The Imbalu Experience (Appreciating Tradition, Cultural Values, and Practice)


By Barbara .O. Akello

You do not
know the strange happenings attached to life until you have traveled beyond your village. The uniqueness of
Africa lies in its various traditions, the food, cultural norms, its people,
rites of passage from one stage to another, dressing and hair styles.

This day
gets me sipping on a cup of Arabica coffee sharing a table with my two hosts.
The place is quiet and ambience so
relaxing. I am gazing into space and suddenly I hear a noise coming from afar, my hosts immediately recognize the
drumming, it’s a circumcision procession, it is the Imbalu season in Bugisu.
The time when boys are being passed into manhood. The drumming and noise gets closer and closer and from a distance, a huge
procession is following the drummers, with two young boys at the front, smeared
in a whitish substance all over their faces and bodies, they are all donned in
multi-colored beads, colored bulbs and animal skin (black and white) as
headgear and flowing down their back, it’s a beautiful gear. As they
pass by, I can’t help but to notice the trail of people excitedly wriggling
their waists from side to side, crisscrossing from one end of the road to
another without worrying about the on-coming traffic. In this case, it’s the
motorists to give way for to the procession and not the other way round.

I can’t
help wonder what it takes to be initiated.
I wonder why people have to go through this tedious act then suddenly I remember
this is Africa and that our traditions and norms are our pride. This is what
has kept community close and neat tight in most cases. These ceremonies bring
our relations from far and wide, and the
bonding is enhanced.  What a way to stamp
your identity, what a way to stamp your
belonging and what a way to be ushered
into the realm of responsibility-adulthood.

I share my
thoughts with my hosts, a young man, and
woman of the soil (Masabaland) who were visibly
still excited about the procession, the gentleman offers to share his
experience of initiation and whereas I am a bit taken a back because of the
surprising things he tells me, with periodic interjections from the lady, I
learn that initiation in Bugisu is not done for hygienic, or medical reasons
but as a passage to manhood, to responsibility and bravery. From one of my host’s experience, he was made to do things
such as sleeping out in the bush, being smeared with cow dung, acts of crossing
rivers, sometimes enduring beatings from the elders, undergoing counseling
sessions (sometimes full of vulgarities) and enduring the sticky smell of cow
dung and millet flour (they are not allowed to bath for the three days of the
ceremony), walking with his manhood out in public, visiting the grave yards to
have approval from the long dead ancestors (to-date I still wonder how the
approval was made known) and the list goes on. This conversation lands
me an invite to the Bamasaba cultural grounds (Mutoto, in Mbale), where the
elders and the boys to be initiated were to meet for the opening up the year of

When I received the invite
to circumcision party, I was not sure of what to expect; I was used to these parties where there is plenty of food and
drinks and a lot of politeness out of courtesy. Of course, I would love to join the party and share in the merrymaking while the designated youth were
being passed out from boyhood to manhood, a thing so prized in the land. The biggest shock was yet to come.

The next
morning, we met at the same place, ready to ride to the cultural grounds. On arrival, there was a mammoth crowd at the
grounds; I could call it all manner and
tribe of persons, children, women, youth and the elderly all intermingled
regardless of status or caliber. On this day the entire place seemed possessed,
it was a time for these people to enjoy themselves as they waited for elders to
“open” the season, of course with approval from the ancestors of the land. People
were feasting on all types of food and drinks;
there was also broad day disco “techs” made of banana leaves, fibers, and stick, one strike of a matchstick would have seen the whole place in

For someone of another tribe, this was not a safe place to be for it all
spelt chaos, one very noticeable thing is that the woman in such an environment
was very vulnerable, I could see men and boys molesting and wrestling with
girls almost engaging in acts of rape but the crowd around was not bothered
about such acts, which to my interpretation was a normal act. So full of fear and discomfort at such sights and the huge seemingly unruly crowd, I held firmly on
the arm of one of my hosts and made sure I walk in between them least a possessed
someone grabs me off the radar and into I don’t know where I cannot imagine. I kept nagging my hosts about my desire to
leave the place, but interestingly, they
were enjoying every bit of what was happening, I guess different strokes from different
folks, who am I to judge these people? My prayer to leave was eventually granted, and what a sigh of relief, I then openly told my hosts of how I
would never go back to such a place and from their
laughter, they probably thought I was backward…hhmmmm, talk of unique

Masaba land (Bugisu- Elgon region) the outstanding form of initiation is
circumcision of young boys from the age of 13 to 17 years. Many different cultures all over Africa practice
circumcision. In the Muslim Northern
and Western African countries, circumcision is
practiced as a religious right; while in Eastern and Southern African countries, it’s
considered as a rite of passage into manhood. Although the different
tribes have different circumcision ceremonies, there are still some common
elements in each ceremony. 

Rites of
passage are a common practice in the African tradition; these rites were originally established by African ancestors for
purposes of bringing close the individual to the community and the community to
the spiritual world.  The ceremonies come
with many advantages ranging from counseling and guidance sessions, acts of
bravery, recognition and being ushered into the realm of respectable men, a
passage to marriage if one wishes, gifts from friends, relatives and well wishers, independence etc

From the
look of it, initiation rites are a necessary part of a community, they are critical
to individual and community development, and it should not be taken for granted that people automatically
grow and develop into responsible, community-oriented adults. With the advent
of exposure to modernity, observation has seen a rise to irresponsible,
reckless adults; today, many of these rights are not accorded importance as
three decades ago, and because of the downward trend and dilution of hitherto
strong cultural practices, moral degeneration is on the rise.

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