Uganda: Acholi Marriage – Not before Sunset

The Acholi people live in Northern Uganda. They have a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Most of it is expressed in a wide variety of rites, dance, and music. We look at Acholi traditional marriage.

Marriage is still one of the biggest ceremonies among the Acholi. Preparing for a traditional marriage among the people of Acholi can take a whole year. Before a marriage can occur, the parties involved in a marriage are supposed to have agreed on the terms of the marriage. It usually starts when a young man has identified a girl he likes and is ready to marry her.

Though in the past, young men had no say in whom they wanted to marry because their parents would decide on which girl and family he is going to marry; young people were not given any chance for courtship or getting to know each other like it is today.

The parents of the boy would find a hardworking, well-disciplined young lady and they would look for the family she comes from. From there they would investigate it to see if the people in the family were well-behaved and hardworking, and if it is what they are looking for, they will contact the girl’s parents and pronounce their intention for the visit.

The girl’s father, brothers and uncles sit together and draft a letter which is referred to as an assessment letter. In this letter a list of things supposed to be presented at the ceremony of the traditional marriage, is indicated. There is no standard bride price among the Acholi as it depends on the family.

Among the items requested, if a boy has had a child with the girl before paying the bride price, he will be requested to pay what they call, luk pa latin or lutino (fine for having child or children with girl before marriage); if he has lived with her before paying the bride price, he will be asked to luk pa nyako (fine for living with the girl without marrying her).

Other requirements include hander kerchief,  ayenya (when the girl stays with a boy without marriage and her parents find her at his home), obal kare (sitting allowance), lapeny dog nyako (acknowledging the groom), luk loducu (fine) a lamp, carton of match box, washing and bathing soap, envelope with money to respect mother of bride, suit for father of bride, chair for father of bride, gomesi (cloth for bride’s mother), sugar, tea leaves, transport fare for relatives from a distance (onyon coro), two goats for paternal aunt, two goats for maternal uncle, money to make mother’s dress, a big sauce pan, goats (depends on family between 10 onward), cows (depending on family from 10 onwards) then money, this also depends on the family.

However, a princess’ bride price differs from the ordinary Acholi girl, in addition to what is usually requested, the groom will be required to also bring leopard skin, beads, bangle, a spear, and a shield made from the ears of an elephant or an equivalent in monetary terms.

When the groom’s family receives the assessment letter they will reply stating to the bride’s family when they would visit to bring the bride price.

This time they will prepare themselves and make sure they have everything requested for by the bride’s family.

When taking the bride price, it is a difficult time for the groom’s entourage unless they have a good negotiator because bride price in Acholi is all about negotiation skills and being humble to your in-laws if you fail to negotiate, and to take what they have requested for you can easily be sent away without the bride.

The elders in Acholi say a lady’s bride price does not enter a home before sunset (keny pa nyako pe donyo I gang idye ceng). On D-day, the bride’s family prepares to receive their guests; they cook Acholi traditional dishes which will include dek ngor (shelled and mashed pigeon peas, peanut butter with a sprinkle of shea butter); smoked meat in peanut butter (olel), chicken, boo (cow peas pasted with peanut butter), which will be served with millet meal (kwon kal), sweet potatoes, or cassava. Then there will be a lot of alcohol and other soft drinks.

At sunset, when the groom entourage arrives, the number of guests is dictated by the bride’s family. They are welcomed by ululation from wayo (paternal aunt of bride) and songs. When they reach the compound of the bride, they are expected to go into the family house where the negotiation will take place.

All guests in the groom’s entourage will be requested to take off their shoes and get on their knees, as they enter the family house (ot pa maro) while crawling because the Acholi culture dictates that a young man has to show respect to his mother-in-law by crawling in the house. If anyone in the entourage enters the house walking, he will pay a cash fine which will be decided by his in-laws.

While in the house, the groom’s entourage sits down on mats already prepared for them because they are not yet allowed to sit on the chairs together with the bride’s relatives. Also, they are not expected to look around the house, and they should sit still not to turn around or look up and down lest they will be fined for disrespecting your mother in-law.

While in the house, the bride’s uncles and brothers will be waiting for groom and his people so that the negotiations start, which can go right into the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning. The bride’s father has no say in this whole ceremony; he sits and just stares as his clan’s men make the decision on his daughter.

The mother of the bride and all the other women in the family will not be present while all these negotiations begin. After greeting the guests they are expected to walk out and only the paternal aunt will be present while these negotiations take place.

Once both sides have agreed and the bride price is paid, the paternal aunt will make a ululation to alert the other members of the family, outside this negotiation, that the bride price has been paid and celebrations can begin.

All the while, the bride only comes to greet the visitors and to acknowledge that she likes the groom and will only return after the bride price is paid.

After the ululation, the entourage gets special treatment, but before the bride price is paid, they are ignored and no one gives them food or water to drink or any snack to eat.

This is the time the bride’s family will boil water for bathing for the groom’s entourage, give them water to drink, food, alcohol, soft drinks, and the merry making will begin. Both sides will come together as a family and will sing and dance together, they will sing songs to mock each other but will dance together and sing together in the mockery.

The merry making will go on for two or three days depending on the family of the bride. If the bride is from a wealthy family and they can entertain the groom’s entourage for more than two days they will go on.  Since the paternal aunt receives a goat, she is expected to prepare food and bring it to the groom’s entourage at the feast.

Lakwena (messenger) is a person who is sent to deliver messages to the groom family and vice versa. He, too, is appreciated with a goat from the groom’s family so he is also supposed to prepare a feast for the groom’s entourage after the feast from the bride’s family. Lakwena is always related to the bride could be an uncle or brother.

After all the feasts the bride will have another ceremony by her family to send her off to her husband’s home where she will be given cooking pots, dishes, and other household utensils to go start a home.

Another interesting culture about the Acholi and marriages is that a man can live with a woman without paying her bride price, but once she dies, her family will not bury her before the man pays him (bride price).

The Acholi traditional marriage is one of the most expensive marriages in Uganda which has sometimes scared away young men grooms because of exorbitant prices.

Today, the cultural institution (Rwot Kaka) in Acholi is working round the clock to see that marriage in Acholi is simplified. The deputy Paramount chief of Acholi stated that they forwarded the by-laws to parliament for guidance to effect punishments if someone disobeys the law.

According to the by-laws one will be required to present a lamp, litre of paraffin, laundry and bar soap, a carton of match box, a saucepan (nyal ber) stool and suit for the father-in-law, a gomesi for mother-in-law and cigarettes. Other items will include a goat for uncle, paternal aunt, another for preparing a marital home. Other requirements include facilitation for marriage committee, six goats and six cows for dowry bride price or an equivalent in money.

For a woman from a royal family, a groom will be requested to present a leopard skin, bangle, and beads and if an abnormal birth, the groom is expected to present a sheep and white hen for rituals.

(Photo: 123rf) – (Irene Lamun)

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