By: Eric Mukhwana
So, Hon. Peace Mutuuza knows nothing about Imbalu?! That is too bad. As a State Minister for Gender and Culture, and Imbalu falling under her docket, she should have abreast herself with full knowledge on Imbalu before calling the press to banish it. She would have bothered to know the customs and traditions that define the elaborate culture of the Bagisu.
To allude that Imbalu is barbaric, dehumanizing, affects school planning and increases student dropouts, responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS is very pejorative. To say that Imbalu dance is provocative, causes early sexual arousal and bad behavior is grossly incorrect and shows the naivety of a minister. To assert that Imbalu is hampering Uganda from achieving middle income status is a misnomer. Mutuuzo’s morose expressions are irritable to the Bagisu at home and abroad.
The Writer Eric Mukhwana
Before you call for Imbalu abolition, you should tell us whether the Bagisu men, traditionally circumcised, that we send to parliament, public service, corporate offices, private sector and to the public arena are barbaric. You should tell us whether the James Wapakhabulos, the Japheth Masikas, the Dan Nabuderes, the Massette Kuuyas, the Darlington Sakwas, the Professor Wilson Wamukotas, the Professor Job Walumbes, the Professor Timothy Wangusas, the Bishop Wasikes, the Samson Kitutu – some departed, others still living, were/are barbaric. You should tell us whether Bagisu women, and those married to Bagisu men are bad mannered or conduct themselves in a barbaric manner. You should give facts of petitions by youths on dehumanization. You should give us reports from education ministry itemizing Imbalu as a factor for poor academic performance. You should prove to us whether Bugisu sub-region has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Uganda and that Imbalu is the cause. You should prove whether Imbalu dances cause sexual arousal and bad manners. You should prove to us whether Imbalu is indeed the custom holding Uganda from achieving middle-income status. Yes, we want empirical evidence. We want figures. We want substantive proofs.We want valid answers. We don’t want sweeping malevolent statements.
For purposes of information about this celebrated ritual, and in order to avoid future mistakes, let me give explains about Imbalu.
What is Imbalu?
Imbalu is a custom that underpin the culture of Bagisu. It’s a historic practice that started with our forefather Masaaba at the advice of his wife Nabarwa. Masaaba’s other name is Mugisu – a name he acquired from the Masaai for his bravery. So, you can call us Bagisu or Bamasaaba if you want. We live because Masaaba lived. The way he lived is the way we live. Masaaba was traditionally circumcised. So, we circumcise. The principle remains. No debate about that.
Imbalu is not hospital circumcision as insinuated by the minister. It doesn’t mean simply walking to hospital and having the foreskin of your boyhood cut. No. It doesn’t mean that.
Imbalu is known as Likobi lye Bamasaaba (cultural debt) which has got to be paid voluntarily. It signifies the right of passage from boyhood to manhood, marriage, parenthood, elderhood and finally ancestorhood. It defines both manhood and community. It has endured and continues to evoke much loyalty, inspite of years of contact with Christianity, modernity and other change agents. Imbalu is the thread that binds Bagisu together.
How it is done
The Imbalu begins and ends with dance; the entire season is a festival characterised by music and dance. The candidates wear thigh bells and jingles, while others carry hand bells, as their main instruments of producing music. The circumcision ritual (khukhwingila) is normally done in the evening hours between 4:00pm and 6:00pm. It involves all candidates from a given clan, a number of young men matched by a whistling, cheering crowd to the circumcision ground. The candidates have their faces plastered with millet-cassava flour and they are stripped half naked below the waist on the way to the Imbalu ground as they sing, dance and jump. Then he jumps thrice and lands on the sacred sack where the circumciser is waiting.
Imbalu candidates resting
Here the candidate stands still (without swallowing saliva nor blinking the eye) as the circumciser reaches for the penis. At this time, the elders shout in unison: “wakhusaba, wakhusaba, wakhusaba (he is begging you) or “wakhwimakho, wakhwimakho, wakhwimakho (he is upon you). As the circumciser cuts off the foreskin, the crowd cheers: “wakhurema litayi, wakhurema litayi, wakhurema litayi” (he has cut the foreskin). Then finally, he cuts the two inner skins as the crowd shouts, “akhulikho, akhulikho, akhulikho or wakhwonaka, wakhwonaka, wakhwonaka.” This is done with the thin-pointed edge of the knife. A whistle blows signaling the end of the exercise which lasts not more than a minute. Thereafter the initiate sits khundebe ingisu and drinks kamayeku (sweet brew of fermented millet). People then come to congratulate, give gifts and award marks.
The circumcisers (bashebi) for Imbalu operation are born but not made. There are specific clans from which circumcisers come. The knives used for circumcision are bought by parents of candidates, sterilized in their presence before they are used. Each candidate has one knife.
The Imbalu dance starts with Isonja and ends with Ineemba. Basiinde (imbalu candidates) and Basinyisi (escorts) dance to the tunes of Kadodi drums. They dance to the tunes of Kimilele (flutes). They dance to the creative songs by candidates. They dance Tsinyimba.
The reason we sing and dance is the very reason soldiers sing and dance when going for war. It is the very reason Christians sing and dance. It is the very reason politicians sing and dance. We sing and dance for courage and celebration.
To ask how we dance is like asking how a woman in labour should behave before the baby arrives. Girls and women dance to the sounding drums of kadodi. They waggle, they wiggle, they wobble, they jiggle and they shake from head to toe to the tunes of kadodi. It is “Kabulangane” of sorts. You can’t teach them how to do it.
The reason we move from village to village is to inform and confirm to our relatives that the boy is in about to become a man. Candidates get great counsel from the already circumcised uncles.
Having accomplished this public requirement which leaves an indelible physical mark, the new man is now fit to be trusted with the secrets and burdens of the community.
Imbalu is not for Minors
Imbalu is for those youths who are ready to become men. Normally the age is 18 – 24 years. It is for those youngsters who want to take societal responsibility. A boy who feels that he has reached maturity and wanted to be circumcised first seeks permission from his father about his intended initiation. The father then informs elders of the clan about the boy’s intentions.
As per the custom, elders would choose a day when to meet to ascertain the boy’s claim to maturity. On this day, an elder would give a stick and shield to the boy, and the father would take up his own weapons.
Father and son would engage in a mock fight as the elders watch. If they judged that the son was stronger than the father, or at least as strong as the father, an elder would rise and put his own stick between the two combatants to stop the fight.
The elder would then give the boy the go-ahead knowing that he was old enough to defend himself, his family and indeed the clan in case of attack.
Once circumcised, a man becomes the clean slate on which society inscribes its accrued indigenous knowledge and morals.
The Imbalu weaves the social organization of the Bagisu into a political entity, defines membership, serves as a means of sex differentiation and gender and connects masculinity and the cult of strength to the defence of land.
Upon circumcision, a young man is taught by his circumciser (who is already a responsible man) to think with the community and to see the world from a broader perspective. Imbalu signifies the right of passage from boyhood to manhood, marriage, parenthood, elderhood and finally ancestorhood. Having accomplished this public requirement which leaves an indelible physical mark, the new man is now fit to be trusted with the secrets and burdens of the community. Imbalu is a badge that differentiates a Mugisu man from the rest.
Bumutoto Imbalu Cultural Site
The second person who undertook Imbalu after Kuuka Masaaba was Fuuya, a resident of Bumutoto. In his honour, Bamasaaba decided to put a cultural site here. This is the same place where the Inzu Yo’Mukuuka (Palace) is going to be built.
Every even year, in the month of August, Imbalu is launched and the first candidates are circumcised at Bumutoto before it spreads to other clans in the Bugisu districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa, Bududa and Bulambuli.
President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda has been there. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya has been there. Many Uganda Cabinet Ministers have been there. Uganda’s Members of Parliament and senior government officials have been there. They have all shown respect to Imbalu.
Plans by Uganda Tourism Board and the leadership of Bugisu are underway to build a tourism site at Bumutoto and sell the culture as a special tourism offering to the world.
Respect for Culture
Uganda has over 40 tribes. We have Acholi, Alur, Aringa, Bafumbira, Baganda, Bagisu, Bagwe, Bagwere, Bahororo, Bakenye, Bakiga, Bakonzo, Banyankore, Banyala, Banyarwanda, Banyole, Banyoro, Baruuli, Basoga, Batuku, Batwa, Chope, Dodoth, Ik (Teuso), Iteso, Jie, Jopadhola, Kakwa, Karimojong, Kebu, Kumam, Lango, Lendu, Lugbara, Madi, Mvuba, Nubi, Pokot and Sabiny. All these exhibit unique cultures – some popular, others still evolving. We cannot ignore any of them. Each of them must be respected.
All these cultures have something to offer towards development. They should therefore be treated as multi-layered. On one hand as intrinsic value, on the second hand as a real factor for regional development leading to increased attractiveness of regions for tourists, residents and investors; and on the third hand as an active factor of social development based on knowledge, tolerance and creativity. Culture also belongs to a fundamental reference in relation to metropolitan functions and significance of towns in spatial, economic and social arrangements.
I see Imbalu of Uganda becoming the 8th World Wonder after Colossus of Rhodes, Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Lighthouse of Alexandria, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia and Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Eric Mukhwana is the Founder/Managing Director of MUER Response Ltd, a Publishing, Brand Conversations, Social Media Marketing company. He is a Marketer and Motivational Speaker on Sales, Entrepreneurship and Culture.