The Bamasaba are a Bantu speaking people living around Mt. Elgon both in Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya. They cover districts like Sironko, Mbale, Namisindwa, Manafwa, Bulambuli, and Bududa.
Bamasaba are believed to have originated from Ethiopian highlands via Lake Turkana and later settled around Mt. Elgon shared by the two countries. The Bamasaba ancestor Maswahaba married to Masai lady Nabarwa and gave birth to their first son Mwabu. The son was nicknamed Nkisu by his Masai uncle but the father failed to pronounce the name given to the son and he instead pronounced it as Gisu.
From that time, the Bamasaba in Uganda are famously known as Bagisu whereas those on the Kenyan side are called Bukusu and Luhya. The tribe consists of 26 clans including; Wanaale, Mwambu, Mubuuya, Bamutoto, Bakokho, Batiru babambo, Bakilang’a, Babichache, Batiiru. These clans are closely related in terms of language, beliefs and traditions.
There are different rivers that surround the place, for example River Manafwa, Lwakhakaha and Soroko, with many tributaries where they perform their rituals. The most popular ritual is the Imbalu ceremony which is the initiation of boys into manhood through circumcision rituals. The girls used to put marks on their foreheads at the age of 12 as a way of preparing them for marriage.
The Bagisu generally speak Lugisu or Lumasaba belonging to the Niger-Congo language of the Bantu speaking people. The language differs in the dialects amongst clans depending on the location. For instance, in the central Bugisu sub region they speak Lugisu that is influenced by the neighboring languages like Lusoga, Lunyoli, Jopadhola, Itesot and Lusamya. Lubuuya is used in the south, Ludadiri in the north, Lubukusu in western Kenya. All these languages are closely related and can understand each other.
The major economic activity that is done by the Bagisu is agriculture. They grow different types of crops, for example; Arabica coffee supported by the rich volcanic fertile soil. Other cash crops include; cotton and Tobacco that are grown in small proportions. Besides cash crops they grow bananas, cassava, maize, beans, sorghum and yams mainly for food and to supplement on income obtained from coffee and cotton.
The Bamasaba also uses bamboo shoots known as Malewa as sauce that is mixed with other foods such as G.nuts to make a delicacy. Food is stored in different ways, for instance especially dried millet and corn is kept in granaries. Those in villages put blocks down and sacks are raised so as to keep crops from rain and insects. Due to over cultivation and settlement, Bududa district experiences natural disasters such as landslides that destroyed property and led to loss of lives in 2010 and 2019. However, the government of Uganda established a resettlement plan for the victims.
Due to many clans within the tribe, each clan had an elder known as Umwami we Sikoka (chief of the clan) and selections were based on age and wealth. These chiefs were responsible for maintaining law and order, unity, continuity of the clan cultural values and making sacrifices to the ancestral spirits.
The strong chiefs could extend their influence to other clans but no one succeeded in bringing different clans into one political and cultural organization. Inheritance among the Bamasaba, the elder son takes the father’s property and he is responsible for taking care of his siblings up to marriage. The money generated from the sisters’ marriage is used to facilitate his marriage and that of his brothers. However the clan chiefs can intervene and choose the son they prefer.
Previously the Bamasaba didn’t have a centralized cultural system despite their rich culture. However, they had a head of clans known as Mzee Jonathan Muwoma during the 1960s. Mzee is credited for bringing the idea of establishing the Inzu Ya Masaba (the house of Bamasaba). This is a committee of elders who decide on who should be the Umukuuka (King).
All clans accepted and in 2010, the Bagisu and their cross border brothers agreed to form a centralized cultural institution under the Inzu Ya Bamasaba. The cultural institution has a written constitution with the term limit of five years for the Umukuukha to stay in power. The leadership had to rotate within three tribes of the Bamasaba that is to say Wanaale, Mubuuya and Mwambu given that they don’t follow hereditary leadership.
From 2010 to 2015 Wilson Weasa Wamimbi from the Wenaale clan ruled followed by Umukuukha II Sir. Bob Mushikoli (2015-2020) of the Mubuuya clan. With the Wanaale and Mubuuya having served their terms, the turn for the Mwambu clan. However, they did not find a representative due to the struggle for power within clans.
For instance, Stephen Kibuuzo from the Mwambu clan lost the bid for the Umukuuka. It was alleged that before his death, Bob Mushikoli was in favor of John Amran Wagabyalire yet other elders were supporting Jude Mike Mudoma. During the scandal there emerged another Musaba Masoolo Yaaya Gidudu totaling three people claiming the seat. Without official recognition , Wagabyalire claimed the throne on 8th march 2023 however he did not succeed.
The conflict escalated and the state minister of gender and culture Hon. Peace Mutuuzo intervened by writing a letter to clan mediator former Umukuka I Emeritus Wilson Wamimbi requesting that the 26 clans convene in the next reconciliation meeting to resolve the conflict. During the meeting 15 clans out of 26 voted for Mudoma to be the next Umukuuka.
Wagabyalire and his supporters staged strong criticism and the matters were taken to courts of law which resolved in favor of Jude Mudoma Umukuuka III to be the cultural leader of the Bamasaba for the next five year term. The coronation of the new Bamasaba cultural leader took place on 14th October 2023. Jude Mike Mudoma as the chosen Umukuuka 111.
The new king pledged to preserve, promote and protect the rich cultural heritage of the Bamasaba, especially Imbalu, one of the biggest cultural rituals in East Africa. Some of the historical and cultural sites in Bugisu sub region are being documented by the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda. These include Mutoto Circumcision grounds, Abayudaya Synagogue, Elgon and Ashok Cinema hall, St. Andrew’s Church and the residence of the first Bagisu King.
Before the coming of christianity missionaries to Uganda, the Bamasaba knows about the existence of God and calls Him different names which include wele lunya, wele Namanga or Weri Kubumba. These names symbolized how Bagisu described God. Bagisu expected that God was everywhere and dwelled in every activity like performing rituals like Imbalu.
They believed that everything that happened had a reason coming from God and they respect him as much as they can. Bamasaba have three small gods whom they believe to have assisted God in performing some of His duties. For instance, wele maina, wele nabende and wele Nabulondele. Wele Maina was responsible for animal wealth and to remove barrenness in animals.
One to appease this god had to sacrifice the barren cow in the shrine. For instance, the priest would brew beer and bless it and sprinkles it over the remaining cows to eradicate barrenness. The wele nabende was responsible for crop yields and to appease this god, the Bagisu left some bananas to ripen in the plantation.
In addition, wele Nabulondele was responsible for births and was symbolized by a millet which was put at the pillar of the house. According to Victor Turner’s book: The Ritual Process 1969, when the Bagisu brewed millet some was placed on the pole that holds the house for the deity to have a share.
When the woman was in labor she must hold on the pole so that the deity could help her to have a safe delivery. When the boy was brought to the courtyard to be circumcised, the mother would go to hold this pole to symbolize the birth of her second son. Further, millet in Bugisu symbolizes fertility and they believed that the housewife should be as productive as millet.
Wele Namakanda was the deity for fertility and this was symbolized by frogs. When frogs entered Bagisu houses they were not supposed to chase them away because they believed that frogs brought blessings to women. The children were also advised not to hit these frogs saying that in case one hits the frog you are breaking your mothers back.
Wele was responsible for bringing blessings and punishing the wrong doers. The Bagisu believe that God uses these small deities which include; matsakha, wele lufutu, kitsali, murabula and wanyanga to punish. The wele matsakha believed to stay in thickets and punish the victims with sudden illness and fever, wele lufutu was responsible for sucking blood from people.
This deity resides in the river and is symbolized by the rainbow and whoever could see the rainbow couldn’t go to fetch water fearing his blood to be sucked. The wele wanyanga was responsible for drought and murabula for breaking people’s and animals legs and swelling their eyes. The deity is appeased at the pillar of the house by taking brewed millet. Wele kitsali was responsible for causing epidemics like cholera, typhoid, diarrhea but a Mugisu man is expected to know how to avoid and also to appease these gods.
During the performance of Bamasaba rituals, for instance, Imbalu these gods are called upon to come and bless the candidates. They believe that these gods are their ancestors who can harm or bless people. If the gods are not honored, they can cause excessive bleeding among those being circumcised.
When missionaries introduced christianity to Bamasaba in the 1890s, they established an Anglican system which led to the modification of traditional cultural beliefs. On good note, the missionaries brought new developments in the Bamasaba region. For example; infrastructure like schools and hospitals. They also influenced agriculture development by introducing cash crops like cotton, coffee in districts like Sironko, Manafwa, and Mbale.
The Bagisu conduct different ritual ceremonies surrounding birth, circumcision, marriage, coronation of the king, and death.
During pregnancy, women didn’t follow the food taboos and men had to be more careful not to fall down when walking and climbing. If a man fell down it was a sign of miscarriage. When the child was born the placenta was buried behind the house and fermented millet wine was poured where the child was born and two trees planted in front of the house.
The women stay in the house in isolation. After a given time, before moving out, she could shave her hair and sweep the floor of the house. The male child is called Umwana umusinde and in plural Basinde because they are believed to become the custodians of their fathers household. The girl child is called Umukhana and in plural form Bakhana because they are expected to marry and bring home wealth.
Like any other African society, Bamasaba recognize only female and male gender. In case they give birth to a child with both sex, they could try by all means to consider one gender because it is regarded as abnormal. Girls were taught how to socialize, cook, sit and have good eating habits. All this period she grew up with their aunt and her mother so as to be trained to be a good wife.
The Bagisu girls prepared for marriage at the age of 12 where they put marks on their foreheads. In case one does not undergo the initiation ceremony, one couldn’t be ready for marriage. In regard to the bride price or dowry in Bamasaba, the groom would negotiate with the father’s bride.
The number of cows ranged between 3 to 10 cows which were supplemented with goats. The groom’s family offered other custom gifts to the bride’s family which included spear and hoe. Marriage occurs after the groom has settled the bride price. In case it was paid, the bride and female companions spent a night at the groom’s house. Male companions couldn’t escort the bride since men are not supposed to cross over to another clan. After the bride and accompanying entourage returns to the bride’s home with a goat or sheep to host a wedding ceremony, then the bride is transferred back to the future husband’s home.
When one dies they wait for all the deceased family members to arrive and the dead body is placed near the rubbish pit at sunset. The elderly women related to the deceased cut off some pieces from the body for mourning. When night falls the horns are blown calling for the jackals to come and feed on the dead. The next day relatives mourn while feeding on the flesh of the dead. The practices surrounding death among the Bagisu are no longer relevant due to education.
Imbalu, the tradition of male circumcision in Bagisu is believed to have originated from the clan of Nambarwa. Muswahaba who wanted to marry her was asked to first get circumcised. He accepted the ritual which became a permanent ritual to be fulfilled by boys to transform into manhood. The Bagisu wanted to avert the practice but the spirits attacked Fuuya – son of Mukhama from Bamutoto clan forcing them to accept the ritual.
The Bamutoto became the first among all the Bamasaba clans to be circumcized. The Bamasaba perform different ritual practices during Imbalu ceremony right from preparation to healing stages. The male circumcision is carried during even years in the month of August.
In preparatory stage music and dances are performed to announce the year for Imbalu and calling the candidates, parents and the relatives to participate. This is accompanied by introduction sessions to manhood (Kheshebusa Imbalu) where the drum sounds from early morning till evening to indicate the year for Imbalu.
Candidates prepare themselves from January to July while being taken in various places offering sacrifices, dancing and singing with their faces smeared with clay to appease the spirits. In these songs they call the dead to come and witness and also to bless them.
Three days before the pen surgery, there is Khukoya busera ritual (boys sharing mens space) where boys meet with elders to elaborate the Imbalu rituals that are going to be performed on candidates. This ritual takes place at the candidates and clan leader’s home.
Boys are escorted to the stream to fetch water which they carry on their bare heads. According to Victor Turner (1969), this water is taken home where the elder adds more water in the pot which is placed under the pillar for maturation. The pillar is believed to be where murabula resides (god for reproduction). This is done to appease the deity so that boys successfully undergo the Imbalu ritual.
The clan leader brews fermented millet beer which is known as Bushera bwa Kumwendo (the beer for the gourd). This is normally done by the chosen elder based on his kindness, firmness during circumcision as well as reproductivity to be in charge of the gourd. The candidates also brew beer for the clansmen to drink after operation in their homes.
According to Wekoye, an elder who was interviewed on January 29th 2009, the millet brew is involved in the male circumcision based on a nation that the newly circumcised are expected to produce many children in the same way millet does. During the process, the candidates face the elderly man where they are asked whether they will fulfill their duties of fatherhood.
Those that accept them proceed to the grounds to be circumcised and those who don’t they are regarded as cowards. Women and candidates perform Tsinyimba and Kadodi dances when their waists are tied up and down, they move only the upper part of their body. Finally the candidates kneel down moving the back up and down.
In case a man doesn’t go through can be called out or forced to undergo the process Bagisu when performing Imbalu usually follows clan seniority. To open the ceremony they start with the boys of the Bamutoto clan after they go to other clans following the seniority and knives specifically for those celebrations are used .
In case happen to be candidates when their fathers are brothers, the boy of the elder brother is circumcised first. The celebration is attended by all big people in political, religious and cultural aspects in Bugisu. Later men are separated from women so that they can heal after Iremba ritual is performed where all the new initiates attend. The initiate picks a girl of his choice to have sexual intercourse with. The girl was not supposed to refuse the act and if she does not accept she was deemed to have children when she got married.
Tourist attractions in Bamasaba land
There different tourism activities except cultural tours that can be done when one visit Bamasaba land and these include;
Hiking mount Elgon
Hiking to see Sipi falls
Visiting Arabica coffee farm
Visiting Semi Kakungulu burial sites