It is merrymaking every two years in the Bugisu or Gisu region in eastern Uganda as they celebrate Imbalu, a circumcision ritual that initiates boys into men. Usually held around August, thousands of people, foreign and local, flock to Mutoto cultural ground in eastern Uganda, outside the town of Mbale to watch young Ugandan men get their foreskins sliced in public.
Done by local surgeons in front of elders, parents and friends, initiates are not supposed to show any sign of fear or shake during the cutting process. If they succeed, they become “full men” who can now marry, have children and take part in decision-making. What is more, they are sometimes presented with gifts such as money, mobile phones, livestock, among others for reaching manhood.
Imbalu in Bugisu began over 200 years ago when Masaba, from whom all Bamasaba (the collective name of Bugisu), including the Bakusu in Western Kenya claim ancestry, was circumcised.
Masaba wanted to marry a Kalenjin lady called Nabarwa but this could not happen unless he was circumcised, the woman told him.
So he agreed and was circumcised in Mutoto, according to legend. Every two years on even years, the compulsory Imbalu ritual sees hundreds of lads usually between late teens and early 20s, cut at Mutoto, and the ceremony begins with a series of visits to revered traditional sites such as caves, swamps, hills, and mud.
Traditionally, the initiates will engage in various activities before they face the knife. Those who want to be circumcised must announce their intention in May or June in order to prepare towards August when the ceremony is usually held.
On the day of the ceremony, initiates should have already been taken to the sacred swamps and mud where they are smeared with clay. They are then taken to their mothers’ clan before prepared for circumcision.
And then with their faces plastered in ash and stripped half-naked below the waist, they are taken to the circumcision ground escorted by their peers holding sticks in the air while singing and dancing to initiation songs.
They then face the local “surgeon” who uses a double-edged knife (though different blades are now used) to remove their foreskins in public.
“On this day, the dancing is so intense and the candidates are possessed because of the rituals carried out on them, they feel the urge to face the knife,” Robert Wamale, who was cut in 1998, said.
“The process is quick and professional. This is the best part that everyone has been waiting for. The surgeon is a specialist who has been doing this for a long time, he has to accomplish the task in 60 seconds or less, failure to do that will result in punishment.
“Should the surgeon also hurt the candidate in a way that can endanger the life of the candidate, the surgeon will be in trouble. The candidate is also not supposed to shake or fear during the process, lest they face punishment and are deemed weak,” Wamale explained.
After circumcision, drums are beaten and people, including locals and foreigners, start celebrating, drinking home-brewed millet beer while watching a traditional dance performance called kadodi.
Unfortunately, Imbalu is bound not to happen this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. It may be good news for young men who dodge the festival but since it’s become a central part of the culture of the Bugisu, elders say that young people who try to escape the festival are tracked down and forcibly circumcised.
With the biannual circumcision ceremony being approved by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, authorities hope it can boost tourism and bring additional funds to the region as there are other exciting spots and places of historical interest in the Mbale area apart from the festival.
“My interest is to ensure that as many people come to visit the grounds as possible,” Stephen Asiimwe, CEO of the Uganda Tourism Board which recently elevated the circumcision ritual into a carnival, told VICE.
“Even [to] some Ugandans, especially the younger generation, it’s very interesting. They’ve never seen someone going under a knife, openly, without making a sound,” he said.