Bride price: Let’s begin from the roots

Almost all cultures across Uganda embrace bride price. PHOTO/FILE/HANDOUT

What you need to know:

  • A society like Uganda grappling to find balance had better focus on bigger matters than soft scapegoats, as we see activists up in arms against ‘bride-price’!  

Welcoming us to our first lesson in a module of Traduction et Interpretation (Translation and Interpretation), Tanzanian don, Dr Abel Magoti (RIP) summed up the whole module using the famous Italian saying: tradutore traditore.

This simply means ‘a translator is a traitor’. And nowhere on planet Earth has this manifested itself more poignantly than in matters African, when seen through the lenses of the ‘explorers’, missionaries and general Western scholarship.

In their recent work, a thesaurus of Runyankore-Rukiga, Katondoozi y’Orunyankore-Rukiga, 
Yoweri Museveni, Manuel Muranga, Gilbert Gumoshabe and Naomi Muhoozi, underscore the link between language and anthropology, asserting that you cannot describe what you do not know. What this essentially means is that a concept, an idea, a practice can only have intrinsic meaning to those already familiar and associated with it. Otherwise it will at best make no sense or be misunderstood. 

This is the reason why the first Christian missionaries seeking converts among the Innuits ( Eskimos) in the North Pole had to substitute Lamb of God with Seal of  God, since the people there could not conceptualise what a lamb looked like, much less understand its imagery and meaning  in reference to  the Saviour. The only animal that could make sense to them was the seal, which has been part of their life since time immemorial.

Making no effort to grasp and appreciate matters anthropological in a given society as was done in the North Pole case above, explains the misconception that is behind the current hullabaloo about what has been termed ‘bride price’ and we all have fallen for it, the way we proudly use words like tribe or ethnicity with abandon in reference to ourselves, without reflecting on their etymology and contextual application by their creators. 

The Runyankore-Rukiga word for what has been labelled ‘bride price’ is okujuga, enjugano, and try as you may; you will not get its exact equivalent in English or any other European language. The French call it la dot, whatever its etymology and meaning!  The practice is alien to them, so it cannot make sense, the way Lamb would not to the North Pole people. 

Enjugano is neither a buying price nor a selling price. It is an embodiment of and an integral part of values, beliefs, myths and mysteries surrounding the sanctity of the institution of marriage. Its misunderstanding and demonisation begins at the semantic level: call it a price, and it becomes a dehumanising practice, since it assumes selling and buying of human beings, called slavery in some extreme circles of those against it.

Risking the wrath of the custodians of these sacred mysteries, I recently engaged participants in a retreat I was facilitating in Soroti town. The issue of ‘bride price’ cropped up in the course of a group presentation and I jumped to its defence. 

Taking them through the standard Kinyankore marriage practice that goes through 18 stages, and where Okuhingira is an integral part and real marriage, the opposing group came to the conclusion that the bride’s parents spend even more on the their daughter than what they receive. 

‘…and in places where there are no mihingiro?..., one activist seemed undeterred. My advice was simple: ask the elders why this is so! 

A society like Uganda grappling to find balance in the current global dynamics in an Era of options in every sphere of life, had better focus on bigger matters than soft scapegoats, as we see activists up in arms against ‘bride-price’!        

Matsiko Kahunga, [email protected]

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