Imbalu is a local Gishu word which means the Bagisu traditional male circumcision ritual that happens every even year. This is the time during which the boys are introduced to man hood. Just like all the other tribes in Uganda, the Bagishu people from Masaba land around the lower areas of Mount Elgon also have got different a unique culture, norms and beliefs but the most prominent one is the Imbalu. This entire ritual of baptizing boys to turn them into men is very deeply embedded in all the Bagisu people and they all strongly believe and support this act. This is believed to be a sign of strength ad bravery.
The male circumcision is a very old practice that not even the Bagisu people know when, why and how it was started. There are theories however for example, some believe that this practice was adopted from people in kalenjin located in western parts of Kenya along the Uganda Kenya border, while others believe that it was introduced as a form of punishment to the adulterous men in the communities.
For so many decades now, the Imbalu ceremony has been a tradition that every male has to go through as he leaves the Teenage years. They believe in the cause and so very few of them object to it.
The Process to the Actual Circumcision
Just before the circumcision exercise begins, the boy(s) who will be circumcised are prepared and smeared with white powder and then go for the Isonja cultural dance. The dance requires a lot of energy as it involves hitting your feet on the ground really hard as you dance around the village. Later, with a lot of witness around and skilled practitioners, the Imbalu starts and this involves the later removing the boy(s)’ foreskin off their male private organs.
The Imbalu ceremonies are seasonal, usually take place from March to June every circumcision year. They take time during the year to identify and select boys that are ready to become men. Before you being selected the head first traces your clan history to be certain that one is truly a mugishu before they are allocated a date of their circumcision. These boys are expected to be strong and therefore stand firm during the process otherwise, they will be branded weak. In order to induce the courage, they are given Itiyi, a herb. They then visit their relatives to declare their intentions to the family and then later gather at Mutoto which is the cultural circumcision site. Mutoto is the site where the very first Mugishu man was circumcised.
The elders will then lead in the traditional Kadodi dances and songs, smear the candidates with flour just before they stand in the centre surrounded by a singing and dancing crowd. The elders will then hand them sticks to hold on very tightly while they are being circumcised by those very special and trained Bagishu. They don’t expect anyone to scream out of pain or exhibit signs of fear so just in case the stick in the hands fall, then such a boy is believed to be a big coward and may get little or no attention from the ladies.
During the circumcision process, they use a special sharp knife that they call the Inyembe and because it is very sharp, it takes between 10 to 30 seconds.
After the circumcision, the Inemba ceremony starts and this is the time when these freshmen into manhood are allowed to go ahead and put on the males’ traditional garments. These garments are designed in a way that they reveal their muscular bodies making them very attractive to the girls during the famous inemba dance.
The inembe dance is meant entice girls because now these young boys have turned into Men and are free to marry after circumcision.
While many are often express a lot of enthusiasm and the urgency to finally become men, there are some that are afraid of the procedure and usually flee from their villages but once traced, they are forced back and then forcefully circumcised. The uncircumcised men are considered cowards, unclean and may not be able to get a women from their communities. This is majorly because the Bagishu often do report the uncircumcised men to the elders and its is the elders responsibility to inform the community about uncircumcised men.
Why the Bagisu Circumcise Men
This circumcision ritual is a very important cultural activity. It is a symbol of unity because it is the one activity that attracts a big number of Bagishu to come together.
Imbalu also helps with issues of identity and in the long run have been able to protect and preserve their interesting culture that seems to be turning into a tourists’ attraction.
Because the imbalu has been taking place for quite a long time, it has gotten famous to an extent that the ceremony is becoming a great tourists attraction. There are several people that are interested in witnessing this exercise and there is quite a number of them the travel from different parts of the country and world just witness this mysterious imbalu celebration.
The Uganda tourism industry through the Uganda tourism board recently did recognize the Imbalu as a completely separate tour activity that operators can sell as a product to their clients.
Everyone and anyone can be a witness to this cultural norm, however it is advisable to do it when you are visiting other sites in eastern Uganda like Mount Elgon national park or Sipi Falls because they are in close proximity with the Bagisu Cultural community. Please do not forget that the activity takes place during even years, therefore when planning plan to travel during the even years.