3 July 2008

Uganda: 'Imbalu' the Gateway to Manhood

Kampala — THE Bagisu believe one's voyage to manhood begins with imbalu ( cultural circumcision). The Gisu community participates in the ritual which involves walking around the circumcision candidate's village, visiting cultural sites to appease the gods, singing and dancing to folk songs that praise the gods. Frederick Womakuyu proudly narrates how he faced the knife

As a Mugisu, I am swollen with pride about imbalu or impalu, the circumcision - ritual that I, like any other man, is obliged to undergo before the age of 22. It is done by this age to allow time to mature allow and also have enough time for school.

My elders say the origin of the practice is mysterious, even to them. But some people say the ritual originated from the demand by the Barwa (Kalenjin of Kenya) when Masaba, a Gisu hero ancestor, wanted to marry a Kalenjin girl named Nabarwa.

Some other tales claim the first person to be circumcised had a complication with his sexual organ and that imbalu started as a surgical operation to save his life.

Another story is told that the first person to be circumcised was being punished for seducing other people's wives into sexual intercourse.

It was, therefore, decided that he partially be 'castrated' by imbalu. When he resumed his former habit and the rumour went around that he had excelled at it, other men decided to undergo circumcision.

Superstitious tradition

Our tradition is highly superstitious. From my experience, before imbalu, a herb called itanyi was administered on me.

This aroused my interest in the ritual.

It was tied round my big toe, but in some instances, it was put in a place where I jumped over it unaware.

It is believed that if the candidate who has taken the itanyi is not circumcised immediately, he could end up circumcising himself as his mind is said to be overly stimulated for the ritual.

Imbalu is a spiritual experience.

My voyage to manhood started at night when I was taken round my village by the elders, visiting cultural sites to alert the 'gods' about my intention and to receive their approval and blessings.

At the site, I went round in circles a couple of times, singing local folk songs, requesting and praising the gods to make me brave and to fulfill what the elders required - imbalu.

I was given a root locally called luli, to chew and swallow its juice. It made me possessed, energised and stimulated to face the knife.

One interesting thing about luli is that the young people are not permitted to know its source.

Elders say when we get to know, we will misuse it even when we are not ripe for the imbalu. It is, therefore, only accessed by the elders. I do not know where the elders get it from, but I know it is green and long like a thread.

The Imbalu festivity occurs bi-annually during leap years. I underwent the ritual on the onset of a gateway to manhood. An uncircumcised person is called a musinde, while the circumcised one is called a musani.

Those who abscond from the ritual must be hunted down and forcefully and scornfully circumcised. The road to imbalu is one of delight and respect. It is an admirable journey, too.

Before I was circumcised, I walked and danced around the villages for three days. My head was sprinkled with cassava flour and painted with yeast paste (malwa).

My relatives danced around me, drumming and singing. Girls, especially my sisters, enthusiastically took part in the procession.

The day of the ritual

I was assembled together with other candidates in a semi-circle.

The operation was pretty fast. The circumciser and his assistant moved around performing the ritual.

The assistant circumciser pulled up the foreskin of my penis and cut it off. He then cut off another layer which is believed to develop into a top cover if not removed.

He also cut off a muscle on the lower part of the penis. These three cuttings marked the completion of the circumcision ritual. My foreskin was then put under a small stone that had been set before me.

Post circumcision

After circumcision, I was made to sit on a stool and wrapped in a piece of cloth. I was taken to my father's house and made to move around it to appease the gods so that they could celebrate with me. This meant, in future, I would not run mad.

For three days, I was not allowed to eat with my hands, I was fed. The elders said I was not yet fully initiated into manhood.

For three days, the foreskin was securely stored in the house, to avoid witches from using it to bewitch me.

After another three days, the circumciser was invited to perform the ritual of washing my hands and disposing of the foreskin.

It was washed, wrapped in a banana fibre and thrown in a pit latrine.

It is believed that when the foreskin is not dumped in the latrine, some people may pick it and use it to bewitch you. On the day I ate with my hands, I was declared a man.

I was told the duties and demands of manhood and told that agriculture is very important, so the elders gave me a machette, hoe and axe.

I was also advised to always behave like a man. The healing process is determined by the number of goats that have been slaughtered during the imbalu.

After two months, another ritual was performed to signify the importance of the ceremony.

All other initiates in the locality attended. This ritual is called iremba.

It was an important occasion that was attended by all the villagers including some government officials.

During the ritual, the elders told me to look for a girl to marry because I had become a full man and a real Mugisu. I was also told to avoid going into my mother's bedroom and not to ask for food from her.

I was later given two plots of land to build my hut, get married and produce children. My experience as a circumcised Mugisu made me accept circumcision as a symbol of identification and belonging.

It enabled me to encourage the next generation to undergo the ritual. It also means every Mugisu must undergo imbalu.

Medical implications of circumcision

As the debate on the benefits of male circumcision rages on, experts argue that it is both a threat and a benefit medically.


According to wikipedia.org, circumcision is the removal of some or the entire foreskin of the penis. It is done for medical, religious and cultural benefits/reasons.

The site reveals that in 2007, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS, and the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and prevention said male circumcision was an effective prevention for HIV transmission, but only provides partial protection (50-60% reduction in HIV transmission) from females to males.

Penile cancer affects 0.82 per 100,000 people in the world, says wikipedia.org and American Academy of a Paediatrics (1999) states that studies suggest that neonatal circumcision offers some protection from cancer.

It states that because penile cancer is a rare disease, the risk of the disease developing in an uncircumcised man, although increased compared with a circumcised man, remains low.

Studies by the WHO indicate that boys with foreskins tend to have higher rates of infections and inflammations of the penis than those who are circumcised.

The foreskin may harbour bacteria and become infected if it is not cleaned properly, but may become inflamed if it is cleaned very often with soap.

The website shows 12 studies in the US which indicate that circumcision reduces the rate of urinary tract infections in male infants by 10%.

Threats of circumcision

American Medical Association.com reveals that while the risk in a competently performed medical circumcision is very low, complications from bleeding, infection and poorly carried out circumcisions can be catastrophic.

Blood loss and infection are the most common complications, but most bleeding is minor and can be stopped by applying pressure.

Other complications include; urinary fistulas, meatal stenosis, chordee, and ulcerations of the glands. Complication rates ranging from 0.06%-55% have been cited. Infant circumcision may result in skin bridges.

The American Academy of Family Physicians web states that death is rare, and cites an estimated death rate of one infant in 500,000 from circumcision.

Deaths could occur under anaesthesia, but haemorrhage and infection are fatal.

Adult circumcision is often performed without clamps and requires four to six weeks of abstinence from masturbation or intercourse after the operation to allow the wound to heal.

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