Progress is coming to Uganda… they are beginning to complain about the price of weddings.
Marriage rights and customs are one of the most interesting ways to analyze a culture. You learn a lot about a people, their language, their social roles, and their values by the way they prepare for, contract, and celebrate marriage. It is one of the reasons that I have been asked by more than one youth group, in more than one country of Africa, the same question.
“When a man intends to marry someone in America, is he required to give the bride's family any cows or goats, and if so, how many?”
You should see their mouths drop when I tell them that the groom is required to give nothing to the bride’s family, and that, in fact, the bride’s family is traditionally responsible for the cost of the wedding reception. The men cheer. The women remain speechless.
I’m getting used to the theatrics of this discussion. So I have learned to switch gears and encourage the women, I next tell the group that the man is expected to put three months of his salary toward the purchase of a ring with a diamond on it. The women cheer, and the men remain speechless.
Then I throw them both for a loop when I tell them how much one of the less expensive weddings in the United States costs. They sit there in disbelief. How can anyone justify spending that much money? It is a fun conversation to have.
I went to Mass today in the parish in which I am living, but did not visit a new church. Instead, I visited the family of my good friend Fr. Dennis Kiyenje. The pictures I took are of the home in which he grew up. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer you can view the pictorial by clicking here.
We ended up talking about marriage a lot while I was at the home of Fr. Dennis, because we were browsing through photo albums of Dennis' family, which mostly contain the wedding celebrations of his family, as well as Dennis’ ordination.
First of all, I made the observation that Ugandans tend not to smile in photos. It reminds me of all the photos that were encased in my grandparent’s house, or early pictures of the pioneer Americans. It was a value to look “serious” in a photo. To be honest, Ugandans don’t smile much at all, which is odd to me, because my Ugandan friends are very jolly people. I guess you just have to get past the exterior and get to know a Ugandan before they really come out of their shell.
Anyway, there were several photos of Dennis’ sister’s engagement party. This is the party that Africans hold to announce that they will get married. There are tents, meals, cars, music, and gifts. The whole works.
Fr. Godfrey, whom I was with, said, “You can tell that civilization is coming in because everyone wants to hold a bigger party than the previous person.”
“Have you tried working with couples in marriage preparation to discuss with them the importance of modesty?”
“We haven’t been so successful at that,” he replied. “Families will hold fundraiser and fundraiser for months in order to raise the money for an announcement party. They spend more than they have, and this isn’t even the wedding. The wedding is supposed to be bigger. Couples don’t even have a house, but they want to spend all this money to try and impress their friends and family. It’s terrible.”
It is good to know some things are the same in every culture.
But some things are very different. The last couple days I have learned a lot about different marriage customs throughout Africa.
In Kenya, in particular, but in other places as well, there is a custom that when a man dies, his brother takes over in his place. That is to say… takes the deceased’s wife, children, house, farm, and cattle. When you look at the development of societies, this is really not such a bad tradition. Without a government to provide social security, or banks to finance life insurance, this was the way that a widowed woman could be supported. (I understand that this is very patriarchal to think that a widowed woman needs support, but I’m arguing from the point of view of African cultures that did not supply women with the necessary skills to exist in society without a husband to look after her).
Now, when I say, “he takes his place” I do mean “takes his place.” She is now wife of her former husband’s brother. The man enjoys all the rights of this relationship… including conjugal relations. Even if the culture does not overtly promote polygamy, polygamy of the deceased became the norm.
Now what happens if the deceased man died of HIV/AIDS? During the life of the marriage, the wife now has the disease as well, who spreads it to the brother of the deceased, who spreads it to his wife, or other wives, and the whole family eventually dies of the disease, all because of the cultural value of caring for the widow.
A similar, but far more theoretical, version of this custom exists in Sudan. There is a custom that every born male is entitled to a wife, even if the male dies at an early age. He can die at the age of two, and when he would have turned eighteen, his parents find him a wife. The wife is then married to the dead male child. The deceased is her husband, but the responsibility of impregnating her is the responsibility of the next male brother. She is not considered the brother’s wife, and he is not considered the father of her children… which just gets very confusing if you ask me. It all comes from a cultural belief that even the dead have the right to have a lineage. It is the effect of ancestor worship taken to its next logical conclusion.
Anyway, the same problem exists. There may be a social taboo against extra-marital sexual affairs within African cultures, but the wide range of marital sexual affairs has left the door wide open for the rapid spread of deadly diseases.
(Please note… not every African family continues to follow these customs. I am just pointing them out to acknowledge that the customs do exist, and are still practiced, but mostly by non-Christians, or Christians who keep it secret.)
I am sure that I am not finished writing about HIV/AIDS in Africa, but I wish I could convince people in the West that we have to rethink the way we ASSIST (not solve) the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The leaders of the Western World always enter the conversation as if African people have similar views on monogamy, talks about sexual matters openly, and have a high school education which included the study of biology. It just isn’t the case! Propagandas I have read, in more than one country of Africa, have actively had to campaign that a local witch doctor cannot cure HIV/AIDS. How do you convince Africans that wearing a condom is going to prevent the spread of the disease when they believe that their witch doctor is more credible source of information than our supposed science? They have strong memories of the Europeans who raped the resources of their countries in the years past. Why should they trust us now?
Witch doctors, on the other hand bring hope and a sense of tradition. Unfortunately, they have also poured gasoline on an already raging fire. Some witch doctors have gone so far as to prescribe to infected victims of HIV/AIDS that the disease will leave them if they have have intercourse with a virgin. So the infected misinformed rapes a thirteen year old, who then becomes pregnant. (By the way, a pregnant thirteen year old is no longer considered a “youth” in most African cultures because she is now a “mother.” She drops out of school, before ever being educated about basic domestic skills, much less taking a biology and health class, she eventually dies of HIV/AIDS because she was raped by an infected victim, her bastard child is left orphaned, and the cycle repeats itself. The problem of slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa simply cannot take the same plan of action that has been somewhat effective in Western society. They are completely different challenges.
Which is why things need to change in Africa. As good information is being openly discussed about HIV/AIDS (almost ad nausea from the priests I meet), even non-Christian Africans are beginning to see the truth behind the disease and how it is spread. With good information available, African people are moving away from the old tribal marriage customs, once seen as a way to care for society’s most marginalized.Fr. Godfrey and I joked about the lack of success of the Church in curbing the westernization of African weddings. The weddings keep getting bigger and more expensive. They are getting that way because a big elaborate wedding is perceived as being “Western” and therefore “good.” The outlandishness may not be the best value to emulate, but if it also comes with social changes that are more aware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS… well… in spite of itself… maybe progress is coming.