Marriage in Uganda isn’t a simple concept to understand for the outsider. For those Ugandans who are Christian and believe the guidelines in the bible about marriage, it looks familiar: one man and one wife til death do them part. The man and wife are equal under God’s authority. The man loves his wife as himself and the wife respects her husband. Those families in Uganda who follow this model are thriving. But this is not the norm.
On the other side, polygamy is still practiced. The wives in non-christian marriages do not have any rights. Whatever the man says is the way it will be. She does not have a say about her life, her freedom, her body or her hardships. A young girl being groomed for this type of marriage is taught that when her husband begins to talk she has to take a drink of water and hold the water in her mouth without swallowing until he is finished talking. When she swallows she is reminded not to respond to him. (ah-hem, that would be exceedingly difficult for this woman right here at he keyboard) A man can go out to work, collect his pay, go to the drinking place to drink and eat meat, which is a delicacy, then go home as he pleases and demand “whatever” he wants from his wife. She has no right to say no, and if she does, she will be beaten. She has no right to divorce her husband. She will endure this way of life without complaint. She will guard the secrets of her hard life for decades. Many times these sufferings go to the grave with the women. Most often the men do not take care of the women financially. She must care for the kids herself, grow their food and sell what she can in the marketplace to buy what she needs for the family, including school supplies and fees. It’s a hard life. No wonder the average life span is 52 and half the population is under 15. It is important to realize a girl who is forced to quit school is quite vulnerable to being married into this sort of arrangement too young, and uneducated about making her own future goals. And educated girl can get to college and learn that she has other options beside that hard forced labor life of oppression under a tyrannical man. My eyes again are open to how vital it is to make sure every child has the opportunity for a good education.
Now imagine this man takes on another, and then another wife. And all of them live in the same house. I hope your jaw is falling open. They all have many many children. Don’t think they get along. Can the strife there possibly be tolerable? A man who wishes to sleep at night will try to build separate houses for his wives to reduce the tension. A man with many wives may not be wealthy. He could ride a bicycle transporting people all day and keep up this life. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Please note, this is generalized, and of course it is not every marriage, but it is the hidden, unspoken normal. It makes me deeply sad. I think about the wife in the movie The Last King of Scotland showing Idi Amin’s era of tyranny and she was oppressed in this way.
When we were teaching the people last fall about family planning so they wouldn’t have so many children to feed or worse choose abortion as an alternative birth control method, I wish I had known these cultural differences. How can a woman go to her husband and ask him to leave her alone a few fertile days a month if she has no right to speak back to his authority? How can she explain the problem would go away entirely if he got a vasectomy? She can’t. If he’s not the one responsible for the kids and supporting them, why would he be bothered with this problem? Who’s going to convince the men their wives have rights? It seems like a situation without hope, and it is if God is excluded. With God anything is possible, (I do have faith like a child) and as the christian marriages are observed for their deep love, their partnership, and their equality, I know it can permeate the old way. I hope this stirs you to pray for Uganda, for the future of the family there and the growth of Christianity. I hope you feel like me struck dumb, stratching your head wondering how it could be true. Prayer can move mountains. Let’s pray for the oppressed. And with hearts of love and not judgment we can continue to teach how God’s model for the family works for the greater good of all both individually and as one. I refuse to give up hope. I boldly sat in circles of pastors of Uganda last fall and explained what the bible has to say about life, marriage and family and I saw their eyes absorb the new information and process it as good and logical and of God. I believe they took this message home and spread it among their people. I pray for another opportunity to share these truths when we are there again this fall.