The Campus Bridge

The Bagisu Cultural "Imbalu"


Nameme Innocent
2nd Year Student - African Bible UniversityNameme Innocent
As early as January of every even year, candidates are prepared to embrace the Bagishu cultural circumcision ritual known as the "Imbalu." They learn to sing and dance while waiting for the big day when they shall join the procession of jubilant relatives, who are ready to receive them. The "Imbalu" practice is a rite of passage (initiation) for the teenager into manhood.
The Bagisu is a tribe located in eastern Uganda that lives in the districts of Bududa, Sironko, Manafwa, and Mbale. Bugisu sub-region has unique physical features, unlike other districts in eastern Uganda. The area is hilly and rocks spread out in an undulating fashion. It has the great Mountain Elgon in the background.

The region receives plenty of rainfall and is evergreen. Temperatures drop lowest to freezing point in some areas bordering Kapchorwa district at certain times of the year. The beautiful hilly landscape makes Gishu land quite distinct and admirable. The Gishu have several cultural practices. However, the circumcision ceremony known as "Imbalu" is very central to the Gishu culture. 

Long ago, there was a man who wanted to marry and he went around searching for a girl to marry. This man found a girl from the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya. Of course, old cultural principles and practices amongst the Kikuyu and the Gishu were highly regarded in those days.

When this man went to meet the girl's father, the potential father in law asked whether he was circumcised. The man told him he could not marry his daughter unless he was circumcised. Because he loved this girl so much, the man agreed to the command, returned to Uganda, and was circumcised. Later on, he went back and the father-in-law gave his daughter to him in marriage.

In the early days, in the Gishu culture, the "Imbalu" (circumcision of the foreskin of the male genitalia), was carried out yearly. After this first marriage ceremony, the elders of the land decided that the "Imbalu" would become a customary practice for the Gishu people.

The "Imbalu" usually involved a lot of eating, dancing, and feasting. It was a very jovial season with lots of enjoyment, fun, and merry-making. Prospects dressed in shorts, had bare chests that were painted with mud and cow dung. They carried various objects in their hands. Women sang and danced vigorously, wearing cultural clothes as the procession marched to the place of circumcision. Girls are not left out either, they follow from behind, dancing with all effort, and ululating as they witness possible suitors taking courage to brave the knife.

The family of the candidates prepare for the event. They buy food for relatives coming from far and for the community. They prepare wrappings to cover the boy to facilitate the healing process since he cannot immediately wear trousers or shorts. They buy local brew to keep people happy. Traditional and cultural tunes fill the atmosphere as the people beat the drums, strum the "Adungu," and other traditional musical instruments.

A time came when food was scarce in Bugisu land because of a terrible drought, which brought famine.
The elders of the land met and discussed matters concerning the "Imbalu." The elders changed the practice from a yearly celebration to once every even year. Elders decided on this option to preserve food for their people and save them from starving.

As early as January of every even year, candidates are prepared to embrace the culture. They learn to sing and dance while waiting for the big day when they shall join the procession of jubilant relatives, who are ready to receive them. The "Imbalu" practice is a rite of passage (initiation) for the teenager into manhood.

During the course of the year, the Bagisu king, referred to as "Omuguga" sits with a council of elders. At this time, they plan and schedule circumcision activities in different parts of Bugisu land. The ancestral cultural home in Bomutota in Mbale district is where people from Bugisu subregion come to launch the Imbalu.

The Gishu believe that there is a spirit behind the Imbalu practice. This spirit is believed to be the god of the Gishu though many people have now embraced Christianity. Serious circumcision begins in August to December 31 when people go to serve the spirit. During the launch, there are many celebrations and beating of drums throughout the entire Bugisu land. People eat Gishu delicacies such as malewa, matooke, and Kalo.

They serve plenty of drinks such as malwa, and they slaughter chickens to offer blood to the spirit of the Imbalu. It is believed that, as people, dance and chant, candidates receive courage and strength from the spirits to face the knife of circumcision. Vows are made between the candidate and the spirit at the initiation. If a candidate fears, he may be beaten to death, because it is considered wrong to fear, especially if one is a firstborn.

Boys at thirteen to eighteen move from the youthful stage to adulthood; the sign considered to be a mark of maturity is circumcision. After circumcision, the boy is expected to grow into maturity and adulthood ready to enter into marriage and produce children. If his marriage is blessed with male children, this man is presumed lucky, because boys will also undergo circumcision one day in the future. The Bagisu say circumcision is for purification, cleanliness, and it bestows tribal identification. After successful Imbalu, one is entitled to inheritance.

During the Imbalu, it is believed that the spirit chooses a man whom he gives power and the responsibility to circumcise. Thus, circumcision is carried out under the power and influence of the spirit. After circumcision, candidates are expected to continue dancing. The wound is dressed with Ethanol and crushed red pepper to show that he is brave.

One of our students who preferred anonymity, says he has undergone the Gishu cultural Imbalu. He said he visited the Bomutota, a cultural centre in Mbale town. Candidates are expected to be brave and jubilant. They are encouraged to stay away from women and any practice that would defer healing.
Bishop Wilson Kitara

The Bagisu cultural circumscision ceremony in progress



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