MBALE – When 2020 opened its doors, the blowing of horns and playing of ‘Kadodi’ a traditional dance here sounded the arrival of another year of ‘Imbalu’ male circumcision.
And some boys were cut on 1 January 2020, just to reportedly bless the year 2020 as a year of ‘Imbalu’
‘Imbalu’ is an annual ritual amongst the Bagisu [Bamasaaba], where the boys are inspired to announce their intentions to be circumcised.
Bagisu [Bamasaaba] are people hailing from the districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa, Bududa, Bulambuli and Namisindwa.
Unlike other cultures that emphasise 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.
Circumcision ‘Imbalu’, a very old custom with a mysterious origin is the initiation of young men into adulthood by removing the fore skin of the penis.
Although this old tradition of circumcision [Imbalu here] has come a long way, it is still mysterious and disturbing how a Mugisu [Mumasaaba] boy takes a brave decision to face this crude knife.
And so powerful is this tradition, that a Gishu man who is not circumcised is usually forced to do it once the circumcision year starts and even the dead are circumcised before they are buried.
Umukukha Sir Bob Mushikori [traditional leader of the Bamasaaba] says although the desire to be circumcised is believed to be spiritually inspired; where the boys are influenced by the ancestral spirit of ‘Imbalu’, it remains a debt required of every Mugisu [Mumasaaba].
A busy village ‘Kadodi’ dancing group usually moves around the candidates as the candidates look curiously at the people wielding clubs, fear grips them but the ‘Imbalu’ spiritually charged crowd with women dancing half nude scares them and they announce their intentions.
HISTORY OF IMBALU
‘Imbalu’ an initiation of young men into adulthood by removing the foreskin of the penis is a very old custom with many mysterious origins.
According to local fables, Imbalu in Bugisu was introduced by Masaba, from whom all Bamasaba, including the Bakusu in Western Kenya claim ancestry.
Masaba was circumcised in Mutoto, after agreeing to a marriage proposal from a Kalenjin lady, he was smitten with, by the name of Nabarwa.
Masaba had met Nabarwa on a hunting expedition in the Mt Elgon Forest area and because he loved the girl so much, he consented to circumcision in order to be allowed to marry the beautiful girl Kalenjin girl from the Barwa clan.
Bamasaba performed Imbalu to fulfill a promise, Masaba made to his wife, Nabarwa that all his grandchildren will perform Imbalu in the generations to come.
Legend also 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.
And 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.
“It is believed that the burial of an uncircumcised dead man can lead to the death of the entire clan,” said Mr Wakwabubi.
That is why many a boy gets circumcised when they turn 15 years in order to avoid shame when caught and forced to circumcise while older.
‘Imbalu’ is so powerfully intertwined in the culture that any dead Gishu man who is not circumcised will be subjected to the ‘knife’ before he is buried.
Reports from elders across the district indicate that Gishu women are also taught secretly to report their uncircumcised husbands to elders who eventually take it up with them and this explains why many Bagisu have fled the region and taken refuge in other districts for fear of the practice.
Mr Charles Wakwabubi, an elder in Bugisu says that as Bagisu boys grow, they are told by their parents, peers and other influential community members that they will have to pay a cultural debt.
“Bamasaba become men through Masaba’s spirit or what we refer to as “Kumusambwa Kwo Masaba”. Gishu boys are expected to execute Masaba’s covenant by losing blood to the land,” Mr Wakwabubi explians.
In the past, the Bamasaba took exception to any ethnic labels as a form of identification, preferring instead to be identified by the more honorific term-Basani or men
Boys make intentions to undergo Imbalu
According to Mr Charles Wakwabubi, an elder in Bugisu during an even year, the boys who have intentions to get circumcised begin dancing around the village with their relatives in preparation for the ‘Imbalu’ which is usually launched officially at Mutoto, the traditional circumcision ground.
A senior surgeon Mr 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.
“And when boys grow older and do not want to get circumcised, we give them this Idyanyi mixed in porridge, local brew or in tea to inspire them, give them Dutch courage and a longing for circumcision,” said Mr Wakhayete
Although literate and Christian Bamasaaba parents have opted to take their children for circumcision in hospitals, many a traditionalist regard it as abominable and an abuse to the Gishu culture.
“In traditional Bugisu such children are usually undressed in public to ascertain whether they are circumcised or not. Those circumcised in hospitals are not allowed to preside over clan meetings because they are not man enough but can attend and listen,” says Umukukha Mushikori.
Umukukha Mushikori says during circumcision, all candidates stand motionless in an enclosure surrounded by men wielding all sorts of sticks and Machetes and that 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.
“Imbalu candidates have to stand stock still as they undergo the cut. No anesthetics are administered and candidates have to show fortitude and betray no signs of fear. No grimacing or contortion of any body part is allowed as the cut is performed. A candidate is watched closely as he is cut,” added Umukukha Mushikori.
Imbalu treasured by Bagisu/Bamasaaba
Although the rituals have changed over the years, imbalu remains one of the treasured cultural practices that unite the Bagisu.
The local surgeons still use a traditional knife, inyembe or Mwambe, that is sharpened on both edges. Circumcision is done without medical anesthesia so that the boy, umusinde, experiences and endures the pain while standing to earn his manhood, ‘Busaani’, in the community.
In the past, circumcision was carried out from clan to clan and the rituals would take several months during the imbalu season.
But because it consumed a lot of productive time, it was decided that Bugisu district local administration organises the event by allocating days to each sub-county.
For several years, the official opening ceremony for the imbalu season was done at Malukhu, the district headquarters for the then Bugisu district, but later on the Bugisu Culture Board zeroed on Mutoto village near Mbale town as a permanent venue for official imbalu season launch every even year.
The dancing Imbalu begins with dances around villages, sometimes accompanied by drumming, as candidates visit relatives and family friends and identifying their preferred surgeon.
It is also the day when local brew is prepared; ‘Busera or Kamalwa’. The dancing lasts for several days before circumcision takes places.
The candidates put on bitsenze or Zikuma (rattles) on the legs and gamahimba or Simboko (round wooden decorations) on the hands with headgear (lilubisi) made from a Columbus monkey skin that is hunted from Mt. Elgon forest and beads around the neck and waist.
As the boys dance, elders keep watch over them so that they do not get involved in sexual relations with girls; an act Bagisu believe makes the foreskin hard and oily during the ‘cutting’. Ends