The Bagisu people or Bamasaba inhabit the western and southern halves of Mt. Elgon. On the west, the mountain spreads like the fingers of a hand with steep and narrow valleys between them. On the south, the land is broken and consists of a jumble of hills jammed against a high escarpment like a crumpled tablecloth. The escarpment fades gradually to a plain leading away to the northeast inhabited by the Iteso tribe.
The Bagisu speak a dialect of the Lumasaba language called Lugisu, which is fully understandable by other dialects, and is also understood by the Bukusu.
The Bagisu or Bamasaba undergo a circumcision ritual called the Imbalu. The ritual is held every two years during August.
History of the Bagisu or Bamasaba
The Bagisu- has no tradition of an early migration from somewhere. They assert that their ancestors were called Mundu and Sera whom tradition says came out of a hole in Mountain Masaba (Elgon). Their early life seems to have been anti-social, almost based on the principle “survival of the fittest”. Very little is so far known about their history but they are known to be related to a sub-group of the Luhya of Kenya known as the Bukusu. The Bagisu are believed to have separated from the Bukusu sometime in the 19th century. The tradition claiming that they have always lived where they are throughout history is not fashionable. The earliest immigrants into Bugisu area are believed to have moved into the Mt. Elgon area during the 16th century from the eastern plains.
Their earliest home is said to have been in the Gishu plateau of Kenya. They seem to have been an end product of the mixing of peoples of different origins and cultures, but since their language is Bantu; their predecessors should have been Bantu speakers as well.
Circumcision Rituals/ Imbalu
One of the unique social customs of the Bagisu are male circumcision. The actual origin of this practice is mysterious even among the Bagisu themselves. One tradition states that it originated from the demand by the Banpa (Kalenjin) when Masaba, the Bagisu hero ancestor, wanted to marry a Kalenjin girl. Another tradition claims that the first person to be circumcised had a complication with his sexual organ and that circumcision started as a surgical operation to save the man’s life. There is yet another story that the first person to be circumcised had it done as a punishment for seducing other people’s wives. Legend states that it was decided to partially castrate him by way of circumcision. When he recovered he resumed his former practices and rumor went around that he had become excellent at it. In order to compete favorably, other men decided to circumcise also.
The Bagisu are a highly superstitious people
Before circumcision, an initiate is administered with a certain herb called ityanyi. Its purpose is to arouse interest in circumcision within the candidate. Often the ityanyi is tied round the initiate’s big toe or it is put in such a place where he might jump over it unawares. It is believed that if the candidate who has taken the ityanyi is delayed or hindered from being circumcised, he might end up circumcising himself as his mind is said to be so much stimulated towards circumcision that no other thing can distract him. Circumcision among the Bagisu occurs biannually during leap years. Every male has to perform the ritual upon reaching puberty. Those who abscond are hunted down and forcefully and scornfully circumcised. Before the day of circumcision, the initiates are tuned up by having them walk and dance around the villages for three days. Their heads are sprinkled with cassava flour and painted with malwa-yeast paste. Their relatives dance with them and there is much drumming and singing.
Girls, especially the sisters of the initiates, enthusiastically take part in the processions. It is believed that once a boy is circumcised he becomes a true Mugisu and a mature person. An uncircumcised person is known as a musinde. The circumcision operation on each initiate is pretty feast; the circumciser and his assistant move around performing the ritual as appropriate. The assistant circumciser pulls the foreskin of the penis and the circumciser cuts it off. The circumciser goes further and cuts from the penis another layer which is believed to develop into another top cover for the penis if it is not removed. The circumciser proceeds and cuts off a certain muscle on the lower part of the penis. These three cuttings end the circumcision ritual.
The initiate is made to sit down on a stool and he is then wrapped in a piece of cloth. After that he is taken to his father’s house and made to move around the house before entering it. For three days, the initiate is not allowed to eat with his hands. He is fed. They say that it is because he is not yet fully initiated into manhood. After three days, the circumciser is invited to perform the ritual of washing the initiate’s hands. It is after this ritual that the initiate can eat with his hands. On the same day, the initiate is declared a man. It is then that custom allows him to marry. During the ceremony the initiate is instructed on the duties and demands of manhood. He is informed in addition that agriculture is very important and advised to always behave like a man. It is believed that the healing of the cuts depends on how many goats have been slaughtered during the initiate’s circumcision.
A ritual is performed. All the new initiates in the locality have to attend. This ritual is called Iremba. It is an important occasions which all the village people and, these days, even government officials attend. During ritual proceedings, the initiate could pick any girl and have sexual intercourse with her. The girl was not supposed to refuse. It is believed that if she refused, she would never have children when she got married. This poses problems of Christian females if they are chosen. Previously, circumcision was done in specific enclosures and only the initiates and the circumciser were allowed in. The rest of the congregation would just wait and listen from outside the enclosure. Today, however, all people are allowed to watch the whole process. Firmness and courageous endurance on the part of initiate is appreciated as a sign of bravery.
Other Tourists attractions
Mountain Elgon National Park
Mt. Elgon is an extinct volcano that first erupted more than 24 million years ago. With the largest surface area of any extinct volcano in the world (50km by 8 km), Mt elgon is the fourth highest mountain in the eastern Africa, with the second-highest peak in Uganda (Wagagai peak-4321M). Mt elgon contains crater covering over 40km at the top of the mountain, surrounded by a series of rugged peaks
Sipi Falls is a series of three waterfalls in Eastern Uganda in the district of kapchorwa, northeast of Sironko and Mbale. The waterfalls lie on the edge of Mount Elgon national park near the Kenyan border.
The Sipi Falls area is the starting point for many hikes up Mt. Elgon. The most popular route starts in Budadiri and follows the Sasa trail to the summit and then descends down the Sipi trail back into the Sipi Falls. Hikes around the falls offer stunning views of the Karamoja plains, Lake Kyoga, and the slopes of Mt. Elgon. Individuals can organize trips through the Uganda wildlife authority or local private operators.
There are a number of lodges and backpackers / campsites in the area offering a range of accommodation for all budgets. With a cooler climate than most of the country Sipi Falls is a nice place to unwind, relax and literally chill out away from the hustle and bustle of the towns and cities. Being on the foothills of Mt. Elgon, Sipi offers a number of alternative activities to the mainstream river activities in and around Jinja. Rob’s Rolling Rock, a local outfit trained by Italian climbers offers abseiling along the side of the main 100m Sipi waterfall as well as climbing on 14 bolted sport routes with a range of difficulty. Other activities include hiking around the local area and visiting the local waterfalls.
The Sipi River is named after the ‘Sep’, a plant indigenous to the banks of the River. Resembling a type of wild banana, Sep is a medicinal plant; the translucent green frond with a bolt of crimson rib is used for treating measles and fever.
The Sipi Falls area is particularly famous for locally grown Bugisu Arabica coffee. Bugisu Arabica only grows at an altitude of between 1,600 and 1,900 metres. Coffee tours are organized through guides with knowledge of coffee farming, processing and roasting. Profits from this go towards community projects
Semei Kakungulu burial site
Kakungulu was a warrior and statesman of the powerful Baganda tribe. During the 1880s he was converted to Christianity by a Protestant missionary who taught him how to read the Bible in Swahili. Because he commanded many warriors, because of his connections to the Bugandan court and because he was a Protestant, the British gave Kakungulu their support. He responded by conquering and bringing under the British sphere of influence two areas outside of the Bugandan Empire, Bukedi and Busoga. These areas were between the Nile River’s source in Lake Victoria and Mt. Elgon on the Kenyan border
Kakungulu believed that the British would allow him to become the king of Bukedi and Busoga, but the British preferred to rule these areas through civil servants in their pay and under their control. The British limited Kakungulu to a 20-square-mile (52 km2) area in and around what has now become Mbale, Uganda. The people who inhabited this area were of the Bagisu tribe rivals to Baganda. Nevertheless, Kakungulu, with the help of his Baganda followers, although much reduced in numbers, was able to maintain control so long as he received British support
Beginning in about 1900, a slow but continuous mutual disenchantment arose between Kakungulu and the British. In 1913, Kakungulu became a malakite Christian. This was a movement described by the British as a “cult” which was “a mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Christian Science.” Many who joined the religion of Maliki where Kakungulu was in control were Baganda
While still a Malakite, Kakungulu came to the conclusion that the Christian missionaries were not reading the Bible correctly. He pointed out that the Europeans disregarded the real Sabbath, which was Saturday, not Sunday. As proof, he cited the fact that Jesus was buried on Friday before the Sabbath, and that his mother and his disciples did not visit the tomb on the following day because it was the Sabbath, but waited until Sunday
Kakungulu died on 24 November 1928 of tetanus. After his death, the Abayudaya community divided into those wishing to retain a toehold within Christianity and those wanting to break those ties completely. The Abayudaya “remained a mixture of both Christianity and Judaism, with faith in Christ remaining prominent in Kakungulu beliefs
Kakungulu is buried a short distance from the main Abayudaya synagogue behind the unpretentious home in which he lived during the last years of his life. The grave has a stone which reads]
“SEMEI WAKIRENZI KAKUNGULU
A Victorious General and
Sava Chief in Buganda
Administrator of Eastern Province 1899-1905
President of Busoga 1906-1913
Died 24th 11 1928”
And it is from this background and history, that makes this burial site a must visit whenever one is in elgon areas or Mbale hence a tourism attraction