Whenever I took out my camera around the kids at Kasese Humanist Primary School I was mobbed. “Madame! Madame! Madame! Take one of me! Take one of me!” Usually it is the kids who want their picture taken and to see themselves on the digital screen. But it did not surprise me when a teacher asked me take his photo while I was taking pictures of the kids playing soccer in PE. “Take my picture,” he said, “you can give it to your brother.” I explained that I do not have brother, but that I could take his photo anyway. He declined. I was confused—I remain confused—by this interaction.
My own hypothesis at the time was that he wanted to marry me. From my other discussions about Ugandan marriage it has become clear, to me, that the decision to marry is ultimately an agreement between the man and the woman's family. Nothing can move forward without this permission. So, I assumed, the teacher needed me to give his photo to my brother for approval. Plus, the teacher asked three times in the conversation if I would be willing to move to Uganda permanently. Between the odd photo request and the probes to see if I would move here, I concluded that he wanted marriage. Why else would he want my brother to have his photo? I do not like this hypothesis, however. I feel conceited for even thinking it.
In conversation with the other Pathfinders I have a new hypothesis: the teacher assumed that Conor is my brother and was working an angle. It was part of his scheme to get Conor to sponsor his football team in Kasese. For much of the rest of the conversation the teacher was trying to elicit me to help persuade Conor. Conor, for some reason, more than the rest of us is constantly being asked for money because he is muzungu. But that story is for him to tell.
Football was not the only thing the teacher and I talked about, however. The teacher asked me if I had a husband, a fiance, or a child—in that order. Each negative answer elicited from him what I call the Ugandan squeak—a short, high-pitched noise to indicate disbelief. My unmarried, childless state shocked him. Why was I not working harder to alleviate this situation? Instead of messing around with this Pathfinders Project experiment?
Since leaving Kasese I have stumbled upon more information about this attitude about marriage in Uganda. While at Mustard Seed Secondary School, I am reading a textbook (yes for fun) from the library that is intended for A-level Religious Education. It is about Christian approaches to ethical and social issues. This is a book written specifically to be taught to Ugandan students. Reading it illuminates where some of these attitudes are coming from.
Not surprisingly there is an assumption of marriage in the book—marriage with children. Fifteen characteristics of a happy marriage are listed. The first one is—“one that is blessed with children as they are regarded as important elements of the family.” Isn't that what the teacher was implying?
Most illuminating for my discussion with the teacher is the section about the “unmarried state of life,” which is included to continue the argument for the necessity of marriage. The teacher shared his assumption that my parents must be upset with me since I have not yet managed to marry or have children. He asked me why I have not yet married or at least found a fiance, but my answer that I had other priorities was not acceptable. He repeated the question again in different ways as the conversation progressed. Maybe he was looking for one of the answers from the book. Some of the listed causes for the unmarried state of life are totally reasonable to me—because of religious vocation, failure to find a suitable partner, finishing school, or past bad relationships. Others I understand, even if do not find them acceptable—failure to raise money for a bride price, fear of responsibilities, fear of sexually transmitted diseases, having had children out of wedlock, or having engaged in pre-marital sex.
But some of the causes defy logic:
“There are some people who wish to live a single life so that they can commit immoral behaviors such as prostitutes, murderer's [sic], thieves etc.”
“The family background in terms of habits, behaviors and practices for example being a witch, a night dancer, practicing cannibalism etc … may deter one from getting a marriage partner.”
This completely explains the teachers reaction to learning of my unmarried state of life. I inadvertently revealed my uncontrollable bloodlust and tendency to eat my victims. No wonder he is concerned.
What is interesting is that the book calls on traditional African culture to support its position. Up to this point in the textbook all support has been contemporary norms or biblical passages. The book explains that in traditional Africa bachelors and spinsters were not considered serious people. They were selfish and greedy—they were a great burden to their relatives. More importantly, they were considered young “despite their real age. Marriage was a necessary step to move from child hood [sic] to adult hood [sic].” Because they were not mature, no matter what their age, spinsters and bachelors “were not allowed to participate in leadership and society management.” On this point the textbook explains that this is still the case in most societies in western Uganda. It even points out that in America an unmarried person can run for president but in traditional Africa the “unmarried were never allowed to talk in public” let alone run for office. I've heard of a Ugandan ambassador to the US who was unmarried. This same man later tried to run for president as a 64-year-old bachelor, but didn't make a good showing. The person who told me about this explained that they knew he could not make a good president because a man who shied from the responsibilities of marriage would not be prepared for the responsibilities of state. How could the nation trust his competence to rule if he was unmarried? Anyway, I'd like to see an unmarried American run for president. While technically possible, I don't see it happening anytime soon.
But I've gone off track. Back to traditional Africa. The book explains that unmarried (is that like the undead?) were given no respect in life and no respect in death:
“The unmarried people were humiliated during burial […] among the Banyankole they would be buried far a way [sic] from home more especially in the swamp so that the wild animals could eat their dead bodies. Among the Batooro they would pass the dead body through the back door or cut a hole through the wall. Besides they would bury the dead body with the banana stem so that the spirit of the dead would not come back to disturb the married ones. In some societies the dead body would be caned before burial […]. All this humiliation was aimed at discouraging the practice of celibacy.”
Why should bachelors and spinsters get respect, anyway? When they were unquestionably immoral? The book says so:
“The celibates were considered to be wrong elements in society. They were always the first suspects for any immoral act in society. For example cases of theft, sex misuse etc. were always suspected on the unmarried.”
Even an afterlife was closed to them.
“Life after death was expected only through the birth of children, the bachelors and spinsters were not expected to resurrect. Their death would mean total death and no resurrection at all.”
The teacher alluded to something similar when we were talking. If a woman dies childless, he informed me, no one knows where she goes—meaning heaven or hell.
I have no idea how accurate this portrayal of traditional African marriage is. I would imagine there was a large variety of practices and beliefs even in just the area that in now Uganda. But if this is what is being taught, the teacher's, and other's, concern for my unmarried state of life makes sense. How can I be happy? I am clearly immoral. I am immature. I will have no afterlife.
The unmarried state of life section hits home. This is my state, which I am often reminded of and pitied for. The teacher never asked my age, but explained that in Uganda once women reach 27 they begin to worry that they will never be married or have children. Just today a Mustard Seed another teacher confirmed this age. He told me of a woman he knew who at the shocking old age of 27 is just now getting married. He explained that she has been in school and was therefore improving herself, so the delay was justified. It was still very old though.
But, when I say I am often reminded of and pitied for my unmarried state I don't mean just in Uganda. Though not as directly as in Uganda, my marital status comes up in the States all the time. Though there is not an assumption that I am married, the increasingly common questions as I near 30 imply a similar underlying concern for my state of unmarriage. “Do I hear wedding bells?” “When are you taking the plunge?” “Any progress on the dating front?” I am able to write off the perpetual Ugandan concern for my unmarried, childless state as just another cultural difference. The pity coming from within my own culture is quite different.
Coming soon—a post solely about the Christian Ethics book and its discussions about sex, homosexuality, white people, and Christians in politics—to name a few.