Acholi cultural leaders pass by-law on high bride price

A dance troupe performs the Acholi Otole war dance during a cultural festival in Gulu Municipality in 2018. Such dances often accompany the Acholi traditional marriages.  PHOTO/FILE/COURTESY/URN

What you need to know:

  • For long, high bride price has been the cause of concern among many liberal Acholi who describe it as commercialisation of marriage.
  • Shs5m: Under the new arrangement, one is required to pay bride price not exceeding Shs5m. 

In 2018, Komakech, now 37, perceived the idea of asking his partner for a hand in marriage.
To him, marrying his partner at the youthful age of 17 was a dream.

“I come from the Payira clan and we treasure the marriage institution as one of our cultural values,” Komakech says.

The teacher by profession and a resident of Gulu City was asked to pay Shs22m in cash as part of the bride price and 14 head of cattle, plus goats and chicken.

“This family had received Shs30 million in dowry from a rich in-law and I thought they would be lenient with me, considering my background,” Komakech says.

Following years of negotiations, his offer of Shs7m was rejected by the girl’s family and he was forced to call off the marriage.

On his part, Mr Joseph Lubangakene, 29, says the parents of his wife-to-be asked him to pay Shs15m as bride price, which was reduced to Shs12m after negotiations.
He adds: “Besides the money, I was asked to buy a big solar panel and other electronics, which to me never existed in Acholi traditional marriage.”

However, Mr Lubangakene says he could not afford any of these since he did not have a stable source of income.

“We cohabited for some time and broke up after having a child,” Mr Lubangakene says.
For long, such high bride price has been a cause of concern among many liberal Acholi who describe it as commercialisation of traditional marriage in the cultural institution.

To answer cries of many young men, the Acholi cultural institution has now passed a by-law, stipulating the standard bride price one can pay. Under the new arrangement, one is required to pay bride price not exceeding Shs5m and anything more than that is considered a gift to the bride’s family.

The by-law was mooted in 2019 during the closing ceremony of the Acholi cultural festival. During the function, then Deputy Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo asked the Acholi cultural institution to draft a by-law aimed at abolishing commercialisation of traditional marriages in the area.

To him, the traditional meaning of marriage in Acholi had lost value due to the exorbitant bride price.
 “Girls should be given the chance to choose who they want for a partner. If we are to observe tradition, huge invoices weren’t being asked,” Justice Dollo said then.

Mr David Martin Aliker, an author based in Gulu City, welcomes the by-law, saying the current practice is eroding the Acholi traditional culture.
“The current traditional marriage has been manipulated by the current economic times where people have intensified looking at marriage as an opportunity to make money. We are seeing families breaking up as a result,” he says.

“I think it is a smart idea for the cultural institution to come and regulate how marriages are supposed to be done because with social media and the reality of mobility, so much is being copied from other tribes and integrated into the Acholi culture,” Mr Aliker adds.
He explains that the exorbitant bride price has denied Acholi women the chance to get married from within their tribe.

“I know of people who think marrying an Acholi lady is very expensive and this is denying our ladies the chance of intermarriage, which is healthy,” he says.

“And worse of it all, common observation shows that young people are not showing interest in marriage due to their inability to afford the millions of money being asked of them and to the few who have galvanised the courage, it’s becoming one of the causes of domestic violence in the marriage,” Mr Aliker adds.

Mr Arthur Owor, the director of the Centre for African Research, says the current demands of Acholi tradition have alienated the poor.

“Some few Acholi politicians and well-off men have set the bar so high simply because they have the resources and so many families have adopted it as a standard,” Mr Owor says.
The prime minister of the Acholi cultural institution, Mr Ambrose Olaa, acknowledges that absence of by-laws had given leeway to parents to demand exorbitant bride price.

“The open cheque that has been in existence from the colonial times became a leeway for people to demand for more than Shs20m and that is why the traditional institution wants it rationalised by setting standards,” he says. Mr Olaa adds: “The committee of elders dated back to the time of our forefathers and came up with a standard fee not exceeding Shs5m to allow room for negotiation: one can marry at Shs1 million or Shs5 million. It basically depends on the negotiation skills of the groom’s family.”

However, he adds that in the event that the groom insists on giving more bride price, it is categorised as a token of appreciation.

“We know some people have more than enough but whatever amount is above Shs5 million is treated as a gift not bride price because we want to maintain the purpose of marriage,” Mr Olaa says.
“Tracing back to history, the elders took a consideration on what had always been the numbers of cows and goats demanded and thought it wise that four to six head of cattle and six goats were enough and we want to preserve that heritage,” he adds.

According to the by-law, when one seeks to marry an Acholi woman, they will be required to take a lamp, paraffin, laundry and bathing soap, a matchbox, one big saucepan, a stool for the father-in law, a gomesi for the mother-in-law, a suit for the father-in-law, cigarettes, a goat for the uncle, a goat for the paternal aunt, a fee for the bride to open up (layap dog nyako), and one goat for preparing the marital home (ogwa ot).

Other requirements include facilitation for the marriage committee (obal tic), six goats (dyegi Akumu), six cows (dyangi Akumu) and bride price between Shs3 and Shs5 million.
In case the bride comes from the royal family, the groom is expected to deliver a leopard skin, bangles and beads. Also if the bride had an abnormal birth (latin jok), the family of the groom is expected to take a sheep and a white hen for the marital rituals.

However, Ms Josephine Gillian P’ Ochen, an Acholi woman, says men are giving the excuse of the exorbitant bride price not to marry. “However much they lower the bride price, some women will not accept it. As a woman, a token of appreciation to my family should be worth it,” Ms P’ Ochen says.
She, however, says some men take advantage of the high bride price to mistreat their wives.

Process of the Acholi traditional marriage

The leader of Payira Paduny clan, Mr Ocitti Ochora, 68, says Nyom (Acholi traditional marriage) is a lengthy process, which begins with a boy picking interest in a girl and starting to court her. However, Mr Ocitti says the girl is expected to play hard to get in order to protect her morally upright reputation.

“The boy eventually wins her over after several encounters and as a sign of acceptance or consent, she will hand in beads or a bracelet or a nice handkerchief to the boy. The boy will take it to his uncle to show he has found the love of his life and they have both agreed to stay as husband and wife,” Mr Ocitti says.

He adds: “With the girl’s consent, the man then seeks the classical company of a friend and pays the girl’s home a visit. The two men are taken to the house of the bride’s mother. The girl’s mother then vacates the house, leaving the groom-to-be alone with the daughter to chat.”

Mr Ocitti says later, the mother asks her daughter to formally introduce her visitors, and this is the time the daughter announces the man’s intentions.

He adds that if it is positive, the mother goes ahead to inquire about the boy’s clan in order to verify that the two love birds are not related by blood. 

“Marriage wasn’t based on status of the man as an individual but his background, and everything, be it head of cattle or money, was acceptance after the basic requirement meant to appease the in-laws was brought,” Mr Ocitti explains. To him, marriage in Acholi stood on the fundamental principles of respect, companionship, appreciation, and love/commitment unlike what is being witnessed today based on status.


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