IMBALU DANCES – ISONJA, THE FIRST DANCE
The Imbalu dance starts with Isonja and ends with Ine’mba. Basiinde (imbalu candidates) and Basinyisi (escorts) dance to the tunes of Kadodi drums. They dance to the tunes of Kimilele (flutes). They dance to the creative songs by candidates. They dance Tsinyimba.
The reason we sing and dance is the very reason soldiers sing and dance when going for war. It is the very reason Christians sing and dance. We sing and dance for courage and celebration.
Isonja is a precursor for the actual circumcision dance. It succeeds Ifuumbo. It is a dance performed to train candidates about dancing skills as well as helping them get accustomed to imbalu dance wear.
Isonja is normally danced in open fields in the evenings after the day’s work. It is done prior to the circumcision season.
Similar to ifuumbo, isonja also has Namwenya who sings and gives instructions as candidates dance in circles. While running to the venue, candidates sing songs that they learnt during ifuumbo.
Here, Namwenyas are again hired to continue mentoring candidates in singing and cultural values. They used to be paid in terms of eggs, local brew/ busela, fetching water for them or by physically working for them in their gardens.
The common song sung here is Yolele, Yolele that goes;
Namwenya: Yolele, yolele;
Candidates: Iyaya yolele, yolele, iyaya,
Namwenya: Tsobolele uwakonela,
Candidates: Iyaya yolele, yolele, iya,
Namwenya: Kumukamba yakobole,
Candidates: Iyaya yolele, yolele, iya
Here, Namwenya is sending candidates to go and tell whoever is not circumcised, particularly those dodged imbalu the previous year, that it is back and there is no dodging again. Infact Namwenya’s last line, “Kumukamba Yakobole” translated as Tomorrow Its Back, re-echoes the fact that one can never dodge imbalu among the Bagisu.
Dancing isonja involves bending the back and stamping the ground with the feet – as you spread your arms and move from the body. As the candidate dances, he stamps the ground – each time turning to different direction.
Important to mention here is that isonja dancers wear heavy imbalu regalia – meant to transform them into muscular men strong enough to match with their manly tasks ahead.
They wear four to twelve thigh bells (bitsetse), circlet of wood or ivory on their foreheads (tsikwena), headgear (lilubisi), tsipokoto on their elbows, liabi around their waist, bibyuma around the shoulders and litondo on the back. Imagine the heaviness. Why?
Imbalu costumes are fashioned out of fierce, wild and rare animals, strong metals and durable woods as a demonstration that circumcision is tough meant for only tough and determined people. It depicts endurance. It psychologically prepares the candidate to persevere the unexplainable pain and stand still – without blinking when “his clan” is in the hands of the circumciser. The regalia communicate a message of toughness, aggressiveness, fearlessness and responsibility that characterize Bagisu men.