The Gisu people, or Bamasaba people of Elgon, are a Bantu tribe of the Masaba people of eastern Uganda, closely related to the Bukusu people of Kenya. Bamasaba live mainly in the Mbale District of Uganda on the slopes of Mount Elgon. The Gisu Clan. 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.
History of the Bagisu or Bamasaba
The Bagisu- have 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 Uasin 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.
The Masaba, Bukusu and Luhya people believed that their ancestors were Mundu and Sera. The people of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Highlandshave no name for Kundu, except that it is a mountain peak in Oromiya.
The Bamasaba ancestor, Maswahaba migrated from the Ethiopian Mountains traveling via Lake Turkana to Sironko and settled around Bududa where he fell in love with a Maasai girl who was known as Nabarwa. The family of Nabarwa demanded that in order for Maswahaba to marry their daughter he had to undergo their rite of circumcision. He agreed to do so.
Circumcision in Africa is an old culture as practiced by the Bamasaaba in Eastern Uganda. The culture of circumcision was adopted by the Bamasaba from their in-laws the Maasai people. The men among the Bagisu tribe undergo initiation ceremonies known as Imbalu. The initiation ceremonies among the Bamasaaba are held every two years during August.
The Bamasaaba ancestors lived on bamboo shoots also known as maleya in the Lumasaba language. These bamboo shoots are collected from bamboo trees on top of Mt. Elgon.
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 fast. 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 occasion 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 the and courageous endurance on the part of initiate is appreciated as a sign of bravery.
- Mountain Elgon National Park
- Sipi Falls
- Mbale Town
- Semei kakungulu burial site
Origin of the name Bagisu
Maswahaba’s first son with Nabarwa was Mwambu who was nicknamed Nkisu by his Maasai uncles who had stolen his fathers cows from him. Masawahaba failed to pronounce the nickname of Nkisu meaning a bull in Maasai language, given to his son his uncle and he pronounced it as Mugisu. The name Bagisu originated from the nickname Nkisu given to Mwambu by Maswababa’s Maasai Brother-in-law.
The Bamasaba speak a dialect of the Lumasaba language called Lumasaba, which is fully understandable by other dialects, and is also understood by the Bukusu. The Bamasaba share a lot of things with the Bukusu from Kenya. They share culture and according to the Bukusu the Bamasaba are their real brothers its only the border that divides them.
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.
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