The Bamasaba and the origins of circumcision
While narrating to Crooze Fm, an elder from Mutoto says that the people of North Bugisu or Budadiri county, originated from a man known as Mugisu, the son of Masaba, who is the eponymous ancestor of the Bamasaba. These are the people called Bagisu.
Those in central and southern Bugisu were respectively founded by Ngokhwe and Wukuya, Mugisu’s brothers. The Central Bagisu are generally called Bangokho while those in the south are loosely called Basukuya, named after their respective founders.
Within these large groups there are numerous divisions and clans bearing the names of their supposed founders. The correct collective name for the people of Bugisu is, therefore, Bamasaba.
It is held that the name ‘Bagisu’ was mistakenly applied to the entire tribe by the Baganda and the British who were ignorant of the local situation.
The origin of circumcision among the Bamasaba is linked to the ‘Barwa’ otherwise known as the Sebei.
It is held that Masaba wanted to marry a woman from Sebei, but this could not happen unless he was circumcised.
So, circumcision was introduced by Nabarwa and originally performed in accordance with the customs and rites of the Barwa.
The Bamasaba refer to their circumcision as ‘Imbalu. ‘Nabarwa’ also means ‘that of, or which belongs to the Barwa’.
Mutoto village in Bungokho in Central Bugisu is regarded as the traditional ground where the first Mugisu male was circumcised.
Ever since, every circumcision year, it is customary for circumcision to start in Bungokho before spreading to other parts of Bugisu.
Currently, it is performed every even year, but in the past, it could be postponed in the event of a national crisis such as prolonged drought, famine, epidemics, and war.
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.
There are different accounts of how the practice started.
Some say it was a Barwa woman who started it.
The woman was married to Masaba and when they had children they were circumcised after the tradition of Nabarwa.
The elder added further that it was Nabarwa who instructed Masaba in the practice of circumcision for, according to the Barwa, women also performed circumcision.
“Masaba was also circumcised by the Barwa,” the elder said.
Another reason given for the adoption of the ‘circumcision of Nabarwa’ is that Masaba proposed to Nabarwa who replied that she could never marry an uncircumcised man (umusinde or boy).
In order to marry her, she proposed he gets 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 chairman Governing Board of the Inzu Ya Masaba and director of the Uganda Christian University, Mbale University College, weighed in on the debate as to when circumcision started.
“To the best of my knowledge, it began in 1815 and that is why the circumcision year is named Nabarwa. Others think that it began 2018 years ago, and if it is the correct date, it is still within the period of 200 years,” he said.
The Imbalu Ceremony
For four weeks, the Bamasaba, young and old, pitch a camp at Mutoto Cultural Site, two kilometers from Mbale town in Eastern Uganda.
The site was a beehive of activities with blistering business ranging from the sale of food to soft and alcoholic beverages.
It is a time of merry making, as one of the elders narrates.
“It is a non-stop party. There is always loud music and it gets worse in the night because there is too much alcohol and everyone is always drunk, with the attendant consequences. People deserve to be happy but they are doing it dangerously here.”
On circumcision day, I am amused by the large numbers of people at the site. Over 30,000 people in my estimation!
The youthful groups of initiates from different clans and villages donned in light but colorful outfits, decorated with animal hides, beads, and ash-painted faces.
The ash is derived from the ingredients of the local brew known as “busera” or “malwa”, and it is intended to make them look fierce and bold to show elders that they are ready for initiation.
Escorting them is an entourage of their peers holding sticks in the air and singing initiation songs. Some of them are bare-chest and most of them appear like they have not taken a bath in days.
The stamping of their feet can be heard from a mile away, so the air was filled with dust; and it also reeked of the stench of sweat and booze, as they drank busera and sprayed it out with their mouths.
But all the noise, dust and chaos did not matter. It is Imbalu Day, the day boys turn into men. For Bamasaba, it is a celebration.