The Bagisu / Gishu People
The Gishu people, or Bagisu (people of Bugisu sub-region), alternately Gishu, Masaba, or Sokwia; are a tribe of the Masaba nation of eastern Uganda, closely related to the Bukusu people of Kenya. Bagisu live mainly in the Mbale District of Uganda on the slopes of Mount Elgon.
The Gisu speak a dialect of the Lumasaba language called Lugisu, which is fully understandable by other dialects, and is also understood by the Bukusu.
The Gisu undergo a circumcision ritual called the ”Imbalu”. The ritual is held every two years during August.
The Bagisu community is one of those communities in Uganda without central authority in form of Kingdoms; thus leadership is on clan basis with a non-hereditary chief elected by a council of elders. Holding that aside, the Bagisu people are well known for their Imbalu circumcision ceremony; a tourist product worth visiting while on Uganda safari. This practice dates back to the tale that a certain Mugisu man was summoned by the council of elders because of stealing other men’s wives. Then he was subjected to circumcision as a punishment and preventive action only to yield nothing; as he became more powerful and admirable to women than ever before. The counterparts retaliated by circumcising themselves so as to compete favorably. However other folks have it that the practice arose through contact with the adjacent Kalenjin of western Kenya who had similar tradition.
The year for initiation is determined by the person himself and not necessarily a council of elders or a convention. The age range between 16 and 26 is acceptable. Those who elect to be circumcised in any given year announce their intention in May or June and spend the next few months preparing for it. The key observable aspect of the arrangements involve the initiate, decorated in plantain fronds or animal skins and ash plastered face and escorted by a crew of encouraging friends marching and dancing via the streets to connect to his close relatives and seek their approval.
They grow millet, bananas an maize on the well-watered slopes of the mountain mainly for their own consumption. They also grow coffee and cotton as cash crops. Other crops they grow include sweet and white potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables as well as onions and tomatoes. They also own cattle and other livestock.
Bugisu, their homeland, has the highest population density in Uganda. Almost all land is used for growing crops. Shortage of land has forced many people to leave their traditional homeland and settle elsewhere in Uganda. It also has led to social conflicts now and then through the years.
The Bagisu were introduced to cash crop farming on a significant scale when arabica coffee was brought to them in 1912. The expansion of British colonial rule into Bugisu also played a major role in introducing the Bagisu to a cash economy.