Pomp and color as Bamasaaba launch Imbalu circumcision

By Leonard Wamalwa and Nandemu Barasa

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Bamasaaba cultural leader Bob Mushikori following proceedings at the launch of Imbalu.

Thousands of Ugandans drawn from all walks of life and foreigners flocked the historic Mutoto Cultural grounds on the outskirts of Mbale town to witness the launch of this year’s circumcision process of the Bamasaaba people famously known as Imbalu.

The circumcision process that takes place every even year among the Bamasaaba of Uganda and their Bukusu brothers in Kenya is always accompanied by traditional practices that precede the cutting of the initiates at the peak of the ceremony.

At the Imbalu launch the Bamasaaba had their prospective initiates play the bells known as Chinyimba, Bichenje in some of the sub-clans and sticks in other sub-clans depending on where they reside and other traditional practices that the boys are subjected to before undergoing the all important initiation ceremony that transforms them from boys to men.

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Bamasaba cultural leader Bob Mushikori arriving at the ceremony accompanied by the Imbalu Chairman Moses Okutoyi (R).

The venue was full of people led by the elders of the Bamasaaba under the leadership of their cultural leader Bob Mushikori, senior government officers from the Uganda government and other invited guests who were treated to a rare treat of entertainment from different groups of the initiates from the community.

The Bamasaaba people who inhabit the Eastern part of Uganda have different sub-communities right from Lwakhakha border through Butiru, Magale, Bugobero up to Mbale town through to Bungokho, Sironko and Manafwa districts among other where they settled and have adopted slightly different practices as far as Imbalu is concerned.

Some of them have their boys play Chinyimba with beads thread on strings known as Bibyiuma while others have some well crafted iron metals tied around their legs from the knees upwards known as Bichenje where they jump in the air and hit their legs hard on the ground wherever they are dancing.

According to the chairman of the Imbalu among the Bamasaaba John Okutoyi the launch is a symbolic kick-off of the process that takes the whole month of August where people from the community are now free to cut their boys at their convenient times within the calendar of the community.

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A section of the crowd at the ceremony of launching Imbalu of Bamasaaba of Uganda.

“We always launch our Imbalu here at Mutoto as a symbol of unity among the Bamasaaba people living here in Uganda and our brothers known as Bukusus who live in Kenya to celebrate and enhance our cultural practices,” said Okutoyi in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the launching ceremonies.

He said that the ceremony brings together over 3 million people of the Bamasaba community living in Uganda and the four million living in Kenya.

The chairman further revealed that the cultural leaders from the community have put in place modalities to ensure that their cultural practices are used to tap revenue for the community as a tourist attraction through the assistance of the Uganda Tourism board.

The Bamasaaba community living in Kenya and Uganda are rich in different cultural practices that are admired by people from other communities and countries but are yet to be tapped fully for their economic and social benefits.

This year’s event was expected to be crowned by Uganda President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni but he later did not turn up and instead sent the second deputy prime minister in his government Alhajji Kivey Jinja who crowned the ceremony.

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A section of the Kenyan delegation that attended the launch of Imbalu in Mbale Uganda.

Others at the ceremony included a host of other senior government officers including Local Government 5 equivalent to County commissioners in Kenya, cultural elders from other communities including Mushikori’s predecessor Wilson Weasa Wamimbi.

Delegations from Kenya led by senior county government officers from Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties confessed to have learned a lot from the Imbalu launch and promised to emulate the same in Kenya in future to utilize the full potential of the practice that has been practiced for over two centuries.

Bungoma county director of cultural activities Augustine Mayabi told West Fm at Mutoto ceremony that the Kenyan delegation had indeed learned a lot and promised to start launching similar big ceremonies related to circumcision back home in Kenya.

“We have just realized the potential that such an activity and we are also having plans to be holding such similar functions whenever we are also launching circumcision and other cultural events so that they can be turned into tourist attractions to tap revenue for the communities involved and the county governments at large,” said Mayabi.

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A man escorting a group of initiates to the entertainment field during the launch.

Others who accompanied Mayabi included Bungoma county executive committee member for health Stephen Kokonya, Protus Chemonges another senior officer at the county government, a host of members of the county assembly led by Peter Cherui of Kaptama and other representatives from neighboring Trans Nzoia county that is also inhabited by Bukusus who practice Imbalu.

After the launch a few initiates for instance five boys were circumcised publicly at the Mutoto venue as the crowd watched while the rest who turned up retreated back to their homes and villages to complete the initiation from there in their own convenience and style befitting them.

Despite the community leaders appreciating recognition by the Uganda government and its incorporation to work with the Uganda tourism board, the elders and leaders now call upon the government to offer more support to have the cultural grounds expanded and its infrastructure improved to make it a full time tourism site.

Booming business

Prior to the launch several business operators, companies and parastatals also set up their tents at the venue in readiness to take advantage of the huge crowds of people turning up at the function to reap from them businesswise by selling their goods and services.

Companies exhibit their goods and services in different stands and makeshift Kiosks that see them record high sales during the season.

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Another team of entertainers moving the crowd during the launch.

To most business operators, the Imbalu launch is like a business trade fare where they sell the goods at their peak and reap a lot of profit during the season of circumcision.

The business is said to continue throughout the month as more people flock the venue with some bringing their initiates to play from there and thus business also continues throughout the period.

Historical site

Mutoto is a historical site found among Bamasaaba people who are found in both Kenya and Uganda. Bamasaaba people estimated to be about seven million have settled in Eastern Uganda, parts of Western Kenya especially in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia Counties with others extending up to sections of Kakamega, Uasin Gishu.

Every even year Bamasaaba from all over the world turn out in large numbers to celebrate Embalu at Mutoto Cultural Centre where they observe all the key stages pertaining circumcision.

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A group of Chinyimba playing initiates entering the stage to entertain the crowd.

Mutoto is believed to be the place where the first Omumasaaba, Fuya was circumcised around 1616. According to Bamasaaba Embalu Chairman Mr Moses Kutoyi, circumcision in the year 2016 marks two hundred years since Fuya was circumcised.

Fuya came from Babangokho clan among Bamasaaba people and he was lured into circumcision by a Kalenjin lady, Omukhana Murwa.

Bamasaaba elders say Fuya went out hunting for animals in the wild but on while on the mission, he met, interacted and fell in love with a Kalenjin lady, Omukhana Murwa. Fuya was attracted to the lady strongly and because of that love, he quickly proposed to the lady.

It is documented that the lady did not turn down Fuya`s proposal only that there was a stumbling block, Fuya was uncircumcised. Omukhana Murwa gave Fuya a condition of ensuring he gets circumcised before she could start marriage life with him.

Because Fuya was in deep love with the lady, he accepted to face the knife Bamasaaba people documenting that Fuya was circumcised around 1616, circumcision that paved way for his marriage with Omukhana Murwa.

Remember, when Fuya was circumcised Bamasaaba people were not circumcising their boys therefore, Fuya was initiated in relation to Barwa`s culture.

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Bichenje playing initiates arriving at the ceremony.

After his circumcision, Bamasaaba people did not start circumcising people immediately until after sometime.

Mzee Situma Manyasi says, after Fuya`s marriage, they gave birth to children although among those children, boys were not strong. In fact they were very sickly making Fuya and his wife Omukhana Murwa to live in total fear throughout.

However when their uncle, Mrs Fuya`s brother visited his sisters place, he observed his nephews keenly and revealed that it was the reason of them being uncircumcised that was weakening them and making them sickly always. He therefore advised his sister to take the boys to their grandfather’s place to be circumcised which she did and truly after their circumcision, the boys were healed, became strong and continued expanding the clan and by extension Bamasaaba community.

From that time, Bamasaaba people started circumcising their men, most of them being above 20 years with many married men undergoing circumcision.

It is important to note that initially, Bamasaaba people were circumcising their men during odd years until 1920 when they started doing it during even years.

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Bamasaba cultural leader Bob Mushikori arriving at the ceremony accompanied by the Imbalu Chairman Moses Okutoyi (R).

Elders say, in 1919, there was severe famine that made Bamasaaba people not to circumcise their men until 1920 changing it from odd years to even years until now.

Bamasaaba people therefore take their boys every even year at Mutoto which has now been recognized by the Uganda Government as a cultural centre for circumcision.

Bamasaaba people always set a specific date for the launch of Embalu before anyone else starts circumcising boys. That means until the launch has taken place, no one among Bamasaaba people can be allowed to circumcise their boys.

Note that it is Babangokho clan that first circumcises boys from their clan at Mutoto Cultural centre before any other clan. Remember Bamasaaba forefather of Embalu, Fuya came from Babangokho clan and therefore his clan has to lead in appeasing his spirit plus other forefathers before circumcision kicks off among Bamasaaba people.