Bagishu Culture


The Bagisu people or locally known as the Bamasaba live in the western and southern slopes of Mount Elgon also known as Mount Masaba. The mountain slopes in hand fingers like structure to the west marked by narrow and steep valleys. The land is further broken consisting of jumble of hills piled against a raised escarpment sort of a crumbled cloth. The escarpment gradually fades away as it slows down to the Teso land. The Bagisu speak the Lugisu a dialect of the Lumasaba which is mutually intelligible to other dialects including the Bukusu. The Bagisu are popularly known for their Imbalu circumcision which is held after every two years in August.

The Bagisu have not tradition of migrating from somewhere else. They claim that their ancestors Mundu and Sera came out a hole in Mountain Elgon locally known as Masaba. The early life of the Bagisu seems to have been not all that social with the principle of survival for the fittest. The Bagisu’s history is less known although they are sought to have disintegrated from the Bukusu a sub group of Luhya in Western Kenya around the 19th Century. The Bagisu claim of living where they are since time memorial may not be accurate. The earliest immigrants into the land of Bagisu are believed to have arrived in the Mount Elgon Area from the Eastern plains in the 16th C. The first settlement for these people is noted to be Usian Gishu plateau of Kenya Thus, the Bagisu seem to have been the inter mixture of various cultures and origins but since their language is that of Bantu, it can be noted that their predecessors must have been Bantu too.

imbalu-dancers-cultural-tour-uganda2 mbale elgon

The political structure of the Bagisu was very loose based on clan. Each clan had an elder called Umwami we sikoka (Chief of the clan). These chiefs were chosen on the basis of wealth and age. The leaders would maintain law and order and ensure continuity and the unity of the clan not forgetting offering the sacrifices to the ancestral spirits. The stronger chiefs would extend their influence to other clans but none of the chiefs would succeed in subduing other clans into a single entity. The other notable individuals among the Bagisu included Sorceress and rainmakers.

The unique custom among the Bagisu is male circumcision. The origin of this practice is mysterious even to the Bagisu themselves. It is asserted it arouse from Kalenjin’s demand when Masaba the Bagisu heroic ancestor expressed to marry a Kalenjin girl. The other form of tradition asserts that that initial person to be circumcised had got a complication with his sexual organ and the circumcision was considered as surgical operation to save man’s life. The third tradition states that the initial person to be circumcised got it as a punishment for seducing other men’s wives but in turn increased his sexual power attracting several ladies to him and this prompted other men to under the same practice in order to remain in competition.

It should be noted that the Bagisu are superstitious people. Before the circumcision practice, a certain herb called ityanyi is administered to the candidate to arouse interest. The ityanyi is tied around the initiate’s big toe or it is put at that place where he would jump over it not knowing. It is stated that if any one who had taken the herb delayed or hindered to be circumcised, he might even circumcise himself as his mind is set to circumcision that nothing else can distract him. The Imbalu practice is conducted biannually during the leap years and every Mugisu male has to perform the ritual upon approaching puberty. Ne males who abscond are hunted and brought to the practice force fully. Before the event, the candidates are set and walk and dance throughout the village for 3 days. The heads of the candidates are sprinted with Cassava flour and the paint of Malwa –yeast paste. There is much singing and drumming as relatives dance with them. After circumcision, the boy becomes an adult and thus a true Mugisu and the person who is not yet circumcised is called a Musinde. The circumcision its self is very fast with the circumciser and his assistant moving around and performing the appropriate ritual and then the assistant circumciser gets hold of the penis foreskin pulling it & then the circumciser cuts it off. The circumciser them goes ahead to cut off the layer on the top of the penis that is believed to grow again into the sheath if left uncut. He then goes ahead and cuts off another muscle on the lower part of the penis and these three cuttings mark the end of the ritual.

Mount Elgon National Park hike

After circumcision, the initiate is wrapped in a piece of cloth and taken to the father’s house, moved around the house before he enters. The initiate is not allowed to eat with his hands for three days. He is always fed and even in this period, they say that he is not yet fully into manhood. Following the 3 days, the circumciser is called upon to perform the washing hands ritual and after this ritual, the initiate can star eating with own hands and on the same day, the initiate is declared a man. Following this custom, the initiate is allowed to marry and in this custom he is instructed on the demands and duties of manhood. He is taught the significance of agriculture and advised on how to behave like a man. It is noted that the healing of the wounds is determined by the number of goats slaughtered during the event.


Finally a ritual called Iremba is performed an all the new initiatives in the locality have to attend. This is an important function and the Authorities and other village people attend. At this function, the initiate was supposed to pick any girl and have sex with her and the girl was not supposed to refuse. It was believed that if the girl refuses, she would never have children once she gets married. This is challenging for the case of Christian females. Initially, the congregation would remain outside the enclosure and wait to hear from outside as the initiates and the circumciser were in the enclosure but of now all the things are made public with everyone seeing the whole process. The firmness and endurance of the initiate is considered as a sign of bravery.