Exploring the marriage tradition among the Bakiga tribe in Uganda, where marriage is categorised by weeping. Once the man identifies the girl he wants, a process called Okuriima begins.
This blog post talks about a unique marriage tradition, among the Bakiga people of Uganda. They are said to live in the mountains, with their environment Kabale, being duped the "Switzerland of Africa" because of it's hilly cliffs and airy mountains. The Kiga people are believed to have originated in Rwanda as mentioned in one of their folk songs - "Abakiga twena tukaruga Rwanda, omu Byumba na Ruhenjere" - meaning that "all of us Bakiga, we came from Rwanda in Byumba and Ruhenjere", known as Ruhengeri in Rwanda. Now, they are known as the "tough people of the hills", with a remarkable story behind them of their migration from Rwanda, to their culture and way of life in Uganda.
When I came across this marriage tradition, it might be cliche to say but I was captivated by how peculiar some acts in the process were, and what I appreciated about this was the symbolism, history and tradition behind each one. I'll be transparent, I am unsure if this tradition is still widely practiced in the region today, but it is one that many scholars have studied and are familiar with, and truly makes up a huge part of the Kiga identity to the rest of the world. It's one of the many things that make them "stand out", you can say.
If you haven't seen the thread I wrote about this on Twitter, you can see it here.
Generally among the Bakiga tribe, courting a lady that you intend to marry, for a young man is hard work. Youths will typically use social networking and avoid calling because airtime is expensive. They'll communicate in secret via messaging if they have each other's contact. It is the way of the tribe to keep courting and dating a secret affair. If they do not have devices they can communicate on, they'll seek to meet eachother in church, or while running errands etc. If the girl is above 18 years old, she must allow the man to give her some money, to buy clothes that will identify her as a newcomer to the husbands’ family after the wedding. She is supposed to buy two Kitengye fabrics, one to tie on her head, one to tie as a skirt. All of which happens behind closed doors.
In the past, Bakiga marriage had a twist. According to old stories, some girls were spied on, then kidnapped by secret admirers and tied to ekyigagara (a stretcher-like mat). They'd then be taken to the home of the suitor and the bride price would be paid later. The Bakiga believed that everyone had a right to marriage even the men considered ugly, and the disabled, whom many girls would reject. In an interview, Stephen Rwangyenzi, the director of Ndere Troupe Centre described the fundamentals of marriage to a Mukiga girl, "a Kiga marriage started with Okuriima, scouting for and spying on the girl and her family". He went on to say in his account: Bakiga girls did not have a say in who they would get married to because marriage was a discussion between men, typically the fathers of both the the secret admirer,, and the bride’s father, but occasionally included the secret admirer. The spying tradition is said to be no longer practiced.
Visits between families would sometimes go on for a year. If all was agreed upon, a process called Kiriima will be initiated. where the groom's father would go to formally request for marriage from the bride's father, otherwise known as 'okugamba obugyenyi'.
Even if the couple were an obvious suitable match, no self-respecting father would consent the first time the admirer's father came to ask for their daughter.
When the girl’s family accepts the man’s offer to marry the daughter, next was (and still is) the process of agreeing upon bridewealth, which is delivered at a ceremony known as Okujuga. The bride price includes a cow for the maternal uncle and sheep or goats for the father. During marriage negotiations, the woman's father receives a great deal of advice from his brothers; which can often influence what different families ask of each man. "For an average girl you would pay money (like USh 1,500,000 = $450), goats (3-6) and cattle (1-4). If she comes from a rich family, they will charge you a lot of money. If she is poor, she will cost you less" (Byamukama, 2016). Failure to fulfil the needs of the parents for the brideprice will cause them to feel disrespected, they'll insist she is not a "real woman" and will need to return to the household to organise a real party once the man clears his debt.
Once all is said and done, it's time for the big day, the Okuhingira ceremony. Okuhingira follows; where the young man is officially given his bride - and this event is characterised by the girl weeping, fighting, and pleading not be taken. Hence the title 'The African Marriage Tradition Where the Woman Cries When Chosen' ; I must make this clear - it's not because she is marrying against her will; the tradition simply states that the woman must do this act, as part of the ceremony. I don't know why, but this is somewhat symbolic, the woman getting picked and then bursting into tears, one can even say it's a coincidence that the prospect of being married to a man is something to cry about in this tribe 😂 But no, jokes aside - she weeps as a symbol of pain and heartbreak for leaving behind the people that she loves. The bride will be dressed in her best, placed in a hut belonging to her mother, and would begin the rhythmic weeping, this is called okugabuka. As she would sob, she would have to say appropriate things for the occasion, such as: 'Oh, good bye, I am going away from home now, I'm going to be lonely. Jephrey (2008) notes that pride was taken in a girl doing this well on the day, and she would be praised for the quality of her weeping.
Before the girl leaves her family home, back in the day they would give a very solemn and gruesome speech about their expectations of married life. However nowadays, the bride usually stays quiet - it is the expectation of the bride that her husband will love her for a short time before he finds other girls to have sex with. While the woman is weeping, her mother will typically advise her not to cry loud too loud or for too long, to avoid becoming a laughing stock, this is all part of the unique wedding ritual according to Lamunu (2021). In the evening, when escorted to her husband's family house by her friends and family, she keeps weeping, and is placed in a quiet room to continue while her family get welcomed with songs, dances, food and local beer. They are also placed in a room, from 8pm to 2am, eating and drinking and being introduced to her parents and other community members.
At 2am the husband will collect her and take her back home, to consummate the marriage, during this time the girl will have to act like she has never had sex before, including resisting her husband, so that he can fight for it. The following morning, an elder woman will come to the wife’s aid, to give her instructions on how to take care of her husband in the household and sexually. Traditionally, brides would grease their bodies with butter for the husband to feel the softness of her skin, but this is rare today.
Once the family have left the couple, the following night the couple have sex again, and for 4 days they stay isolated in a room to do nothing but have sex. After this 4 days, the bride can start to take up some wifely duties around the house. A month should pass before her family look for her again. They'll send some children to pay a visit to her, and once they return home, both families will start to prepare for the 'Finishing the Butter' ceremony, which is to take place at the bride's family home.
A new life
The whole community will present gifts to the married couple; plastic plates, goats, plots of land and others. After this ceremony is complete, the wife is technically "free" to leave her compound and start to socialise as a married woman.
Divorce is not common among the Bakiga. If the couple have disagreements, it's typically handled by elders who will step in to settle disputes between them. If that proves impossible, the wife returns to her father’s home. The husband will follow her in an attempt to negotiate and start afresh. If it's the case that the husband finds another girl to marry, this is allowed as long as he does so in a different household if the woman he previously married has children, because the house now belongs to those children.
What an interesting marriage tradition right? It's the first time I came across it and wanted to share it with you all. It may be different to what we're accustomed to, but as long as we maintain respect and an open mind, let's share our thoughts on this one in the comments below!
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