In modern day Uganda families continue to practice the traditional marriage ceremony and it is called “The Introduction”, or give away ceremony. What I am going to describe about this ceremony is based on the practices in the Buganda Kingdom, which is in the area of Kampala. There are many other practices for the marriage introduction which vary in the other tribes of Uganda. The introduction ceremony usually occurs one month before the church wedding.
You have just seen the photos of my friends, George and Irene, as they celebrated their Introduction ceremony the second weekend of May, 2011. In one month I’ll be in Uganda as their photographer for their Christian wedding. I am so humbled to have this honor of recording such an important event in their lives and for having a cultural opportunity I never would have imagined possible in my life.
While we were in Uganda during December and January this year all of the young men who became our friends helped us understand this tradition of the bride price. It seems crazy foreign to us and we laughed a lot about it, but it’s no laughing matter for the groom who has to pay for the whole ceremony and the eternal list of gifts he must provide. It’s an enormous burden for young men starting out in life with average incomes. For many couples the cost of the introduction ceremony and the bride price is so prohibitive they often prolong marriage for many many years. It’s a bit of naughty fun to listen to the young men complain about what “he has to do” for the ceremony. For the girls, it is an honor to their family that the groom will go through this hassle and expense to win the approval of the bride’s father. I will also mention we learned from the sidelines that when a daughter is born a father begins thinking of what he will ask his future son-in-law for in terms of the bride price. It is a definite way to get material wealth. It was even suggested, though not proven, that the reason there are so many more boys in the baby homes is that girls bring a price and are workers so they are valuable to keep around. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but I will say there were a lot of boys available but only a couple of girls.
The traditional bride price is at least one cow. Each area of Uganda has a set “price”. I was told the girls in the north have fathers who ask for thirty cows. The young men explained to me, “you will never see a man from the south marry a girl from the north”. Considering each cow costs five hundred dollars, and a better than average income is four hundred dollars a month, you can see how heavy a wallet must be to afford an Introduction ceremony.
George had to first write a flawless letter to his future father-in-law and ask to marry Irene. A special aunt is appointed called a Ssenga who becomes the official go between for the negotiating parties. And the negotiations for the bride price then begin and may not be officially over until just before the ceremony.
The groom will call several wedding meetings of his friends and families to help him plan for the event. Culturally it is natural and expected for everyone to donate what he or she can to help with the costs of the event. During these meetings the groom is instructed on every detail of what he must provide as gifts for everyone in her family. For example: all kinds of fruit and vegetables wrapped in traditional baskets and carried on the heads, sugar, bread, soap, salt, cooking oil, curry powder, paraffin, a goat, a cow (definitely not carried on the head), gomesi dresses for the women and long white kanzus for the men, as well as envelopes filled with money for everyone. Many grooms might like to avoid these costs, but it’s necessary if they want to marry traditionally and follow historical customs. It is the way to show respect to the family by following custom. During the planning meetings each family hires a spokesperson for the ceremony. The spokesperson takes the role of the final emissary on the day of introduction and he has to pull a lot of antics learned from tradition and experience to engage or answer challenges from the other side’s spokesman. It is the battle between the two that makes the Introduction and the whole ceremony memorable and unique from any other ceremony.
I have done some research and learned a lot about how the ceremony is conducted. I hope someday I can go to one, but, considering I don’t speak Lugandan, I’m thankful for those who write about it in English so I’ve got a chance at understanding the procedures.
The better spokesmen cost a lot because he will be more articulate, clever and bolder as he must engage in cultural-traditional and common sense answering of challenges from the other party. The man’s spokesman has to answer correctly and do as they are told as the woman’s spokesman is the controller of the ceremony.
When the men arrive at the ceremony the spokesman must answer a number of questions before being allowed into the ceremony. If the spokesman answers wrongly it can lead to a fine to atone a supposed disrespect for the in-laws and elders gathered at the ceremony.
The traditional marriage ceremony in Buganda may continue to change but it still remains a battle of the wits and cultural tongue-twisting between representatives of the two sides who engage each other in a question and answer challenge or in knowing, mentioning and following century old norms and traditions.
It becomes a big show of pretend as if the girl’s family doesn’t know why the man’s family has come, and needs to be convinced to allow his girl to marry him. They must prove he comes with purpose, and the appropriate gifts. All is done for ceremony and to create tension and punctuate the proceedings. Finally the groom to be is chosen from the group and given a seat of honor as the person who gathered all the people for this ceremony. Then there might be a lot of dancing and gift giving when the spokesman for the bride’s family asks which exact lady he has come for. A flower is given from a younger person on the groom’s side to the bride, and she dances to accept it. Then the big gifts are brought for the family and the bride’s spokesman asks if they should accept the gifts. They act like they might not, and then finally agree to accept. There is a great celebration then as they exchange rings and finish the ceremony with the feasting.