On 11 June 1994, John Bwomezi and I were married at an Episcopalian ceremony led by Father Brown at the United Nations inter-denominational Chapel in New York, across from the UN Headquarters. The wedding reception was held next door at the Hyatt which I now believe is a Millennium Hotel, followed by an after-party at Uganda House only meters away. We certainly did not need the stretch limousine that was hired for the event considering that I spent the night at the suite in Uganda House and all these places were in walking distance but I guess we considered it a part of the tradition. Like most major events in my life the occasion was not without its drama.
In my community marriage is an elaborate process with the wedding being just the grand finale. It starts with a visit by a mutual friend of both houses to the woman's family in a ground breaking ceremony, the first hurdle. The visitor is usually welcomed but could be humiliated and must therefore be a highly respected risk-taker with developed diplomatic skills to handle the many questions that will be asked about the potential groom, his family, his clan, his ancestors, their burial grounds and anything that may make him trip and pay a fine. The happy couple who may have already exchanged engagement rings in more fashionable style in a city far away, do not participate in this ceremony at all and are at the mercy of the 'Katerarume' which literally means, the one who clears the path filled with morning dew.
If the Katerarume is successful, the stage is set for the next round where the father and close uncles of the man visit again to agree on brideprice. They are likely to meet a larger crowd than when Katerarume first visited and this is a crowd of tough negotiators with experience in assigning material value to a woman. (Yes, I can imagine your judgmental sneers.) Many factors go into the valuation including a woman's looks, education, the family's social status and the estimated purse-size of the groom's family. With time, religion and external influence, negotiations have been watered down to make this a symbolic ceremony where a price is set but never paid, but in some cultures the groom's family must pay up with cows, goats, cash or whatever items a specific culture dictates.
Assuming things go well and the brideprice is settled, a date is set for the introduction ceremony where the future groom is officially introduced to the woman's family and formally handed his wife. In true African culture, the marriage takes place on this day. The woman finally participates and is escorted out of the house to be handed to her man and his family. It is also the occasion when the woman's family gives gifts to the couple for their new home. The deal is not quite done till the ceremony is over and should the groom's party arrive late or break any of the many obscure rules of this 'Kwanjula' as it is known in Luganda or 'Okuhingira' in Runyankore, there will be fines to pay and tempers to cool. Moreover, it requires one to keep up-to-date with the requirements as they have continued to change and turned the Kuhingira ceremony into an obscene spectacle in this rite of passage. What used to be a simple and dignified event has become an opportunity to flash wealth and compete with the 'Joneses.' So where parents used to send their daughters off with a cow and a few household items the tradition now has no bounds and I have heard of girls getting Hummers, Mercedes Benzes and fully furnished homes as Uganda's glitterati compete to impress their in-laws and everyone else.
Yet at age 17 I felt empowered enough to sabotage all these processes to marry the first man I fell in love with. And I almost succeeded but failed on a technicality. Just before my18th birthday, I informed my parents that I was ready to get hitched to Charles but my parents would not hear of it. My mother insisted that I was too young even after I reminded her that she had married my father when she was 18 herself! My father was determined that I complete my education and get a degree before marriage. And when I persisted he closed the subject by saying that as long as he lived I would never marry Charles! I was as determined and stubborn as he was so lines were drawn in the sand and battle grounds defined. I started the biggest rebellion of my life by suspending all the above requirements of marriage and eloping to marry Charles. He had quietly gone to the registrar's office in Bushenyi and alerted them of our intention to be registered in marriage as husband and wife. The small issue of my being a minor and unable to enter a binding contract of marriage until I turned 18 was resolved I imagine with a small bribe. He then picked me from Kampala and we went to the registry and signed some papers. I did not care that there was not a soul in my world that knew it, in my mind, I was 'married.'
Months later am sitting in a Family Law class, in an advanced stage of pregnancy; and it is time to look at Uganda's Marriage Act under which all legally recognized marriages are registered. Lo and behold, I discover that the ceremony in Bushenyi was null and void abinitio because it was performed before I had reached the age of consent and my parents had not given their consent as required by law! Not only was I not married, we had probably committed some kind of offense! So now the secret was sealed by illegality and fear. I told Charles that we were not actually married and he ignored me as he had lately started to do now that he had me in his home where he wanted me. Eventually, the relationship ended but neither of us ever bothered to go back to Bushenyi to officially withdraw or invalidate the paperwork. It seemed of no consequence until eleven years later on 9 June 1994, two days before my wedding to John Bwomezi in New York.
Someone faxed the marriage certificate I signed in Bushenyi all those years ago to the Ambassador, my boss, in New York and outed my little secret. Dad and Mom were there as were a host of friends who had traveled from Uganda, Canada, and other states for the wedding. Luckily, I had told John about my elopement but imagine the surprise of everyone else when they learnt about my first void marriage! A flurry of legal activity now developed parallel to wedding arrangements as we tried to explain that the 'marriage certificate' was null and void. We had two days to complete this or else my wedding plans would go up in smoke and scandal but we eventually succeeded and on 11 June 1994, father walked me down the aisle and gave my hand to John in marriage.
I had missed all the pre-wedding ceremonies which happened far away in Uganda and without which my father and mother would not have come to New York. Now finally the day was here and while it was not an elopement this time round, it had all the drama required for a good comedy. At most weddings, when the question is asked if there is anyone who knows a reason why these two should not be married, there is just silence and the ceremony continues. My wedding video is a bit different because the dearly beloved who were gathered at that Chapel in New York turned to look around as though expecting someone to stand up and say something. We had two strong men stationed at the entrance of the chapel to keep out any suspicious characters but it turned out they were not needed. When the ceremony ended without incident, the palpable tension eased and the party started.
At 50 I know that I am fiercely independent and therefore take responsibility for the drama in my personal life. I have also learnt that there are instances where following tradition can protect you and your loved ones from distress down the road.