female genital mutilation in Sebei for example is still rife despite concerted government measures to abolish it.
In Bugisu, the often outspoken voices calling for the abolition of the venerated Imbalu custom have faced and still face long odds
Nonetheless, contention has continued to brew on this issue. The question of whether the Imbalu custom should be abolished or whether it should be preserved continues to stir debate.
In the anticipatory run-up to the opening of Imbalu every even year, there are always scores of Imbalu opponents denouncing and casting slurs on the Imbalu custom at every slight opportunity they get. Using mostly Christian FM radios, they invariably fire tirades at the tradition, calling it archaic, demonic and obsolete.
Pitted against them however have been very strong proponents of the Imbalu custom
Local Historian Benayo Wanabwa says from days of old, Imbalu has been Bugisu’s cultural claim to fame. “This is our heritage as Bamasaba and it will be, even for our posterity. Without our cultural heritage, we as a people or a community have no identity. Those who have been advocating for the abolition of our revered culture are under an illusion,” Wanabwa says
The imbalu opponents and their supporters vehemently argue that Imbalu is an antiquated and primitive custom that should be dispensed with. They have even gone adverse, rationalizing that all the blood sacrifices made during the ritual are satanic.
Wamaniala Yosia, a Christian Evangelist in Nampanga, Sironko says the Imbalu custom is an evil bondage that the bamasaba people should be extricated from.
“All the animal blood sacrifices, the reverence accorded to spirits and the other vices that unfold during the Imbalu season are a manifestation of how infamous this ritual is. Those practices bound Bugisu land with evil and they need to be stamped out. But as is the character in Bugisu, advice is least heeded when most needed, so we shall continue to live under this avoidable spell,” Wamaniala says
Many firebrand and conservative Bagisu Culturalists have however, taken strong exception to any notions agitating for the abolition of a custom they say unities the bamasaba and preserves their identity.
A group of outspoken Christian Evangelists who had taken their anti imbalu crusade to the radio in 2010 and 2012 were bombarded with threatening phone calls and insolent comments.
Nevertheless, they still had a couple of people calling in expressing support for their cause.
87 year Muyesa Manigi Frances, Chairman of Siboye clan in Bumboi, Mbale says any Mugisu who disparages and holds his culture in a low regard should be ashamed of himself. “I do not understand why anyone would demand the abolition of a culture which has got us recognition, respect and identity world over. Many Bamasaba who are acolytes of this culture are not only here in Bugisu but in Kenya too,” Muyesa says
Muyesa may not be the only one who expresses a strong veneration for the Imbalu custom
Moses Magombe Wakitonyi, a respected elder in Mutoto, Mbale, a place where the maiden Imbalu ceremony was performed, says those agitating for the dissolution of Imbalu are suffering from a cultural cringe.
“The cowards who try to negate, loathe and desecrate our culture are not people we shall entertain. They probably lacked the fortitude and grit to face the Imbalu Knife. Imbalu unites all Bamasaba. The rituals performed are largely symbolic and in accordance with what our ancestors did. There is nothing diabolical about them,” Wakitonyi explains
Wamaniala however says not everybody in the 26 clans of Bugisu makes common cause with the ritual.
“People have realized how backward the imbalu custom is. The upshot has been many people taking their children to hospital for circumcision instead. It has outlived its usefulness. There are no virtues about a pagan like culture that bridges the gap between us and spirits,” Wamaniala states
Bumali Mashipwe, an Evangelist in Namatso, Bududa concurs with Wamaniala
“Offering sacrifices to some unknown entities is something i find strange. If you are keen to observe too, it is during the imbalu season that many vices, pregnancies and deaths occur within the Bugisu Region. 2014 is circumcision year, wait and see what happens. A custom like that, can not be one, on which a tribe constructs its identity,” Mashipwe states
Wakitonyi nonetheless says those hell bent on casting slurs on what he calls an esteemed custom are wasting their time.
“For the record, there is nothing pagan like about our culture. That just manifests how naive and ignorant these people are about their own culture. The imbalu custom which some people have failed to understand aims at consolidating cultural continuity and social cohesion within our society. It is through this custom that our younger generation are taught not one but many responsibilities,” Wakitonyi says
With 2014 being a circumcision year in Bugisu, there are bound to be more debates on this issue. In the words of Moses Magombe Wakitonyi however, the Imbalu custom is part and parcel of life in Bagisu and is going nowhere.
And he has the backing of not one but many people, including the cultural institution, known as Inzu ya Masaba.