BAMASABA- When 2018 opened its doors, among the Bamasaba [Bagisu] the blowing of horns announced the arrival of yet another season of the circumcision ritual.
The legendary ceremony among the Bamasaba, an ethnic group that marks the initiation of boys into manhood happens every even year and comes with a festive atmosphere: Music blares, the dance engrosses, food is in plenty and beer flows.
Imbalu among the Bamasaba [those hailing from Sironko, Bulambuli, Mbale, Manafwa, Namisindwa and Bududa districts] is the initiation of young men into adulthood by removing the foreskin of the penis. This very old custom has many mysterious origins.
The Bamasaba believe that the ritual has been practiced for thousands of years, and unlike some other practices, there has been no attempt to stamp it out.
Legend has it that the removal of the foreskin was initially a punishment meted out to a man who preyed on other men’s wives. However, when the man recovered, he resumed his vice with such skill that other men followed suit.
Another story of origin of the famous custom is that a Gishu ancestor who wanted to marry a Kalenjin girl from the Barwa clan in Kenya was asked to make a covenant of circumcision with the clan including his ancestors. “He loved the girl so much that he agreed,” says Umukukha Bob Mushikori, the cultural leader of the Bamasaba.
So powerful is the tradition today, that a Gishu man who is not circumcised is usually forced to do it once the circumcision year starts and this explains why many boys get circumcised when they turn 15 years in order to avoid the shame of having to be dragged and forced to get circumcised while older.
Umukukha Mushikori says Imbalu is so powerfully intertwined in the culture that if a Gishu man dies before he is circumcised his body will be subjected to the ‘knife’ before he is buried.
Gishu women have been taught to secretly report their uncircumcised husbands to an elder who eventually takes it up with them.
Although the desire to be circumcised is believed to be spiritually inspired; where the boys are allegedly influenced by the ancestral spirit of Imbalu, many Bagisu have reportedly fled the region and taken refuge in other districts for fear of the practice.
It is believed that when the circumcision season starts in August, during even years, with the blowing of horns and playing of Kadodi music, the boys are inspired to announce their intentions to be circumcised. The surgeons (Bakhebi) also get possessed by the same spirit and start trembling involuntarily.
According to the cultural beliefs of the Bamasaba, unless a man is circumcised, he is not clean and so this practice is aimed at initiating boys into manhood.
The practice is done seasonally and when it comes to the “Imbalu” season, all Bagisu boys that are uncircumcised prepare for it and some go back to their motherland.
According to Mr Augustine Wandende, an elder at Bamasaba cultural board, men are not allowed to marry before they go through this ‘holy’ practice simply because they have not expressed their ability to handle a family by carrying out this ritual.
All men that belong to this tribe according to the beliefs must pass through this ritual as the only way to show that they are mature enough and can start a family.
Even when every Mumasaba [ Gishu] who has taken circumcision will testify that it is a traditional inspiration that comes naturally, Mr Wandende says it is a requirement for every Mumasaba boy whether they like it or not.
Although the old tradition has come a long way, it is still mysterious and disturbing how a Mumasaba [Gishu] boy takes a brave decision to face this crude knife.
The significance of Imbalu to the Bugisu is hard to exaggerate. The Bugisu believe that men are distinguished from women by their ability to experience Litima [lirima]. There is no exact translation, but Litima [lirima] can be considered a sort of overwhelming anger that allows for a forceful and determined action.
Imbalu is the first occasion on which a boy is expected to experience Litima [lirima], proving that he is a man and during Imbalu, the boy must display Litima [lirima] through courage and determination; he must continue with the preparations despite being warned of the pain and difficulty, persevere through sleepless nights of dancing, and show no pain when he is cut.
And once a boy has been circumcised, he receives the rights of a man: he will be given a house and land, he may marry, and he may drink beer. The Bamasaba are known throughout Uganda as a tribe of circumcised men; if a boy refuses circumcision, he will be denied full recognition as a Mumasaba.
According to Umukukha Bob Mushikori the desire to be circumcised is spiritually inspired; where the boys are influenced by the ancestral spirit of ‘Imbalu’ .
On August 11, all candidates across Bugisu sub-region and their counterparts in Kenya; the Luhya and Bukusu will converge at Mutoto, the Bamasaba cultural site which is regarded as the traditional ground where the first Mumasaba [Mugisu] male was circumcised before the cultural practice spread to other regions within Bugisu.
At Mutoto cultural ground, the elders will lead the Imbalu candidates in songs, dancing before the official launch and later the initiation ceremony will spread to other regions of Bugisu.
Unlike other cultures that emphasize the initiation of girls into womanhood, the Bagisu who live at the slopes of Mt Elgon, speaking one distinct language with several dialects focus their legendary circumcision on the boys.
Mr Wandende says during the circumcision season, the boys begin dancing around the village with their relatives in preparation for the official launching of Imbalu at Mutoto, the traditional circumcision ground.
“When a boy asks for permission to get circumcised, he receives counsel from elderly male relatives about the challenges of ‘the knife’, adulthood and what Imbalu means to the Bamasaba clan. This is usually done to prepare the boy to withstand ‘the knife’ because if he shows fear, he will be shunned by women and other men,” said Mr Wandende.
A long serving surgeon, Safiyi Wakhayete says at times the boys can be charmed with a traditional root called Idyanyi or Ityanyi that drives them into a longing to be circumcised.
“At times when boys grow older and they do not want to get circumcised, we give them this Idyanyi in porridge, local brew or in tea to inspire them and give them Dutch courage and a longing for circumcision,” said Mr Wakhayete, adding that the burial of an uncircumcised dead man can lead to the death of the entire clan.
Although literate and Christian Bamasaba parents have opted to take their children for circumcision in hospitals, many a traditionalist regard it as abominable and an abuse to the Gishu [Bamasaba] culture.
“In traditional Bugisu such children are usually undressed in public to ascertain whether they are circumcised or not. They are not allowed to preside over clan meetings because they are not man enough but can attend and listen,” says Mr Wakhayete.
Mr Wakhayete says during circumcision, all candidates stand motionless in an enclosure surrounded by men wielding all sorts of sticks and Machetes. Whereas the circumcision posture varies from one area to another, the candidates are expected to stand firm and display the highest level of bravery because it is part of the initiation.
Usually, there is one surgeon and an assistant. The assistant pulls the foreskin and marks the position to be cut with a whitish clay mixture. He puts his thumb on the glans and pulls the prepuce (loose fold of skin covering the glans) until it is stretched and holds it in position.
The surgeon then swiftly cuts off the foreskin and steps on it immediately, just to stop it from ‘disappearing’. “The whistle goes and the circumcised boy then has to jump up and down to signify that the process is complete.
This is followed by ululations, dancing and giving of gifts to the boy who has withstood ‘the knife’. “A coward does not benefit from all this,” said Mr Wakhayete. He adds that the following day, the surgeon visits the newly circumcised boy, washes the boy’s hands using malwa, medicine and water before feeding him.
Mr Wakhayete says this signifies washing away of boyhood and initiating him into adulthood. “This boy is later given firewood, a machete, a hoe, an axe and a cooking stone,” said Mr Wakhayete.
The boy is then urged to go out and marry a young girl and not an old woman who has failed in marriage. “They are advised to produce a boy for another circumcision ceremony,” said Mr Wakhayete. The boy is later taken to the father’s house and given chicken and is expected to walk around the house while plucking the feathers of the chicken.
The chicken is then roasted with bananas and eaten by relatives and the surgeon as a sign of saying farewell to boyhood and to the father’s home. Many an elder in Bugisu believe Imbalu has a lot to do with natural aptitude or prowess.