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Tuesday, 18 September 2018 14:26

Imbalu [Traditional male circumcision]: Testing the metal [grits] of young men in Masabaland [Eastern Uganda] Featured

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Clan elders painstakingly examined the entrails of a slaughtered chicken for fortitude clues as the early morning rays of sunlight penetrated through the trees at Mutoto, Mbale, Eastern Uganda on 2th August.

The elders from the Bamutoto clan [the clan that traditionally has their imbalu candidates circumcised first in Masabaland before any other] were ostensibly examining the entrails to gauge the strength of purpose and fortitude levels of 16 year old Rashid Gidudu, 17 year old Edwin Watuwa and 17 year old Sadat Khabeli.
Khabeli Gidudu and Watuwa at the home of a Mutoto elder on the second day of the Imbalu smearing rite

The three who work odds jobs around Mbale town[Eastern Uganda] had pronounced their intent to undergo the imbalu rite only a day earlier.

As the elders consulted the augurs and performed small incantations, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli threshed millet in what is traditionally described as khukhupaka.

The millet was to be ground and its flour used to brew malwa [a local brew] that would be served to visitors, moral boosters and relatives starting Thursday 9th;  the day, the elders had decided the three would start the three day Xusamba Imbalu rituals [dancing Imbalu].

Edwin Watuwa
Not far from Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli as they threshed the millet were their younger siblings and cousins cleaning what looked like long tails decorated with cowrie shells.
The long tails would hang down the backs of Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli as they danced Imbalu.

Having fulfilled a ritual called “Xuwetsa Imbalu” meaning casting about for Imbalu; weeks earlier, time had come for Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli to be taken through the three day elaborate Imbalu rituals known as “Xusamba Imbalu”.

On behalf of his collegues, Watuwa emphatically pronounced that they are ready to go through the ritual.
“We are more than ready,” he told Masaabachronicle on the crack of dawn on the 9th of August.
Khabeli Gidudu and Watuwa at the home of a Mutoto elder on the second day of the Imbalu smearing rite.jpg2

Xuwetsa imbalu implies the gradual awakening of intent in a prospective imbalu candidate. At this stage, if a candidate has any misgivings or second thoughts about braving the pain of the Imbalu knife; he can reschedule his imbalu to another year,” Magombe Wakitonyi, an elder in Mutoto, Mbale, Eastern Uganda, says.

“Imbalu dancing, in many respects, shows one’s readiness to face the Imbalu knife.”
Watuwa Khabeli and Gidudu arrive at the Mutoto ground for the second day of the millet yeast smearing rite

“When an Imbalu candidate or candidates eventually start the three day dancing rituals, it metaphorically means the ancestral power of Imbalu or what we call Kumusambwa kw’ imbalu has seized him with a desire to face imbalu. It is not possession in the sense of abnormal but it is seen as a desire coming from the heart. A desire to dance Imbalu and be like other clan members who showed fortitude during Imbalu. The vigour of a prospective Imbalu candidate’s dancing demonstrates his fortitude,” Richard Waneloba, an elder in Bushika, Bududa district, says.

The 9th of August marked the advent of the Xukoya Busera and the three day Xuakha Kamamela Imbalu rituals.
Both rituals are performed on the morning of the third day before the day of imbalu or the kumululilo.

The xukoya Busera ritual involves the brewing of the circumcision beer, known as Busera or Kamalule; whilst the Khuakha kamamela rite essentially means “smearing an initiate with thick millet yeast paste”.

Around 12:37 p.m, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were led away with pots on their heads, to a nearby stream [iluutsi] to fetch water that would be used in the Khukoya Busera rite.
Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli quickly drew water from the stream and were led back from the stream amidst appreciative elder loud chants of “uryo uryo” loosely meaning “it should be done like that”.
Other candidates at the Imbalu Inauguration 2

Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were however not taken to their father’s homes.
The Bamutoto clan from which they come from invariably agree to circumcise some of their candidates from the famed Mutoto Imbalu courtyard, where it is believed Masaba, the man from whom Bamasaba claim ancestry and who it is believed introduced Imbalu was circumcised.  Masaba, a son to the first Mumasaaba by the names of Mundu, was circumcised after he had agreed to a marriage proposal from a Kalenjin lady he was smitten with by the name of Nabarwa.
She insisted she would only marry him after he had gotten circumcised.

“I have to execute Masaba’s covenant by losing blood to the land he gave his sons and great grandchildren like me. At this moment, I feel a strong sense of occasion going through what my uncles, brothers and cousins went through,” Khabeli told Masaaba chronicle.

Young uncircumcised Bamasaba boys are always told at a young age that at one point they have to become men through the spirit of Masaba or traditionally known as Kumusambwa kw’ Masaba.

On reaching the Mutoto Imbalu courtyard, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were led to a small revered hut where they poured the water in a big pot called “Kumanje”.
Outside the hut, the elders had erected a ritual pole called Lukangu.
According to imbalu folklore, it is around the aforementioned pole that basambwa or the ancestor’s assemble.

 The pot was filled with roasted dough called tsimuma and powdered millet yeast. Tsimuma is what is used to make the local brew.
An elder immediately added water and placed the pot under the pillar of the house for maturation as Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli waited.

Victor Turner, a British anthropologist, known for his works in rituals and rites of passage explained in his 1966 book-“The Ritual Process” that it is under the pillar where the water is placed that the Gisu diety murabula resides.
Since Imbalu is likened to a second birth in Bugisu, murabula must be appeased for an initiate to successfully undergo Imbalu.

After the Khukoya ritual, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli sat briefly in a small hut awaiting the Khuaka Kamamela rite.
Khabeli Watuwa and Gidudu in the Mutoto Imbalu courtyard hut

On the first day of the three day Khuaka Kamamela rite, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were smeared with maize flour and millet yeast.
The yeast was smeared on their foreheads, legs, hands and heads.
Traditionally, it is through this rite that Gisu male traits are enforced.
John Wamimbi an elder in Mutoto smears Watuwa his son with millet yeast Watuwa Khabeli and Gidudu are taken through the Khuakha Kamamela rite Gidudu gets smeared with thick millet yeast paste on the first day of the three day Imbalu rituals Khabeli on the final day of the millet yeast smearing rite

As he performed the smearing rite, John Wamimbi, an elder from Mutoto performed admonitions seemingly invoking the ancestral diety Murabula to bless Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli.
Though their bodies seemed to be covered with goose pimples, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli seemed pretty intent on getting circumcised.
They emphatically jumped up on cue to the imbalu sounds of uri nja, uri nja hoo from their relatives and elders.
Gidudu stands ready on the second day of the Millet yeast smearing ceremony

“Our resolve is high. We are only thinking about Imbalu. We are unfazed and we shall make our clan mates and our families happy by standing strong and firm,” Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli vowed.
The Khuakha rite was repeated on the penultimate day and the last day of the rituals-the 11th.

As Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli danced to Kadodi drums after the khuakha kamamela rite with metal thigh bells and strings of beads on their chests for three days, visiting relatives and cultural sites; they were reminded not to confuse the glamour of their costumes with imbalu.
They were reminded of the tough ordeal they face and exhorted with shouts of “samba imbalu ni Kamani”-meaning dance imbalu with strength and determination.
Watuwa leads Khabeli and Gidudu and moral boostersbashinisi as they began the Khushina Imbalu rite Watuwa Khabeli and Gidudu avow their readiness to face the Imbalu cut

The 11th of august, which was also the opening day of the Imbalu season in Bugisu, marked the culmination of the three day Khushina Imbalu rituals with the Xukhwingila ritual or the circumcision of Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli.
The day is traditionally called Kumululilo.

As it clocked 3p.m, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were brought back to the Mutoto Imbalu courtyard for the final khuakha kamamela smearing rite.
Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli stood with firm gazes as the elder sermonising the khuakha kamamela [smearing rite] for the last time began his task.
They were smeared with thick millet yeast paste and chime from a sacrificial goat by Watuwa’s mother brother.

They were then led away in a warlike procession by a big crowd to a black mud swamp strongly associated with the ancestral diety of Imbalu or the Kumusambwa Kw’Imbalu.
On arrival at the specially prepared black mud swamp, they individually jumped into the mud pond and were smeared mud by Bamutoto clan elders.
Khabeli is led away from the Black mud swamp after he had been smearedGidudu is smeared by mud at the Black mud swamp Khabeli gets smeared by mud at the Black mud swamp

Other candidates at the Imbalu Inauguration 3

At 4.30 p.m, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were set off from the swamp to Mutoto Imbalu courtyard, where the cutting was to take place. 
As we left the swamp, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli betrayed no signs of fear.

Meanwhile in the hut at the courtyard, the aunties of Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli had gathered at the base of the Intzeko [central pillar of the hut], and had sat down legs stretched with hands on their hips.
The female relations of Khabeli Watuwa and Gidudu sitting legs stretched waiting for the successful completion of the circumcision

This symbolic act in Gisu tradition to the best of my recollection is meant to bring good luck to the initiates as they are brought for the cut.

On arrival at the courtyard, amidst pushing and shoving, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were led by an elder to a sack where they were circumcised from.
Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli all stood stock still, eyes fixed forward and unflinching as the dreaded foreskin and inner incision cuts [kumurundura] were performed.
Khabeli stands stock still as the local surgeons perform the cut on him

Gidudu keeps a straight face even after the local surgeons had finished the cut
In a minute and few seconds, John Kuloba, the Mushebi (traditional surgeon) was done. He blew a whistle signifying the success of the operation.
Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were congratulated by clan members, onlookers and relatives and given chairs to sit on.
The aunties who had sat in the hut came out, ululating and dancing in merriment.

“Iam now a real Busani burwa [a real man]. It was tough but it was worth going through it,” Watuwa asserted.

After a while, Gidudu, Watuwa and Khabeli were taken through a purification ceremony known as Khusabisa.
Gidudu is taken through the khuusaabisa purification ritual by the Traditional surgeon who cut him Gidudu on the right joined by his mum and Watuwa on the right after their circumcision

The surgeon poured beer on their hands; signifying the washing away of the bad omen of boyhood.
They were reminded of what it takes to show real manhood in Masaba land [Busani Bubweene]
However hungry, an initiate is, he can not touch food until he is ritually cleaned by the surgeon who cut him.


Imbalu is the most valued of all ritual observations in Bugisu. It is the Bamaasaba initiation rite for all males. It is conceived of as a personal test, a test of bravery which is publicly witnessed.
The Imbalu candidate or Umusinde is required to display total fortitude as he is cut. . No grimacing, blinking of eyes, body contortion or flinching is allowed, until the cut is finished. A candidate who does any of the above gets bad assessments from his clan, friends and elders.

It is conducted every even numbered year during August and December.
August is for village candidates and it occurs after a main harvest.
December is for school enrollees.
Imbalu means the music, dances and rituals performed while initiating boys into manhood among the Bamaasaba.

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Wetaya Richard

I have more than five years’ working experience in the media industry.

I wield a skilful pen as a writer and Iam presently one of the most proficient features writers at the "Features Desk" of the “New Vision”- Uganda’s leading premier Newspaper.

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