The Masaaba people are a sub tribe of Luhya who lives in Uganda in the following districts; Mbale, Bulambuli, Bududa, Sironko, and Manafwa. The main economic activity of the Massaba people is farming. They grow millet, sorghum, bananas, and maize.
The Bamasaaba are a Bantu people group of about 1,000,000 who live in eastern Uganda, Mbale and Sironko Districts, adjacent to Mt. Elgon at the Kenyan border.
They were the first people to inhabit the western and southwestern slopes of Mt. Elgon. The area is considered the food-basket of Uganda and is also known for producing high-quality Arabica coffee, the main cash crop.
The Bamasaaba are subsistence farmers, growing bananas, sweet and Irish potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes and onions. They also raise cattle and other livestock and trade on a small scale.
The main custom that distinguishes them from other tribes is their tradition of male circumcision. They see this rite as their defining feature as a tribe.
They also have different naming rituals and worship a different local god than their neighbors although the majority belongs to one of the many Christian churches in the area.
The problem they face is the dense population and minimal land; a father’s land is inherited by all of his sons, so the land is being divided further and further into very small plots.
The Bamasaaba are famous for their traditional male circumcision ceremonies, held every even year.
In a three-day ceremony of dancing and feasting, preceding a couple of months preparations, the initiates are admitted into adulthood and expected to begin their formal contribution to the growth of their respective communities.
The name Bamasaaba is sometimes used interchangeably with the name Bagisu, even though the latter is actually a tribe of the Bamasaaba nation.
The current Babukusu of western Kenya are believed to have migrated from the Bamasaaba, particularly from areas around Bubulo, in current Manafwa District.
The Bamasaaba and politics
Before the arrival of Europeans, Bamasaaba were organised in a decentralized way, but maintained strong clan system that brought them together as a community. They had a strong fighting force of youths, whose pre-occupation was to herd livestock and to train in warfare. They warded off attackers from neighbouring communities such as the Luo, Iteso, Elgon Masaai (Sabot and Sebei). Earlier, when the Maasai were still dominant in the eastern part of Mt. Elgon, they were the traditional hostile neighbours. The dual economic activity of both crop and animal husbandry generated a resilient economy that supported their livelihoods and developed into an independent cultural community that endured centuries of hostility.
The advance of the European missionaries in late 1890s, facilitated by Kakungulu, a British Muganda agent, established a base for the British colonial rule in the area. This changed drastically the geo-political settings of the Bamasaaba form there onwards. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) led by Bishop Tucker, assisted by Kakungulu, established British and particularly Anglican systems in the area. They built, through forced labour, road infrastructure and established administrative units.
By independence in 1962, Bamasaaba had had several western educated personalities with some schools, such as Nabumali High School, excelling in national examinations. Mbale town was the cleanest in the country. Professors Timothy Wangusa, Bigala and later Dani Wadada Nabudere were among the leading academics from the Bamasaaba. George Masika, the Chief Justice and Masette Kuuya, a youthful minister during Obote II in the 1980s, James Wambogo Wapakhabulo, the foreign Minister in the Museveni regime, and Hon. Emmanuel Bwayo Wakhweya, former Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, are examples of leading personalities from the Bamasaaba.
The Bamasaaba practice male circumcision in an elaborate ceremony every two years, in the Bumutoto cultural site, which is thought to be the place from where the Bagisu originate. The heart of a goat or a bull is sacrificed, and then the young men are circumcised with knives that are to be used only for these occasions. Then the women perform the kadodi dance, where the women “twist their waist up and down”. Afterwards the men are isolated so their wound can heal. If any man avoids the circumcision, they can be called out later (sometimes by their wife), and later forced to undergo the process
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