Tuesday 22 May 2012


When you spend time living in another very different culture there will inevitably be things that you admire, things that you dislike, and some things that you just don’t really understand.  In the last month we have been confronting the traditions and practices surrounding marriage in Uganda, and particularly, Bride-price.  The payment of dowries is found throughout the world: in India the practice of the bride’s family paying a dowry to the groom is widely believed to be responsible for tens-of-thousands of abortions of female foetuses each year, and a marked preference for having sons.  Paying dowries was also common in Europe until relatively recently, in Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” Mr Bennett quips that he wished he’d saved more of a fortune with which to “bribe worthless young men to marry my daughters”. 
The East-African system is the other way around.  The groom pays the parents of the bride a dowry – or Bride-price – in order to marry their daughter.  This at least has the advantage that families want both daughters and sons, and there is a financial incentive to educate daughters as it increases their likely bride-price.  This African system is widespread and ancient, indeed it is Biblical.  In 1 Samuel 18, the young and poor David has to pay bride-price to King Saul in order to marry his daughter Michal.  However, just because it is widespread and ancient doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right.
In Uganda the customs surrounding marriage are complicated by the over-lap – and sometimes mismatch – between the laws in the very recent constitution, the teachings and practices of Christianity and Islam, and the traditional practices of each tribal group - which are enshrined in customary law.  Here in mountainous south-west Uganda a Bakhongo groom will usually pay his in-laws a hoe, a blanket, twelve goats, some sugar to sweeten the mother-in-law, and some other gifts which the in-laws may demand.  For cattle-herding people such as the northern Acholi, the price may be measured in cows rather than goats.  The Bride-price is negotiated by various Uncles and Aunts on behalf of the two families at a ceremony known as “Introductions”, which is legally recognised as a customary marriage.  Following payment the bride is “given away” which may happen at the same time or on another occasion.  The significant cost of hosting these celebrations, in addition to finding the hefty bride-price, means that a long period of time may then pass before a religious church/mosque wedding can take place, in order that the groom can find the money required – and there is no such thing as a small wedding in Uganda because every relative and member of the community must be invited, seated, fed, and entertained.  It is common that the bride and groom will start living together following introductions while they save for the church/mosque wedding, although this is sometimes frowned upon. 
Why I am I telling you all this? – Because it’s stuff that we had to learn about very quickly when my closest local friend and colleague welcomed me into his new house that he’d finally finished building for himself, his wife and their 2 year-old daughter, and then burst into tears as he explained that his wife had gone to visit her father – a Police Inspector – who had then detained her at home, and was refusing to release her, or even to let her see him or their daughter, until he had received full payment of the outstanding bride-price.  Having spent every last shilling that he had putting windows and doors on the house he had built them, Isaiah was distraught and ended up in hospital one night after some kind of break-down caused by stress.  Even a doctor’s note requesting that the couple be allowed to see each other for the sake of his health would not move the father-in-law.  Being a European, my first reaction was that this problem was essentially about money, so we mobilised some funds to make a significant contribution towards the twelve goats (some of which are often paid in equivalent cash value).  Being a Christian, my other reaction was that we should start praying about this issue, encourage him and others to pray about it, and counsel him that God probably had no intention of allowing their little girl to be permanently separated from both her parents and that he should not lose hope.  It soon became apparent however, that this situation was more complex.  The father-in-law is a Muslim and was apparently complaining that he didn’t want his daughter marrying a Christian.  It also transpired that Rose was legally a Minor (under 18) when she and Isaiah had their daughter Trust and had not completed secondary school - neither of which is unusual in rural Uganda.  The father-in-law was now therefore trying to send her off to a boarding school in another District.  At this point we sought advice – we got legal advice from the Ugandan Christian Lawyers Fraternity, whose office is in our compound, and Pastor Alfonse spent a whole day with the Imam and Elders of the father-in-law’s mosque learning about the Muslim perspective on issues of marriage, bride-price, parenthood etc.  While all this was going on we were seeing Isaiah daily trying to encourage him, and to dispel unhelpful rumours that another groom had been found who would pay more, or unhelpful suggestions that he should “just find another wife”.  Even once the bride-price had been assembled, the father-in-law was refusing to meet with Isaiah to discuss payment.  Meanwhile other family members were being spoken to and it became apparent that the actions of the father-in-law were unpopular with his own family, unacceptable to the Elders of his mosque, and had no legal justification.  Matters came to a head on the day when Rose was due to go off to boarding school and she refused.  To Europeans it might seem obvious that a twenty-year old should make their own decisions, but defying your father in this culture is a big deal. At this point further family negotiations yielded a result that the Bride price would be paid and accepted, Rose would return to Isaiah and their daughter, and they would make their own plans to complete her education.
Nothing in Uganda is quite that simple however, so once five actual goats and the cash value of the remainder had been raised Isaiah then needed to find three crates of sodas, ten litres of paraffin, a carton of matchboxes, a box of soap and a sack of packets of salt, to take as gifts.  The family managed to get the money for these, and I drove him around town collecting them.  He also needed a suit, which allowed me to find a good-use for the linen suit I had bought in Oxfam before coming here which is slightly too small for me, but fits Isaiah perfectly!  On Saturday morning we headed off to the family village with six people and all the other strange gifts in our car and a battered old hire car following behind with another two people and five goats in it.  Inevitably the tarmac road gave way to a murram road, which gave way to a dirt track, then a narrower dirt-track and finally some kind of bumpy muddy and insanely narrow footpath.  Finally we pulled into a clearing, stopped and unloaded the vehicles.  I was confused as we stood around under some trees, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  The family members and pastors were gathered having a hushed conversation, mostly in Lukhongo, that seemed like some kind of pre-battle briefing.  I caught the local word for goats and then “sodas” and a dramatic “cash-down” with a flourish.  If someone approached they would immediately fall silent – not wishing their plans to be overheard.  Finally someone from Rose’s family arrived and formally invited us to proceed onto their land and into their home.  The discussion had been planning how to present the bride-price and gifts in the right way to ensure acceptance.  We were then herded into the father-in-law’s house, ushered into seats – and then left on our own while furtive conversation and sounds of food preparation could be heard on the other side of a curtain.  Finally the father-in-law came in and everyone greeted everyone with lots of smiles and salutation and no mention of the disturbing events of the last month.  At this point I had to leave as I had other engagements and the day was already a few hours behind schedule.  I brought Isaiah back with me as although it is the groom who has to bankrupt himself finding the brideprice and all the other gifts, he is not actually directly involved in the bizarre ceremony of payment.  Suffice to say that Rose was allowed to come home the following day and Isaiah, Rose and Trust are now back together, living happily in their own home – and planning and saving for the inevitably expensive extravaganza of a church wedding in October or November.
At this point you might be asking why did the father-in-law formally accept Isaiah as his son at Introductions three years ago if he had always wanted Rose to marry a Muslim, or to first finish school? – We don’t know.  You might be asking why had Isaiah taken three years to find twelve goats when Uganda seems to be full of goats? – He is a committed Christian who works hard for two charities with no regular salary (now partially rectified), and had prioritised the few resources that he had on putting a roof over their heads rather than paying off his father-in-law.  You might also ask, why did anyone care what the father-in-law thought when the Constitution of Uganda permits anyone over 18 to marry whom they choose, live where they choose and practice whatever religion they chose? – Firstly, the law only permits a church marriage with written consent of the bride’s father, and custom dictates that the Bride’s father won’t give this permission unless he has received full bride-price.  Secondly, Ugandan Police Inspectors are powerful men and not to be crossed.
I apologise for this article being so long, but some issues are so complicated they need a lot of words.  What have we learnt from this, apart from a lot of strange facts about marriage practices here?  A little money goes a long way here, but money alone is not enough.  Influence was required, and that had to be sought patiently by involving as many parties as possible and gaining as full an understanding as possible of the different issues and perspectives involved.  Hope and consistent encouragement were also essential for getting a young man through a very distressing situation.  We Europeans love to find practical solutions to every problem we come across, but there’s also a lot to be said for faith and for persistent prayer, when addressing seemingly intractable problems.

Prayer Request:
Please give thanks that Isaiah and Rose and Trust are now re-united, and in a way that has repaired good relations with both families.

This long case-study is not uncommon.  Throughout this region there are young men struggling to afford to marry the women they love, and young women frustrated that they are being literally traded for cattle – which can also create problems if they don’t produce a return on that investment in the form of children.  Please pray for all those affected by this practice and for the church as it struggles to reconcile Christian principles of marriage with ancient cultural traditions.