In eastern Uganda, young Bamasaaba men are circumcised as an initiation into manhood. But they also force members of other tribes to undergo the painful operation, which is often carried out by unskilled ‘surgeons’.
By Joseph Wanzusi, Mbale
"When my colleagues asked me to undergo circumcision, I thought it was a joke,” says motorcycle mechanic Benjamin Mukuve, who belongs to the Basoga tribe. He lives in Mbale, in eastern Uganda, where the majority of the people are Bamasaaba. So are his colleagues. Young Bamaasaba men are circumcised as an initiation into manhood.
But it wasn’t a joke. Mukuve’s co-workers grabbed him and had him circumcised by a local surgeon, in the middle of the street and surrounded by cheering people. "When I returned home bleeding with a piece of cloth tied around the waist, my wife was shocked,” says Mukuve, 26, who won’t be able to work for a month and will have difficulties sustaining his family of three.
“The day my husband was circumcised he bled the whole night,” says Mukuve’s wife Zaina Namakula. “There was no one to come to his rescue. And at the same time me and my baby were suffering from malaria.”
16-year-old Abiya Tilulaga, also a motorcycle mechanic, has a similar story to tell. Realizing that he was likely to fall victim to forced circumcision in the street, he went to a hospital, where he thought circumcision is performed in a safe way.
"A rowdy group of young men were running around town, singing cultural circumcision songs and grabbing any young man who they suspected of not having been circumcised," says Tilulaga. “My elder brother offered to foot my medical bills and now I am healing. But I had a lot of pain.”
The 'circumcision parades' made public life come to a halt in Mbale, as shopkeepers closed up their shops, and non- Bamasaaba left work for fear of being rounded up and circumcised. Police fired teargas at the Bamasaaba circumcising mob and arrested some of the perpetrators, who were released after things had calmed down. Mbale district police commander Michael Ongica said forced circumcision is unlawful as it causes bodily harm to the victim.
Bad for business
Speaking at the official start of the traditional circumcision season at Mutoto Cultural Centre in Mbale, Bamasaaba leader Umukuuka Wilson Weasa Wamimbi condemned the forced circumcision of non-Bamasaaba. Wamimbi didn’t seem all too concerned about other people’s rights, however. He said forced circumcision might not only create tensions in the heterogeneous community, but could also scare away potential non-Bamasaaba investors.
Local surgeon Yusuf Wamboga, who carried out forced circumcision operations, says it all started when President Yoweri Museveni, during a recent visit to Mbale, had suggested that all men should be circumcised as one of the strategies to curb the spread of HIV.
"When we [local surgeons] are asked to circumcise someone, we do not ask questions,” says Wamboga. “We perform our duty, since every season there are Bamasaaba men who are trying to elude circumcision – they are forced to undergo the ritual, too.”