Monday, January 26, 2009

Cut it!...Imbalu Ceremony

Uganda is made up of approximately 50 different tribes (thanks colonialism!). Of course there are a number of similarities between the tribes, but there are also a lot of cultural differences. Language is a big one--there are something like 47 different languages spoken in Uganda!

The Bugisu tribe, found in the far east of the country near Mount Elgon on the Kenya border, is unique among Ugandan peoples in that it performs a circumcision ritual for all men. For a Gisu (the singular form of Bugisu) boy to enter manhood they MUST be circumcised. Publicly. The age at which the boy is circumcised varies, but it usually takes place somewhere between 14-18 years. The ceremony is a rite of passage and celebration, and there is a lot of pride attached to it's successful completion. Basically, it's a pretty big deal.

So, of course, I had to see a Bugisu circumcision ceremony: the Imbalu.

I went with my friend Dan to his colleague Tadaeu Mabonga's village. Mabonga's sons and nephew were getting circumcised and he invited us to come witness the ceremony and participate in the celebration. The ceremony actually takes place over the course of three days, with the actual circumcision happening on the third day. The first two days are mainly a series of dances and processions that mentally and physically exhaust the boys (probably so they're too tired to panic at the last minute and try to escape the knife!). On the third day they're smeared with a yeast mixture and dressed traditionally in beads the goat skin. Then they lead a procession of their family and friends around the village singing and dancing. At the end of the procession the friends, family, and neighbors gather around in a big mob, the boys standing on a cloth in the middle. Then a "trained" village man uses a big, big knife to cut off a rather large piece of foreskin. And viola!!! The boy has become a man! I've included some pictures below, although I did not post any of the more graphic shots. But it was an incredibly graphic experience.

The setting of the Mabonga's village.

Mabonga (right with the plastic sack) smearing his nephew with yeast.

The three initiates.

Now, you may be wondering what all the spectators do throughout the three days of this ceremony. Mainly they sit around drinking malwa, a locally brewed beer. Malwa is made from maize or millet and it's pretty chunky, and tastes a bit like I imagine dirty socks would. But it's a very social activity--everyone sits around the pot or bucket of alcohol and passes drinking straws around--and it's what I did from most of the two days I was at the ceremony. Of course I got pretty horrible uh, ...stomach issues, afterwards. But it was totally worth it.
Me drinking malwa with Mabonga and a neighbor.



Matt Michelin said...

Great pictures and fun posts. I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks!


Motown said...

My name is Maureen Valentine and I am writing an article about the circumcision ritual of the Imbalu and I was hoping I could use some of your photos to place with my article. The article will appear on The Travel Word ( which is the blog for our responsible tourism company called I would greatly appreciate it if you could contact me at Thank you for your time.