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First Wives` Club Unites In Africa Polygamy
Lara Santoro, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
January 23, 1998


After 10 years of marriage, Maria Yozepha Nansaramba`s husband came home with a surprise: a second wife. “He told me to go back to my parents` house in the village,” says the twenty-something mother of two. “He kicked me out of the home we built together and out of the land I worked.”

As in much of Africa, polygamy is common in Uganda, where the right of a man to take as many wives as he wishes is protected under law, provided he can secure their comfort.

Yet studies have shown that in many cases, a second wife has disastrous implications for the first. Either she is relegated to a secondary, often humiliating role, or she is pushed aside, her property confiscated, her children left to fend for themselves.

But more and more, women are challenging the practice. Ms. Nansaramba, sitting rigidly in the offices of the Ugandan Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA), is seeking advice on how to move against her husband.

One legislator is on the front lines of Uganda`s polygamy debate. Miria Matembe stands close to six feet tall - a fiery woman with a deep voice, a powerful frame, and no-nonsense shoes.

She promised her rural constituency one thing: a bill defining their rights “before, during, and after marriage.”

But two years after being elected to parliament as a special representative for women, she`s stuck.

Her bill has been drafted - 54-pages` worth - but a raging debate over a provision attempting to regulate polygamy is now threatening its survival. “I expected it would be problematic,” says Ms. Matembe, “Now I`m worried that it will never make it.”

The Domestic Relations Bill exploded in the hands of the Law Reform Commission earlier this month. It pitted Muslims against Christians, traditionalists against progressives, and, more interesting in the broader African context, newly empowered women like Matembe against men.

There are no clear statistics on polygamy in Uganda, but experts believe between 40 and 50 percent of all unions here are polygamous. In rural Africa, it was seen as an economic necessity, since multiple wives and children provided unpaid farm labor.


The Law Reform Commission set out to regulate polygamous unions. In essence, it recommended that a man be restricted to two wives and that he justify “the need for marrying a second wife before a Family and Children Court.” In case of separation, it set ground rules for the equal division of property.

What followed was a debate of unprecedented virulence. The exchanges at one symposium were so heated that Harold Platt, the head of the commission, decided to back down on the two-wives restriction. Says Mr. Platt: “I suppose I would have to say we are not prepared to overrule polygamy at this stage.”

IN the ongoing debate, Matembe takes a contradictory, greatly emblematic stance. While coolly arguing that any legislation of polygamy is ultimately of little use - only taking women out of the fields and putting them into the workplace will do the job - she loses her composure at the sheer mention of the word “co-wife.”

“All right,” she booms, “If we are going to legislate for men`s immorality, let`s legislate for women`s immorality too. Let`s say: `Any spouse can take on another spouse` ... and let`s watch this country explode!”

In the muted chorus of disapproval over the commission`s handling of the issue, the Muslim community, officially just over 10 percent of Uganda`s 21 million people, has taken a leading role.

In a blistering speech, Abaasi Kiyimba, secretary general of Uganda`s Muslim Youth Association, described the provisions as an imposition of Christian values on Muslims.

Sitting in his office at Makerere University, Mr. Kiyimba points out that the sharia, Islam`s code of law, bestows on men the right to four wives. Any limitation of that right would amount to a gross violation of the freedom of religion.

“Our argument is not about wives, it`s about letting people marry according to their beliefs,” he says.

Matembe differs. “Whenever a gender issue comes up in this country, religion and cultural sentiments are invariably brought in because then you cannot reason, you just appeal to people`s emotions.”

She adds, “Like rape, like incest, {polygamy} is all about power relations.”

Second or third wives have to compete for a man`s money and attention, she points out. In many villages, co-wives share a single, cramped space.

Unless, like Mary Goreti Nakabuye and her two children, they are kicked out entirely.

“When I left,” she recalls, “he took everything except the nightgown I had on. I asked for money for the children, and he sent me two maternity dresses.”

Lawyers at FIDA question polygamy on the assumption that it violates the principle of equality enshrined in Uganda`s three-year-old Constitution. They belong to a new urban elite taking forceful issue with tradition.

Among them is Barbara Kaija, features editor of the daily New Vision. “I advocate the extreme principle of one man, one wife,” she says, smiling. Like Matembe, she does not believe a law could eradicate polygamy at this stage.

But as more women gain access to education and power, “there will be a clash,” says Jeanne Kyazze of the Law Reform Commission. “It is inevitable.”

What will be at stake then is the definition of individual and collective freedom, Platt says. “We will be debating to what extent does freedom of religion go hand in hand with women`s emancipation and to what extent the freedom of women is restricted by polygamy.”

© 1998 Christian Science Monitor. All Rights Reserved.

Bride`s maids from Kenya`s smallest ethnic group El-molo smile during a wedding ceremony in El-molo bay in Loiyangalani, northeastern Kenya, June 29, 2006. El-molo, who live on the southern shores of Lake Turkana are in very small numbers but the population has increased at about 300-400 people by intermarriages with neighboring Turkana and Samburu tribes. According to their tradition the bride is circumcised on her wedding day. On the right is the bride`s mother. Picture taken June 29, 2006. REUTERS/Boniface Mwangi/Files (KENYA)

Marrying From the `Wrong` Tribe
by Elizabeth Namazzi
March 26, 2007

Kampala, Mar 26, 2007 (New Vision/All Africa Global Media) -- MARRYING someone from a different culture obviously presents compatibility issues. But that is not the only reason people of different tribes have been faced with the wrath of their families when they have decided to get married.

SOMEWHERE in Kampala, a father has put up a map in his house. It`s a map of Uganda, defining the regions from which his three daughters can accept marriage proposals.

“Daddy will not let any of us marry someone from beyond the River Nile to the east and River Kafu north of Kampala,” laments Fiona. For the moment, she is concealing an affair with a man across the restricted line. She plans to announce her engagement in a few months, although she is aware that she will meet stiff resistance from the “old man”.

In the past parents insisted on picking the tribes their children would marry from.

But with greater movements and interaction at school and work places that is becoming difficult. Not only are the children likely to defy their parents, but they are also enjoying new freedoms.

“We have the right to choose and I will move in with him immediately after my last exam in June,” Fiona, a law student, stresses. She is not counting on support from her mother who carries the same old mindset as her father.

Why no mixed unions?

Fiona`s situation is a manifestation of anti-mixed marriage sentiments that are common in multi-tribal Uganda. In the old days it was a taboo to marry from another tribe. Some conservative parents still hold fast to that tradition.

Like in ancient days, preference for same-tribe marriages is underpinned by the desire to increase a tribe`s population and retain its purity, as well as a fear of losing a child to an alien culture.

A few years ago a minister in the Buganda government who rejected his daughter`s choice of a mate later succumbed to her decision in what could be seen as a duel between the traditional and modernity. His old perception that the Basoga and Baganda were discordant was not in keeping with the modern view that friendship is driven by other social factors than tribe. For five years, the minister`s daughter held on to her chosen one until she got permission to wed.

Myths, history, culture and sometimes politics play a big part in obstructing intertribal marriages.

For instance the Baganda and Basoga have long been regarded as incompatible as seen in the ancient Kisoga saying: “Atasiima Muganda na mulogo”, meaning, no one is as ungrateful as a Muganda or a wizard. The bad relationship between the two tribes stems from the bitter experience of the Basoga under Semei Kakungulu, a Muganda chief who ruled over Busoga with a firm hand.

To the Basoga, Kakungulu was not a British colonial agent, but an agent of Buganda. His misrule was therefore blamed on his tribe.

For years Basoga men faced resistance from old-fashioned parents if they married Baganda. Some still do today. They are warned that the women are unstable, detoothers (money-minded) and likely to run off with a tribesmate after a while in marriage.

Preferring anonymity, a young Musoga recalls the admonitions. “It`s unadvisable to marry from across the River Nile because Baganda are an unnecessarily proud and arrogant people who think they rule the world,” one elder warned him.

In what was a smear campaign, the old man pointed out that Baganda girls were “too choosy and difficult to please, impolite, despots and impossible to manage because they want to be in charge yet they should be followers, are hard-hearted and will not lovingly care for the man and his folk”.

Such tribal wars are not limited to Uganda. In Kenya, marriages between the Kikuyu and Luo are taboo.

Driven by their pursuit to dominate Kenya`s politics, the two tribes discourage their children from intermarriages. A Kikuyu girl is unlikely to marry a Luo or even have casual contact with them. Theirs is unprecedented in tribal bigotry in East Africa.

Due to linkages of languages, cultures and geographic proximity tribes in western Uganda find each other compatible. But there are still cases of disagreement.

The Batoro shun the Bamba and Bakonjo, who they regard as foreigners that their children should not marry. Among the Bafumbira, the Batwa are not marriage material.

New day

However, with education and the influence of religion, marriages are cutting across tribes today.

Judith, 33, is a Mufumbira married to a Muhima. She faced resistance when her husband first introduced her to his family. It was much later that she discovered why. She recalls: “I overheard his brother telling him that if he married me he would take the cattle outside the family. Later, I also learnt that they thought I wasn`t beautiful enough because they believe they have the most beautiful girls in the world.”

Mzee F. D. R. Gureme, a Muhima jokingly echoes Judith`s views when he says: “The Bahima had no reason to marry from other tribes because they had very beautiful women.”

He, however, points out that one of the reasons why intertribal marriages were discouraged in the olden days was because tribes were hostile to each other. As a result, the memory of the bitter pre-colonial tribal wars often surpassed love.

The early history of Bunyoro and Buganda is a classic case. Fraught with colonial conflicts the two carried bitterness that at times prohibited intermarriages. The Baganda youth were warned via a saying: “Oleka mujaguzo evuga n`odda e Bunyoro” meaning that a Munyoro leaves a party in Buganda to return to his gloomy Bunyoro. The Banyoro in turn also frowned at the Baganda as exploiters.

Different tribes over the ages had peculiar excuses for not accepting intermarriages. But most common include difference in cultural beliefs, customs, language, values and customs. The other concern was what language the children would use.

Joy, a Muganda, nearly failed to marry her Acholi university sweetheart shortly after the overthrow of the military junta in 1986. She was told that the Acholi were a brutal tribe, the language was difficult and she would not fit in. Twenty years later she is still happily married. They use Luganda, Acholi and English at home and have a hybrid culture.

Traditionalists, however, will quickly pick on this - the killing of a culture - as a reason to oppose mixed marriages.

Effect of change

In the old days it was normal to be born, groomed and married without ever living outside your village. Even if you did, the normal practice of parents choosing a bride/groom left no room for spouses outside one`s tribe. But years of modernity, education and love have changed this. Children are more travelled and exposed to other tribes and cultures.

“Children have become more rebellious these days,” says Mzee Yulita Kikomeko, shaking her head sadly. “It`s very hard for a girl or boy in love to understand the demerits of marrying outside one`s tribe because he or she will say you are old-fashioned.”

Warned against marrying

Mark Kisadha, a Musoga, says his parents told him keep away from Banyarwanda because: “They are likely to be promiscuous people. I was also told that they never have enough sex.”

For Isaac Menya, it`s the Jopadhola and Banyole he`s wary of marrying. “I hate stereotyping but the Jopadhola are out of step with modernity. Even if they have grown up in Kampala or are educated, they will still remain Jopadhola.”

For this reason he wouldn`t marry a well behaved beautiful Jopadhola girl even if she were the only girl in the universe.

As for the Banyole, “there is a lot of witchcraft in that area. One can`t be sure,” Menya argues.

Some people have been warned to be careful when considering marrying Banyankore. A stereotype of being lazy, dirty, and arrogant hangs around their necks.

Others have been told to stay away from the Banyarwanda, Bagisu and Iteso because of their visiting culture. The Banywarwanda are accused of over-visiting with intentions to acquire property.

Baganda men are accused of being unfaithful and secretive about their illegitimate children, leaving their wives to learn about such children at their funerals.

Lillian, a Munyole, recalls advice not to marry a Mugisu “because you marry the whole clan. They invade the house and become members of the family and use you to develop themselves”. Bagisu girls were also attacked with arguments that they are never contented with non-circumcised men.

Why fear intermarriage?

According to Fred Bateganya, an anthropologist/ lecturer at Makerere University, some tribes like the Banyankore/Bahima just didn`t want to pollute their blood. Given their caste system, it was forbidden for the Bahima ruling class to marry a Mwiru who belonged to the lower class.

There were also economic reasons for this. As cattle keepers, the Bahima wanted to keep their cattle wealth within the family and discouraging intermarriages helped them do this.

As for the other tribes in Uganda, Bateganya says intertribal marriages were discouraged for social and security reasons. “Questions like how their daughter would be treated and whether she would be taken care of in case the marriage went sour often came up, thus the insistence on people they knew. Since they knew very little about people from other tribes - given their limited movements - they discouraged marriage with them. They also discouraged intermarriages to keep their culture intact,” Bateganya explains.

As Kikomeko says: “As Africans, we are very cultural people so we cannot separate from our cultures.

Marrying someone from a different tribe is creating problems, and since compatibility is very important in a marriage it is wise to marry someone from your own tribe.”

In spite of all the arguments against it, there are those who will marry from any tribe if love points them in that direction. Irene, a Mugisu, says she can marry from any part of Uganda although she`s wary of Baganda men “because they don`t know the value of a woman and treat their wives like property”.

From Bunyoro, Herbert Kakiiza also received a strong warning about Baganda girls before he left to work in Kampala. “My grandmother has expressed reservations about my marrying a Muganda, though I don`t remember her giving any reasons. I believe it has to do with the cultural stereotypes and the historical relations between the Banyoro and Baganda.”

Julie Kisakye`s husband is an Etesot. Their parents were opposed to their marriage right from the word go, but this didn`t stop them from getting married.

“During a family meeting, one of my aunties mentioned that Iteso eat their first born children and everyone started building on that. We now have two children, but no one from my husband`s family has ever come looking for our first born to cook him,” Kisakye says.

Does it work?

Seven years down the road, Kisakye says she is happily married. “From my experience, marriage is not about one`s tribe, but about one`s character. Of course we`ve encountered some of the hurdles our families and friends pointed out before we wedded, but we`ve managed to overcome them. In fact, I`m sure a Muganda man would not have made me as happy as my Etesot Peter has,” she contends.

Gureme also had a mixed marriage with his first wife (now deceased) who was a Muganda. And he was extremely happy.

He talks of his first wife with fond memories, although he hastily adds: “I have known some mixed marriages that were not very successful, but in my case it was good. I don`t think that any Muganda would have behaved like she did with me, because she was very, very good with me. She learnt Runyankore and my mother used to say that she was a Muhima.”

He, however, agrees that some intertribal marriages succeed while others that would have stood a chance if the couples were of the same clan failed.

George, a Ugandan of Rwandese origin was one of the unfortunate ones. His wife is from Busoga and, four years into the marriage, he admits that it was a mistake to marry outside his tribe.

“Many of our problems stem from our different tribes and cultures. For instance, she doesn`t want our children to learn my language (Kinyarwanda) or anything to do with our culture, claiming that it`s strange. Even simple things like which food to eat at home can build into something big, with her claiming that we Banyarwanda have funny foods,” says George.

Grace Akuna, a Jopadhola, has been luckier with her Mukiga husband, although she admits that “the usual cultural clashes set in, especially when it comes to how to raise our children. It was also a bit difficult for us to adjust to each other`s (tribal) beliefs and practices.” For instance, she had to learn how to cook new dishes and learn Rukiga just as he had to learn her language.

Whether intertribal marriages can succeed or not is a debate best left to those involved. However, it is a fact that intertribal marriages are faced with stereotypes that cannot be proved.

That is why Fiona is determined to tear apart her father`s map.

© 2007 AllAfrica, All Rights Reserved

I divorce you …in the name of the president
Peter Fabricius
February 16, 2008
Saturday Star

South African President Jacob Zuma (L) shares a joke with a family member during his traditional wedding to Tobeka Madiba, his fifth wife, at the village of Nkandla in northern KwaZulu-Natal, January 4, 2010. The ceremony took place at Zuma`s traditional home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province, where the 68-year-old president, in Zulu tribal dress, married Madiba, 37, according to clan custom. Multiple marriages are allowed in South Africa and form part of Zulu culture. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

On the last day of 2007, we sat previewing a wedding video I had made for my fiancée`s brother, Martin, who was leaving with his bride Sally for South Africa a few days later. Like bad movie editors, we constantly switched from footage of elegant Maasai dancers from the bride`s family and Gikuyu dancers from the groom`s family, to television news of paramilitary police in their jungle fatigues keeping rowdy crowds away from the electoral commissioners of Kenya announcing the election results.

Then opposition leader Raila Odinga`s huge lead narrowed and flipped in favour of the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki. Suddenly commotion and brutal force as the electoral commission chairperson was escorted out of the hall. Then he popped up at the Kenya Broadcasting Company and announced Kibaki as the winner of the elections. Even faster, the president was sworn in.

Cellphones went crazy, everyone calling each other and asking if what we were seeing was true. Then another call: a Luo neighbour had sent his Gikuyu wife packing, ostensibly because the Gikuyus had stolen the presidency from Odinga, a Luo. Then we began to hear the news of mass killings and burning of properties of rival tribes.

The next day I rushed to the supermarket to stock up on food and airtime for my phone. The sound of gunshots and the sight and smell of smoke from the neighbouring Kibera slums churned my stomach. In this forced eviction and ethnic cleansing, where would I go? Hadn`t people like me, mothered by a Taita from coastal Kenya and fathered by a Luhya from western Kenya, been Kenya`s pride?

I needed to call mom in western Kenya and ask if she was safe. It took me two hours of queuing, only to get to the till to find out I could not call my mum. There was no credit. My heart sank.

In Kisumu, spouses were kicking their Gikuyu loves out. In retaliation, Gikuyus in Central Province started hitting back at wives and husbands of the “enemy” tribe. Inter-tribal marriages and relationships are breaking, and with them, the myth of national unity.

In June last year I accompanied my friend Machogu in his wedding negotiations. His wife is from a different community. “We hear you guys love beating your wives; please treat our daughter well. In our community we aren`t known to beat women,” said his in-laws. “Ha ha! We hear your people steal money. Please never send her to steal from our son!” his family retorted.

We had laughed it off, saying it was only the old people and they were joking. Now, our own age mates are the ones unleashing their energies to disembowel and decapitate members of rival tribes. Had we been so naive, so blind to the reality of the hatred in the rest of our country?

The Happy New Year calls from friends were strange. “I don`t even know what I saw in Mercy. It is over from today. She can go marry Kibaki.” “John is horrible. If his tribe performs the way he does in bed, no wonder they lost!” Oh? Were we just engaging in intellectual necking when in college we dated across tribes, while in reality, when the tribal war-drums throb, we dance to those rhythms?

Munene calls. We try to laugh as we muse over the sad situation in our country. “My friend, imagine if you had got married to that Kale chick you used to date in college. Now you`d be dodging arrows in Eldoret as your in-laws chase you down the valleys!” The laughter screeches to an uneasy silence. Such jokes are now too close to the bone – literally.

My cousin`s wife calls from the rural home she had gone to spend Christmas with her family. “Is it safe to come back to Nairobi?” She asks. “Yes it is,” I tell her. “Well, here things have got tense; people are kicking out all foreigners to revenge what has been done to our tribesmen.”

I sigh. In Taita, some excited youths hounded a particular tribe to the football stadium and told them to go back to their ancestral land. My cousin`s wife, if she had been up-country, would have been among those – especially now that the husband is far away in Darfur, a soldier keeping peace there.

I go back to bid Sally and Martin goodbye. In South Africa there will be no Gikuyus and Maasai to harass their marriage. Maybe there they will build a generation of children like me who can proudly say they are truly Kenyan.

Here it is now a matter of walking in groups from which you draw solace from the mayhem by speaking the same mother tongue, and finding the strength in numbers to fight off attacks from gangs of the other tribes. However, where do we, the true Kenyans, run to?

Simiyu Barasa is a Kenyan filmmaker and writer.

© 2008 Independent News & Media PLC





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