With a sparkle in her eyes, 17 year old Rita Namutosi excitedly gyrated as high-pitched Gisu traditional drums known as the Indonyi sounded at Mutoto cultural grounds, a stone’s throw away, from Mbale town.
Her collegues from the Mushika clan in Bushika subcounty-Bududa sung an accompanying traditional up-tempo Lumasaba song in praise of a famed Mumasaba ancient warrior; whilst cheering her on with glee.
Namutosi and her friends were donned in antique Gisu feminine wear; which in many ways was reminiscent of the dress code in the years of old in Bugisu.
They had gotten up at the crack of dawn to prep for the Imbalu Parade and Festival, which was held recently [16th of December] at the Lukhobo grounds, just a stone’s throw away from Mbale town.
The Lukhobo is the center of operations for the Mbale district.
Namutosi and her collegues and several other people from the 26 clans of the Bamasaba and Bamasaba from Kenya [from Bungoma and Tranzoia counties] had convened at Mutoto cultural grounds; the previous day.
Mutoto is one of Bugisu’s foremost cultural heritage sites. It is, according to gisu traditional legend, the place where the first Imbalu ceremony was solemnized.
With dry banana fibre wrought skirts, banana fibre wrought head gear, strings of beads and garland of kamabombwe [a fast creeping stem] over their necks; Namutosi and her collegues were in many respects, reliving and retracing the ways of life of the ancient Bamasaba, who ostensibly used the aforementioned, bits and pieces, not only as dancing regalia but as daily costumes.
“I feel nostalgic,” Namutosi said
“It feels good to dress like our fore mothers. It particularly feels good to be a Mumasaba as we are going to showcase how rich and diverse our culture and customs are,” She animatedly said.
Namutosi and people from other clans [around 30 people each clan] had convened at Mutoto for the shishalulo or the pre-event, in the build up to the second annual Imbalu Parade and festival.
The previous night, the people who had gathered, consorted, danced and recited poetry, in front of a huge bone fire.
On the Festival’s D-day (Saturday, 14th), the mood at Mutoto was nothing short of upbeat, as the early morning sun rays cast beautiful shadows through the trees; neighboring the grass thatched traditional huts, where clan representatives and their teams of dancers, poets and traditional instrumentalists had spent the night.
On the horizon, palls of burning banana leaf smoke drifted in the air as Kadodi drummers warmed up their drums, in readiness for the parade and dances on the way to the Lukhobo.
Some few minutes past 8 a.m, Namutosi and the rest of the parade queens and other participants draped in traditional regalia like tsisumbati (traditional animal skin cloth) started queuing up; in single file; whilst bubbling with passion.
Ululation sounds reverberated around Mutoto as Kadodi drummers sounded their drums.
At length, the carnival like procession to the Lukhobo grounds began.
The parade queens, dancers, Banamwenya [singers], poets, drummers and instrumentalists took roughly an hour to get to the Lukhobo grounds.
There was excitement in town as Namutosi and her entourage and the rest of the team from Mutoto moved through Mbale town, whilst dancing, and singing.
The glamour of their traditional costumes, which many had only heard through legends, attracted stares and cheers.
They passed via the famed republic street; the famed clock tower, and Cathedral Avenue before they reached the Lukhobo grounds.
“Dance and song rituals are key in constructing the identity of the Bamasaba. The parade and festival which was the second of its kind was created to celebrate not only Imbalu, which is the 3rd biggest cultural tourism carnival world over, but also other aspects of Bamasaaba culture.
There is a whole array of dances, foods, attires and customs the Bamasaba people of Uganda and Kenya can showcase to the world through such events. The upshot of such events will be increased tourism and hence better standards of living for the Bamasaba,” Priscilla Mungoma, the head of Masaba Tourism Initiative says.
Masaba Tourism Initiative organised and ran the Parade and Festival.
At the Lukhobo grounds, expectant crowds numbering about 900 people had gathered; awaiting President Museveni, who was the chief quest, the dancers, the local poets, the Kadodi drummers and to see the decorated carts, one for the Umukuka and others representing the three sons of Masaba-the Patriarch of the Ugandan and Kenyan Bamasaba and for good measure; the 26 Bamasaba clans.
The tag end of the afternoon saw the start of the festivities, even though the President had not yet arrived from Gulu, where he was presiding over another cultural event.
Namutosi and her posse showcased their dance motifs to the delight of the crowds that had gathered.
For many spectators, it was a great sense of occasion; witnessing the parade queens’ strutting their stuff like Bamasaba women of old did.
Other participants showcased olden times elaborate Bamasaba head gears, Bamasaba traditional regalia for men and the Banamwenya [Musicians] sung numerous songs in praise of Bamasaba culture.
A particular crowd favourite was Musician Wanyonyi Kakai from Kenya.
Kakai thrilled the crowd to bits with his spontaneous adlibbed song- calling for unity among the Bamasaba. His dancers added to the excitement by expertly performing the Kamabeka traditional dance-a colorful and entertaining Gisu and Bukusu dance characterised by rhythmic and electric-like shoulder shaking and gyrations with arms stretched forward and with modest foot movement.
There were then clan performances in folk dance, food preparation, poetry and other activities practiced by the first Bamasaba.
At the end of the dance competitions, dancers from the Mungokho clan emerged victors.
A young stylish lady from the Musoba clan emerged victor in the contest to find the best dressed young lady in traditional Gisu feminine wear.
“The festival was an extraordinaire spectacle that showed our longing to trace and embrace our heritage as sons and daughters of Masaba, our Patriarch. It was, in many ways, a renaissance of Bugisu’s cultures,” Dr Stephen Mungoma, the Principal of Uganda Christian University Mbale, said.
President Museveni on his part lauded the idea to start a traditional cultural parade in Masaba land.
“Traditional African custom displays are very important. Rich customs passed onto us by our forefathers are some of the pathways we can use to overcome the problem of inferiority complex amongst our people,” Museveni noted.
“This event will foster unity among Bamasaba of all persuasions, wherever they are, either in the diaspora, in Kenya or here. It will stand in a good stead as we try to find proper ways of preserving our folkways, folklore and customs for posterity,” Francis Mashete, the Prime Minister of Inzu Ya Masaba, said.
At issue, despite having one of the best cultural customs in the world [Imbalu], Bugisu has faced long odds in trying to make the most of it in a tourism sense.
It is why Priscilla Mungoma and her Masaba Tourism Initiative are trying to break the mould starting with the Parade and Festival.
“We can make economic sense out of Imbalu and other customs in Masaba land but it will take some will power. The idea, Masaba Tourism Institute has is to have the customs of Masaba land packaged as tourism products so that the Bamasaba can actually benefit in an economic sense. This parade and festival serves that purpose and the plan is to make the event, way bigger in the coming years. The development of Mutoto cultural grounds which is long overdue is also something, all Bamasaba in Uganda and Kenya should push for as it will generate income for them,” Mungoma says.
The Bamasaba and the Babukusu
The Bamasaba and the Babukusu of Kenya are closely related.
They speak the same dialect and observe the same cultural practice (Imbalu or male circumcision); an elaborate affair that is marked with fanfare, songs and ancient rituals as Basinde (uninitiated boys) are transformed into Basani (young men).
There are around 4 and a half million Bamasaba in Kenya; compared to 2.5 in Uganda.
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