Endurance. The culture of circumcision among the Bakonzo used to be held with pomp in the past, but it is these days carried out individually in homes or health centres. This notwithstanding, Misairi Thembo Kahungu writes on how it has persisted.
To every Mukonzo man, circumcision is an important part of life because it is a stage when one is not called a boy or a child anymore.
Circumcision was and is still a source of pride for a man because those who have not experienced that initiation face tough times in their age groups and in the school compounds.
As the Bamasaba in eastern Uganda treasure and cherish circumcision through a cultural ceremony known as “Imbalu”, the Bakonzo on the Mr Rwenzori had a similar one known as “Olhusumba”.
This has, however, died down, with the last ceremony held in the mid-1970s before families started evading culture by either circumcising their boys in hospital or at home.
For “Olhusumba”, candidates were brought together and they would only return home when the last person had healed.
The pilgrimage from home to the “Olhusumba” site, where the ceremonies were performed is known as “Olhuthende”, while the candidates are “Abathende”.
This annual event also unified the Bakonzo and the Bamba/Babwisi tribe because they performed a joint ceremony.
A circumcised man would command his respect until the time of death and a special traditional dance called “Omukumu” characterised the final funeral rights. Only circumcised men would do the drumming and participate in the dance with the women.
According to Jackson Buseku, who teaches Bakonzo culture in Kasese, circumcision was practised by the forefathers of the Bakonzo, especially to enhance health and improve the sexual performance of a male.
“No one can tell when ‘erabania’ (circumcision) started among the Bakonzo” Buseku says. “It dates as far back as the use of sharp objects started. It was for making a penis look good and healthy.
There were also diseases that would affect those not circumcised.”
He says circumcision also helped a boy to grow up into a fearless man, having braved the pain by standing up for part of his skin to be cut, and the wound only healed with herbs and water.
Buseku says Bakonzo women, for the need to marry circumcised men, were not ordinarily attracted to men from neighbouring groups which did not circumcise. This, he says, explains the “low” levels of intermarriage by Bakonzo women.
How it was done
Mutabazi Mukirania, an elder in Bundibugyo District who used to participate in the annual “Olhusumba” ceremonies until the 1970s, it was respected as a key aspect of culture.
Boys aged between eight and 18 were the candidates of this ceremony and they had to walk to the “Olhusumba” site in a group, leaving there parents back home.
“Circumcision was not for babies the way it is being done today. This is abuse of culture because no one can be called a man at birth, at one year or five years. It was one way of preparing one to marry”. Mukirania said.
Well trained surgeons were set to receive the young men at a site already prepared for them, with one hut near the river. The river was a treatment place because every morning before sunset, the “Bathende” were taken out of the hut to sit in the cold waters as part of the healing process.
Mukirania said this group would not return home until they were all healed. This took about one or two months, depending on their response to treatment.
This old man narrates that it was a taboo for the parents of any boy attending the initiation ceremony to have sexual intercourse before he returns. There were also no quarrels at home lest the son’s wound would not heal.
The boys after being circumcised would also not be seen by any woman because that would also prolong the healing process. Women would only be allowed at the site on the final ceremony when the “new men” were ushered out of the hut locally known as “Omupida”. It would be dismantled by women who participated in the traditional dance called “Omukumu”.
The dance would be during a celebration when the group that was healed from the wounds were sent back home as men. This is when a circumcised man of age was allowed to marry because no family would give their daughter to someone is not circumcised.
The signs of scabies or no progress of the healing would be detected on the particular boy. Such parents were fined heavily as a punishment for invading culture”. Said Mr. Mukirania.
How did it end?
Since Muslims as a sign of their faith were practising circumcision, converts would not wait for the annual cultural event to be circumcised. They started getting circumcised at the mosques as soon as they were converted to Islam.
By the mid 1970’s expert surgeons in Islam were invited to homes to circumcise the boys, especially in Kasese where the numbers of candidates walking to Bundibugyo started diminishing. This transited into circumcision of babies at birth in the hospitals.
Buseku explains that there was a way a penis of a man circumcised at a cultural event is designed to make a difference from those who were circumcised otherwise.
“ Whenever a person who was not circumcised through ‘Olhuthende’ wanted to join the ‘Omukumu’ dance, which was only for those circumcised, there was cleansing done because his (penis) was not designed with dots around it,” he says.
Another factor was the spread of Christianity, which condemned cultural practices as unbiblical.
Mukirania said the preaching of some of the religions derailed people from the ‘Olhusumba’ events because it was discouraged in church. The church did not however call for denouncing of circumcision as a culture, rather the strings and values attached to it.
“When our people were eventually converted to Christianity, they were told the practices like circumcising near the river, keeping the boys in the bush until they are healed, the traditional dances that were involved and related taboos were satanic,” he said.
He said that another worry about the forgotten cultural way of circumcision is that those undergoing the medical way are likely to lose their sexual manpower because during their time, herbs were given to them to make them powerful.
However, Dr Yusuf Baseka, the Kasese district medical officer insisted in a telephone interview on Friday that there is no scientific proof that a man circumcised in the health facility will become sexually inactive.
He said that Safe Male Circumcision (SMC) takes on the role of reducing chances of men from being infected with HIV/AIDS if they have unprotected sex; it also prevents disease like tetanus which was a result of infections through rudimentary methods of the past.
“For the years I have been in medical practice, no man has come out to say he is no longer active in bed after being circumcised in the hospital. We encourage safe male circumcision because it is professional and the tools are sterilised to avoid infections,” Dr Baseka says.
The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Program on HIV/ Aids recommend SMC for countries with a high prevalence of HIV and low prevalence of male circumcision because scientific studies indicated it reduces infections in circumcised men by 60 per cent.
On efforts to understand the plans by Rwenzururu kingdom on how to preserve the circumcision culture and its cultural values, Aganatia Katya, the minister for culture said he was not in position to speak since he was on official leave.