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The Bagishu inhabit the western and southern halves of Mt Elgon. On the west, the mountain spreads like the fingers of a hand with steep and narrow valleys between them. The southern land is broken and consists of a jumble of hills jammed against a high escarpment like a crumpled tablecloth. The escarpment fades gradually t a plain leading away to the northeast inhabited by Iteso.


The Bagishu have no tradition of an early migration from somewhere. They assert that their ancestors were called Mundu and Sera who tradition says came out of a hole on Mt Masaba (Elgon). their early life seems t have been anti-social, almost based on the principle of “survival of the fittest”. Very little is so far known about their history but they are known to be related to a sub-group of the Luhya of Kenya known as Bukusu. The Bagishu are sent to have separated from the Bukusu in the 19th century. The tradition claims that they have always lived where they are since history is not fashionable. The earliest immigrants of Bugishu are believed t have moved into the Mt Elgon area during the 16th century from the eastern plains.

Political set-up.

The Bagishu had a loose political structure based on clans. Every clan had an elder known as Umwami we sikuka (chief of the clan). These men were chosen on the basis of age and wealth. They were responsible for maintaining law and order, unity and the continuity of the clan. They were also responsible for keeping and maintaining the cultural values of the clan and for making sacrifices to the ancestral spirits. Often stronger chiefs would extend their influence to other clans but no chief managed to subdue other clans into one single political entity. Other important figures in Bugishu included the rainmakers and the sorcerers.


One of the unique social customs of the Bagishu is male circumcision. The actual origin of this practice is mysterious even among the Bagishu themselves.

The Bagishu are a highly superstitious people. Before circumcision, an initiate is administered herbs called ityanyi. Its purpose is to arouse interest in circumcision within the candidate. Often, itenyi is tied around the initiate’s big toe or it is put in such a place that he might jump over it unawares. It is believed that if a candidate who has taken itenyi is delayed, or hindered from being circumcised, he might end up circumcising himself as his mind is said to be so much stimulated towards circumcision that no other thing can distract him.

Circumcision among the Bagishu occurs bi-annually during leap years. Every male has to perform the ritual upon reaching puberty. Those who abscond are hunted down and forcefully and scornfully circumcised. Before the day of circumcision, the initiates are tuned up by having them walk and dance around villages for their days. Their relatives dance with them and there is a lot of drumming and singing. Girls, especially the sisters of the initiates, enthusiastically take parting the processions. It is believed that once a boy is circumcised, he becomes a true Mugishu and a mature person. An uncircumcised one is called a Musani

On the day of circumcision, the initiates are assembled together in a semi-circle. The operation on each initiate is pretty fast. The circumciser and his assistant move around performing the ritual as appropriate. The assistant circumciser pulls the foreskin off the penis and the circumciser cuts it off. The circumciser goes further and cuts from the penis another layer which is believed to develop into another top cover for the penis if it is not removed. The circumciser proceeds and cuts off a certain muscle on the lower part of the pennies. These cuttings end the circumcision ritual.

After circumcision, the initiate is made to sit down on a stool and he is then wrapped in a piece of cloth. After that, he is taken to his father’s house and made t move around the house before entering it. For three days, the initiate is not allowed to eat with his hands. He is fed. They say that it is because he is not yet fully initiated into manhood.

After three days, the circumciser is invited to perform the ritual of washing the initiate’s hands. It is after this ritual that the initiate can eat with his hands. On the same day, the initiate declared a man. It is then that the custom allows him to marry. During the ceremony, the initiate is instructed on the duties and demands of manhood. He is informed in addition that agriculture is very important and advised to always behave like a man.

It is believed that the healing of the cuts depends on how many goats have been slaughtered during the circumcision. After healing, a ritual is performed. All the new initiates in the locality have to attend. This ritual is called Iremba. It is an important ceremony that all village people these days even government officials attend. During ritual proceedings, the initiate could pick any girl and have sexual intercourse with her, the girl was not supposed to refuse. It is believed that if a girl refused, she would never have children when she got married.

Previously, circumcision was done in specific enclosures and only the initiates and the circumcisers were allowed in. The rest of the congregation would just wait and listen from the outside enclosure. Today, however, all people are allowed to watch the whole process. Firmness and courageous endures on the part of the initiate are appreciated as a sign of bravery.


The Bagishu are essentially an agricultural society. Food production was for subsistence and the main crops included matooke, (Kamtore), potatoes (kamapondi), millet, beans (kamakanda) and peas. Besides agriculture, they also rear some cattle, sheep, and goats. Recently donkey has become a common sight as a beast of burden. The land was owned on a clan basis. Boys would be allocated pieces of land upon getting married..

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