Covid-19: Bamasaba in fix over cancelling Imbalu ritual

Friday May 29 2020

A boy is circumcised at Babukusu Cultural

A boy is circumcised at Babukusu Cultural Palace in Bulucheke Sub-county, in Bududa District, last year. Photo by Yahudu Kitunzi 


The Bamasaba Cultural Institution has been thrown into unprecedented confusion over the fate of this year’s imbalu, the circumcision ritual, owing to the lockdown from the coronavirus pandemic.

Daily Monitor has learnt that some members of the council have intimated to Uwelukosi Umukuku, the cultural head of Inzu-Ya-Masaba institution, Sir Bob Mushikori, that the annual ritual be called off until 2022.

The Imbalu, which has been cherished for more than 200 years, is held every even year among the Bamasaba who hail from the districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa, Bududa, Bulambuli, Namisindwa, and some parts of Kenya.

However, another group led by the deputy prime minister for culture, tourism and communications, Mr Eric Mukhwana, says it is still possible to have the “scientific circumcision” this year.

“We have other options such as the scientific approach. We can have the launch done in a digital way and allow every family circumcise its candidate without crowding,” he said.

Mr Isaac Nazeba, 80, an elder from Buttaga clan in Bukonde Sub-county, said should the circumcision ritual be called off, there is need for spiritual cleansing.


“Our leaders should tread carefully but if something evil happens, our cultural institution needs to consult our gods and find a spiritual solution,” he said.

When Daily Monitor visited several villages, there were usual rhythms of kadodi and sounds of horns, which are common during the circumcision year.

Some of the boys, who have been enlisted by their fathers in their respective clans to undergo the circumcision ceremony, also expressed fear that the ritual might be called off.

“My father had already hired for me the cultural bells and other traditional gear. If the Imbalu is called off, it will affect me so much because I wanted to marry by the end of this year,” Tom Wabomba, one of the imbalu candidates, said.

Among the Bamasaba, it is only after circumcision that boys are initiated into manhood and identified as men (basani) while the uncircumcised are referred to as boys (basinde) even when they are adults and married. The Basinde have no say, especially in clan meetings and affairs.

Mr Seth Muboolo, a resident of Makudui Village in Namanyonyi Sub-county, said should the ceremony be called off, it will adversely affect the candidates, some of whom are already adults.

“Some of the candidates are more than 20 years old and others are above. Keeping them for more two years is totally a wrong decision,” he says.

But, Mr Moses Kutoyi, the chairperson of Imbalu, said this will not be the first time the ritual is called off.

He said that between 1917 and 1919, elders sat and agreed to call off the imbalu celebrations due to famine and a strange disease that broke out, saying the cancellation will not be new.

Mr Kutoyi said many activities on this year’s imbalu calendar have been overtaken by events due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The activities include selection and training of candidates to sing traditional songs and also to practice Isonjo dance, among others.

The Bagisu believe that the desire to be circumcised is spiritually motivated. The Imbalu candidate is smeared with flour and decorated with traditional beads and bangles. During circumcision, the candidate is expected to stand firm as sign of courage and boldness.

Mr Ivan Mafabi, a resident of Link Cell in Mbale Town, says imbalu should not be tempered with, saying it moulds boys into responsible and hardworking citizens.

“The government should allow us to go ahead with our ritual. We don’t have coronavirus here,” Mr Mafabi said.
He said elders use imbalu to pass on the social norms and customs to the young generation. “I ask our leaders to engage government not to use this pandemic to further erode our tradition,” he said.

Ms Janet Nagami, a resident of Namakwekwe Ward in Mbale Town, said: “Imbalu is our pride and a crucial factor for our social cohesion and stability.”

Mr James Woniala, another resident, says if the pandemic worsens, it will be prudent to suspend the ceremony until 2020. “In case the coronavirus persists, it will be a wise to suspend imbalu in order to save lives,” he said.

Earlier, Mr James Kangala, one of the founding members of the Bamasaba Cultural Institution, told Daily Monitor that the traditional imbalu is under threat.

He said the gods must be already angry because the Bamasaba are now producing boys who are timid and cannot face the knife.


Imbalu origin

Prof Timothy Wangusa, a novelist and scholar, the first man among the Bagisu was called Mundu. Together with his wife Seera, they emerged from a crater on top of Mount Elgon.

The couple had two sons Masaba, a hunter, and Kundu, a herdsman. Prof Wangusa says Kundu left Mt Elgon while Masaba stayed behind and introduced the imbalu circumcision ritual to the Bagisu.