When Andile Ramaphosa jetted into the country for the traditional Bakiga marriage ceremony, Okushaba, he anticipated an easy walk in the park.
It was not until the South African first family arrived at their prospective in-laws’ residence in Kololo, a leafy Kampala neighbourhood, that they came face-to-face with reality. Andile, the eldest son of South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, was in Uganda at the weekend to seek Bridget Birungi Rwakairu’s hand in marriage.
Birungi is a niece to former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, who assembled a team of prominent Bakiga to manage the process in accordance with their traditions. Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda led Mbabazi’s team while businessman, MTN Uganda’s Charles Mbiire spoke for the Ramaphosas.
Andile’s entourage, which included his mother Hope Ramaphosa arrived at Mbabazi’s home shortly before 2pm under tight guard by the Special Forces Command (SFC).
For some minutes, they remained in their cars until they were ushered into the main house as Mbabazi and Bakiga elders that included the former ministry of Defence permanent secretary Dr Ben Mbonye, former minister Matthew Rukikaire, businessman Amos Nzeyi and Dr Frank Mwesigye, husband to former minister Hope Mwesigye, among others, sat in a tent.
Rugunda led the elders in a family meeting before their guests were led back into the tent to be served with enturire (a local sorghum brew), which set the pace for the negotiations.
Andile and his mother were kept away, in accordance with the groom’s Vhavenda cultural norms.
The Vhavenda originate from the Limpopo province of South Africa that borders Botswana and Zimbabwe. As the ceremony continued, Andile’s team carried in a gourd of local brew. It was then that Mbiire announced that Andile had been cohabiting with Birungi for about 10 years and they had a two-month-old baby girl.
“When she finished her studies in China, she met Andile; they fell in love and she joined us in South Africa. We love her, have faith in her, and request that you allow us to formally take her,” Mbiire said.
Like in many African communities, it is abominable among the Bakiga for a girl to get pregnant outside marriage. In the past, it was punishable by either abandoning the girl on a barren island in Lake Bunyonyi in Kabale district, or throwing her over the Kisiizi falls in Rukungiri district.
Birungi did not attend the function; culturally, girls don’t attend Okushaba functions – but she sent a letter making a case for Andile.
“I write to you with great joy in my heart,” Birungi started off her letter and went on to tell her parents how she met Andile whom she said had become the delight of her life. “I know I love him because when he is happy, I am happy, and when he is sad, I am sad,” she wrote.
However mention of the baby girl infuriated the elders. Rugunda announced that Andile had to make atonement with a goat as per their tradition and customs.
After paying the goat fine, the Ramaphosas were served with another local brew, entacweka, a traditional drink that among the Bakiga is served to bind a relationship. This is when Mbiire announced that the Ramaphosas were ready to pay pride price (enjugano) and formally take Birungi.
This would mean that a process that usually lasts for about two years was to be concluded in under six hours. The Mbabazis refused, telling the Ramaphosas that Birungi must first return to the family for her to be formally taken.
Rukikaire chipped in, protesting the use of the word [bride price].
“[It] is inappropriate, it is archaic and we think we should not use it,” Rukikaire said.
He suggested another terminology – enyororabaana – to mean ‘gifts to thank Birungi’s parents for raising her’. Rugunda refined the word to enderabaana. Mbiire agreed but with more pleas for the in-laws not to be hard on Andile.
“We pray that elements in your culture are married with elements in our culture to enable the young couple move on and start a family,” Mbiire said.
The two families were forced into another round of closed-door talks in which they agreed on five cows and five goats as enderabaana. While the Ramaphosas were ready to pay, the Mbabazis insisted that the gifts must be actual, and not in cash.
“In our culture, we don’t accept gifts on the day they are negotiated but we [have] accepted,” Mbabazi said.
He went on to explain why they had protested the use of the word bride price.
“We are against the idea that women should be treated as a [commodity] for sale. Our women are not for sale. Some of us participated in the making of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda and put a provision that women should be treated with dignity,” Mbabazi said.
Mbabazi then asked Andile to go back and prepare to return on August 4 for the Okuhingira ceremony.
“Okuhingira has been misrepresented to mean a give-away; we shall not give away Bridget but are going to give her a chance to go and make a family,” Mbabazi said.
He admitted that he had known about their affair some five years ago, and Andile, before becoming a ‘first son’ in South Africa had visited him several times.
“Their union is the families of the struggle coming together; it is families of the liberation coming together and with it, we are going to raise a family that will work for the total liberation and unification of Africa,” Mbabazi said.
Mbabazi then asked Andile to keep the five cows for their baby girl whom he named Ainebyona, but bring the five goats.