Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bwambale Robert's Marriage Introduction

We were in this small home in the village of Kasenyi way up in the Rwenzori mountains about 55 kilometers from Kasese. We climbed up the steep incline and a very rough and rugged terrain to participate in the marriage introduction ceremony of Bwambale Robert, a Bakonzo man.

Bakonzo is one of the tribes of Uganda and Kasese is inhabited by these people. A very proud and traditional people, they came to Uganda from the Congo some 200 years ago. Despite the passage of time, they have retained their hritage, traditions and culture.

Robert, a 36-year old man, whom I met at an Internet Café a couple of years ago, belongs to this tribe. His father died ten years ago of asthma. He has a secure job at the Municipal Health Clinic that also includes subsidized living quarters.

He had just about everything a man in his situation would want except for one thing. He did not have a “woman” (that’s how wives are usually addressed around here). “I find being in a single life a challenging task” he has remarked many time. It is most unusual for a Bakonzo man of 36 not have been married. The reason? He did not have the means to give away twelve goats to the woman’s family.

Well, as months passed by, Robert felt increasingly desperate, and, supported by family and friends, he made the plunge. But, it is not easy and straightforward for a Bakonzo man to get married. There is a well laid out system which no Bakonzo man dare deviate from. Here’s how Robert described it.

He first asked his friends, who know him better, to look for a woman for him. After about a month, his friends suggested three women for him to choose from. Robert met with each and finally settled on 2l years old Gevina Kabugho who lives with her farming family in this tiny village where inhabitants grow coffee, cassava, avocado and lots and lots of bananas.

Gevina and Robert

When I asked Robert about why he settled on this woman, Robert listed his criteria: family background, attitude (willingness to take Robert and his family as they are), education (her as well as her siblings’), clan, religion, and, whether anyone in the family had been inflicted with a disease like epilepsy (because epilepsy is considered an inherited disease). “But Robert, where does love come in the picture?”, I asked. Robert’s answer, “love will be there and it will come as we live together”.

Once Robert had chosen the woman, preparations were underway for the marriage introduction ceremony. Well in advance of this event, the bride’s family sent a list of items they expected from Robert’s family as dowry. This list can be very long and usually begins with twelve goats. In addition, the list for Robert included: suits for his in-laws, a gown, a blanket, a pair of bed sheets, a six-inch mattress, 50 kgs of sugar, one box of soap, twenty litres of paraffin, food and drinks, allowance for transport and last but not the least, Ekisimu, a gift of love which usually remains a secret between the bride and the groom.

On this day, we first met at Robert’s home in the village of Maliba. There were about fifteen people including Robert’s siblings, cousins and close friends. Everyone was very enthusiastic and excited. There were the seven goats that would be given to the bride’s family. Other five goats would be given later. As head of the family, Robert’s oldest brother (cousin) was in charge. He first went through each item of the dowry, and also showed us an envelope with one million shillings in cash. This was not in the bride’s family’s list, but it was included as a gesture of honour and respect.

To begin the marriage introduction ceremony, the goats were herded through the house. Goats are very special to the Bakonzos, and making them go through the house is considered a good omen especially if the goats urinate in the process. Just in case any of the goats would not oblige, water was poured on them as they passed by. This was followed by a prayer led by an older relative of Gevina. After welcoming words and other formalities, the suit case full of dowry items was brought in. The very first thing Robert’s cousin handed to Gevina’s family was the envelope with one million shillings. Each of the other items was individually shown to Gevina’s family. It was clear from the expressions on their faces that they very pleased with the dowry and they gave their thanks to Robert’s family. Instead of giving the ring, one of Robert’s cousins gave Gevina a neatly wrapped package that contained Ekisimu, the gift of love from Robert.

Conspicuously absent from the ceremony were the groom, Robert, and his mother. I was told that they were not supposed to witness the giving of dowry. Female members of Gevina’s family were also absent even though Robert’s sister and sisters-in-law were present. Perhaps they were busy preparing lunch, I was informed.

I have talked to Robert and a few other Bakonzos about this practice of dowry. They explain that giving of dowry indicates the groom’s and his family’s respect for the bride’s family, and also reassures the bride that the groom is capable of looking after her.

The marriage introduction ceremony is like an engagement, and there will be two more events to take place before Robert and Gevina would become husband and wife. First, there will be the “give-away”, at which Gevina would be formally given away to Robert and his family. This will be a huge event with over 500 guests, lots of feasts and merry-making. Finally, there will be the wedding ceremony followed by a Church service for the official and final stamp of approval. Robert’s plan is to hold the give-away ceremony in May to be followed right away with the wedding. From the beginning to the finalization of marriage, it can take a Bakonzo man several months and 15-20 million shillings.

Goats herded through the house

Two Families

There are uncanny similarities between the Bakonzo marriage tradition and the practice of arranged marriages and dowry which continues to this day in some parts of India. But, there is a major difference. In India, the dowry is expected from the bride’s side, not from the groom’s family as is the case with the Bakonzos of Uganda.