Uganda. ‘Imbalu’. The Pride of Bamasaaba.

The Masaba people, or Bamasaaba, live in the Eastern Ugandan districts of Sironko, Manafwa, Bududa, Mbale and Bulambuli. They are about 1 million people. The Bamasaaba are famous for their traditional male circumcision ceremonies, held every even year. In a three-day ceremony of dancing and feasting, preceded by a couple of months preparations, the initiates are admitted into adulthood and expected to begin their formal contribution to the growth of their respective communities.

The time has come. The Bamasaaba young men above the age of 16 years are now preparing themselves for the ‘knife’, and parents with boys around this age are storing enough food for the Ceremony. ‘Imbalu’ which means circumcision, is an initiation from boyhood to manhood among the Bamasaaba people of Bugisu land. Any uncircumcised man is referred to as ‘umusinde’ and is a disgrace or bad omen to his clan/family.

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The origin of ‘imbalu’ among the Bamasaaba has many and varied stories: some say it came from Eastern Kenya, while others believe it was introduced to the Bamasaaba region by a Kalenjin woman through intermarriage. The literal meaning of the word ‘imbalu’ is a ‘big knife’ sharpened on both edges; actually the word ‘imbalu’’ is used because of the terrible pain the candidate endures during the actual physical operation.
The ‘imbalu’ is carried out in stages: usually a candidate is prepared just a few days before the actual ceremony takes place; kamalwa (millet and banana) is brewed in large quantities, crude waragi is also distilled in large quantities, hundreds of livestock are slaughtered throughout this festive season. Family, clan members and friends dance until the wee hours every day until the ceremony is concluded in order to boost the candidates’ morale.

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Candidates are given instructions and coached on how to handle the pain they will experience during the actual physical operation. It is a 3-day bonanza for the family where the ‘umusinde’ runs around with followers and well-wishers to his distant relatives and in  the final hours before the circumcision is done, the ‘umusinde’ visits the mothers side, the ‘Ibwiwana’, where he is given gifts like cows, chicken, goats and money as their token. The maternal uncles give gifts to their nephews, spray local brew on the candidate as he utters words of blessings and urges the candidate to stand firm during the circumcision. This is referred to as ‘khubida Busela’. It’s at this stage of the day that the dancing becomes extremely tense. The tempo of singing, drumming and dancing becomes accentuated. The women wriggle as the men ululate and jump up and down as they escort the boy to the grounds where the ceremony is to be performed.

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The circumcision day is performed in many different ways but usually a male goat or bull is slaughtered in the court yard where the candidate is to be circumcised; the animal’s heart is stuck on the stick and set in the court yard where the boy is going to stand. This is called a sacrifice to the ancestral spirits, the ‘Basambwa’. The intestines of the animal are carefully examined and studied by the elders for bad omens and the contents (blood, cowdung) are smeared on the boys face, bell and legs by an elder. It’s at this stage that the candidate receives instructions on the customs of his people and the duties expected of him as an adult man.

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Prior to the ceremonies, the people prepare the candidate to move to a sacred-swamp traditionally recognized by following a traditional path called ‘Luwando’.
The candidates are smeared with mud before going back to the court-yard prepared earlier for circumcision. On reaching the court-yard, the candidate must stand straight and firmly on the sack, which is guaranteed by holding a stick across his shoulders. He will find the ‘Umukhebe’ (local surgeon) already waiting, armed with a sharp knife ready for the operation. The moment the boy stands on the sack, the ‘Umukhebe’ cuts off the foreskin whereas the second operation consists of the cutting of the inner lining of the prepuce and also removing the subcutaneous tissue. The circumciser takes hardly a minute.
The ‘Umukhebe’ is considered one of the fastest surgeons since this process is performed  so quickly. As the bleeding subsides, the men (usually called ‘bafulu’) are given a sheet, tying it over one shoulder before they are directed inside a house where treatment takes place. Once the candidate has successfully completed the operation strongly, the women continue dancing, singing and drumming, thanking the candidate for his courage and endurance. After the circumcision, the now ‘umusaani’ (a man that has undergone circumcision) is taken to the house and sat on a stool as he still bleeds until the wound starts to clot.

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It is said that the first night after circumcision there is a lot of movement in the wounded area (the penis), because it is looking for the missing skins and since the man now is just getting used to the new condition, most of the times he dozes off, he easily hurts himself by slapping, as it feels like something is crawling on him. The healing used to take a month because of the treatment they were given, such as that of injection powder applied to the wound with bandages. But now with the improved medication these days, it takes just two  weeks for the total healing and the ‘umufulu’ would be able to put away his wrapper and start looking smart in his trousers.
At this stage, the boys begin getting ready for another ceremony called the ‘Inemba’ which takes place at the beginning of the following year. The ceremony runs for three days and gathers all the young ‘men’ who underwent circumcision who join together and dance, showing the community that they are now MEN and responsible members of the community. It is on this ceremony of ‘inemba’ that the young men get their wives.

Carol Nabulwala






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