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Cross-cultural marriages are no picnic

You have probably heard about or listened to Fred Ssebata’s hit, Bamulyasooka, which tells a tale of a lady who got married to a man in a culture where first-born children are eaten.

Although no tribe in Uganda eats the first child, the Kadongokamu artiste was only highlighting the sharp cultural differences among several communities, some of which could come out as gross and shocking. It is for this reason that most communities did not permit intermarriages in the past.

With the transforming life trends that have pushed many into foreign territories for various reasons, cross boarder marriages have become inevitable. Even within the borders of one country, for instance Uganda that has over sixty tribes with unique norms, a cross-cultural marriage may be a far cry from a happily-ever-after affair.

Uganda’s cultures differ uniquely across ethnicities and tribes, yet inter tribal marriages remain high with many people crossing tribal borders for love and marriage.
Growing up, 52 year-old Felix Bugembe noticed that his dad always avoided his mother-in-law like a plaque. His mother, too, was never free before her father-in-law.

“It bothered me a lot but later, when I grew up, I realized it was a cultural norm that was meant to breed respect among in-laws,” explains the secondary school teacher.

However, when his turn came 35 years ago, his experience was quite shocking.

“My parents-in-law were so free with me to the extent of hugging me,” Bugembe says, adding that the shocker was when he was given more gifts than he had given the girl’s family.

The wedding came to an end but for Bugembe, the bag of surprises was not yet empty as they kept creeping in, one at a time, on different occasions.

“Banyankole have matooke but they prefer eating kalo with eshabwe,” says Bugembe. “But we had to strike a balance.”

Bugembe found his wife’s culture very simple and accommodative compared to his.

“I enjoy the fact that I can spend a night in the same house with my mother-in-law, unlike my father who by culture cannot sleep under the same roof as my wife regardless of its size,” says Bugembe, adding that it is sometimes inconveniencing to look for extra accommodation.

Although he boasts of an excellent relationship with his father-in-law, Bugembe does not hide the fact that he is a bit uncomfortable around his mother-in-law, especially when they have to travel in the same car.

“But at the end of the day, it is much cheaper, considering the economic times,” laughs Bugembe.

He, however, believes his wife faced it rough adjusting to a totally different culture that was quite strict.

“She had to get accustomed to kneeling and to learn all the customs surrounding the relationship with in-laws, especially my father, whom she has to keep at a distance and not look him straight in the eyes, let alone holding a casual conversation with him,” Bugembe narrates.

One Iteso lady who has been married to a Muganda for the past seven years can attest to the difficulty that comes with the kneeling culture. According to the lady who preferred anonymity, her husband is indifferent about it but the issue is with his parents.

“It is an elite family; so, I thought it wouldn’t matter if I humbled myself and greeted my mother-in-law without kneeling,” she says. “It did not go down well with her and she asked her son to tell me how I ought to greet her.”

Unfortunately, their next meeting was on a busy street in Kampala, where the lady, having been warned once, had to kneel to save her marriage.

“I felt so small kneeling in the middle of a street yet the greeting seemed to last forever,” narrates the lady who was left rather angry.

“I don’t think I can put my daughter-in-law through such embarrassment. I understand it is an act of respect but it should not be abused.” She maintains that making somebody kneel in public would only make them resent you instead of respecting you.

For 36 year-old Spire Sewanyana, a real estate agent who has been married to a Munyankole woman for eight years, kneeling is fine to those who believe in it but it doesn’t make sense to him. He argues that it is a “power thing” and not a sign of respect.

“My wife does not kneel before me, my parents or anyone else. She humbles herself and greets,” states Sewanyana, adding that with education and modernity, such things will be soon relegated to the past.

His wife, however, had to learn how to prepare his favorite luwombo of smoked fish in groundnut sauce.

“These things are about open-mindedness. Just learn your partner’s culture and adjust where you can. Where things are not clear, it is okay to ask,” Sewanyana advises.

Asked what he has to learn in a bid to fit into his wife’s culture, Sewanyana was a little hesitant and uneasy.

“I had to humble myself and let my wife teach me kacabali (popularly known as the western jazz). There is no shame learning something to please your partner,” said Sewanyana, sounding a little shy.

Just like the Banyankole have sexual norms, several tribes, too, have cultural norms attached to them. For example, a woman who has not elongated her labia may be under looked by a Muganda man; whereas an uncircumcised man could also be considered less of a man among the Bagisu.

Forty-year-old David Okot, a banker and an Acholi, who has been married to a Mugisu woman for the past 12 years, had to get circumcised to prove his manhood to his brothers-in-law.

Okot, who boasts of a very good relationship with his brothers-in-law, took the decision jokingly. While dating his wife, her brothers teased him, saying he was not a man enough and would never talk in any of the family meetings because he had not yet ‘tasted the knife’.

“My girlfriend (now wife) did not mind it and I knew her brothers were only joking but I took up the challenge although I opted for medical circumcision,” narrates Okot, whose choice drew more criticism as he was considered a coward for choosing a painless procedure.

“But I know they were joking,” laughs Okot, who admits that he and his wife are enjoying the benefits of circumcision.
“Some cultures are not really bad. We all know the benefits of circumcision,” says Okot.

In a telephone conversation, his wife revealed that her only difficult issue was learning how to prepare kalo.

“It was so hard to mingle but I asked a friend of mine who knew how to make it to teach me the technique,” laughs Okot’s wife over the phone.

Her advice to couples in cross cultural marriages is to learn and respect their partners’ values in order for harmony to prevail.

According to www.familyshare.com, couples are advised to respect their spouse’s native culture and to deal with the differences in a loving manner. If partners are willing to love, understand and respect each other’s culture, they are on the right track.


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