Bamasaaba Customs: Understanding Bride Price, Dowry, and Marriage Traditions

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Steven Masiga
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Allow me to volunteer free, unsolicited cultural advice to those who intend to contract customary marriage among the Bamasaaba and beyond. It can be polygamous in nature, where the husband is at liberty to marry more than one wife, and this normally depends on the financial capacity of the husband or other considerations like the failure of the first wife to bear children. In Uganda, various pieces of legislation govern marriages. Each type of marriage has its specific laws regulating it. Some of the recognized marriages in Uganda include customary marriages, church and civil marriages, Muhammadan, and Hindu marriages. In some countries, it is the family of the girl to pay dowry to the boy’s family and vice versa.

A leading definition of what marriage is can be extracted from Lord Penzance’s holding in Hyde vs. Hyde when he defined marriage as a voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. Ugandan laws dictate that marriage rites must be conducted according to the woman’s side. In marriage, the woman suspends her legal existence, takes the names of the husband, and becomes Mrs. So-and-So. However high-ranking a woman is, the husband can’t take on the woman’s name.

Among the Bamasaaba of Masabaland, the bride price paid must include the dog as part of the bride price package. Without a dog, the marriage ceremony is incomplete. The dog is a mandatory requirement as it is meant to provide security to the family, along with cows paid as dowry. The Bamasaaba practice both endogamy and exogamy types of marriages, marrying within and outside their communities. For example, the Bamasaaba have married from Ankole, Bakiga, Baganda, or in cross-pollination marriages. Bamasaaba customary marriages are conducted following Ugandan laws and customs.

Recently, writing from Washington University, the head of the sociology department, and an outstanding daughter of Masabaland, Prof. Florence Waloko, asked if the type of marriage matters. I answered, certainly, it matters, as any valid marriage should be between a man and a woman. Nothing short of that. Equally, a marriage can be invalidated if the parties involved have consanguinity relationships since, under Section 149 of the penal code, incest attracts heavy punishments and a command for the dissolution of such a marriage.

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It is a settled practice that many marriages contracted under Bamasaaba customary practices require an introduction letter originating from the son-in-law’s side. The letter details many things, most notably cash, the name of the husband, and other biographical details. This letter is the first line of entry into the family. You might delay paying the bride price, but the financial amount, known as “baluwa,” is discretionary. The bride’s side may not dictate how much it should be. Of late, it ranges between 50,000 up to one million or thereabouts, dictated by the background of the girl and where she is married. An educated girl married to an indigent or vagrant husband may result in a much lower rate.

Currently, many people, including the Bamasaaba, are adopting the Baganda culture of “kwanjula” (introductions), somewhat a public event. This is not the tradition among the Bamasaaba, where payments of dowry were seen as a private matter, confined within homes with less publicity. Unlike Nilotic friends like the Batseso and Karamojongs, who demanded thousands of cows in marriage ceremonies, the Bamasaaba required roughly about 3 cows. This was segmented into two parts, dowry for the mother-in-law, usually taken “at gunpoint.” I use the term “taken at gunpoint” deliberately because if the son-in-law delayed or refused to deliver the dowry, roughly about two goats or a younger cow, the mother to the daughter would assemble her team to storm the village where the daughter is married and grab the cow or goats. No one would dare to restrain her, making it easier because their daughters got married just a stone’s throw away from their homes.

Generally, when it came to the second phase of the bride price to be paid to the father of the daughter, he would designate his team to bring the cows, usually about 3 reasonable animals, including a bull and two cows. This was not necessarily paid at once but could be cleared in manageable installments. Among other items on the dowry list included a spear, a dog, and a bag (kikapo) along with other minor items. Unlike the mother-in-law, who was seen as less patient and would grab her part of the dowry, the father of the girl would demand for his share of the dowry with less aggression, typical of men.

Various court petitions by women lawyers and activists challenging the idea of paying bride price insist that once a man pays dowry, a woman becomes his possession and an object of torture, undermining the equality status envisaged under Article 31(3) of Uganda’s constitution. However, it has not yielded much success. If a married woman divorced, part of the dowry might be refunded, but it depended on whether she had children or not. This culture of refunding dowry is not unique to the Bamasaaba but cuts across the Gikuyu, the Zulu, among other Bantu tribes. Demands for refund are calculated to ensure that married girls give the marriage the seriousness it deserves.

Legal reforms have been initiated to address payment and refund of bride price. The Uganda Law Reform Commission plans to advise parliament to designate dowry as a marriage gift that should not be returned, even when the woman has divorced. The Inzuyamasaba leadership has put in place a fee of about 100,000 shillings for those marrying under Bamasaaba customary practices. Once it is paid, a marriage certificate will be issued, culturally confirming that one is married under Bamasaaba customs. The church sometimes asks for proof of this before conducting weddings.

It is, therefore, crucial for those in marriage to ensure it is anchored on recognized forms of marriages under Ugandan laws. Failure to pay the dowry may label those in marriage as boyfriend and girlfriend, even when they have children. It is therefore very healthy to trigger the process of paying dowry, even if it means paying a goat, a dog, or part payments until you conclude. A customary marriage, however validly contracted, can be crippled by various factors such as cruelty on the part of the husband and woman, adultery on the part of the wife, desertion without a reasonable cause for over two years by the husband, false promises by one of the parties, especially the husband who may have lied to the wife. For example, he may claim to have bungalows in Bugolobi and Muyenga or that he is the son of a General. Once this turns out to be false, it is a good ground for divorce. Other factors can include impotence on the side of the man, being barren on the side of the woman, and underage, failure to pay bride price, among many other grounds.

Some families pay less attention to marriage items. In Kigongo vs. Kigongo, where Moses Kigongo and his wife, Oliver, payment of dowry was declined by the family of Oliver Kigongo. I recall with nostalgia how my grandfather Asoni Kamoti only demanded a door lock as dowry for his daughter Jane Shilela of Bududa. In the past, less emphasis was put on marriage gifts, though of late, there is an increased appetite for bride price because people have spent a lot on their daughters in terms of education and upbringing.

Generally, customary marriages are also supposed to be registered by sub-county authorities, and a registration certificate issued. Registration should not be beyond 6 months after completing dowry.

The writer is a researcher from Mbale and also the spokesperson for Inzuyamasaba.

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