The Bagishu in habit 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. On 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 form somewhere. They assert that their ancestors were called Mundu and Sera whom 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 “ 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 claiming that that 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.
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, and 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 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.
The Bagishu have a very strong belief in magic. Their out look on the most ordinary events was bound up with magic. The experts at magic in Bugishu were divided into three categories. These categories, in their descending order of harmfulness were: the witch doctor proper or the sorcerer known as umulosi; next to the scale is the witch finder called umufumu ; and the least harmful if the medicine man. The duty of the medicine man was to tell when to make sacrifices. He also supplied medicine against witch craft; snake bites, charm, for use in war and those to induce infection. He could read an oracle and also avert a creditor form coming to demand debts.
The Umufumu could perform the powers of a medicine man but in addition had the power to detect who had cast a spell against someone. However, he did not have the powers to cast a spell. He could simply tell who had done it and appropriate means would be taken to get an antidote. The Umulosi was the most feared and the most harmful. His position was hereditary and he lived alone in the forest. He wielded great influence and sometimes he combined the functions of the witch-finder with his other roles. He was considered a direct medium and no medicine could be effective against his spells.
There were several forms of witch craft; some particular with men and others particular with women. One of them was called Buyaza. It was done by putting the backbone of a snake into some belongings of hr victim and then calling upon the spirits to attack him or her, other forms involved various actions and objects but the end result was usually the same that is inflicting harm or misfortune on the victim. There was another form of witch craft known as gamalogo which was particular with women and Gamasala which was particular with men and it required the use of pieces of food leftovers, put in a cocoon of poisonous caterpillar and placed in the thatch of the victim’s hut. The men applied a method called Nabulungu to bewitch cattle. Another method called Mutabula was also used by men and it involved burying a small flat woven basket in the ground outside the intended victim’s hut. These were just a few. There were several other forms and instances of witch craft.
The judicial system was mixed up in their belief of witch craft. The accused might often be innocent but once named by a witch finder, he or she had to commit suicide. If a woman was suspected of an evil practice like sorcery, the husband had t send her away and custom demanded that he own people would not accept her either. The person named by the witch finder was usually killed should he fail to remove the spell which he cast on the victim or if the victim had already died.
The procedure of finding out whatever someone had cast the spell took a somewhat strange trend. The accused was summoned and confronted with the corpse or the sick man and urged t confess. If he refused, there were several other ordeals he was subjected to. The commonest was the use if a hit knife. If he got burnt when a hot knife was placed on his body, he would be considered guilty if the crime but if he was not burnt, he would be considered innocent. It is said, however, that there were cases when some people would not get burnt and there used to be living examples to testify to this fact.
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. One tradition states that it originated from the demand by the Barwa (Kalenjin) when Masaba, the Bagishu hero ancestor, wanted t marry a Kalenjin girl. Another tradition claims that the first person to be circumcised had a complication with his sexual organ and the circumcision started as a surgical operation to save the man’s life. There is also a story that the first person to be circumcised had as a punishment for seducing other people’s wives. Legend has it that it was decided to castrate him by a way of circumcision. When he recovered, he resumed his former practices and rumour went around that he was excellent at it. In order to compete favourably, other men decide to circumcise also.
The Bagishu are a highly superstitious people. Before circumcision, and initiate is administered with herbs called ityanyi . Its purpose is to arouse interest on circumcision within the candidate. Often, itenyi is tied round the initiate’s big toe or it is put in such a place where 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 t here days. Their relatives dance with them and there is much 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 fore skin off the penis and the circumciser cuts 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 is declared a man. It is then that the custom allows him to marry. During the ceremony, the initiate ids instructed on the duties and demands of man hood. 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 which 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 is appreciated as a sign of bravery.
Traditionally marriage was arranged by the parents of the boy and the girl, often without the knowledge and the consent of the girl. After the bride wealth had been settled, a delegation form the boy’s side would come with the boy and they would be offered the bride. A man could marry as many wives as he wished provided he could afford the bride wealth. In the event of divorce, the girl’s parents would return all that they had demanded as bride wealth. This depended on whether the woman left immediately after marriage or she had failed to produce children. If she had had children, only part of the bride wealth would be returned.
Birth and Naming.
Birth usually took place in the house. Traditionally, a medicine man would be consulted to administer some medicine in order to lessen the labour pains. Some times the husband would be required to assist the wife during the time of labour. After giving birth, the mother would cut the umbilical cord. The afterbirth was buried.
The naming of the child was not immediate. It would normally wait until such a time as the child began to cry continuously, say throughout the day or throughout the night. Tradition says that an ancestor would then appear as if in a dream and dictate the name by which the child would be called. The name so commanded was normally the one of the ancestor who appeared in the dream. The name thus suggested was obligatory and no one was supposed to question its suitability.
In the event of death, people would cry loudly and the body of the deceased would remain in the house for three days before the burial could take palace. This applied to both sexes. Burial took place on the fourth day.
There were elaborate rituals which were performed during burial. If the deceased was barren, a hole was cut at the rear of the house. The corpse would be passed through it to be taken to burial. In the case of a parent, the corpse would be passed through the normal entrance. Women who died un married were treated in the same way as if they were barren, but such cases were rare because mature girls were normally chased away from homes by their brothers to go and get married. Before burial, the corpse was entreated that no one present was responsible for its death and therefore its spirit should not return as they had left no trace on earth, and their names were never given to anyone yet to be born.
Enough food and brew was prepared. After the burial a ceremony would be carried out. It was attend by the elders. If the dead person had been the head of the house hold, this ceremony would installing an heir. The rules for choosing an heir demanded that he or she should be well-behaved and understanding. The heir could be a girl or a boy no matter whether he or she was younger than some of his or her elder brothers and sisters.
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 beast of burden. Land was owned on a clan basis. Boys would be allocated pieces of land upon getting married.