The first phase of the 2014 imbalu (circumcision of boys) season has ended without registering any serious complaints.
By Joseph Wanzusi
The first phase of the 2014 imbalu season has ended without registering any serious complaints, Augustine Wandende, the chairman of the Culture Council of Inzu Ya Masaaba, announced.
The circumcision of boys, which kicked off with boys who are not in school on August 19 at Mutoto Cultural grounds, Mbale, ended with Bunambutye sub-county in Bulambuli district on September 5.
The last phase that will close the season will start as soon as schools break off for the third term holidays and will involve school-going boys.
Joseph Wanda, a local surgeon, umukhebi, says he has circumcised 52 boys this season in several sub-counties. He estimates that about 6,000 boys have so far undergone the ritual in Bugisu sub-region in the districts of Mbale, Sironko, Bududa, Manafwa and Bulambuli.
Wanda, however, regrets the incidents in Lukhonje sub-county in Mbale district, where local surgeons fought over candidates in four homesteads. But, luckily, the concerned parents sorted the matter.
“The problem arose when parents or candidates contacted more than one local surgeon and several ended up converging at the home leading to quarrels and fights,” Wanda explained.
Mbale district assistant health officer, Jennifer Wandawa and a source at Mbale Hospital says they have not yet got any cases of badly circumcised boys who require correctional medical attention.
Wandawa attributes it to intensive sensitisation of the local surgeons and radio programmes by the health department targeting imbalu candidates and their parents before the official launch of the imbalu season.
Wandawa says medical workers sensitised local surgeons about good hygiene to avoid the risk of tetanus and HIV.
“We are strict with the policy of one knife one candidate,” Wandawa added.
Sironko cultural group entertaining guests during at the festival inauguration at Mutoto cultural ground in Bulambuli district. PHOTO/Donald Kiirya
On road accidents associated with imbalu dancers, the Elgon region Police spokesperson Diana Nandawula says this time the Bamasaaba have heeded Police advice to avoid dancing kadodi on busy highways.
“This season has been different because we have not recorded any accidents involving imbalu dancers,” Nandawula remarks.
Patrick Wakyaya, a resident of Namawanga village in Lukhonje sub-county, Mbale district, says imbalu involves expenses.
These include brewing local brew (malwa), slaughtering chicken, a goat or, in some families, a cow, preparing food for relatives, hiring of kadodi drummers and head gear all of which can cost up to sh1m.
“In poor families, however, some of these expenses like hiring kadodi dancers, are skipped. Candidates can undergo the imbalu rituals on a modest budget,” Wakyaya added.
The Imbalu rituals
Circumscision knives prepared by Bugisu traditional surgeons. PHOTO/Paul Watala
The Bagisu, also known as Bamasaaba, live on the slopes of Mt Elgon in eastern Uganda and have for hundreds of years practiced imbalu as an initiation ritual from boyhood to manhood.
The Inzu Ya Masaaba cultural institution minister for external relations, James Khulosya Kangala, says the plan to make imbalu a tourist attraction will greatly contribute to the documentation of the Bamasaaba culture.
“Resources should be mobilised to build a cultural centre at Mutoto where cultural dance troupes will be stationed to perform to tourists and provide explanations and literature on the rich Bamasaaba culture,” Kangala added.
However, Nicholas Kimuna, an elder from Manafwa district, observed that the imbalu ritual has lost its original purpose. He says people now undergo it as a mere symbol or excitement.
President Yoweri Museveni flanked by energy minister Irene Muloni (L) Umukuka, the Cultural leader of Bamasaba, Wilson Wamimbi Weyasa and other guests at the inauguration of the Bamasaba Imbalu (circumcision) festival 2014. PHOTO/Donald Kiirya
Davies Mwaule, an elder from Bududa, says the cultural practice has been commercialised and lacks enthusiasm.
“The elders have tried to preserve the spirit of imbalu, but some of the Bamasaaba, especially the elite, do not appreciate the value of the cultural practice because some parents take their children to hospitals to be circumcised at a tender age. That was never acceptable in the Bamasaaba tribe,” Mwaule remarked.
Michael Masaba of Busamaga in Mbale municipality, explained that going to hospital for medical circumcision labeled a person a coward among clan members and that cost the boy respect.
Akim Watenyeri from Bungokho says Bamasaaba practised imbalu not only to initiate a boy into manhood, but to instill discipline and a sense of unity and responsibility into the circumcision groups.
It also helped boys visit their distant relatives before they could undergo the rituals. He says in the past after a boy has healed, his father would help identify a bride for him from a family with a known background so that his son does not pick any girl whose family background was not known.
Peter Kuloba, another elder, says he is worried that imbalu candidates are not well guided.
“They are left to go anywhere they wish, including begging money from strangers they meet while dancing around urban centres.”
Imbalu organizing committee publicity, James Ingoi centre (L) Mbale RDC Shabani Kachimeti and Elgon subregion RPC Jacob Opolot inspecting the imbalu festival grounds in Mbale. PHOTO/Paul Watala
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, that is sharpened on both edges. Circumcision is done without medical anaesthesia 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 decided 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. The dancing lasts for several days before circumcision takes places.
The candidates put on bitsenze (rattles) on the legs and gamahimba (round wooden decorations) on the hands with head gear (lilubisi) made from a colubus 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’.
Some of the boys who were circumcised at the inauguration of Imbalu Festival 2014. PHOTO/Donald Kiirya
On the day of circumcision, large crowds gather at the venue as close relatives lead the candidate to the spot where he is to be circumcised.
In some cases, the candidate is smeared with cow dung and a yeast paste. He stands firm while holding both hands on a stick behind his neck.
Before, the surgeon with his assistant step forward, the mother of the candidate is told to sit inside the house with legs stretched and eagerly waits for the sound of a whistle that signals the end of the operation as deafening ululations, singing and drumming fill the homestead.
Joseph Wanda, who has circumcised boys since 1996, says he takes between three to six seconds to carry out the operation on a candidate.
“Not anyone can become a surgeon,” he says.
“You need to be possessed by some spirits and this is what happened to me at the age of 20 years while I was working in Nairobi. I felt funny and became confused. I returned to Uganda in 1988 on foot and reached Mutoto where elders welcomed me and performed rituals on me to install me in bukhebi beginning with bunutsi (assistant surgeon).”
During circumcision, the candidate is not supposed to touch the surgeon lest his parents are fined a goat. If a candidate falls down and has to be held down for the surgeon to finish the cutting, a sheep is demanded as a fine.
Wanda says a surgeon does not circumcise his own son. He discourages the practice of smearing candidates with soil as such practices may expose them to diseases like tetanus.
After circumcision, the boys are referred to as bafulu. They are looked after well in terms of treatment and feeding so that they can heal well.
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