How the Imbalu cultural tradition is being eroded

Tuesday January 21 2020

Initiation. Some of the boys being taken through the Imbalu rituals at Mutoto Cultural Ground in 2018. PHOTO BY FRED WAMBEDE

Sitting on his stool under a tree shade in his compound in Mahalwa Village in Bukonde Sub-county, Mbale District, in the company of his grandchildren playing with bells (Bitsetse), Mr Isaac Nazeba, 80, an elder from the Buttaga clan says the sacred tradition is facing extinction gradually.
“Our ancestors must be wailing wherever they are when they see what is happening to our imbalu. Our sacred ritual, has been diluted… is now turning into a practice of mere cutting of the foreskin of the penis. This is a total disgrace,” he narrates.
Imbalu ritual 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.
The ritual initiates boys into manhood. Mr Nazeba says during the old days, whenever the circumcision year arrived, the festive atmosphere was irresistible as the blowing of horns and playing of Kadodi took over.
“But that is dying out and I am sure our gods are angry and one day, they will make us pay heavily for this,” he proclaims as he rests his hand on his right cheek.
Mr Nazeba says by now, families would be actively involved in selecting candidates to be taken through several rituals, including dancing and singing the traditional imbalu songs, visiting relatives and practicing Isonjo dance, among others, which would last for more than eight months.
The activities would climax with the candidates facing the knife, starting from the month of August after the official launch at Mutoto Cultural Grounds.
“What you find now is educated Gishu men, circumcising their children like Muslims. Others have become shameless and take their children to hospitals,” he said.
He adds that during the activities, elders would transmit values and traditions of their culture from generation to generation.
The Isonja dance is the preparatory dance for intending candidates. The dance helps the boys to acquaint their thighs with bells (Bitsetse).
Bitsetse is one of the dancing attires for the candidates. Others include beads (Zisukhusukhu, skin belts (Lihabi) cowries, and head-dress (Ijirubisi).
Mr James Kangala, one of the founding members of the Bamasaba Cultural Institution, says imbalu has been reduced to fit people’s interests. “The traditional Imbalu dictates that boys must go through vigorous trainings before they face the knife. This grooms them to become brave men capable of facing the world at all costs,” he said.
He says the gods must be already angry because the Bamasaba are now producing boys, who are timid and cannot face the knife.
Ms Betty Mukoya, a resident of Namakwekwe Ward in Mbale Town, says the traditional way of circumcision is fading out.
“Traditional circumcision is becoming a thing of the past because of the opposition it is facing from religious leaders,” she said.
Mr Steven Masiga, another resident, said rampant poverty has made people to abandon traditional circumcision.
“Sustaining a circumcision ceremony for more than a month will be costly now because this involves hiring cultural bells and paying surgeons,” Mr Masiga said.
Mr Patrick Wangolo from Manafwa District said education is another factor, which is eating away the famous ritual.
“Today, parents prefer to circumcise their children when they are still young so that they can go through the education system without disturbances,” he said.
Mr Nandala Mafabi, the MP of Budadiri West Constituency in Sironko District, said the Imbalu is a gift to the Bamasaba people, adding that the cultural institution must do more to protect and promote it.
“The Bamasaba Cultural Institution should try to protect and promote Imbalu by establishing a permanent cultural centre,” he said.
Mr Benard Mujasi, the chairperson of Mbale District, said Imbalu is a unique tradition, which identifies the Bamasaba tribe in the country.
Recently, Mr Mathias Nabutele, the deputy prime minister in charge of the Umukuka’s office in Bamasaaba Cultural Institution, said they cannot afford to engage in Kadodi dance thorough out the year.
“We cannot engage in kadodi all the year, we need to engage in other productive work as well,” he said.
Mr Eric Mukhwana, the spokesperson of the cultural institution, said at least 300,000 boys were circumcised last year.
“Our culture gives us our identity passed on from our forefathers. We only have circumcision starting in August and running throughout the year,’’ he said.

The Bamasaba Cultural Institution has partnered with Uganda Wildlife Education Centre to build a museum in order to promote Imbalu as a tourism attraction.
“We have also built 31 huts for different clans at Mutoto Cultural Grounds. This is all geared towards preserving our culture,” Mr Nabutele said.