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REINVENTING IMBALU AND FORCIBLE CIRCUMCISION: GISU POLITICAL IDENTITY AND THE FIGHT FOR MBALE IN LATE COLONIAL UGANDA

  • PAMELA KHANAKWA (a1)

Abstract

Ugandan colonial authorities carved Bugisu and Bukedi districts out of Mbale district in 1954, isolating Mbale town as a separate entity. With ethnic tensions escalating as independence approached, Gisu and Gwere fought for Mbale's ownership. Empowered by decentralisation, Bugisu District Council pressed the colonial state to declare Mbale part of Bugisu, viewing the town as key to the region's wealth, and providing a symbolic status similar to that enjoyed by Uganda's leading ethnic groups. Gisu activists reinvented tradition as a tool of political advocacy, exerting hyper-masculine power over Mbale's non-circumcising Gwere residents through forcible circumcision. Gisu reformulation of a cultural practice within an urban struggle challenges previous categorisations of the Mbale case as merely another local obstacle to Uganda's peaceful decolonisation. Evidence analysed in this article contributes to a new understanding of East Africa's uneasy transition to self-government, and to the role of ethnic competition within late-colonial mobilisations more broadly.

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I am grateful to David Schoenbrun, Rhiannon Stephens, Derek Peterson, anonymous reviewers and editors of The Journal of African History, members of University Seminar Studies in Contemporary Africa at Columbia University and co-editors of The Journal of African History and Islamic Africa during the Academic Journal Publishing workshop in Nairobi for their comments on this article. I thank the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholarship and the African Humanities Program of the American Council of Learned Societies for their support. Author's e-mail: pkhanakwa@gmail.com and pkhanakwa@chuss.mak.ac.ug

‘In modern Uganda the idea of the Gisu as a nation of circumcised men remains as strong as ever. The biennial circumcision ceremonies act as both a focus for such sentiment and a dramatic display of its power.’1

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1 Heald, S., Manhood and Morality: Sex, Violence and Ritual in Gisu Society (London, 1999), 8, referring to the 1990s.

2 Mbale District Archives, (MDA) Mbale, Uganda. Acting Secretary General Bugisu DA to the DC, Bugisu, 10 Mar. 1962.

3 MDA, Johnson refers to this communication dated 3 Mar. 1962 in his 12 Mar. 1962 letter to Bwayo. Mbale was a township in 1954, a town council in 1959 and a municipal council in 1962. I use Mbale town for consistency.

4 MDA, Ag. Secretary General, Bugisu DA to the DC, Bugisu, 10 March 1962.

5 For a broader examination of ethnic architects in colonial East Africa, see D. Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c. 1935–1972 (Cambridge, 2012).

6 La Fontaine, J., ‘Tribalism among the Bagisu: an anthropological approach’, in Gulliver, P.H. (ed.), Tradition and Transition in East Africa: Studies of the Tribal Element in the Modern Era (Berkeley, 1969), 185.

7 For an overview of decolonisation in Uganda, see Reid, R., A History of Modern Uganda (Cambridge, 2017).

8 For 1945 and 1949, see Earle, J.L., Colonial Buganda and the End of Empire: Political Thought and Historical Imagination (Cambridge, 2017), 6075; Mamdani, M., Politics and Class Formation in Uganda (New York, 1976), 178183; on Mau Mau, see Lonsdale, J., ‘The moral economy of Mau Mau: the problem’, in Berman, B. and Lonsdale, J., Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa. Book Two: Violence and Ethnicity (London, 1992), 265314; on the Kabaka Crisis, see Apter, D., The Political Kingdom in Uganda (Princeton, 1967), 276286.

9 Reid, A History of Modern Uganda.

10 For the first, see Vail, L. (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (Berkeley, 1989); Ranger, T., ‘The invention of tradition in colonial Africa’, in Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, (Cambridge, 1983); Iliffe, J., A Modern History of Tanganyika (New York, 1979). For the second, see Spear, T., ‘Neo-traditionalism and the limits of invention in British colonial Africa’, The Journal of African History 44: 1 (2003), 327; Ranger, T., ‘The invention of tradition revisited: the case of colonial Africa’, in Ranger, T. and Vaughan, O. (eds.), Legitimacy and the State in Twentieth Century Africa (London, 1993), 62111.

11 Waetjen, T., ‘The limits of gender rhetoric for nationalism: a case study from southern Africa’, Theory and Society, 30:1 (2001), 121152.

12 Peterson, D., Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival (Cambridge, 2012), 26.

13 Médard, C., ‘“Indigenous”’ land claims in Kenya: a case of Chebyuk, Mount Elgon District’, in Anseeuw, W. & Alden, C. (eds.), The Struggle Over Land in Africa: Conflicts, Politics and Change (Cape Town, 2010); Médard, V. Golaz & C., ‘Agricultural frontier, land tenure changes and conflicts along the Gucha-Trans Mara boundary in Kenya’, Journal of Eastern Africa Studies, 10:2 (2016) 229246; MacArthur, J., Cartography and the Political Imagination: Mapping Community in Colonial Kenya (Athens, OH, 2016).

14 Médard, “‘Indigenous’” land claims’, 21.

15 Ibid. 29.

16 MacArthur, Cartography, 5.

17 Parsons, T., ‘Being Kikuyu in Meru: challenging the tribal geography of colonial Kenya’, The Journal of African History 53:1 (2012), 6586.

18 Mavundla, T.R., Netswera, F.G., Toth, F., Bottoman, B., and Tenge, S., ‘How boys become dogs: stigmatization and marginalization of uninitiated Xhosa males in East London, South Africa’, Qualitative Health Research, 20:7 (2010), 931941.

19 H. Deacon & K. Thomson, ‘The social penis: traditional male circumcision and initiation in Southern Africa, 1800–2000: a literature review’ (Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR), University of Cape Town, 2012) CSSR Working Paper No. 304.

20 For forcible circumcision of the Luo and others, see Ocobock, P., An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Athens, OH, 2017) 255–7; MacArthur, Cartography, 145; Glass, M., ‘Forced circumcision of men’, Journal of Medical Ethics, 40:8 (2014), 567571.

21 Gisu used to hold imbalu ceremonies annually, following the 1918 famine they skipped 1919. Since 1920, ceremonies have been held biennially.

22 Imbalu both as a practice and a concept has undergone significant change over the years. See Khanakwa, P., ‘Male circumcision among the Bagisu of eastern Uganda: practices and conceptualisations’, in Fleisch, A. and Stephens, R. (eds.), Doing Conceptual History in Africa (Oxford, 2016), 115137.

23 J. La Fontaine, ‘The social organisation of the Gisu with special reference to their initiation ceremonies’, (unpublished PhD thesis, Cambridge University, 1957), 194.

24 Recorded age at circumcision in colonial-era sources varied significantly, from 16-18 and 14 in the early twentieth century, to 18-22 in the 1950s. Purvis, J.B., Through Uganda to Mount Elgon (New York, 1909), 277; Roscoe, John, The Northern Bantu: An Account of Some Central African Tribes of the Uganda Protectorate (Cambridge, 1915. Reprint London, 1966), 184; La Fontaine, ‘The social organisation’, 16. In 2008, I interviewed men who reported being circumcised at 12 years of age in 1952. All interviews cited are my own, unless otherwise noted.

25 Note that despite missionary intervention, circumcision in public continues to this day in parts of Bugisu.

26 Roscoe, J., The Bagesu and Other Tribes of the Uganda Protectorate (Cambridge, 1924), 31.

27 Purvis, Through Uganda, 271–272; Roscoe, The Bagesu, 32.

28 Heald, S., Controlling Anger: the Anthropology of Gisu Violence (Oxford, 1998); La Fontaine, ‘The social’; Twaddle, ‘Tribalism’, 1969; Bunker, S., Peasants against the State: the Politics of Market Control in Bugisu, Uganda, 1900-1983 (Urbana, 1987), 45; Heald, Manhood (London, 1999)

29 Heald, Controlling, Heald, Manhood, Bunker, Peasants.

30 See Purvis, Through Uganda.

31 Africana Archives, Makerere University, Kampala (AAMK), Report of the Commission appointed to Review the Boundary between the Districts of Bugisu and Bukedi, Entebbe, 1962. When Semei Kakungulu and his Baganda men arrived in the region in 1901, they named it Kalungu meaning ‘deserted country’. See Twaddle, , ‘The founding of Mbale’, Uganda Journal 30:1 (1966), 2538.

32 Twaddle, ‘The founding’, 33.

33 Thomas, ‘Capax imperii, “The story of Semei Kakunguru”’, Uganda Journal 6 (1937), 134; Twaddle, ‘The founding’, 36; Francis Wanyina, ‘Bagisu: victims of their past history’, The New Vision, 7 Oct. 1986; Uganda Argus, 26 July 1962. The colonial administration had formed Bukedi district two years prior to its relocation.

34 Sir Bell, H., Glimpses of a Governor's Life: from Diaries, Letters and Memoranda (London, 1946), 185.

35 La Fontaine, ‘Tribalism’, 183–4.

36 Uganda National Archives, Kampala (UNA) A46/262, Uganda Protectorate: Annual Report of the Provincial Commissioner on the Eastern Province for year 1923.

37 Twaddle, ‘“Tribalism’ in Eastern Uganda”’, in Tradition, 197–8; A.K. Mayegu, ‘History of circumcision in Bamasaba tribe’, (unpublished manuscript compiled in 1960 and reproduced in 1963 and the early 1970s).

38 La Fontaine, ‘Tribalism’, 180.

39 Twaddle, ‘“Tribalism”’, 198; La Fontaine, ‘Tribalism’, 184.

40 Bunker, Peasants, 109; Phone interview with Mukamba Kitutu, Uganda, 6 Mar. 2011.

41 Bukedi District Report, March 1957.

42 Uganda Argus, 23 May 1962.

43 Uganda Argus, 25 May 1962.

44 The Uganda Herald, 17 July 1954.

45 Burke, F., Local Government and the Politics in Uganda (New York, 1964), 206–7.

46 ‘Cultural Nationalism’ in Rosberg, C. G. and Nottingham, J., The Myth of ‘Mau Mau,’: Nationalism in Kenya (New York: 1966), 105135; Lonsdale, ‘The moral economy’; Hetherington, P.The politics of circumcision in the Central Province of colonial Kenya, 1920–1930.Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 26, 1(1998), 93126; Thomas, L., Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley, 2003).

47 ‘African Local Government Circular, Circumcision Arrangement for 1954’, cited in La Fontaine, ‘The social’, 270; G. Wamimbi-Masaaba, Mulembe Magazine, 3, December 1967, 18.

48 La Fontaine, ‘The power of rights’, Man (N.S.) 12:3/ 4 (1977), 435; G.W. Wamimbi, ‘The Masaaba summit window’, (Masaaba Historical Research Association, 2001) 41.

49 La Fontaine, ‘The power’, 427, 435.

50 Purvis, Through Uganda, 271.

51 Roscoe, The Bagesu, 28.

52 Ibid.

53 MDA, DC, Bugisu, to the PS, Ministry of Regional Administration, 12 May 1962.

54 Wangusa, T., Upon this Mountain (London, 1989), 58.

55 Roscoe thought this state of possession was feigned and that the boys seemed to understand what they were doing. Roscoe, The Bagesu, 29

56 ‘Circumcision Names (Kamengilo) and their Meanings,’ Progress Report, Imbalu Project Part III, Makerere University Inter-disciplinary Research Project on Imbalu, 1972.

57 In his letter to the PS, Ministry of Regional Administration, 12 May 1962, Johnson notes there was no circumcision dancing in Mbale prior to 1954.

58 Mayegu, ‘History’; Roscoe, The Northern, 184; Purvis, Through Uganda, 271.

59 Bunker, Peasants, 114.

60 Ibid. 42.

61 Uganda Republic, Statistical Abstracts, 1969 (Entebbe, 1970).

62 Bunker, Peasants, 111; Uganda Argus, 21 Mar. 1962; Uganda Argus, 19 July 1962.

63 Apter, The Political, 276–286.

64 Peterson, D.R., ‘States of mind: political history and the Rwenzururu Kingdom in Western Uganda’, in Peterson, and Macola, G. (eds.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens, OH, 2009) 174; Apter, The Political, 299.

65 Burke, Local, 39.

66 See section 7 of the African Local Governments Ordinance and District Council Proclamations and Regulations 1949 (Entebbe, 1949).

67 Burke, Local, 39; Bunker, Peasants, 110.

68 Burke, Local, 40.

69 MDA, PC, Eastern Province, to DC, Mbale Township, 17 June 1958.

70 MDA, Administrative Secretary, G.W.N. Bwayo, Bugisu D.A to the OC Police, Mbale, [n.d. but most likely written on 20 Aug. 1964], mentions incidents of forcible circumcision in 1956 and names one local surgeon, Wagomoli as perpetrator. In an interview with Stephen Bunker in 1970, G.W. Wamimbi also confirmed incidents of forcible circumcision in 1956 in Mbale (Bunker field notes, 8 Mar. 1970). The 1956 incidents of forcible circumcision spread to Bunambutye where the Parish Chief urged Bagisu to forbid uncircumcised people to live among them. Interview by author, 26 June 2009.

71 Lukhobo Committee, 1957. Cited in Twaddle, ‘“Tribalism”’, 201.

72 MDA, PC, Eastern Province to DC, Mbale Township, 17 June 1958.

73 MDA, ‘Regulations for Control and Improvement of Bugisu Circumcision Ceremonies.’ Passed by Bugisu District Administration and General Purpose Committee on 24 June 1958. Reproduced on 26 Jan. 1962.

74 MDA, DC, Bugisu, to the PS, Ministry of Regional Administration, 12 May 1962. Johnson refers to this issue.

75 MDA, Hodges, DC, Bugisu to PC, Eastern Province, 2 Mar. 1959.

76 MDA, DC, Mbale to Secretary General Bugisu DA, 1 May 1959.

77 Ibid.

78 Bunker field notes (conversation with Wamimbi, 7–8 Mar. 1970).

79 MHRA, G.W. Wamimbi, ‘Address to the seminar on the techniques of collecting and recording local history’, Makerere University, 13-16 Dec.1965; MHRA Constitution, 1962; Mayegu, ‘History’.

80 G.W. Wamimbi, ‘History of Bamasaaba’ (unpublished manuscript, n.d.), 26. Copy in possession of author.

81 Reid, A History, 320.

82 ‘Cover letter to the Minister of Regional Administration’ (unpublished MHRA records, 5 Oct. 1962, memorandum attached) retrieved from David William Cohen collections deposited in the Herskovits Library, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Also see Uganda Argus, 13 Oct. 1962.

83 Uganda Argus, 13 Oct. 1962.

84 For a discussion of the Lost Counties, see Doyle, S., ‘Immigrants and indigenes: the Lost Counties dispute and the evolution of ethnic identity in colonial Buganda’. Journal of Eastern African Studies 3:2 (2009), 284302; Peterson, D., ‘Violence and political advocacy in the Lost Counties, Western Uganda’, International Journal of African Historical Studies 48:1 (2015), 5172. Special issue on ‘Violence as politics in Eastern Africa’, edited by D. Anderson and O. Rolandsen.

85 AAMK, ‘Sessional paper on the report of the commission of inquiry into the disturbances in certain areas of the Eastern Province during the month of January 1960’. Entebbe, 1960.

86 AAMK, Bugisu District Annual Report, 1961.

87 AAMK, Mbale Town Council, Third Annual Report, 1961.

88 Uganda Argus, 6 Mar. 1962; Uganda Argus, 20 Mar. 1962; Uganda Argus, 24 Mar. 1962. Committee members included, among others, Kitutu, Madaba, and Mutenyo.

89 On UNM, see S.R. Karugire, A Political History of Uganda (Nairobi, 1980), 167; Uganda Argus, 20 Mar. 1962. The resolutions were passed in February 1962.

90 MDA, Johnson to the PC, Eastern Province, 15 Feb. 1962.

91 Bunker, Peasants, 137.

92 Ibid. 111.

93 MDA, Johnson to the PC, Eastern Province, 15 Feb. 1962.

94 MDA, PC to PS, Ministry of Local Government, 16 Feb. 1962.

95 Uganda Argus, 16 Mar. 1962.

96 Uganda Argus, 8 Mar. 1962.

97 MDA, Johnson to DC, Mbale Township, 20 Mar. 1962.

98 MDA, DC, Mbale Township to the Officer-in-Charge of the Police, Mbale, 22 Mar. 1962.

99 MacArthur, Cartography, 194.

100 Peterson, ‘Violence’, 54; Karugire, A Political, 175–176; P. Mutibwa, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes (Kampala, 1992), 27.

101 Peterson, ‘States’, 171–190; K. Alnaes, ‘Songs of the Rwenzururu Rebellion: The Konzo revolt against the Toro in Western Uganda’, in Gulliver (ed.) Tradition, 243–272.

102 Karugire, A Political, 176.

103 La Fontaine, ‘Tribalism’, 186.

104 AAMK, Bugisu District Annual Report 1962.

105 AAMK, Bukedi District Annual Report, 1962.

106 MacArthur, Cartography, 145.

107 Uganda Argus, 26 May 1962.

108 Uganda Argus, 29 May 1962.

109 During the Boundary Commission hearing, a Nyole man reported he had been denied treatment at Mbale hospital because he could not speak Lugisu. But he was not forcibly circumcised. Uganda Argus, 25 May 1962.

110 Uganda Argus, 27 July 1962. The resolution was passed earlier but was reported in the media in July.

111 MDA, DC, Bugisu to PS, Ministry of Regional Administration, 2 June 1962.

112 Uganda Argus, 5 June 1962.

113 B.W. Langlands, ‘The population geography of Bugisu and Sebei Districts’, Occasional Paper 28 (Department of Geography, Makerere University, Kampala, 1971).

114 Uganda Argus, 27 July 1962.

115 ‘Don't Balkanise Bugisu’, Uganda Argus, 28 July 1962.

116 Uganda Argus, 27 July 1962

117 Uganda Argus, 19 Sept. 1962; Phone interview with Mukamba; Bunker, Peasants, 109.

118 Interview with Mukamba.

119 Interview with Clemecia Nabushuwu, 2 Dec. 2017.

120 Bukedi District Annual Report, 1962; DC, Bugisu to PS, Ministry of Regional Administration, 2 July 1962.

121 MDA, Bugisu District Council Minutes of June 1962 were read and endorsed by Johnson who forwarded them to PS, Ministry of Regional Administration.

122 MDA, DC, Bugisu to PS, Ministry of Regional Administration, 2 July 1962.

123 Ibid.

124 MDA, ‘Regulations for Control’.

125 Mutongi, K., Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi (Chicago, 2017), 131–33.

126 MDA, Circumcision Calendar 1962 (n.d. but estimated to be a few days before 23 July). Emphasis added.

127 MDA, From DC, Bugisu to Assistant Commissioner of Police, Eastern Region, 23 July 1962.

128 MDA, DC, Bugisu to Assistant Commissioner of Police, Eastern Region, 23 July 1962.

129 MDA, Provincial Special Branch to DC, Bugisu, 24 July 1962.

130 Uganda Argus, 19 July 1962.

131 Ibid. 17 July 1962.

132 Ibid. 27 July 1962.

133 Ibid. 19 Sept. 1962.

134 Bukedi District Annual Report 1962, 6.

135 Ibid. 6–7.

136 Bugisu District Annual Report, 1967.

I am grateful to David Schoenbrun, Rhiannon Stephens, Derek Peterson, anonymous reviewers and editors of The Journal of African History, members of University Seminar Studies in Contemporary Africa at Columbia University and co-editors of The Journal of African History and Islamic Africa during the Academic Journal Publishing workshop in Nairobi for their comments on this article. I thank the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholarship and the African Humanities Program of the American Council of Learned Societies for their support. Author's e-mail: and

‘In modern Uganda the idea of the Gisu as a nation of circumcised men remains as strong as ever. The biennial circumcision ceremonies act as both a focus for such sentiment and a dramatic display of its power.’1

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REINVENTING IMBALU AND FORCIBLE CIRCUMCISION: GISU POLITICAL IDENTITY AND THE FIGHT FOR MBALE IN LATE COLONIAL UGANDA

  • PAMELA KHANAKWA (a1)

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