Culture is a way of life. And every people have a way of life which they cherish. But, because culture is not static, as society evolves, culture is forced to change – either because of the environment or due to human morals.
In ancient times, the Bakiga had a unique culture which ‘died’ in the 1970’s during President Idi Amin’s era. If this culture was to be reinstated, it would be one of the leading tourist attractions in Uganda. Who would not want to see a bride and groom tussle it out on their wedding day?
Centuries ago, a bride and groom would engage in a wrestling match on the wedding night in the groom’s hut before consummating their marriage. On that day, after the maids and other guests left, the groom struggled to untie several ropes tied tightly around the bride’s ekishaato (skirt). These ropes were made of cow or goat hide and tied in knots.
While the bride screamed, “You man! Leave me alone!” her brothers-in-law listened in on the fight which, sometimes, lasted 24 hours. After overpowering his physically exhausted bride, the groom would untie the ekishaato and enjoy his conjugal rights. Only then, would the game change from wrestling to making love.
The couple would be allowed to eat only after they had made love. Among the Bakiga then, sex was only for procreation. Girls were taught that on their wedding day, a man must not be allowed to simply lay them down. They had to wrestle him to prove that they were not something to be joked around with. That was the only way they earned respect.
The young man was taught that to earn their wife’s respect, he had to wrestle her down and untie her ekishaato in the shortest time possible.
Mazima fought his bride
Eric Mazima, a resident of Shunga trading centre, Rugyeyo Sub County, Kanungu district witnessed the Kikiga bridal fight in his youth.
“It was a real fight. The girl also wanted to prove that she was strong, so she was wrestling with all her might. During these fights some tricks were used to complicate the fight. Sometimes, the bride’s side would tie several knots on her skirt to complicate it for the man to untie. They would smear the skirt with animal waste to foil the groom’s attempt to use his teeth to untie it. The bride would bite and pinch him or hold the knot tightly with her hands.”
Indeed, it was a war, to untie the ekishaato. Mazima adds, “The girl would pinch you with her nails or even bite you. That was the game of love in Kikiga culture. On my wedding day, we fought.”
The 87-year-old man married his first wife in 1962 months before Uganda attained Independence. He has since been married seven times. The most famous (or infamous) of his wives was Keledonia Mwerinde, the brain child of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God whose followers died in an inferno in March 2000 in Kanungu.
“Sometimes, the love match would go beyond stopping the groom from untying the knots on the ekishaato and degenerate into a boxing match. Whenever, the bride pinched and bite the groom, he would slap or punch her into submission. It was always a real war. In some cases, the bride would overpower the man but he had to go on fighting until he won the war.”
Festo Karwemera, is a local historian and a famous writer about Kigezi’s culture. The 92-year-old contributed to the book, Kigezi Nabantu Bamwo. He says when the man failed to untie the knots, the girl would untie them herself. “This would have repercussions in the relationship. Any time the wife got angry, she would hit out at the man, telling him, ‘If you are a man, why did you fail to untile the knots like other men do
The retired teacher got married in 1953 but did not wrestle with his bride because, “I was educated and even then, that culture was dying out. However, a few illiterates and conservatives in the rural areas were still practicing it.”
There is a talk that a Mukiga man would slap, pinch, or punch his wife or fiancée while saying, “Oramanya mwaana ngu dakukunda?” (Do you know that I love?) This could be related to the ancient way of expressing affection between lovers.
“Sometimes, a bride would emerge from the bedroom with bruises or wounds as a result of the bridal fight,” Mazima says.
Documenting the culture
This unique culture of the Bakiga was first documented in 1967 by Paul Ngologoza, a prominent Mukiga of the pre-Independence Uganda, in his book, Kigezi Nabantu Bamwo. In 1969, the book was translated into English by the East African Literature Bureau and titled Kigezi and its People. Ngologoza never went to school, but he went on to become the first Secretary-General of Kigezi in 1946 and in 1959, he was appointed Chief Justice of Kigezi sub region.
He was not sure of his date of birth but he puts it around 1897 when the devastating Mishorongo famine that ravaged the area. On page 29 under the sub title, “The ritual of the first sexual intercourse” on the wedding day, Ngologoza wrote: “At cock-crow next morning, the groom and his brothers would start preparing for the first sexual intercourse…” He adds: “Then a pot of beer – bwinamiriro – would be given to the escort [maids] who would then tighten their belts in preparation for the coming fight.”
Before the fight stated, there was another ritual known as Okutobora in Runyankore and Rukiga although the act varied in the two cultures. In Rwanda and the ancient Rukiga country, the girl would sit on a stool and certain rituals were performed. The difference was that among the Bakiga the act was weird. Ngologoza describes it: “The bride’s aunt would then strip her naked and she [bride] would be lifted by the brothers despite her resistance, despite that of her aunt and the Kateramucucu (go-between) of the two families]. After the Okutobora ritual, the fight would start. The bride’s aunt would then dress her in a skirt (made of hides) and tie the belt (ekikondoro) many times (knots) tightly around her waist to complicate matters for the groom, who was customarily not supposed to have sexual intercourse until he had untied the belt and removed the skirt.”
Soon after the maids had returned home, before day break, Ngologoza wrote: “the groom would now be ready to meet the bride, except that, had he done some wrong to his parents he would now redress it by offering them a bracelet and beads. His sisters would then take the bride to the room, while the groom followed. The wrestling then commenced, the groom aiming at un-belting the brides skirt and whoever was able to put the other down did so.”
Sociologists use the term cultural relativism to argue that there is nothing like a bad culture. However, to those who have never heard of the Kikiga bridal fight, it would probably be a cultural shock to them if it were still in practice.