From lockdown to inflation: Imbalu goes under the knife

Boys perform the  Isonja (preparatory) dance ahead of circumcision in Bukonde Sub-county, Mbale City, yesterday. Photo / Yahudu Kitunzi

What you need to know:

  • They will do this and more today when Wangwe, 14, undergoes circumcision during the official launch of the Imbalu ceremony. President Museveni is expected to grace the ceremony at Mutoto cultural ground in Mbale Town, and Wangwe is determined to make his family proud.

Dabbed with flour and decked out in colourful traditional beads and bungles, Edwin Wangwe steps out of a small hut at Mutoto cultural site. The stamina of his feet prompted his relatives to let out cries of joy.

They will do this and more today when Wangwe, 14, undergoes circumcision during the official launch of the Imbalu ceremony. President Museveni is expected to grace the ceremony at Mutoto cultural ground in Mbale Town, and Wangwe is determined to make his family proud.

“I started practicing and I am ready to be circumcised,” Wangwe told Saturday Monitor, adding, “I have been rehearsing the cultural dances.”

Wangwe is among the nearly 6,000 boys expected to be initiated into manhood this year. Today’s ceremony at Mutoto cultural ground will be the first of its kind since Uganda went into lockdown in 2020 as part of the pandemic curbs.

Male circumcision—a rite to passage—is held to much fanfare by the Bamasaaba during even years. Ms Sarah Maswere Wasake, the general secretary Bamasaba Imbalu Organising Committee 2022, said five boys from Mutoto clan will be circumcised during today’s launch. She added that “each will get a cow and a kit after circumcision.”

Shrines for the five boys and 26 counties in Bugisu Sub-region have already been retouched. These include; Bubulo, Bungokho, Manjiya, Budadiri, Bulambuli, and Mbale City, as well as Kenya’s Bungoma and Transnsoia counties.

“We have trained 1,000 surgeons in the [sub-]region. We told them one knife per candidate (boy) and it must be well sharpened. The candidates should not dance kadoodi in town, beyond midnight,” Mr Godwin Mubuya, the chairperson Bamasaba Imbalu Inauguration Committee 2022, said.

No Umukukha

This year’s ceremony will be staged without a cultural head. The ritual is supposed to be presided over by the sitting Umukukha. The throne, however, remains empty, and Mr Mwalye Kusolo—the vice chairperson Bamasaba Cultural Council—said this is “disturbing.”

He added: “We are proceeding without a sitting cultural head who has important roles to play, including blessing the candidates and other spiritual matters.”

The government has not gazetted any of the parallel leaders despite calls from religious, political and opinion leaders in the region. Mr Kusolo said Mr Wilson Weasa Wamimbi—a former Umukukha—will preside over the function.

The standoff over the throne came after separate factions elected Mr Mike Jude Mudoma from Buyobo clan and Mr John Wagabyalire from Halasi clan in 2020. Mr Mudoma was elected by the faction led by Mr Nelson Wedaira, the speaker of the general assembly of the institution. Mr Wagabyalire was on his part chosen by a group led by Mr Geoffrey Wepondi, the secretary general of the institution. Both Mr Mudoma and Mr Wagabyalire are from the Mwambu family.

The throne fell vacant after Bob Mushikori, who hailed from the Mubuuya family, died last January. The absence of a cultural leader is one of many headwinds that traditional circumcision is running into since Uganda removed its pandemic curbs. Inflationary pressures are buffeting households such as the one of Mr Andrew Wambi, a resident of Mooni-Kikamba in Mbale Industrial City Division. He opted to have his son circumcised from his home to cut on expenses.

“Our grandparents had plenty of food to feed the people, but today it’s a different story yet traditional circumcision requires a lot of money and resources,” he told Saturday Monitor, adding, “I appreciate the ritual because it’s a central part of our culture, but we can carry on with it in a more modernised way. We can make it less time consuming, cheap and organised.”


Reforms

The main components of the Imbalu fete include food, beer, and Kadodi dance. If the dance rehearsals ahead of the circumcision ceremony last for a long period—as they usually do—one can be faced with a huge budget. The soaring living costs are widely expected to prompt a rethink this season. This won’t be the first time the ceremony is having something of an introspection. Mr Steven Masiga, a cultural researcher, said Imbalu has undergone a series of reforms since its inception.

“From use of crude instruments during circumcision in the 1800s up to mid 1900s to even use of razor blades and sophisticated blades, including hospital circumcision, there have been changes,” he noted, adding, “We abandoned the rubbing of ash and red pepper in the manhood of a candidate.”

Mr Jude Mike Mudoma, an elder, said Imbalu “started 2000 years ago.” If the cost of living crisis forces an introspection, this won’t be the first time as per Mr Mudoma. He told Saturday Monitor that Imbalu “used to be every year.” The famine that struck Masaabaland “sometime at the beginning of 1908” forced elders to resolve to hold it every even year.

He said the old age treasured ritual and rich cultural symbol which make a distinction between Bamasaaba and other tribes as it brings an icon of courage and signifies a boy’s respect for his family.

“We have three tribes which circumcise in Uganda that includes Sabiny, Bakonjjo and Bamasaba. Why is it that they are not popular? We have something in our Bamasaba circumcision. When you speak of imbalu we are proud,” Mr John Musila, the Bubulo East lawmaker who once served as spokesperson of Inzu Ya Masaba, said.

Mr Musila also revealed that imbalu is facing an attack from religious and western cultures. Mr Fredrick Nashimolo, an elder, agrees, adding that he has witnessed an overwhelming number of parents preferring to have their children circumcised in hospitals and in homes rather than communally.

“As traditionalist, I can reliably tell you that our exalted custom is more endangered today than ever before,” Mr Nashimolo told Saturday Monitor, adding, “It’s a pity and I pray that it stops.”

Mr Isma Mafabi, another traditionalist, says religious leaders are squarely to blame since they have labelled imbalu “an evil practice.” He also warns that the Bamasaaba have adopted the culture of circumcising boys aged 14 and under. “It’s wrong because circumcision is supposed to be for grown up boys who can feel the pain of the knife but maintain a stone-faced demeanour,” he reasoned.

On their part, the religious leaders say they are only against the evil deeds that are involved in traditional circumcision.

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