Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Uganda

Last year, I traveled from my home to the western slopes of Mount Elgon: the home of the Bantu-speaking Bagisu people. My reason for going there was that I wanted to know their history. Locals say, "You cannot know their origins unless you listen to their stories." Thus, I came to hear and learn that the Bagisu ancestor Masaba emerged from a cave on Mount Elgon around 500 years ago.

Masaba is said to still inhabit the upper Elgon slopes, where he holds meetings with lesser deities at a place with big stones laid out to form chairs and tables. Bagisu society recognizes no central leadership; each clan is presided over by a non-hereditary chief who is appointed by a committee of elders. Traditionally, the judicial power of the chief was often subservient to sorcerers and witches who sometimes held an iron grip on the social affairs and world perceptions of the Bagisu.

The Bagisu and their close Sebeyi neighbors are now the only Ugandans practicing imbalu (or circumcision) as far as I know. The Sebeyi do circumcise females as well. I asked an old woman I found in one of the villages about this unusual old custom. 

She told me the legend behind the circumcision rite is that the first Mugisu man to be circumcised had a reputation of "reducing" his neighbors' wives. He was taken before the committee of elders, who decreed that he should be castrated as both punishment and deterrent. This plan backfired when the offender recovered from an incomplete castration and went back to his old seductive ways. It was whispered that he was an even more proficient lover after the bungled operation. As a result, his opponents decided that they too must be circumcised to compete with his sexual favors.

The circumcision ceremony or imbalu, which is held in even numbered years, is the pivotal occasion in Bagisu society. This rite of passage to manhood involves the whole local community. Between 16 and 25 years of age is the norm, with those electing to be circumcised in any given year announcing their intentions in May or June. They spend the following few months preparing for the ceremony. The climactic ritual is traditionally held in August by the Bagisu and December by the Sebeyi.

Circumcision is normally done early in the morning and involves all the initiates from a given clan, who are marched by a whistling, cheering crowd to the circumcision ground. The initiates have their faces plastered in ash and are stripped naked below the waist on the way to the site, where they stand in a row before family and friends both male and female. The line between sacred ritual and secular entertainment is a fine one to be sure.

Jjemba Mathew was born in a remote area of the Masaka District in central Uganda. Only 26 years old, he directs the Prince Joseph Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families. For nine years, Jjemba was an altar server in the Catholic Church. Subsequently, he embarked on a career in social and economic development that has taken him to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.


  1. Fascinating, Jjemba. A part of the world that I don't know enough about.

    1. Thank you William Kendall,there are so many interesting stories you would like to know about Uganda and its culture.Just keep in touch with this magazine.