29 January 2013

Uganda: Inemba, the Hunting Ground Where Newly Circumcised Gishu Men Find Wives

You have perhaps known them for imbaalu and the drum beats of kadodi that accompany the circumcision rite of passage, but the Bamasaba have more to crown the circumcision ceremony, and that is the Inemba.

It is the merry-making ceremony where all initiates from the different villages gather to celebrate their recent elevation to manhood status. The Elgon sub-region is divided into six venues for the Inemba.

At each of these venues, the ritual takes three days and the third day is the most dramatic as these initiates carry random young girls to their homes to 'break in their manhood' since Inemba comes after the circumcision wound has healed.

On January 12, I travelled to Muwambe village in Busano sub-county for the closing ceremony, and oh, the drama that I witnessed!

By 3pm, Muwambe field was already overflowing with young girls having all forms of funny make-up; some used their eye shadow to emphasise their sideburns - clearly still trending in these parts - and eyebrows. Not forgetting the thick hair dye on their bald heads, all awaiting men's attention. To top it off, it was also market day to entice girls with their best snack, chapatti.

At half past the hour, the initiates ran in from different directions with long decorated sticks, amidst cheers. When they reached the grounds, they started dancing in circles as the young girls rushed to join them. The drums of the day comprise inemba, the main drum and tsindoli, which are the small drums to spice up the ceremony.

During the dance, the newly-arrived men are officially dressed in animal skin (isumbati), a symbol to allow them perform societal rituals including naming, offering sacrifices and performing imbaalu rituals. They also have bald heads, a clear symbol that they are now not boys, but men. As the men dance, they attract more girls under the isumbati.

As they dance, they keep their eyes on the audience, so that when they spot a girl of their choice, they dance to her and she cannot reject the suitor. It is assumed that all the girls that turn up for the Inemba ceremony are also looking for marriage. Jackson Wafana, one of the newly-crowned basaani said, when a girl refuses to dance with them, they hit her head hard with the animal skin, which also has bottle tops.

Meanwhile, those who accept, are cuddled throughout the dance and also 'sponsored' with snacks of their choice. As dusk falls, the singing turns vulgar. Wafana is quick to add that the 'sponsorship' does not come easy because the girls who accept to be sponsored during the days of Inemba, risk unwanted sex on the last day.

On the closing day, as has been the tradition, these girls who were busy eating the basaani's snacks during Inemba are carried to the young men's homes.

Asked whether the girls like it that way, Wafana says most of them are used and none of them complains that they have been raped. The girl is not supposed to refuse; if she does, it is believed that she has attracted a curse of barrenness upon her marriage.

"The clever ones do not turn up on this day because they know what happens," Wafana explains.

It is interesting to know that some of these basaani actually meet their future wives this way: under that animal skin with a couple of chapattis and lots of dance. Augustine Bweri, a cultural elder who danced to the inemba in the 1960s, claims today's boys-turned-men are rough, violent and vulgar.

"Back then, we persuaded girls to freely dance with us even in the presence of their boyfriends, but today, girls are forced and when you refuse, you are beaten," a worried Bweri recalls.

How important is Inemba?

For Lydia Wandwasi, the ceremony is to motivate young boys yet to undergo circumcision. As they grow up, they are eager to be circumcised because they expect a reward in the form of Inemba. The ceremony is also associated with sexual supremacy in males.

In Dr Sylvia Tamusuza and Thomas Solomon's book Ethnomusicology in East Africa: Perspectives from Uganda and Beyond, Inemba helps the initiates share in men's restricted space by performing roles prescribed by men.

Bweri says as early as 4am on the D-day, the initiates wake up to burn up the dry banana leaves that have been acting as their beddings and they also shave off their bodily hair, an indicator of change to manhood. This role is usually entrusted to a clan leader, who also sprays them with malwa (local brew), like culture demands.

In the afternoon, the boys are led by their clan leaders to a forest known as Chilindwa for a cleansing ceremony. A few metres to the venue, they stop and perform a ritual of tightening robes; elders from different clans bring together the initiates and ask them to kneel down in lines, facing each other.

Each unties the skin he has been wearing and gives it to the one kneeling opposite him. This exchange shows that men should live harmoniously in society by sharing. Leaving the distant drums behind, I headed back to Kampala in awe of this rich but intriguing culture.

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