20 May 2011

Kenya: Bride-Kidnapping, Once a Charming And Romantic Practice, Has Now Turned Ugly


Nairobi — In one of his sermons, Reverend Damane warns people not to underestimate the impact of African beliefs and ways of doing things even in this modern age.

He says his younger brother, Dikeni Damane, asked him to help kidnap a girl he wanted to marry. Very reluctantly because of his position in the community, he agreed, took off his collar, put on some old clothes, and went along with his brother to kidnap the bride.

According to the version of the story recounted in The Indomitable Ukuthwala Custom by law professors Digby Koyana and Jan Bekker, he and Dikeni waylaid the girl and tried to take her by force to their home.

The church minister, however, soon noticed that Dikeni was drunk. He had to battle on largely alone, pulling and pushing the girl who was sometimes crying.

Just before they were to reach the home, Dikeni collapsed and sat down. Then the reverend turned to his brother and curtly announced that he was going to let the girl go. After all, the kidnapping was for his benefit!

But the girl, who was now crying girl, screamed: "Don't stop, don't stop, we are almost there, carry on, carry on". And the minister regained his confidence and completed the kidnapping single-handedly, with the girl crying but cooperating.

Bride-kidnapping, a preliminary to marriage in most of the African traditional cultures, is mock abduction. Typically, the girl makes a show of resistance, for to appear to go willingly would be regarded as infra dig.

The parents of the girl are informed immediately after the kidnapping that the girl is safe with the kidnappers. And negotiations for paying the bride price then begin.

With a few exceptions, notably in Ethiopia and Rwanda, it is contrary to African customary law for a suitor to have intercourse with the girl that he has kidnapped. She is immediately placed in the care of the womenfolk of the kidnapping family and treated with kindness and respect.

In modern times, however, bride-kidnapping has in many cases turned ugly. Minor girls are kidnapped for forced marriage, underage girls are forced to marry old men, and the problem of child brides has invariably arisen.

That is why in South Africa, people are calling for the elimination of the practice, where it is known as ukuthwala.

The Reverend Damane story illustrates the old charm and romance of bride kidnapping, which is practised in many traditional cultures in eastern and southern Africa.

In Kenya it was particularly common among the Kisii and Turkana until the 1960s. But it was also practised in other communities. The white man's law, however, has dealt a deadly blow to the custom.

The Penal Code criminalises kidnapping, abduction and detention and, by extension, bride capture. Section 257 states that any person who kidnaps any person from lawful guardianship is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.

In some parts of Ethiopia and Rwanda, bride-kidnapping is still practised though it has been tempered by human rights and sexual assault laws.

In South Africa, it continues to exist in most rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Province. It is widely practised among the Xhosa and Nguni.

However, ukuthwala is widely and increasingly coming under criticism though it still has its defenders. Prince Xhanti Sigcawu, of the Xhosa royal family defends ukuthwala as a vital part of the Xhosa's customs.

Among those calling for an end to ukuthwala is Chief Pathekile Holomisa, of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Bride-kidnapping might have been justified by the social conditions of the past, but it looks like it has outlived its usefulness. In the modern era, young girls need to get an education and build a career without the danger of being waylaid and kidnapped for an early marriage.

Reverend Damane should revise his favourite sermon in view of the possible harmful effects of marriage by capture.

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