born differently and had to reconfigure the way they were,” said Mumena.

So the tribal chief was not prepared for his son’s declaration that he wanted to get circumcised. Mumena read the pamphlets on circumcision’s health benefits, which argue that the procedure cuts HIV transmission by 60 percent, and agreed with his 18-year-old son.

Risking impeachment by the 60,000 members of his tribe, he had the procedure done in 2011 at the age of 47.

Mumena is among a growing number of Zambians opting for circumcision as a way to ward off HIV infection. In so doing, they are adding to the number of people who take on this ancient practice for cultural or religious reasons.

Mumena is also a Christian, and he is finding biblical justifications for circumcision.

“If it was good enough for God’s people in Leviticus, it is good enough for me,” he said. “I have made a stand for circumcision because of what the Bible has taught me. God demands good hygiene from his people as a way of living.”

Mumena attends an evangelical church and is also a lay preacher. His advocacy on behalf of circumcision has brought him attention from people like Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who has called Mumena one of Africa’s “true heroes.”

Circumcision has become a popular tool to fight HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer. In 2012, the Zambian Ministry of Health launched a national campaign to circumcise 2 million men by 2015. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has committed another $11.4 million to support Zambia’s efforts, on top of an original $18 million.

“Male circumcision is the best vaccine in Africa,” says Dr. Manasseh Phiri, a Zambian HIV/AIDS activist who was inspired by Mumena to get circumcised.

In Zambia, 13 percent of adults have been infected with HIV, compared with nations like Swaziland (26%), Botswana (23%) and South Africa (17%), according to the United Nations.

Circumcision is not just a male issue, Phiri said. Women are beginning to demand it as a way to stem cervical cancer from spreading.

“If we can change individual behavior at the bedroom level, we can have this cracked,” he said.

There’s a danger in overemphasizing circumcision, said Dr. Philip Thuma, a longtime researcher in Zambia.

“We in the West right now are fixated on male circumcision in the same way we were fixated on bed nets for malaria,” Thuma said. “It’s only one of many things.”

Health experts also explain that circumcision is not a magic bullet. Some men assume that if they are circumcised, they have almost no risk of contracting HIV.

“Male circumcision is just part and parcel of all the strategies,” said Albert Mwango of Zambia’s Ministry of Health. “It is only useful if the other risk reductions are taken into account.” Other strategies include use of condoms, a controversial method for many faith-based health organizations.

It’s difficult to measure how many have followed in his footsteps, Mumena said, but he sees changes being made.

“I can safely conclude that we have had people circumcised from every tribe because now it has become the ‘in’ thing,” Mumena said.

Described as the best-dressed chief in Zambia by Thuma, Mumena offers some flair with his wardrobe. The Texas flag on the chief’s tie? He became an honorary resident of Abilene, Texas. And the Star of David jewelry? Like many evangelicals, he just loves Israel.

Mumena may cite his faith to promote circumcision, but he’s also eager to suggest it as a practice for everyone, irrespective of religion.

“It doesn’t matter whether we’re Christians, if we believe in the faith, or not,” he said. “HIV/AIDS respects no religion. It’s about survival.”

(Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in Zambia with the International Reporting Project.)

12 Comments

    • As a devout Christian, the tribal chief should perhaps read the New Testament: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%207:18&version=NIV

  1. Your article sounds like advocacy for circumcision.

    1) Circumcision does not lower the risk of HIV infection. Observational studies made in Zimbabwe show a higher incidence of HIV infection among circumcised than uncircumcised men.

    2) Christianity manifests itself in what you do to others and not to yourself. The catholic church recommended against circumcision early. Christianity and circumcision cannot be reconciliated.

    All this American propaganda for male circumcision is just disgusting. If you woudn’t do it to yourself, why do you recommend it to others?

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Article author

      I don’t advocate for anything. Circumcision by itself will not prevent HIV. But studies show it does lower the risk.

      How do you know I wouldn’t do it to myself if I had the ability?

      Anyway, thanks for reading.

      • Yes or No: hypothetically speaking, would you engage in unprotected sex with a man if you KNEW he was HIV positive?

        Aside from being dubious at best (for every study promoting circumcision, one can find another study showing contradicting results) I also find it objectionable because of late, many articles promoting circumcision appear to have been written by women whose online presence (blogs, Twitter, etc) has a very strong pro-female bias. Some of these women (not you !!) appear to relish the idea of a man having his penis cut.

      • The male and female prepuce have the same embryonic origins. For men it is called foreskin, for women it is called the clitoral hood. But surely, you would choose more conservative ways to protect yourself?

        There are also studies worldwide that show that there is no correlation or that HIV is higher for circumcised men. Picking three studies in Africa but ignoring the others is not science.

        Across those three female-to-male trials in Africa, of the 5,411 men subjected to male circumcision, 64 (1.18%) became HIV-positive. Among the 5,497 controls, 137 (2.49%) became HIV-positive, so the absolute decrease in HIV infection was only 1.31%.

        Based on the 1.31%… the 60% is a projected value from a computer simulation, for the male population overall in these areas, IF and ONLY IF – they reach the target of 20 million men. In other words the 60% does not represent the actual protection each individual can expect.

        I urge you to go read all the original studies for yourself, you will see the evidence is rather circumstantial. Research can be tailored to suit any agenda these days. Please don’t be fooled.

  2. From a USAID report:
    “There appears no clear pattern of association between male circumcision and HIV prevalence—in 8 of 18 countries with data, HIV prevalence is lower among circumcised men, while in the remaining 10 countries it is higher.”
    http://www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/CR22/CR22.pdf

    It seems highly unrealistic to expect that there will be no risk compensation. The South African National Communication Survey on HIV/AIDS, 2009 found that 15% of adults across age groups “believe that circumcised men do not need to use condoms”.
    http://www.info.gov.za/issues/hiv/survey_2009.htm

    It is unclear if circumcised men are more likely to infect women. The only ever randomized controlled trial into male-to-female transmission showed a 54% higher rate in the group where the men had been circumcised:
    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)60998-3/abstract

    ABC (Abstinence, Being faithful, and especially Condoms) is the way forward. Promoting genital surgery seems likely to cost African lives rather than save them.

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Article author

      Hi Mark, here are some additional links:
      http://healthland.time.com/2013/04/17/why-circumcision-lowers-risk-of-hiv/

      http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/malecircumcision/en/

      http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2013/04/17/why_does_circumcision_reduce_hiv_risk_106511.html

      http://www.m.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/news/20110106/male-circumcision-cuts-womens-cervical-cancer-risk

      • Wow. You need research to prove that if you don’t wash your genitals they will get dirty? I guess a campaign in Africa to teach people how to practice good genital hygiene will be a lot less profitable than pharmaceuticals, circumcision kits and devices. I forget, men also don’t have access to running water in Africa but their women do…

        Do men who prefer to wear the foreskin in the retracted position with the glans exposed permanently then not have the same benefits? Oh wait… no one can make any money from promoting that.

        Read the WHO pages carefully, is the focus on HIV prevention or on the marketing and roll out of circumcision devices instead? David R. Tomlinson is the inventor of the AccuCirc device, the improved Gomco, and the improved Plastibell devices. He also just so happens to be the “chief expert on circumcision” at the World Health Organization. Conflict of interest perhaps?

        “The risk factors for vaginal cancer: Age, Diethylstilbestrol (DES), Vaginal adenosis, Human papilloma virus, Cervical pre-cancers, Smoking, Alcohol, Human immunodeficiency virus, Vaginal irritation.”

        “HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body. HPV can be spread during sex – including vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, and oral sex – but sex doesn’t have to occur for the infection to spread. All that is needed is for there to be skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV.”

        “Still, circumcision does not completely protect against HPV infection – men who are circumcised can still get HPV and pass it on to their partners.”

        - The American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org)

        In other words, cervical cancer can be prevented by avoiding the risk factors. Similarly, if men avoid the risk factors of HPV etc there is no need for surgery. When did male genital surgery replace common sense, basic hygiene, safe sex and healthy habits? Or can only women practice common sense etc, but men are required to amputate part of their anatomy?

  3. “And in the wake of those male-oriented findings, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a follow-up study in Uganda to see how male circumcision affected AIDS transmission to females. Six months into a two-year study following 2,000 HIV-infected men and their uninfected female partners, the preliminary results are disturbing. At the start of the study, about half of the men underwent a circumcision procedure. The other half – the control group – did not. Looking at the data for just 125 of the couples in the study, it appears that women have twice the chance of contracting HIV from a circumcised partner. The six-month-mark data show that of the women whose HIV-positive partners had been circumcised, 16 percent had contracted HIV. Of the women whose partners had remained uncircumcised, seven percent had acquired the disease.”

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11327-male- circumcision-to-fight-hiv-poses-risk-to-women.html

    “Circumcision of HIV-infected men did not reduce HIV transmission to female partners over 24 months; longer-term effects could not be assessed. Condom use after male circumcision is essential for HIV prevention.”

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)60998-3/abstract

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