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Forced to face the knife
On June 19, fear and anxiety gripped Mbale after the launch of the dramatic Bamasaba cultural fete that left about 46 Japadhola, Bagwere, Banyore and Iteso were forcefully circumcised.
The Bagisu hired local drummers and dancers (Kadodi) that accompany the “Imbalu” processions in town, trailed every uncircumcised Mugisu and non Mugisu operating business in town and had them forcefully circumcised by traditional surgeons against their will.
As a result of this indiscriminate exercise, at least 46 men between the ages of 30 to 70 have rushed to Mbale Referral Hospital to be circumcised to avoid the embarrassment their colleagues were subjected to. According to the deputy RDC Mbale, Emma Mitala, the incident has forced a number of non-Bagisu business men to abandon their shops, stop doing business in Mbale and avoid using the Mbale – Juba route for business transactions, for fear of being forcefully circumcised.
Among the Bamasaba (also known as the Gisu) of Mbale and Mount Elgon region in Eastern Uganda, every leap year is a traditional circumcision year. To them, male circumcision is a cultural rite for initiation into manhood.
This practice dates back to the days of their forefathers. As described by Professor Timothy Wangusa, in his book Upon This Mountain, circumcision (known as Imbalu among the Gishu) is for strength, velour and manhood.
So sacred is this tradition, that groups in every district called “Muwambe” loosely meaning “Arrest him” to have him circumcised, were instituted to force uncircumcised into manhood. Mbale District’s Muwambe Chairman, Ezekiel Magudo and the Bamasaba (Bagisu) Cultural Union spokesperson, John Musira, however, strongly disassociates their institutions from the crude act of forceful circumcision of non- Bamasaba.
Musira described it as barbaric and uncultured and called upon the police to arrest and prosecute those involved. “In our culture, non-Bamasaba cannot be forced into circumcision unless they accept on their own. Those forcing non-Bamasaba into circumcision should not be associated with our culture and those doing it, should be cautioned,” says Musira.
Magudo adds his voice to this, saying, “For us we look for only Bagisu, but if a non-Mugisu wanted, then we organise money for him, he dances around to collect some more money, then we circumcise him.”
Mugudo reveals that the groups in every district monitor those not circumcised, but that because Mbale town keeps everyone even those who have run away from circumcision in their villages, the Mbale Muwambe group’s eyes are open to anybody suspected to be uncircumcised.
“When the year for circumcision is on, we don’t look for those who have dodged, we leave them to get circumcised, but during odd years where we don’t circumcise, we begin monitoring these, we send our spies to the villages to find out those who are mature and dodged the previous year. We even use women to find out, then we make a list and when the year comes, we go for them,” says Magudo, adding, “At times we follow you up after a tip and insist that you open your trousers for us to see to ascertain that you have been circumcised and this is only done amongst the clans where women fear to report their husbands but we also train our girls to convince their non-Bagisu husbands to accept to be circumcised,” said Magudo.
Concerning the non- Bagisu who were circumcised, he says, “For the non-Bagisu who found themselves in this mess, we are sorry and let the culprits be produced in court and prosecuted.”
However, Rev Michael Gidudu, a clergy man in Mbale, said this was not the first time the Bagisu went on rampage to circumcise every non-Mugisu living in Mbale.
“The traditional cultural fete in not taking place for the first time in Mbale and targeting non Bagisu in 1954, 1978 and 1990 there were circumcision fetes that targeted the Iteso and Bagwere who were staying in Mbale, so when it comes back in 2012, many of us were not surprised” .
Magudo nonetheless insists that the targeting of non-Bagisu had nothing to do with converting them into Bagisu “But we were cleaning them, helping them not to acquire HIV/Aids besides we could not afford to stay with boys who wanted to dance “Kadodi” and never wanted to get circumcised,” he admits.
The group searched every corner of town and put up temporary road blocks, requiring men to remove their pants in order to be certified as circumcised.