Imbalu is a ritual that marks the transition from boyhood to manhood. It includes a series of visits to revered sites such as swamps, hills and caves. Initiates are smeared with mud and furnished with artifacts and ornaments. The famous kadodi dance and sacrifice are also important features.

For four weeks, the Bamasaba pitched camp at the Mutoto Cultural Site, 2km from Mbale town in Eastern Uganda, to engage in the age-old rite. Naturally, the site was a hive of activity and festivities. Business was good – enterprising people sold food and drink.

Vincent Masaba was one of the many people attending the ritual. Referring to the edgy nature of the celebrations, he said, “It is a non-stop party. There is loud music all the time and it gets worse at night because then there is too much alcohol. Everyone gets drunk, with the attendant consequences. People deserve to be happy but here they are doing it dangerously…”

“The candidate is not supposed to shake or show fear during the process, lest they face punishment or be deemed weak.” Robert Wamale.

On the day of the actual circumcision process, there may have been over 30 000 people who had come to either have their foreskins removed or to witness the snip. The groups of youthful initiates from different clans and villages were wearing light and colourful outfits, decorated with animal hides and beads. Their faces were painted with ash, made from the ingredients that go into busera, a local brew. The ash is meant to make the initiates look fierce and bold and to show the tribal elders that they are ready for initiation. Escorting them is an entourage of their peers, some uncircumcised and awaiting their turn, while others are older lads who have already undergone the process, holding sticks in the air and singing initiation songs.

The origin of imbalu

The origin of imbalu is, naturally, contested. Some say it came from the Babukusu people of western Kenya, while others believe it was introduced to the region by a Kalenjin woman through intermarriage. Yet another legend has it that a man known as Mugisu, the son of Masaba, the eponymous ancestor of the Bamasaba people, wanted to marry a woman from the Sebei ethnic group but this could not happen until he was circumcised.

Magombe Wakitonyi, an elder from Mbale, offered a different account. Supported by a journal article, with the title The Historical Origins of Circumcision among the Bamasaba, he argued that circumcision was started by a Barwa woman, which explains why the circumcision year is named ‘Nabarwa’. (There is some confusion about the origin and the role of the Barwa in this context. Some say the Barwa were a tribe, others insist that it is just a name for the first time the ritual was performed, while yet others argue that the Barwa were once part of the Masaai community.)

The ceremony is held on the foothills of Mount Elgon. Photo: Flickr/ Gilles Bassière
The ceremony is held on the foothills of Mount Elgon. Photo: Flickr/ Gilles Bassière

“The Barwa woman was married to Masaba and when they had children, they were circumcised after the tradition of Nabarwa,” this elder noted. He added that she instructed Masaba in the minute details of the process of circumcision. The woman would have known this as the women performed the circumcision in the Barwa culture.

“Masaba was also circumcised by the Barwa,” Wakitonyi noted. “He (Masaba) proposed to Nabarwa, who replied that she could never marry an uncircumcised man, or an umusinde, which means boy. In order to marry her, she proposed that he be circumcised according to her people’s customs. Masaba was circumcised and so became a man (umusani) to get his bride.”

Dr Stephen Mun’goma, the chair of the governing board of the Inzu Ya Masaba, a cultural institution that brings the Bamasaba together, told This is Africa that circumcision began in 1815 and that is why the circumcision year is named ‘Nabarwa’.

“Some think that it began 218 years ago. If that is the correct date, it is still within the period of 200 years,” he said.

Mutoto village in Bungokho in Central Bugisu, Eastern Uganda, is regarded as the traditional ground where the first Mugisu male was circumcised. Ever since, it is customary for circumcision to start here, before it is performed in other parts of Bugisu sub-region.

The road to imbalu

In January, prospective male candidates aged between the ages of 15 and 20, assemble in each village and are grouped according to age. Between March and August, they are taken through the isonja preparatory dance. It features specialist performers/singers called by different names, including ‘kyilali’, namwenya or ‘uwimbi’. The singers chant songs, accompanied by, most notably, a drum called the inemba.

The Masaba male, regardless of age, status or wealth, is a full man after circumcision and is allowed to marry, beget children and participate in the decision-making process of the clan.

Towards August, before the actual circumcision event, the candidates are taken on a traditional path, called ‘luwanda’. Along the way they meet other clans and proceed to the sacred swamps, where they are smeared with clay (itosi). They are called all sorts of names and traditional beer is spat upon them. A day before the circumcision, the elders, or ‘basakhulu’, clean out the sacred graves and rebuild the shrines as designed and desired by each clan. During this stage, each candidate is taken to his mother’s clan (ibwiwana) to announce his intensions to his uncles and receive gifts, before they go to the courtyard prepared for circumcision.

On the day of circumcision, after elaborate instructions and blessings from the elders, the initiates are taken to the appointed grounds by each clan to face the surgeon (umukembi), who uses a double-edged knife to remove the foreskin.

Although circumcision experts/surgeons are found in every clan, their work is not necessarily restricted by clan boundaries. They often perform their duties beyond the traditional boundaries of their clans.

“On this day, the dancing is so intense and the candidates are possessed because of the rituals carried out on them, so they feel the urge to face the knife,” said Robert Wamale, who was circumcised in 1998.

The process is quick and professional. The surgeon is a specialist who has been doing this for a long time. In less than 60 seconds, he is done. Any mishaps result in sanction.

“Should the surgeon hurt the candidate in a way that can endanger his life, the surgeon will be in trouble. The candidate is not supposed to shake or show fear during the process, lest they face punishment or be deemed weak,” Wamale added.

The imbalu cycle that began with isonja singing and dancing ends with ineema, the confirmation ceremony. During this ceremony, which will be held in 2017, the fully healed young men are coached on how to live and behave responsibly and are confirmed as full members of the clan. They are now seen as men (basani) and not boys. The Masaba male, regardless of age, status or wealth, is a full man only after circumcision. Only then is his marriage sanctioned, making him able to participate in the decision-making process of the clan.

The transition to manhood is no ordinary journey in the Bamasaba. It is a key step in ensuring continuity and the consolidation of their traditions. It serves as preparation for a man to face obstacles and find solutions to individual and communal problems.

Although the imbalu, arguably one of Africa’s largest cultural carnivals, brings together thousands of foreign and local revellers, the Ugandan government has yet to recognise it as a national tourist event.