Life in Uganda


A cartoon pulled from a local newspaper.

Loads of things about Uganda remind me that I am not from here. One of those things is polygamy.

Before coming here, I think I assumed that a monogamous marriage is always better than a polygamous one. While I’m not a big fan of the multi-spouse reality, I have seen a few that function better than many of the monogamous ones. In fact, in several situations it seems that it was the more gracious option (I’m thinking of a man who took on his brother’s wife and children after the brother died.).

Sometimes I like the very raw resource-orientation to marriage that I hear articulated. Back in the US, marriages seemingly fall apart over nothing. But I hear some friends here appreciate their husbands/wives for some of the most simple, yet powerful things. “I love her because she cooks food for me every day.” “I love him because our children can go to school and I still have enough sugar and soap at home.” This initially seemed too utilitarian to me. Shouldn’t marriage be about more? But then I hear friends back home are splitting up because “the spark is gone.” I have no idea how losing the spark means marriage termination, but it seems to me that in many cases we stopped seeing the love in the small things.

At times, I find it a refreshing reminder that it truly is wonderful when one cooks food for another. That the provision of simple pleasures like sugar will remind a spouse that another person has their interests at heart.

But in most situations, I find my Western sensitivities kicking in. I find polygamy heart breaking. Marriage is hard, but adding another partner creates some serious complications.

Recently we travelled around a village grading homes for hygiene and sanitation. We did a baseline survey of the village before we started working in the area to see how many pit latrines, drying racks, kitchens, rubbish pits, and clothes lines are in the community. Now after some conversations about improving hygiene and sanitation, we moved around to see what changes people began to make. We tallied the results and brought them back to the community.

For polygamists, we list the husband and the situation for each wife. One of the things we are looking for is to see if the wives are provided with similar, hygienic situations. As we arrived at a certain home, I overheard Ronald ask the woman, “Are you number two or number three?” She responded, “I’m number two.” I asked Ronald what he meant–he was referring to her order in the co-wife situation! Then Ronald turned back to the woman and said, “I just heard from the trading center that your husband took on a third wife today.” The woman screeched  “WHAT!?”

Ronald’s serious face widened into a toothy grin and the woman began giggling, realizing that Ronald was joking and a little embarrassed that she had reacted so strongly. I share Ronald’s raw, often inappropriate humor and laughed with the woman as we looked around the home. But the longer I reflected on it the heavier this woman’s situation seemed to me.

The reason the joke worked so well is that many husbands bring home new wives. There is no family meeting. No group discussion.

When we found the other co-wife at the next house, she was with the husband. Ronald asked her the same question and she responded, “I’m number one.” Ronald came back, “Wow. You look a lot like wife number four!” The woman corrected Ronald, “There are only two of us here.” Ronald slyly turned to the husband, “You mean you haven’t told them of the other two in town?” The man chuckled, shaking his head, “Ronald, get out of here before you start a war!”

As we looked at the homes, Ronald noticed that the two wives share the same bathing room and pit latrine. They all said that they were willing to share those spaces. Both women were in their respective kitchens (both newly built by the husband). I naively asked, “Why don’t these women just share the cooking load in one kitchen? They could even alternate cooking.”

Ronald’s wisdom came through. One woman has four children. The other has one child. Each wife is supplied with certain things from her husband; these gifts come in the form of soap, sugar, oil, etc. Expecting a mother for one to use her resources for a mother of four just isn’t realistic. Secondly, when visitors come, families cook. One shouldn’t expect the co-wife to cook for another wife’s visitors. The list goes on, but you get the idea. What a stressful situation!

This brings me to another part of life in Uganda that I love (most of the time). People don’t get bogged down in nuance. If you’re fat, that’s what people call you. If you’re old, bald, black, white, physically disabled, mentally disabled, rich, poor, clean, dirty, etc, then you should expect to be described accordingly. Obviously nuance is important, but here’s the great part: in many conversations the speaker expects the listener to listen forgivingly! Both speaker and listener can provide the nuance. And while I am sure I am overstating this, I find that Americans require the speaker to choose his/her words carefully.  I have not tried to be thorough on this subject of polygamy. So things that I seem to have glossed over or failed to address will need to go into another conversation. I’m extending the burden of communication, dear reader, to read these words and graciously fill in my verbal potholes.

As for my marital status, I’ll stick to one wife and try to do better about loving and respecting her.

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