Imbalu: Turning boys into men among the Bamasaba

What you need to know:

  • RITE OF PASSAGE. 2018 is biennial year for circumcision, a ritual practiced by the Bamasaba where teenage boys are initiated into adulthood.
  • Elders in traditional wear lead candidates to be circumcised, while dancing and singing cultural songs, writes JULIUS ODEKE-ONYANGO

Mbale about 240km from Kampala is a home of the Bagisu. The town has several billboards bearing inscriptions, “Welcome to 2018.” 2018 is biennial year for circumcision, a ritual practiced by the Bamasaba and Bakusu. Bagisu, one of Uganda’s Bantu tribes, inhabit the sunset gradients of Mount Elgon, one of Uganda’s tourist destinations. The Bagisu ancestral origin dates back to more than 500 years ago when Masaba, their forefather emerged from caves of the mountain locally known as Mount Masaba.
This origin is interwoven with the origin of imbalu but remains a mystery to scholars and tribesmen. However, Prof Timothy Wangusa in his writing in 1987, presented “Mundu and Seera” as a legend which has become one of the foundations for explaining the origin of the Bagisu.
Prof Wangusa, a novelist and literature scholar, recounts that the first man among the Bagisu was called Mundu. Together with his wife Seera, they emerged from a hole on top of Mount Elgon. The couple had two sons- Masaba, a hunter and Kundu, a herdsman. According to Prof Wangusa, Kundu left Mount Elgon while Masaba stayed and brought imbalu circumcision rituals to the Bagisu.
“Kundu, who, standing upon the mountain one day when the sky was unusually clear, saw a lake on the horizon in the direction of the setting sun. And yearning to go and find out the secret of the lake, he journeyed many, many days and nights till he got lost, never to return,” Prof Wangusa writes.

The imbalu
The Bagisu are well known for their Imbalu circumcision ceremony. “Stand straight and look into my eyes. Don’t twitch a muscle. I see you are crying. You are crying for it. Crying to be cut to look like your father,” are words told to the candidates undergoing the imbalu ritual by the local surgeon.
This practice dates back to the tale that a certain Mugisu man was summoned by the council of elders because of stealing other men’s wives and then he was subjected to circumcision in Mutoto village as a punishment and preventive action for being adulterous. However, this yielded nothing as he became more powerful and admirable to women. The counterparts retaliated by circumcising themselves to compete favourably.

Incidents of the ritual
Whatever the origin, the Imbalu circumcision ceremony held during leap years is a personal rite of passage to manhood among the Bagisu. They believe that the desire to be circumcised is spiritually motivated.
Circumcision is seasonal and the candidates are first checked to ensure they are Bagisu basing on their clans.
The current king Umukuuka, Bob Saul Kipiro Mushikori told The East African, “In my regime, I don’t entertain hooliganism where non-Bagisu are forced into circumcision. A person has to willingly accept it but if not, we don’t circumcise such a person.”
Many tribes such as Iteso, Langi, Acholi and Lugbara live in Mbale and they settled there in mid-1980s at the time of political insurgency and cattle rustling. In 2014, there were cases where neighbouring Iteso, Japadhola, Bagwere, Banyole were forcefully circumcised in public view attracting rage of the elders of those tribes. Traditional surgeons led by Moses Kutoi, the chairman Imbalu in inzu ya Bamasaba in Mbale went circumcising every male, including the non-Bagisu in the area. Police was forced to fire tear gas, to save many men from being forcefully circumcised. Some Bagisu claimed the forced circumcision campaign was conducted because the native Gisu men were accusing the non-Bagisu men of infecting their Gisu women with sexually transmitted infections.
“Bagisu are good and peace-loving people. We do things according to the laws of the land. What happened in 2014, I cannot take responsibility for but if it happens this year, I will take full responsibility,” Mushikori adds.
In an interview with the Deputy Regional Police Commander (D/RPC) Elgon sub region, John Robert Tukei, he said, “As police we are ready to deal with such people who want to take laws in their hands. We have also moved to sensitise the traditional elders of the Bagisu to restrain their children against forcing non-Bagisu into circumcision.”
Tukei adds: “If anyone comes willingly to be circumcised then they will have little say over such a person since they will have chosen it. There are people who appreciate this culture but its custodians seem not to have known how to woo them.”

The process
During circumcision, the candidates are expected to stand firm as a sign of courage and boldness. The ritual is conducted in August and usually before 10am. They use itinyi, a local herb to induce courage in the candidates. They go to their relatives declaring their intentions of being circumcised and are later gathered at Mutoto Village, a cultural site where the first Mugisu was circumcised. Here elders lead candidates to be circumcised in traditional wear, while dancing and singing cultural songs. These dress in decorated in plantain fronds or animal skins and their faces are covered with ash or flour. They are accompanied by a crew of cheerleading friends, marching and dancing through the streets. Candidates seek to connect with and seek approval of their close relatives.
On the day of circumcision, the candidate raises his hands, dancing, proudly exhibiting his blooded member to an ululating crowd. “Crying during the process would mean cowardice, thus, is forbidden,” says John Musira, a traditionalist. The launching of the operation in Mutoto village lasts one hour in which the surgeon makes three bold cuts to remove the foreskin of the candidates. A whistle is blown to mark the completion of the exercise. He is then led to the quiet place where he is seated and wrapped in a cloth before bleeding stops. He is taken to his father’s home and hand fed for three consecutive days before he is ritually washed and permitted to eat with his hands marking the end of the ritual.
Unlike in other African areas where circumcision is carried out indoors with few associates present, the Bagisu declared it a public function, which allows tourists to attend. This is one of those last amazing experiences that can still authentically be traced to the African continent.

For health reasons
Male circumcision is no longer just a cultural or religious obligation, circumcision when carried out safely in a sterile environment is now a powerful tool used by health facilities to contribute towards a reduction in new HIV infections among men.
Circumcision being mandatory for all Muslims, Muslim surgeons who are extremely experienced in performing mainly neonatal circumcision find themselves better positioned to perform the procedure than other groups and they carry it out in a sterile setting.
It is no wonder that in Uganda, Muslim-founded health facilities have been doing brisk business, charging a fee for circumcision.
One of the leaders of the Bamasaba surgeons on condition of anonymity, says “government has come up with male circumcision as a way of mitigating the spread of the infectious virus. We therefore don’t see why the non-Bamasaba don’t want to go hospitals for the surgical procedure.”
“This is why we have decided to forcefully circumcise them so, as to save our girls from infections,” he admits.
However, president Museveni in 2014, while officiating in the opening ceremony of imbalu circumcision in Mutoto cultural village told the Bamasaba (Uganda) and the Bakusu (Kenya) to shun the old style of undergoing circumcision.
“While we support you in keeping your culture find ways of trying to modernise this culture in tandem with the changing times,” said Museveni, according to the local media, adding that traditional circumcision ceremony in the two communities had only promoted prostitution. He warned the two tribes over myths that circumcised men could not contract HIV/Aids.
This year, the Umukuuka, Mushikori wrote a letter to State House inviting President Museveni to officiate in the 2018 ceremony. In a related development, the Inzu ya Bamasaba asked President Museveni to extend the same invite to President Uhuru Kenyatta.