Women in Bugisu Culture 
Know Your Place: Women in Bugisu Culture

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons discusses the implications of the Imbalu ritual for the position of women in East African Bugisu culture

A woman dances in Matoto at the official opening of the circumcision season. Photo credit; Katherine Crofts-Gibbons.

A woman dances in Matoto at the official opening of the circumcision season. Photo credit; Katherine Crofts-Gibbons.

Over Christmas, in Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya, hundreds of boys underwent a public circumcision ritual in the second wave of the biennial celebration of Imbalu. The circumcision ritual marks their passage into manhood, and their superiority over women. It is necessary to understand the symbolism of Imbalu in order to fully understand Bugisu attitudes to their women.

During the Imbalu ritual boys are believed to experience lirima for the first time. It is this intense emotional experience that transforms them into men. There is no exact translation of lirima but it can be considered as an overwhelming anger that fills men and allows for forceful and determined action. The Bugisu believe that the first experience of this intense emotion is transformative: lirima is the defining characteristic of manhood, and the quality that gives him his strength. Almost every aspect of the Imbalu ritual can be seen as a demonstration of this mental and physical strength and maturation. The brewing of malwa, a local beer, in the days leading up to the circumcision, is symbolic of the changes brought about by Imbalu. Yeast transforms maize and water into malwa, as lirima transforms boys into men.

There is no equivalent ritual for girls. Girls are only considered to become women when they marry. Even after marriage they are thought of as something akin to minors under the care of their husbands. This is largely because women are believed to be incapable of experiencing emotional responses to the same intensity as their male counterparts.  They are therefore unable to experience lirima, thus making women inherently weaker than men. The Bugisu see no point in female circumcision because women are incapable of going through a transformation comparable to that experienced in the process of male circumcision.

The significance of Imbalu extends beyond individual development. It is central to Bugisu tribal identity. Tribal identity, which is of enormous importance in East African society, is defined by a male ritual. The Bugisu are identified by other tribes as the tribe of circumcised men. Therefore, Imbalu defines their distinctiveness and, in their own eyes, their superiority. An uncircumcised man of Bugisu heritage is not considered to be fully part of the tribe.

In its significance for both the individual and tribal identity, Imbalu embodies and strengthens the attitude that women are lower than men. This attitude manifests itself in the relationship between husband and wife. Bugisu men expect their women to kneel to them, an outward sign of a deeper expectation of respect and obedience. Although many men, particularly among the younger generation, are willing to let their wives work, they expect them to kneel in the home. In the words of one Bugisu man in the Ugandan village of Buwabwala, men do not undergo the pain of circumcision just to see their wives refuse to show them respect. In many families, showing proper respect to a husband includes shouldering the majority of the work in the fields, as well as having responsibility for childcare and housework. Men will often work for only a couple of hours.

Despite this, Bugisu women are not as powerless as and subservient in the home as this may suggest. Although they do not choose their husbands, in some communities women have considerable freedom to divorce them and remarry. Given the necessity of female labour in the Bugisu system of agriculture, men have a considerable incentive to keep their wives happy. Domestic abuse and rape are not tolerated. Mob justice demands that men who abuse women are beaten to death.

Women are increasingly able to leave the domestic sphere to pursue education and employment. In many households, girls go to school for as long as their brothers. In affluent families, this means that they can attend university and enter professional careers. Many women attain positions of respect in the community; women work for local councils, become local chairmen (a position that has replaced the older role of village chief) and preach in churches. Indeed, a Bugisu constituency is represented in parliament by a woman, Koyogi Sarah Netalisine.

However, no matter how high these women climb, they must kneel to their husbands at home. Though Bugisu women may achieve highly, the attitudes expressed in the Imbalu ritual remain strong.  Next to a man who is her equal in terms of ability, qualifications and experience, a woman will always be subordinate. The attitudes rooted in the Imbalu ritual ensure that women, whatever they achieve, are always considered to be inherently inferior to males. In the tribe of circumcised men, it will be a long time before these prejudices are overcome.