The launch of the 2008 Imbalu ceremony in Mbale. Photo via Flickr user buhugu.org
This August, thousands of locals and foreigners descended upon the hills and plains of the rural Mbale District, a typically sleepy land of coffee, corn, and carrot farmers in southeastern Uganda. Temporary dwellings went up to accommodate the sudden swell of guests, and the millet beer flowed as processions of dancers and singers wound their way through the streets. There were rumors that even the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, would attend.
The draw? The public circumcision of dozens of adult men, a practice the government and local boosters now want to promote as a major tourist attraction.
Imbalu, as the ceremony is known, is a compulsory coming-of-age ritual in the Gisu culture. Some say it started over a thousand years ago as an ancient medical practice and eventually grew into a tradition. Some say it’s actually arelatively recent cultural accretion, borrowed and adapted through intermarriage with the circumcising Kalenjin people of Kenya in the early 1800s. And some say the first circumcision was meant to punish a notorious adulterer, but only made him more attractive to the ladies, prompting all the region’s other men to grit their teeth and follow suit.
Whatever the origin, every other spring sees young men between the ages of 16 and 22 announce their intention to undergo the procedure, which takes place in the mornings in August. For several days beforehand, they’re paraded around and prepared for the experience, which will give them the right to marry and earn them (along with their families) social capital by, as regional Member of Parliament Nandala Mafabi put it, “proving their ability to endure pain and protect their family and tribe.”
On the day of the ritual, the men are done up in ceremonial garb—usually something hanging around the neck and bands around the legs—and painted with ash. Then they're marched in a sort of dance through the street and arrayed in front of the public. They cannot show fear or pain, nor can they cry, as in the course of ten to 30 seconds an expert using an inyembe knife slices off their foreskin. Afterward, they dance some more, the wound is wrapped, and they undergo several days of ritual recuperation before emerging as fully endowed Gisu men.
According to Professor Suzette Heald of the London School of Economics, who has studied Gisu culture for years and attended the Imablu ceremony back in 1968, it has always been open to outsiders. “Unlike such rituals elsewhere,” she said, “they are public—not secret and private—and generally strangers are allowed to watch.” However, back when she observed the ceremony, and as she understands it up until very recently, very few non-Gisu attended the event. “No big fuss was made of this in my day,” she said.
Local and national figures have recently latched onto the ceremony, however, believing it can both enhance Uganda’s existing tourism market and bring all manner of development to Mbale. Tourism is one of Uganda’s biggest sources of income—in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, it took in $1.4 billion, up from $1.1 billion the previous year, topping the country’s other two major revenue drivers, remittances ($800 million) and coffee ($415 million). For years, hundreds of thousands have come for the country’s natural wonders, like the falls, sport fishing, and rafting on the lower Nile, along with the gorillas, birding, and safari offerings in the nation’s nature preserves. Some people come to see the remains of the Buganda Kingdom, the colonial state, or the shrines of several 19th century Christian martyrs.
But as the conflict in South Sudan, where Ugandans carried out a great deal of low-level trade, rages on, the economy has suffered to the tune of almost $240 million. In response, the government and tourism industry have ramped up a year of aggressive marketing and growth, attempting to boost domestic and international travel and expand their offerings. Because it’s in vogue with global tourists (and because the United Nations Development Programme has offered to back government initiatives aimed at promoting community-oriented, poverty-alleviating tourism), Uganda’s taken an interest in the cultural practices of its more remote and marginal tribal cultures. And the practice they’ve latched onto first and foremost is Imbalu.
Asked why the government would stump for circumcision-based tourism, Mafabi, a key supporter of the campaign, explained that, “It is a culture which has survived for many generations. It is a uniting factor for the Gisu. Whether educated or uneducated, it brings them together, and you see that unity.” It’s not the only public circumcision festival in Africa—the Antambahoaka of Madagascar and Masaai of Kenya and Tanzania reportedly allow spectators at their circumcisions. But Mafabi and other backers maintain that the Gisu tradition is unique in the rituals surrounding it, offering little little more than bluster about becoming a more popular destination than the Masaai Mara.
Nationally, the central government has endorsed the ritual, placing it on the Ministry of Tourism’s calendar. The Ugandan Tourism Board has also prepared a promotional video on the ceremony and made Mbale the site of their late-September Tourism Week, timing it to culminate in the circumcision display (which was actually delayed so that President Museveni could attend). But according to Mafabi, “The government has not put up anything yet—it does not have an interest in putting in money.” To that end, Mafabi and other local leaders are spearheading fundraising drives to create a cultural center, event space, and museum of circumcision and cooperation, which should encourage more visits.
Once tourists come for the Imablu, Mafabi hopes they’ll stay (or return) for the region’s other offerings: Mt. Elgon, the fourth-highest peak in Africa, the Sipi falls, and the caves in the region’s hills. He believes that the local, little-known coffee is of the highest quality. He’s confident that the region (current tourist capacity: 41 hotels with 790 beds) can hold people’s interest well enough to rake in the dough and push the area into an era of exponentially increasing development. “The money,” he says, “will go into infrastructure and education and especially into hydropower because fuel right now is one of our greatest expenses.”
He holds that his constituents are on board with the plan as well, especially the Gisu. Any other form of modernization, he argues, could jeopardize their culture, but this path will put a premium on preserving it. In his mind, it’s a win-win: bring in cash for the region and income for remote peoples wthout cultural dislocation.
But all cultural tourism is tormented by ethical pitfalls, and Imablu is no different. Tourism operators have jumped onto the Imablu train, but they’ve done so with language that paints the Gisu as a Disneyfied and exotic tableau, frozen in time. "The natives of this country are very friendly," reads one ad. "This is one of those amazing experiences that can still authentically be traced on this African continent," reads another.
That’s just a general complaint about the industry, but in the case of Imbalu, the compulsory nature of the ritual might give some tourists pause. “Theoretically, it is voluntary in the sense that the ‘boy’ is free to choose his own year,” says Heald. “But many try to escape or delay—and, yes, there are parties rounding them up every two years and cutting them. … The parties are out looking in Kampala and other cities in East Africa” to force recalcitrant Gisu back to Mbale for the ritual.
“To understand this,” Heald continues, “one has to understand its supreme importance for the Gisu, both in that it unites all Gisu and that it is the sine qua non of being a man there. No uncircumcised man can live there. It is a heroic ordeal they should withstand without betraying a tremor. … Strangely perhaps, it is a great time in Bugisu [the broader region] with the country alive with dancing and celebration.”
For Western audiences, who now take a dim view of even infant circumcision anywhere in the world (think: Intact America), the idea of being compelled to undergo this kind of practice in order to live in a region is difficult to comprehend. But what borders on truly disturbing is that even those who have moved away and expressed no interest in being part of Gisu traditions, living in their homeland, or marrying a Gisu girl might be snatched up by roving bands and coerced into enduring a very public (and clearly painful) circumcision ritual. Some Ugandan media reports even suggest that the incentive of tourism dollars could increase the stringency with which this tradition is enforced by, for example, offering rewards for the return of reluctant men living outside the region.
Mafabi, for one, has faith that the squeamish and doubtful alike will appreciate the value and meaning of the ritual if they just witness it one time. In fact, he seems to believe people will return for multiple viewings. Whether or not a perceptible number of foreigners will buy into the idea that it’s worth spending time and money to watch an ethically-charged circumcision ritual remains to be seen. But for now the region is gearing up for 2016, the year of the next festival, which they hope to aggressively promote through their embassies around the world.
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