Tourists are willing to pay to attend a centuries-old public circumcision ritual held every two years in Uganda and parts of Western Kenya, where teenage males of the Bamasaaba tribe go under the knife without pain killers, and without showing any pain.
More than 30,000 people showed up for three days of festivities at this year’s Imbalu season in early August at the Mutoto cultural grounds in eastern Uganda, outside the town of Mbale, according to Vincent Mugaba, a spokesperson for the Uganda tourism board, Vice reported.
Locals and foreign tourists camped out, drank home-brewed millet beer, ate roasted bulls, and watched a traditional dance called kadodi. Festivities culminated in the circumcision of 100 young men age 10 to early 20s.
The ceremony marks a teenage boy’s passage to manhood. Candidates are circumcised without anesthetic and rewarded for going under the knife in public without flinching, screaming or showing any emotion.
Rewards include cash, a mobile phone, livestock and other gifts. Reluctance to be circumcised could mean being called a coward for the rest of one’s life, according to ABC.
The practice is not limited to rural areas, DW reported. Bamasaaba living in urban areas including the capital, Kampala, perform the ritual.
Uncircumcised men in the community are considered a disgrace to their families, and can be hunted down and circumcised by force, said Damascus Situma Muyanda, a cultural leader in the Bamasaaba tribe, according to DW. Bamasaaba women are encouraged to report their uncircumcised husbands to tribal elders.
Traditional surgeons thought to be appointed by the spirits of ancestors perform the circumcisions.
“If you had children and you are not circumcised yourself, your children may grow up undisciplined and some may die prematurely,” Muyanda said.
However, the circumcision can be a health risk for the young men. Sometimes the same knife is used on more than one candidate, risking the spread of HIV.
Many traditional rituals have recently been discouraged, but Imbalu is not one of them. Now the authorities are trying to enlist the help of traditional leaders to make the practice safer.
The Ugandan government has cracked down on female genital mutilation, but President Yoweri Museveni personally approves of the Imbalu practice, Vice reported.
Locals have made efforts to adapt to modern practices, using different blades for each circumcision to prevent the spread of HIV.
The origins of the ritual are uncertain, ABC reported. There are records dating back 200 years, though the Bamasaaba believe the ritual is several hundred years older than that.
For most of the tribe, the ceremony is deeply significant, and they have always been open to outsiders witnessing Imbalu. Now they are beginning to open up to tourists.
“I found the ceremonies fascinating,” Floris Burgers, 22, told ABC. From the Netherlands, she saw the Imbalu while working in the area. “I can imagine some foreigners might find them a bit scary, but if you know the story behind the practice, there is not much to be afraid of.”
The Ugandan tourist board has started promoting the Imbalu festivities, along with better known local attractions such as coffee plantations, the waterfalls and hiking Mount Elgon.
The goal is to attract international visitors. Attendance fees are being considered to help build a cultural center that celebrates and preserves the tribe’s history.
“It’s something that is very young,” says Stephen Asiimwe, head of the Uganda Tourism Board.
The Uganda and Kenya Tourism boards have agreed to jointly promote Imbalu circumcision ceremonies in Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya, DW reported. They plan to market the festivals across the world using Ugandan embassies in the hope that the ceremonies will bring in additional tourists.
“Uganda expects at least 2,000 Kenyans for the ceremony. Each of them is coming with money because they will need hotels, food, entertainment and drinks,” said John Sempebwa, executive director of the Uganda Tourism Board.
Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Uganda, but fighting in neighboring South Sudan is costing the east African country an estimated $1 million a day in lost revenue, Vice reported. The biannual circumcision ceremony could help fuel tourism and bring more funds to the region.
“Even (to) some Ugandans, especially the younger generation, it’s very interesting,” said Asiimwe said in a VICE interview. “They’ve never seen someone going under a knife, openly, without making a sound.”
Tourism brings in $1.4 billion a year to Uganda — double the $700,000 in revenue of 2007, according to Asiimwe. There is plenty for tourists to do — white-water rapids at the source of the White Nile and gorilla safaris in the national parks of southwestern Uganda. There’s plenty of money to be made by locals and the government. Just getting a permit to go gorilla tracking will cost $600.
Asiimwe says an architect recently sketched out an impression of a modern cultural center and circumcision museum, the latest step in plans that have been in the works for a few years with the support of local leaders. The facility would include new restaurants, spruced-up grounds and better landscaping to bring in visitors year-round.
“We have cherished this ritual for more than 200 years,” said Omar Njofu, chairperson of the Mbale-based cultural council Inzu Ya Masaaba, in the Ugandan newspaper the Daily Monitor. “It’s unique and marketable and developing this site into a tourism center is of great importance.”