Sunday December 27 2009

Does the cut prove you are a man?

By Dennis D. Muhumuza

This movie portrays the battle between modernism and traditionalism in regard to Imbalu and the pressure from human rights activists to replace it with the medical approach, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

Crafting the Bamasaba is the latest documentary by Makerere University filmmaker and lecturer of film, Dr Sr Dominic Dipio. The 62-minute documentary is a riveting portrayal of the ritual process of Imbalu (circumcision) beyond the physical cut.

Through interviews with elders and those who have faced the sharp traditional knife or shunned it in favour of the medical cut, the producer shows why Imbalu remains an integral part of the Bagisu. For example, they believe that a man who braves the knife is valiant enough to defend his family, clan and community from the lurking dangers of everyday life.

As the knife descends, one is expected to stand firm without even wincing in spite of the pain. In fact, pain is valued during the ritual because it not only attests to the boldness and virility of the candidate but is also viewed as preparation for the challenges of the future.

As part of the “testing” also, a circumcision candidate is expected to put a piece of hot coal on his toe to show his bravery and readiness to face the knife. Indeed, circumcision is a matter of life and death - are you a man or not? Will you bring shame or honour to your family?

It’s so deep-rooted that just like the body of a man who commits suicide is whipped before it’s buried in some cultures, among the Bagisu, an uncircumcised body is first circumcised before it’s buried. This has negative consequences on the circumciser of such a body because he’s never allowed to circumcise again. So as compensation, anything he asks of the family of the dead man is granted.

The pressure to preserve the cultural heritage is so strong that a Bamasaba woman is not allowed to marry outside their community let alone an uncircumcised man. After all, it’s believed that the sexual prowess of a circumcised Mugisu is unrivalled, so why a woman would want to look elsewhere is something they can’t understand.

It also has something to do with why an uncircumcised man is not called a man but a “big boy.” In fact, all through, the circumcised men brag about their masculinity but according to one of the learned ladies who attended the premiere at Makerere, “The boy who’s circumcised in hospital is the most courageous because it takes more courage to defy tradition and do it there.”

As it is, the women among the Bamasaba are taken as sex objects. The drum used during Ineemba, the closing dance of the ritual, is shaped and positioned like an erect penis ready to penetrate a woman in a sex act and the women wiggle and dance suggestively with males to songs of sexual innuendo. As one of the elderly women mourned, “Imbalu was of the past; today they are obscene and spoil the world with their songs.”

Even the fear that it’s a satanic ritual is corroborated by some of the interviewees who say the circumcisers and circumcised are guided and possessed by Maina, the deity of the Bamasaba.

The title of the film is drawn from one of the interviewee’s comments; he observes that the crude-looking knife with which hundreds of young men are cut every season is “a revered instrument for crafting men.”