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Feature: Divided by boundaries, united by culture, old initiation ritual marked in Uganda

08 August 2016, 14:38

Mbale (Xinhua) -- Bellowing sounds of horns, whistles and drums re-echo through the ranges of Mount Elgon.

Youthful men clad in traditional wear sing along, moving from village to village, signaling the start of the biennial traditional circumcision ceremony, a centuries' old initiation ritual into adulthood among the Bamasaba people.

Bamasaba is an ethnic group of about 7 million people along the common border between Uganda and Kenya. Although divided by a common border, the over 4 million Bamasaba in Kenya and the 3 million in Uganda share the same culture, and male circumcision commonly referred to as Imbalu is one of them.

Imbalu is a revered custom of initiating teenage boys into adulthood. Without anesthesia, the boys are circumcised in public as a sign of showing bravery and to indicate that they are ready to face any hardships in life without giving up.

The event is held every even year starting in the month of August and ending in December.

This year is different because the Bamasaba are marking 200 years since the start of the practice.

Moses Kutoi, Chairman Imbalu in Inzu Ya Bamasaba told Xinhua on Saturday at the launch of this year's Imbalu that every human or society has an identity, and circumcision is the identity of the Bamasaba. Inzu Ya Bamasaba is the cultural institution that brings together the Bamasaba.

"We regard culture as a backbone of society. It is important that we initiate these people so that they can be the custodian of culture and guard it against all odds," Kutoi said.

At the beginning of the year, a teenage boy voluntarily informs the father of his intention to get circumcised. The father then starts the preparations among which include planting millet, buying a bull that would be later given to the boy as gift after circumcision.

In mid-year, the boy intending to get circumcised accompanied by his peers visits relatives informing them of the initiation ceremony. The relatives in turn give the boy gifts.

On the D-Day, the boy plus a group of other candidates walk from their villages accompanied by large groups of people singing and chanting. Some even walk from as far as 15 km to converge at Mutoto Cultural Ground on the foothill of Wanale, one of the ranges of Mount. Elgon.

According to legendary stories, the first man to be circumcised among the Bamasaba lived at Mutoto and since then, the launching ceremony of the Imbalu every even year has been held there.

After going through all the necessary rituals, the candidates are presented before the 'traditional' surgeons. The surgeons are appointed by ancestors through spiritual powers.

"If you don't circumcise, your peers will reject you. You cannot even address elders," Joseph Masabasi, a seasoned traditional surgeon told Xinhua. Masabasi has circumcised over 10,000 boys since he started in 1986.


The Imbalu is under threat of being eroded as the Bamasaba continue interacting with the outside world.

"The non-Bamasaba try to discourage it so much and to us it is a big worry. They say the boys undergo a lot of pain," Kutoi said.

One of the elders in the region decried the practice, describing it as horrendous.

"The bravery those boys exhibit during circumcision is plastic. In later years of life, memories of that pain you went through come back," the elder told Xinhua in an interview, preferring to be anonymous for fear of being scolded by staunch supporters of the cultural practice.

Some critics have argued that it is an abuse of the rights of those who decline to be circumcised.

According to the customs among the Bamasaba, if a man reaches 20 years before being circumcised, his peers will arrange for forceful circumcision.

Even when one dies before circumcision, their body would be circumcised. In this case the family of the deceased would be asked to pay a hefty fine.


With the onset of HIV, the cultural practice suffered a blow as concerns were raised over the knives used. One knife would be used to circumcise more than one person without being sterilized.

Overtime, the surgeons have been trained on how to carry out safe circumcision. This year, over 700 traditional surgeons have been trained, according to the cultural institution.

The institution estimates that this year over 2,000 boys would be circumcised among the Bamasaba, both in Uganda and Kenya.

- Xinhua


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