Carving Men and Nationhood: Struggles in Male Circumcision among the Bagisu in Twentieth-Century Uganda


African Humanities Program Postdoctoral Fellowships


Institute of Social Research


This study explores how the Bagisu of eastern Uganda used imbalu (male circumcision) as a political currency to generate debates about ideal masculinity and nationhood during key moments of the twentieth century. The Bagisu practiced circumcision as a marker of transition from boyhood to manhood. However, during the colonial and postcolonial moments, imbalu became a site on which Bagisu cultural nationalists asked not only basic questions about ideal manhood and masculinity but also about nationhood. Cultural nationalists rejected European medicalization of imbalu because it contradicted their understanding of proper manhood and masculinity. From the 1950s imbalu debates shifted from emphasizing responsible manhood and masculinity to focus on an ethnic nationalism closely tied to territory and physical boundaries. In the 1960s, imbalu struggles manifested themselves in arguments over manly authority and legitimacy. The study shows how cultural nationalists were able to convert imbalu into a litmus test of nationalist belonging.