We have become good friends with a few young men who are engaged to be married. We are so curious to know about the marriage rituals here in Uganda. We weren’t prepared though to find out how common polygamy is here and that it continues to thrive. The muslim men are especially well known for having up to four wives, sometimes even more. Emily and I were so confused as we tried to understand how the man manages these women and all the children. Kim, the driver who picked up my Kira on the day she was born, has forty-eight siblings! Even he said that’s too much. The thing he assured me is that he will only have three children and one wife because he is Christian and he wants to be a good provider and not have his children struggle as much as he did growing up. His father was muslim and his mother was a Christian. She worked in a church kitchen so Kim would go with her to get food. One time he went to a Christmas celebration for the free meal and he heard the gospel and gave his life to Christ. When he went home and told his father he was beaten and chased away. At age thirteen he went to live in an orphanage. He said his life was too hard and he doesn’t want his newborn baby to struggle that much. I understand. Some men do have all of their wives at the same time. If they all live in one house there is much tension. Duh. So to have so many wives the man must be able to afford it and this usually requires giving each wife a place of her own. The main reason more men don’t keep more wives is because they can’t afford to.
The men who have several wives aren’t usually involved with all of them at once. A person can be “married” here by just saying it out loud and living with the person. When you want a divorce you do the same thing. Divorce is socially unacceptable and embarrassing to admit, even less embarrassing than being one of many wives. Christians do not practice polygamy in Uganda. They have church weddings and wear rings on their fingers and that’s how you know they were married in a church. They can never be given a divorce because no one will go near the process for fear of God. For those men who have several wives they usually are having affairs that are considered wives and children are produced. Many times one of the wives with the biggest heart takes in all the children of the man as he usually runs off and so do some of the wives. I hear this story over and over again. God bless those women who take in children not their own, especially in this culture where it is nearly impossible for a single woman to get enough food to feed them and clothes to keep them covered.
The government never gets involved with a marriage. There’s no “legal” marriage so when a person wants a divorce there is no process to endure. A divorce is usually a man taking off and never seeing his kids again. Only the people with a lot of money (to protect) will use the legal system to divorce. You should have seen some of the men’s faces when I told them in America if you divorce the woman keeps half of what you own. They were about as confused as I was to contemplate polygamy.
Traditional marriages here are fascinating. The entire courtship is formal and it follows a strict process. When a girl is
interested in a man she is not allowed to initiate the relationship. She has to wait for the man to declare he loves her. George told us that if a woman told him she loved him first he could never date her because he would not feel like a man. He said, the man needs to hunt for his wife and win or he is not a man. Once the couple agrees they have mutual feelings the relationship is kept secret from the family. She is not even supposed to mention that she is interested in him. When he comes around to meet the family it is only as a friend. This is because there is a formal introduction ceremony where the man is to meet her family for the first time. Prior to that ceremony the man goes to have a meeting with her father to request his daughter. The father raises a daughter here expecting a bride price to be paid when she is given away. The traditional price is a cow. If the girl is from different areas the bride price could be five cows or as many as a hundred for the girls who come from the north. It is almost unheard of for a man in the south to marry a girl in the north for this reason. One cow costs about five hundred American dollars and that’s a large sum for a man here to acquire. The father has the right to ask for anything he wants for his daughter. Many will ask for a cow, a goat and some chickens. Others will ask for practical items along with the cow, like a generator. All the while a father is raising his daughter he is considering what he will ask for her because it is the primary way for a common person to become rich. Cows in this country are the standard for measuring wealth. If you have a lot of cows, you have more respect from the community.
So, when a young man and her father agree on the price the engagement is set. The next step is for him to gather the bride price and they set the introduction ceremony date. His family hosts the Introduction event. The introduction is usally a month before the actual wedding and it is as formal as the wedding where everyone is dressed in traditional Ugandan attire. The women wear dresses called, Gomesis, which are full length with high pointed shoulders and a large sash around the waist. The man brings the bride price to the father and they have a feast where the young man is given a whole chicken cooked inside banana leaves and he is to eat it all. Thereafter when he dines with her family there is to be chicken served to him, and he is given the best pieces of meat. He arrives with the cow on a rope behind him and hands it over to the father as a symbol of promise to replace the precious loss the family will endure. Girls here work hard so when a woman leaves her family there is a gap in the help and the family will use this as a bargaining tool to get a higher bride price. When a family does not like a young man they will set the bride price way beyond his ability to provide. We call that meddling they call it fair. If the girl really loves her man she will plead with her father to reduce the price because he doesn’t have any money to give such a high price and sometimes this works. Because of the bride price girls are more desirable to produce here than boys. This is the main reason there are so many more boys in orphanages than girls.
Irene showed me photos of all her wedding plans and I would have believed she is getting married in America. She has a big cake decorated like ours, a beautiful white gown, and decorations for the tables. Her family hosts the wedding event. After the church ceremony she changes out of her gown into an evening dress of any color of her choice. After the reception they are whisked away to their honeymoon. They want to go to Zanzibar and relax on the beach. Irene wears a pretty engagement ring on her middle finger. During the ceremony in June she will move the ring over to her ring finger.
I am so honored that George has invited me to come photograph his wedding. I am so fond of both of them. During the past few weeks we have had “pre-marriage counseling sessions” both individually and together. They are committed to having a Christian marriage where their relationship is fashioned after what God says about being a family in the bible. This is what Craig and I did after we got married, we studied the bible together to find out what God says about our individual roles, how He describes love, and the terms of commitment….til death do you part. Irene and George are so mature and intelligent and serious about what they are doing. It is good. In some ways I watch their love and I recognize Craig and I, and it is as if I were still that young. But when I realize we’ve been married twenty years and yet we not only have the same love but an even deeper love than those early days, well, I understand why they might want to grow what we now have.
We all have asked Craig how many cows he is going to ask for in exchange for Kira when the day arrives. He said, “it depends on how much I like the young man.” Perhaps all fathers instinctively feel this way about their daughters.