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The purpose of mudding swamps in the traditional circumcision ritual of Eastern Uganda

One-of-the-candidates-being-smeared-with-the-black-swamp-mud-the-last-stage-before-an-Imbalu-candidate-faces-the-cut._20201028-111304_1 Wetaya Richard Picture

Very early in the morning on the 10th of September, three elders from Bunanyuma village in Bushika sub-county in Bududa district in the East of Uganda silently stomped a sacred waterlogged ground, until it was reduced to mire.

The mire, which was being readied for one of the most sacred Imbalu or traditional circumcision rituals, known in the local Lumasaaba dialect as "Khuakha Litosi" or "Liloba", bubbled repeatedly. Litosi or Liloba means the mire or mud.

The Khuakha Litosi ritual which involves smearing traditional circumcision candidates with mud happens just a few minutes before the circumcision itself happens. The cutting of the candidates usually lasts less than a minute.

For starters, Imbalu is a revered traditional circumcision rite that is practiced by the Bamasaaba people of Eastern Uganda and the Bukusu of Western Kenya.

The Khuakha Litosi ritual is a significant Imbalu rite that is still relatively lesser-known and in this COVID-19 season, not many people have borne witness to it, because of social distancing restrictions. It, however, remains stuff of legend for many who have witnessed it.

On the 10th of September, Bunanyuma village was buzzing with activity as kinsmen and women with Imbalu candidates danced and made merry, as they waited for the cue to take their candidates to the mud swamp, which was slated for the afternoon.

Just a day earlier as the sun disappeared off the horizon, the three elders had cleared a huge thicket off the mire ground. The frogs that had been croaking away at the ground; could not be heard, later on in the evening.

As the elders put the finishing touches on the mire, the sounds of rhythmic traditional songs could be heard reverberating in the distance. 

Preparations in Bunanyuma had reached a crescendo. As the occasional socially distanced dances went on, the three elders could be seen dancing and shaking their shoulders in rhythmic and electric-like gyrations with arms stretched forward.

Why the mire bubbles

The bubbling of the mire according to Peter Waneloba, a teacher and elder in Bushika is a manifestation of the presence of the proverbial ancestral power of Imbalu.

"The swamp is the home of the proverbial ancestral power of Imbalu. That ancestral power is locally known as "Kumusambwa kwe Imbalu". The mire bubbles until it curiously looks like the finger millet fermented local brew-usually referred to as Busela or Malwa."

On the 10th, the elders at the swamp were set to sermonize the mud smearing Imbalu ritual. A number of Imbalu candidates from Bunanyuma were slated to be smeared with the mire before being taken for the cut.

Putting Imbalu or traditional circumcision candidates in fellowship with an ancestral power

"The mire smearing ritual is a symbolic rite that imbues or puts Imbalu candidates in fellowship with the ancestral power of Imbalu. The ancestral power is beyond sensory observation; but it does show signs to the elders of the swamp in the build-up to the circumcision of Imbalu candidates, every even year," Waneloba explains.

"One of those signs is the bubbling. This mud smearing rite is, unfortunately, less known, because some clan elders have not gone out of their way to explain it in full to the younger generation. It may seem like an ancient rite, just like they say Imbalu is, but this is what defines our identity as Bamasaaba and as Africans. Our ancestors passed this onto us, and it is incumbent upon us to keep it going. Imbalu is one of Uganda's biggest cultural tourism products. It is important for people to know about its rituals," Waneloba explains.

Early in the morning of the 10th, several Imbalu candidates and their dancing entourages cognizant of COVID-19 social distancing rules danced fervently through the Bunanyuma communal dancing grounds.

Nine candidates were to be brought to the swamp to be smeared with the mire, later on in the evening, before they would be taken for the Imbalu cut.

Blessing the mire ground

At the sacred mire ground meanwhile, the elders of the swamp were busy with elaborate animal sacrifice sanctifications.
A goat and several chickens were slaughtered in an apparent appreciation of the ancestral power of Imbalu. Several dances and songs were also performed.

"Even in the dry season, the mire swamps do not dry up. Vegetation may grow around the swamp, but the ground remains boggy. The swamps still bubble by themselves even without rain. That is stuff of legend.

When it bubbles, local folklore has it that, it has fermented, just like Malwa ferments. The mud is thought of as in Lumasaaba folklore as the beer of the ancestral power of Imbalu," Paul Nakhokho, a clan elder in Manafwa, says.

Significance of the smearing rite

The belief among the Bamasaaba is that smearing Imbalu candidates with the swamp mire gives them extra courage and fortitude as they head for the Imbalu cut. The smearing in many ways also signifies giving the candidates final blessings as they head for the cut. It also serves to identify the candidate as the center of focus," Waneloba explains.

"The other belief handed down from years ago is that the mud constricts the body and reduces the flow of blood so that at the time of the Imbalu cutting, the candidates become insensate and do not lose too much blood."

When any Imbalu candidate is taken to a mire swamp for the quick mire smearing rite, it becomes an epiphany moment of sorts. Often, there is a quick realization that the time of Imbalu reckoning has come.

The last stage of three-day Imbalu rituals

The mire smearing rite is the last stage of the three-day Imbalu dancing and cutting rituals.

"In some areas of Masaaba land, the rite is, unfortunately, getting overlooked. Some clans do not perform it. That is ill-advised. One of the ways, cultural tourism in Masaaba land will be promoted the more is through keeping some of these Imbalu fundamentals, intact and alive," Nakhokho argues.

In Bududa, where the mire smearing rite is still highly prominent, reminding drums are sounded from the mire smearing ground or sometimes the communal dancing grounds to inform clan elders to send their Imbalu candidates for the smear rite.

The elders perform the mire smearing rite

In Bunanyuma meanwhile, time had come for the nine Imbalu candidates to be taken through the mire smear ritual.

Amidst pushing and shoving, the candidates among whom, included 17-year old David Wabuteya and 16-year-old James Makwa, were brought to the sacred mire ground. The three elders of the swamp had been bidding time, waiting.

Wabuteya and Makwa like the rest of the candidates individually jumped in the depth of the swamp as their evidently charged kinsmen stood and watched.

The Umulongi or the custodian of the sacred mire swamp then embarked on smearing them individually with the mire. He started the smearing from each of the candidate's abdomen area and finished with the head. Goose pimples were evident on each of the candidate's bodies.

As he smeared moulds of mire on each of the candidates, the Umulongi could be heard reminding each of the candidates about the fierceness of the Imbalu cut, that they were about to be taken for.

"Your mind now should be focused on nothing else now but the successful completion of Imbalu. You can not afford to betray any signs of fear or cowardice. Make your clan, kinsmen and women proud, so that those who come after you will also be encouraged to carry on our custom," the Umulongi said.

With their half-naked bodies encrusted with black mire, Wabuteya, Makwa and the rest of the candidates were led away for the cut, by a small group of big stick and machete-wielding militant kinsmen, eager to see them, successfully finish the Imbalu ordeal.

At length, Wabuteya and Makwa and the other seven candidates successfully underwent the Imbalu ordeal, to the felicity of their kinsmen.

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