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

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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 circumcision.

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 flames.

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 cultures.

In 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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