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A wonderful East African story of love, marriage, divorce and power

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As the Kenya election captured everyone’s attention, someone threw a cocky pigeon among a bunch of catsnext door in Uganda.

After many years, the Marriage and Divorce Bill finally came to Parliament. The Bill, among other things, provides for how property acquired during marriage shall be divided when the union goes up in smoke. Basically, it suggests the property be shared equally.

It also defines marital rape, a matter that Kenyans will know can be a very hot potato. It seeks to secure rights for the “other woman”. Kenya dealt with this through its attempt to grant rights for the so-called come-we-stay-marriages.

The good people of central Uganda have a wonderful name for it; they call them “ka-sufuria” marriages. Ka-sufuria means ka-saucepan, the idea being that when a young woman moves to live with a young man, because he hardly cooks, he will not have any pans in his kitchen.

One of the acts by which the young woman establishes her relevance is by cooking for the bloke. To do that new cooking pots have to be bought.

It is an embarrassingly old-fashioned idea conceived before the microwave came to Africa, but it plays on the idea that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (cooking for him), and he rewards the woman with marriage.

The debate around Uganda’s Marriage and Divorce Bill has done the impossible. It is a wonderful microscope into the character of the people, but it also reveals a lot about how East African, and indeed African, politics and social dynamics actually work. For starters, the Bill has totally messed up political and class lines. It has brought together enemies and divided friends.

Battle lines

So what are the battle lines? First, one would think that women would generally support the proposed law. Wrong. Men — who still own most of the property — oppose it because they naturally don’t want to share their wealth in half with a woman who is leaving them or whom they are leaving.

They also don’t want to share it with the mistress, because there is this idea that the mistress is never exclusively theirs.

Now in Parliament, the most vocal opponents are the women MPs. They are very many, and together with the fast-growing army of rich Ugandan women, they don’t want to have to share 50-50 with the “poor” man in their life.

Women politicians are no different from their male counterparts, really. When they get elected, they come to the city, make loads of money, drive long cars, live in big houses and attend cocktails with other “big people”.

Their upcountry husbands now no longer measure up, so they upgrade to a 2.0 city boyfriend – in much the same way the small town male MP leaves his first wife in the village, comes to town and upgrades to a shiny city woman with long weaves, a short red dress, high heels and false eyelashes and nails.

So the women MPs, I have been told, are as opposed to the Bill as their male colleagues. The only exception is Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, a staunch supporter. Whispers in Kampala are that it is because she is single.

So the radical feminists, the “other women” and “the other men” are the biggest supporters of the proposed law. Muslim women too support it.

While Islam permits men to marry upto four wives (many rich Ugandan Muslims typically consider that inadequate and marry more), Muslim women want more transparency in how the man treats them. A law that forces them to divvy up property is, therefore, music to their ears.

But supporters also have to contend with a formidable opponent – the churches. The churches say the Bill will destroy the family and legitimise sin. But of course, this is ultimately about ecclesiastical power.

Marriage is one of the few areas these days through which the churches exercise political power, because it is one of the very few things done by a non-state organisation that can only be undone by a governmental authority; in this case the courts. And if you are Catholic, in some countries even the court cannot grant you divorce.

The problem then seems to be how the Bill prices marriage and divorce, and the value of transactions in the “relationship market”. The critics are clear; it has simply priced them a tad too high.

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