Every two years, the Bugisu region in eastern Uganda goes into a festive mood with celebrations surrounding a ritual called Imbalu. In villages throughout the area, young men will step up to have their foreskins shorn in front of their elders, parents, and peers. If they show no signs of weakness—no flinching or wincing or tears—they are considered to have reached manhood and will be awarded with livestock, money, mobile phones, and other gifts.
The Imbalu season happens every two years on even years, and this year's festivities kicked off over a weekend in early August on the Mutoto cultural grounds in eastern Uganda, outside the town of Mbale. According to Vincent Mugaba, a spokesperson for the Uganda Tourism Board, more than 30,000 people showed up for three days of festivities. Locals and foreign tourists alike camped out to drink home-brewed millet beer, roast bulls, and watch a traditional dance performance called kadodi. It all culminated in the circumcision of 100 young "candidates," who usually range in age between late teens and early 20s.
"The Imbalu festival was a huge success," Eddy Kirya, owner of the local Mbale Tours travel agency, told VICE.
Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Uganda. But the east African nation has also been losing an estimated $1 million a day due to the fighting in neighboring South Sudan. There are high hopes that this biannual circumcision ceremony can help fuel tourism and bring more funds to the region.
"My interest is to ensure that as many people come to visit the grounds as possible," Stephen Asiimwe, CEO of the government-run Uganda Tourism Board, told VICE. "Even [to] some Ugandans, especially the younger generation, it's very interesting. They've never seen someone going under a knife, openly, without making a sound."
According to Asiimwe, tourism currently brings in $1.4 billion per year, a huge rise from the $700,000 in revenues of 2007. There are plenty for visitors to explore—from the white-water rapids at the source of the White Nile to the massive gorillas in the fertile national parks of southwestern Uganda. There's also lots of money to be made for locals and the government; just getting a permit to go gorilla tracking will cost an aspiring adventurer $600.
In the Mbale area, nestled next to the extinct volcano of Mount Elgon near the Kenyan border, Kirya says there have been talks about building a cultural center and circumcision museum, opening up new restaurants, and to spruce up the Mutoto grounds with better grass and landscaping to bring in visitors year-round. Asiimwe says an architect recently sketched out a vision for a modern cultural facility, the latest step in plans that have been in the works for the past couple of years with the support of local leaders.
"We have cherished this ritual for more than 200 years," Omar Njofu, chairperson of the Mbale-based cultural council Inzu Ya Masaaba, told Ugandan newspaper the Daily Monitor this summer. "It's unique and marketable and developing this site into a tourism center is of great importance."
The circumcision ceremony is a time-honored rite of passage required of all boys in the Gisu tribe (sometimes called Bagisu) of eastern Uganda. During the ceremony, villagers come together and celebrate for days, slaughtering goats, dressing their young candidates in ceremonial cloth, and smearing them in millet paste to prepare them for the event.
The ceremony comes to a finale as a local "surgeon," equipped with a steel knife, steps up and slices the young men's foreskins. It's got to be an incredibly painful episode, but as the young man is goaded on with cheering, teasing, and applause, he's expected to maintain a stone-faced demeanor, with even his slightest reactions scrutinized. If all goes well, he'll be declared fit for the duties and privileges of Gisu manhood.
As VICE reported during the Imbalu ceremony in 2014, the origins of the ritual are a matter of debate. But it comes with an immense amount of social pressure, which may be reinforced by the recent marketing efforts. The anthropologist Suzette Heald, who's done extensive research among the Gisu tribe, told VICE in 2014 that the ritual is a central part of their culture as well as their definitions of manhood. Young people who get cold feet or leave the community and want nothing to do with the practice run the risk of being tracked down and forcibly circumcised.
Maybe it's not surprising, then, that the ritual has made some tourists squeamish. Still, locals have put out efforts to adapt it to modern times, including adding in safety protocols—like using different blades for each circumcision to prevent the spread of HIV. And while the Ugandan government has cracked down on female genital mutilation, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni himself has given the Imbalu practice his stamp of approval.
According to Asiimwe, there are practical reasons why it's taken so long to promote the circumcision ceremonies as a tourist opportunity. "You're used to it. You were born there, and you don't see it. What would be so Californian that you wouldn't take a second glance?" he says. "Like, 'Oh, I've seen a guy skating!' 'Oh. Yeah.' That kind of thing."
There's also the fact that the ceremonies only happen once every two years. Because the opening festival kicking off the Imbalu season is basically a one-off event, the Mutoto cultural grounds usually stand vacant, giving visitors less of a reason to venture out to the Mbale area to see other things—like the local coffee production industry, the waterfalls that gush from Mount Elgon, the bullfights held every two weeks in Bulucheke village, or the Bayudaya people, a small tribe of indigenous African Jews.
"We think that we can couple it up with another activity and experience beyond just the ritual of circumcision and give people a very good excursion toward the eastern part of Uganda," Asiimwe told VICE.
The tourism board has yet to set aside the funds or find investors necessary to help build the tourist center. But if business isn't exactly booming these days, Kirya, the Mbale Tours owner, still has high hopes.
"It's still low," he said, "but we expect it to grow."
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