Adrenaline runs high as crowds brandishing spears, clubs, flywhisks and fresh tree branches to the skies, surge along the village paths chanting traditional war songs.
Happily they are not on their way to fight an enemy, though the reasons for their testosterone-fuelled excitement are centred on a ritual act of manliness — the age-old practice of male circumcision, marking the rite of passage from childhood to manhood.
We are visiting the Bugisu (also called Bamasaba) tribe at the foot of Mount Elgon, 256km east of the capital, Kampala, to witness this annual ceremony.
The voices of the initiates — accompanied by the loud clanging of bells tied to their legs and arms, as well as the brisk pulsations of the zingoma (traditional drums) — combine to produce a surprisingly harmonious cacophony.
It is these sounds to which the frenzied crowds — led by a bunch of bare-chested youths — dance with reckless abandon. Their dance, known in local parlance as kadodi, involves the females twisting their waists and gyrating their backsides, an art that few outside this tribe can muster, while the males do a less artistic but equally energetic prance behind them.
The vigorous dancing raises a cloud of dust that can be seen from hundreds of metres away. The villagers approach a clearing, where a line of mean-looking old men brandishing sharp knives await them. The moment of truth has arrived.
One at a time, the initiates run to the knife-wielding bashebi (local surgeons), jump high and stand firm right before them, grip a stick across their shoulders and look straight to the skies. With astonishing dexterity, each surgeon pulls at the penis of the boy he is assigned to and cuts off the foreskin with the kumubono, as the surgical knife is called. There is nothing symbolic about the pain of this anasthetic-free operation and the crowd falls silent and holds its breath for the 10 seconds the procedure takes. This is the climax of the Imbalu (circumcision).
Among the Bagisu, every boy is supposed to prove his bravery by publicly “facing the knife” without anaesthesia in full view of family and friends. It is hard to watch, this operation, without grimacing or instinctively holding one’s own crotch.
Yet the vast majority of the candidates do not even flinch. The trick is said to lie in indianyi and olumbugu. A few hours before knife time, the candidates are given some of these local herbs to steel them; idianyi supposedly makes the candidate develop a yearning for his foreskin to be cut off and olumbugu gives stamina.
Circumcision candidates who endure the pain without showing any signs of weakness are feted as heroes. Those who do otherwise, by crying out or touching the hand of the omushebi, are considered cowards bringing bad luck to the community. They are fined heavily.
A family whose son has shamed the tribe is also asked to perform rituals, slaughtering several animals as part of the cleansing process. Although the rituals are not impossible to perform, no family wants its son to fail as it would make them the laughing stock of the community for years to come.
Sometimes though, bravery comes at a price. Because the omushebi‘s job is hereditary, handed down from fathers to sons, their training is always done locally. Also, because the kimibono are only sharpened against a special kind of stone, the omushebi’s handiwork is not always flawless.
In one incident that I witnessed two years ago at Mutoto Cultural Centre on the outskirts of Mbale town, 16-year-old Ronald Wamimbi had his foreskin cut badly. As he bled profusely, the surgeons tied up the bleeding part with only a thin black string.
Yet there are not many ways around the harsh, proud knife. The option of hospitals and anaesthesia has never been welcome among the Bagisu. Boys circumcised in hospital are labelled cowards and ridiculed by the local community.
But while those who go to hospitals suffer only contempt, it is an even worse offence for a Mugisu boy to shun circumcision altogether. Once the boycotters are discovered, they are circumcised forcefully by members of the community no matter their status in society.
One of the most prominent individuals to have faced the wrath of his kinsmen was one Muduuku, a minister in Uganda’s third post-independence government; he should have been circumcised in 1958 but had gone out of the country to study.
On returning to Uganda, Muduuku is said to have declared to his tribesmen that he had been circumcised in hospital. They believed him until 1992. Some things you just cannot hide forever.
Even those who try to cheat culture by dying before they are circumcised do not get away with it. Bugisu tradition demands that before an uncircumcised male who has passed on is buried, his body is propped upright with a pole placed against his back and then circumcised by a retired “surgeon”.
I grew up in a community which does not practice circumcision. But when I moved to the Bagisu region to study, I decided I wanted to “face the knife” in the traditional way. This was partly because I was fascinated by the practice and partly because uncircumcised “boys” like me were constantly teased by our peers that we weren’t brave enough to do it.
I moved to another part of the country before I could do it, but I still have mixed feelings about my “escape”.
Benon Herbert Oluka is a journalist with The EastAfrican newspaper. He lives in Kampala