IMBALU CIRCUMCISION CEREMONIES- Initiation from boyhood to Manhood by Bagisu Community
In the period between August to December of every even year, boys 15-26 embrace the circumcision ceremonies/ rituals among the Bagisu known as the “Imbalu”. The preparations for the candidates start in early January. The ceremonies do not only denote the cutting of the boys’ foreskin of the private parts but include other rituals, cultural dances, music that all start when a boy announces candidature. It involves purification, walking the village paths, hatching, inemba, and insoja cultural dances. The ceremonies are performed to initiate boys to manhood and are a prelude to marriage.
The origin of the Imbalu circumcision ceremonies is obscure and there are several contradicting stories. It is believed that an improbable legend has it that, the first mugisu (Singular for a person from Bugisu) man to be circumcised used to seduce wives of the neighbors. He was brought before the elders and they agreed to have him semi-castrated as a punishment. If backfired and he recovered after which he went back to his seductive ways. After that, several men decided to get circumcised to compete for sexual favors. Others say that the Bagisu go the tradition from the Kalenjin tribe of western Kenya. But whatever the origin of the Imbalu ceremonies is, the circumcision ceremonies are pivotal in the community of the Bagisu. The Bamasaba have held an iron grip on this tradition.
In 2019, the Ministry of tourism resolved to promote the cultural circumcision ceremony as one of the activities despite it being seasonal. It only lasts for 4 months. In some of the other African Societies that practice male circumcision like the Xhosa, Venda, and Pedi, it is usually carried out indoors. Unlike them, the Bagisu or Bamasaba do the rituals without anesthesia and in public. This allows tourists to engage in the experience.
The candidates who come through for circumcision camp at Mutoto Cultural Site which is about 1.5 miles from Mbale Town. The elders check the candidates for the rituals to see whether they are Bagisu. In the middle of the crowd, the boys brave the sword of the cultural surgeon to become men.
On the day of circumcision, those that are to be circumcised raise their hands, dancing, and showing courage because crying during the process is a sign of being a coward and is forbidden. The surgeon makes 3 bold cuts and lows a whistle after removing the foreskin. The candidate after being cut is taken to a quiet place and wrapped to stop bleeding. He is taken home and for 3 days he is hand-fed then on the 4th day he is ritually washed by elders and permitted to eat with his own hands to mark the end of the ritual. The period is always eagerly anticipated and cherished by all people in the sub-region. Parents with boys who are candidates talk and walk with pride about the bravery of their sons.
In 2020, the ceremony wasn’t held as before because of COVID-19. But this is the festival in Uganda that you shouldn’t miss while planning a visit around August to December of an even year. You will enjoy seeing the jubilating crowds ululating and dancing to traditional music (Kadodi), boys brought to “Face the Knife” as everyone carefully gazes, people trekking with circumcised boys around the villages. It is always merry-making.