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Music, dance, drama and poetry are important elements of ritual in African societies. Imbalu, a centuries-old circumcision ritual in Uganda The people of Baghis, is no different. When Bagisu boys between the ages of 16 and 22 undergo this initiation into manhood, they experience the ancient meaning of the practice through music and dance.

Imbalu is held every even-numbered year in August in remote areas of eastern Uganda near the Kenyan border. Imbalu ceremonies are held not only in homes but also in public places. Here, a wider audience gets to witness something special dance and musical performances.

U the previous one research, I reviewed these performances. Music and dance are an integral part from the moment a boy declares his readiness to be initiated until the time he performs the inemba, the final dance that marks his return to society.

My very last one research looks at how imbalu music and dance performances act as sites where boys are taught the gender ideology, history and ritual practices of their society. The public performance of these rituals at a sacred site called the Namasho Cultural Site is like a community classroom, where community members also share what they know about their history, identity, and values.

But the imbala, like other Bagisu cultural events, was affected by the dwindling number of boys undergoing initiation. Hospital circumcision has become more common, and Christianity, Islam, and Western education have had a negative impact on the spread. Many Bagisu who have adopted Western religious practices view imbala as something of a cult and consider these rituals to be “backward” and “primitive”.

As a result, there is a risk that the music and dance created, performed and transmitted through cultural sites such as Namasho in ceremonies such as those performed for imbal will be lost to future generations. However, they are valuable to the community because they convey social stories, help shape identity, and teach social values. They should be immediately documented and archived for safekeeping traditional knowledge for use by future generations.

Imbala in Namasho

The initiate and his family and community members all take on different roles during the imbalu performances in Namasho.

The site in Bududa district stretches from the local school to the confluence of the Manafwa and Uha rivers. It is known as a place where wars were fought and where the fetishes of witch doctors and medicine men were dumped in the pre-colonial period. (Fetishes in the form of calabashes or gourds are objects kept by diviners or folk healers to give them supernatural power. If they had no successors, such objects were disposed of.) These stories are part of what is taught in rituals that are held in this holy place.

Different types of music are played during the imbal. Khuhubulula is one form. The boy, surrounded by friends and relatives, sings songs in which he praises himself, his family and his clan. They are usually prepared several months in advance. Some of the songs will praise his girlfriend, as marriage is the phase that follows imbal in traditional bagisu.

Then there are bibiwoyo, persuasive songs usually performed by men. They use titles such as umwami (chief), umukoosi (one who respects) or umusani (man) to encourage the boy to undergo circumcision. The community demonstrates to the boy that he will become an “influential” person in the community if he is circumcised.

Then there is Kadodi music and dance. Accompanied by five drums, the kadodi is performed to accompany the initiates during their visit cultural objects and relatives. At Namasho, he entertains initiates and visitors, and allows some initiates to meet and chat with girls who may become marriage partners in the future. Kadodi is so popular in Namasho that bands come to play just to promote themselves. Moreover, although the isonja dance is performed at the beginning of the year, it is sometimes brought to this sacred place to give experienced singers a chance to advertise themselves to prospective candidates who hire them to learn how to compose and sing songs.

Finally, the bands that gather at Namasho play pre-recorded imbalu songs, made in the studio or recorded live at the event in previous years. This is meant to amuse the candidates, but also to remind circumcised men of the vows of manhood they made during their own ceremonies, including the need to protect and provide for themselves, their families and society at large.

Community class

Music and dance transform Namasho into a community classroom for the transmission of indigenous knowledge and history. Some performances, for example, tell about Nabarwa and Masaaba, a woman and a man who are believed to have introduced the imbala among the Baghis. A mythical account has it that Masaaba, who met Nabarwa and asked for her hand in marriage, asked her to be circumcised before they could marry, as she came from a circumcising community. When the Bagisu refer to themselves as Bamasaaba, they clearly mean that they are the children of Masaaba. The relationship between Nabarwa and Masaaba is used as evidence that women and men in this community have complementary roles to play.

Another song about the famous ancestor Lutesh. Singing this song, the congregation reminds the initiates of the need to give birth to children in order to fill the land of Lutesheva. When the boys sing, some viewers advise them to be assertive and objective so that they manage the household well.

Through the interaction between the women and men who perform these rituals, their mutual role in society is emphasized. For example, when the initiate sings, his sisters and other female relatives are at the center of the response to the songs, symbolizing the need for women and men to work together in everyday activities.

Acts such as being smeared with clay from the sacred bog remind us of the history of those who came before.

Preservation of cultural identity

In the face of threats to traditions such as imbalu from social change, it is vital that this knowledge is preserved for use by future generations.

Stakeholders such as the Uganda Tourism Board, Bududa County Local Government and academic archives such as Makerere University The Klaus Wachsmann Audiovisual Archivemust work together to record and preserve these music and dance materials.

Imbalu will continue to teach lessons to the Bagis and help maintain their rich cultural identity.

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