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The Ordeal of Imbalu Circumcision Among the Bagishu



Every 31st December of the odd year, the blowing of horns and playing of Kadodi welcomes the new even year announcing the arrival of the annual ritual of circumcision. This happens within the Bamasaba (Bagisu) community all over Uganda.

Although the old tradition of circumcision (Imbalu) has come a long way, it is still mysterious and disturbing to think of how a Mumasaba boy takes a brave decision to face this crude knife in the public. However for any Mugishu boy to be called a man, has to face the knife and you will be surprised with how brave they are to go through this initiation ceremony.

So powerful is this tradition, that a Gisu man who is not circumcised is usually forced to do it once the circumcision year starts and even the dead are circumcised before they are buried.

Even when every Mugisu who has been circumcised will testify that it is traditional inspiration that comes naturally, Amidu Wakhatenge who was circumcised on August 13, has a different story to tell. Wakhatenge, 16, says when the annual ritual of Imbalu was announced, he felt unusual, with one force inside telling him to announce his decision while the other told him not to.

“I felt an eerie sensation go through me as I battled to get an answer to the question; But will I stand it? Even when I tried to dispel the idea that circumcision was not painful, some element of fear lingered within me,” said Wakhatenge.

“Then it all started with my friends and age mates announcing their intentions to face 2008 Imbalu, I pondered and called my father in secret and told him my decision like it is required in our culture who later told clan elders and who also met me to ascertain my seriousness,” added Wakhatenge.

He says when he asked for permission to get circumcised, he first received counsel from elderly male relatives about the challenges of the knife, adulthood and what Imbalu means to the Bamasaba clan.

He says the elders asked him whether he was going to withstand the knife or not, more than ten times and that when they discovered he was serious, they accepted, performed some rituals and endorsed him.

In some other clans within Bugisu, the boy is required to seek consent of his maternal uncles by visiting them with his mother before circumcision is announced.

Wakhatenge says that consent of the maternal uncles is what gave him a go ahead to begin a three day preparation for the rite at their traditional courtyard in Wanale with the performance of some rituals which involved brewing of malwa, a local brew here made from either maize or millet flour.

And it is the yeast and the malwa which are used for smearing the candidates daily as they keep dancing to the tune of Kadodi (local drums) and Imbalu songs from relative to relative alerting them about their intentions.

Rtd Lt. Hajji Yusuf Wamboga, a senior surgeon [circumciser] says that amongst the non-Muslims, the boy is challenged to make his own brew from the place where he is going to be circumcised from in a small traditional pot.

Wakhatenge says he danced for two days accompanied by relatives, friends and neighbours wielding pangas, clubs and big sticks, just to scare him from cowardising before climaxing on the third day with a visit to his maternal uncles for the last word and send off to go and face the knife.

Although the desire to be circumcised is believed here to be spiritually inspired; where the boys are allegedly influenced by the ancestral spirit of Imbalu Wakhatenge says he did not feel inspired at all but just had the internal preparation to do this as is required of every Mugisu.

A busy village Kadodi dancing group moved around Wakhatenge as he looked curiously at the people wielding clubs. The charged crowd with women dancing half nude scared him.

He bent further down and concentrated on dancing to kadodi tunes just to gather courage before getting to the courtyard for circumcision.

At the cultural grounds the elders led Wakhatenge in songs and dancing before the ritual was performed.
A few minutes later, Wakhatenge emerged from the crowd moving briskly not even bothering to look back as the crowd followed dancing and shouting;

Ehhe… ehhe hhe Sheta umwana afane Baba We” loosely meaning circumcise the child to look like his father.

Within a few minutes, Wakhatenge was at the clan Imbalu courtyard standing still on a sisal sack covered with some sand and a stone. Two surgeons led by Wamboga came after him, one of them pulled the foreskin of the penis before Wamboga eventually cut, as the crowd kept shouting. Wakhatenge stood motionless in an enclosure surrounded by men wielding big clubs, Zilungu [traditional sticks used for dancing Kadodi here] and pangas with no sign of fear or flickering of eyelids like it is required here.

Whereas the circumcision posture varies from one area to another, the candidates are expected to stand firm and display the highest level of bravery because it is part of the initiation.

The whistle went and Wakhatenge then jumped up and down to signify that the process was complete. This was followed by ululations, dancing kadodi and giving of gifts to the boy who had withstood the knife.

Wamboga disappeared into the crowd at a breakneck speed just to catch up with the next candidate supposed to be circumcised in the next village as the elders around declared Wakhatenge a man, only a few minutes before he was a mother’s child, a boy.

Wakhatenge says although he is required traditionally to dispel myths that circumcision is painful in a bid not to scare the would be candidates, the truth is that he experienced pain.

“I felt something hot, then some noise in my ears like “Kwaapa” then eventually I felt pain go through my nerves but of course I had to keep the covenant I had made with my parents, uncles and other relatives not to shame them,” said Wakhatenge.

He revealed that there is the removal of the most top skin which he did not notice but that when the surgeon began cutting the inside skin, there was great pain, the pain a weak person would not have withstood.

“As surgeons we know it is painful. But it is a requirement for all boys here to get circumcised. At times a child may feel like not undergoing the ritual but because it is a cultural requirement, you have no choice but to stand it,” say Wamboga.

He added on that at times when boys over grow and they don’t want to be circumcised, they are given a traditional herb called Idyanyi either in porridge, local brew (malwa) or in tea to inspire them and give them the courage and longing for circumcision.

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