Bamasaba or Bagisu also known as Gishu,Bagishu, Masaba or Sokwia are people of the Bantu family who live along the slopes of Mount Elgon in Mbale District eastern Uganda. An individual of Bagisu tribe is called Mugisu and everything associated with the Bagisu including their culture, tradition, values and property are also known as Kigisu. One would talk of Kigisu music, Kigisu dances or kigisu culture, the generic term Gisu founded by other tribal natives of Uganda, has been used by scholars like Victor Turner (1969, 1973) and Suzette Heald (1982) to refer to the Bagisu people, their region, language, or culture. As such, one can talk of the Gisu while referring to the Bagisu people or something that belongs to them. However, the Bagisu do not refer to themselves or what belongs to them as the Gisu (Gishu).
The Bagisu are known for the fearsome aggressiveness and strength by their neighbours in Uganda and Kenya whilst the world know the Bagisu people for their unique Mbalu circumcision rituals. Bagisu people take circumcision serious and any man who is uncircumcised would not be allowed to marry Bagisu woman and Bagisu woman well imbibed with Kigisu culture will never allow an uncircumcised man to join with her. Imbalu circumcision rituals among the Bagisu aim at strengthening cultural continuity by enhancing the passing over of cultural responsibilities and ideologies from older generations to young ones. Imbalu circumcision rituals construct the Bagisu identity by making them stand out as a race of “men” (basani) as opposed to other un-circumcising tribes whom the Bagisu consider as boys (basinde). Indeed, one graduates into a “man” and become considered responsible and indeed a “real” Mugisu through circumcision. The women’s “true” identity is also defined by marrying a “real” man, one who is circumcised
Today, the number of Masaba culture speakers is around 1,120,000 with an ethnic population of 953,936; the area is the most densely populated region of the country with 250 people per sq. kilometer. However, during the time of colonial rule, the tribe had a population of roughly two thousand. The tribe was divided into clans—two or three around Mbale with the rest scattered around the slopes of Mt. Elgon. The clans were made up of villages containing ten homes, although this number occasionally reached forty.
In fact, the original name of the Bagisu is Bamasaba, which means “that of the Masaba origin”. According to Khamalwa (2004: 20), the name Bugisu is recent and traces it to the late nineteenth century when the British colonialists came to Uganda. According to Khamalwa, the name Bugisu is associated with Mwambu, the eldest son of Masaba. According to a legend, Mwambu, who used to look after his father’s cattle, was attacked by the Masaai from Kenya. The Masaai took all the cattle he was herding. Mwambu is said to have raised an alarm for help but as his clansmen mobilised to come to his rescue, he followed the raiders single-handedly and caught up with them. The Masaai were shocked with Mwambu’s courage and handed over all the cattle they had raided including an extra bull (known in the Masai language as ingisu) as a symbol of Mwambu’s bravery.
When Mwambu’s father heard about the ordeal, he was so shocked that he gave Mwambu a nickname of Mugisu. However, when the British sent Semei Kakungulu as their representative to “pacify” the eastern part of Uganda including the Mount Elgon region, he was fascinated by people who spoke a language similar to his own. When some local chiefs recounted the above legend,Kakungulu renamed the Bamasaba culture, the Bagisu.