UGANDA: MY FATHER SAW MY WORTH WHEN OTHERS SAW A DEBT
BY AGNES IGOYE
Editor’s Note: Agnes Igoye ranked number sixty-five in New African’s 100 Most Influential list people 2015. She is a Senior Immigration Officer and Uganda National Anti-Trafficking Task Force Deputy Coordinator.
When it was time for my mother to give birth to me, my father rode a bicycle carrying my expectant mother to Pallisa hospital, in eastern Uganda. My mother held a lamp on her lap so my father could see the small path amidst the darkness. Deep in the night, they made their way, looking out for the lion that lived in the surrounding jungle.
This was the first of many times throughout my life that my father would take a risk to help me have a better chance in life.
I was born in the wee hours of the morning and my paternal auntie was the first person to arrive. She was on a mission to find out the sex of the baby. I am told that upon discovering I was a girl, she exclaimed with disappointment. “Apesenin bobo!” which literally means ‘yet another debt’.
When this auntie delivered the ‘bad news’ to the village that my mother had delivered a girl child, my father stood up in support of my mother. Without his support, she might have been pressured to leave the marriage for bearing six girls. Instead, my parents teamed up to ignore the ridicule that many women who bore girl children in my village experience. They responded with kindness, opening up our home and offering food and hospitality to those who had ridiculed us.
As I grew up, I saw how my father’s many acts of support for the women and girls in our family were changing the way things were done in our village. Upon my grandfather’s death, my father was appointed heir to the clan. When he chairs clan meetings, he gives women a voice to articulate their issues. He is using his position to gradually change attitudes, championing women’s rights and empowerment.
There is much that needs to change. Growing up, I witnessed mothers of girl children scolded, beaten, and given ultimatums by their husbands or even clan members to either produce boys or return to their families. Traditionally, girls are seen as worthless, not worth educating. We are only meant for marriage.
In the Teso culture a bride price is gifted from the family of the groom to that of the bride before the bride is officially handed over to the groom. This takes the form of cows, goats, and sheep. Because the bride price paid for us must be refunded if the marriage fails, girls are debts waiting to happen—a burden to the clan.
Years after my auntie called me ‘apesenin bobo’, I watched this happen to her. After she bore nine children, her husband showed up with armed guards to my grandfather’s homestead, calling my auntie old and ugly, shouting that he didn’t want her anymore. He drove away all my grandfather’s cows, sheep, and goats—more than the number paid for her bride price—claiming the animals had multiplied over the years. A few weeks later, he used the cows to marry another wife. I have witnessed women run away from abusive marriages, only to be sent back by their relatives and parents to endure abuse because the parents could not afford to return the bride price.
After years of advocacy and legal battles, this month, on August 7, 2015, Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled to deny husbands the right to demand a return of bride price. This is a huge breakthrough for women, but unfortunately, the bride price practice has not been outlawed completely.
While girls are called debts, boys are regarded as pillars (‘apir’). They hold the family home, they carry the family name, inherit land, and keep the clan growing. Boys’ education is prioritized, with some parents making use of the bride price obtained from their daughter’s marriage to support their son’s education. When a man is due for marriage, his sister can be married off even before age 18, to obtain bride price that her brother can use to marry a wife.
My father has led the way in resisting this inequality by refusing to accept a bride price for his daughters. He has seen how the bride price contributes to domestic violence and encourages a married woman to be treated as property without any decision-making abilities.
At the traditional marriage ceremony of one of my sisters, the groom’s grandfather insisted that they should pay a bride price of cows “‘to make it clear that the man is the head of the family”.
My father stood firm and told the gathering, “I have never seen a cow with so many powers to tell a woman that this is your husband and he is the head of the family.” He refused to take any cows and encouraged whomever wanted to give cows to give them to the young couple who needed it the most as they start their new lives in marriage.
My father always supported me even as I asked questions growing up, like why I was expected to kneel down while greeting elders and yet boys never knelt. When my cousin called me a prostitute, my parents didn’t tolerate the name calling. They would call meetings with other families to resolve such problems.
Despite my father’s modest income and the challenges of displacement due to armed conflict that we suffered as a family, my father made a decision to take all six of his girls to school, making sure we all made it to university.
To make sure they raised money for our education, my parents introduced us to farming at an early age, and we grew our own food. We had to wake up before 6am to walk to the garden several miles away while my father spent most of the week working in the city. My parents made so many sacrifices to ensure we all had an education.
In those days there was no free universal primary or secondary school, and secondary school especially was expensive. While many of my playmates were getting married,, my father sent us to boarding school, away from the village and all the negativity and discouraging remarks from those who did not value girls’ education.
When my sister’s high school wouldn’t permit her to study mathematics because she was a girl, my father went to talk to the school. His protests paid off. My sister went on to study and pass mathematics, and this background allowed her to specialize in accounting at University.
I have vivid memories of my father visiting us at school with his locally made sisal bag. This bag embarrassed me as a teenager, but he didn’t mind carrying it to bring me fruits at school. My father taught me by example not to let other people’s judgments get in my way.
As we studied, my parents also made a decision to go back to school. My father went on to complete University and joined the Ministry of Education as an inspector of schools.
Together, my parents started the first nursery school in our village with a grass thatched roof so that little girls from the age of four could spend time in school and escape from child labour. All of us volunteered at this school during holidays.
Perhaps my father’s biggest legacy is the example he has created in us—his educated, empowered daughters. Now that we are grown up (some married with families of their own), my father has given us land in which to build a house in our village amidst a patriarchal society where land is owned by men.
Today, with his support, we are building, one brick at a time. One of my brothers-in-law is even the site engineer. When I think of how men can be allies for women, I think of my father, a man who has set a precedence for generations. The whole village was in shock at the first man in the village to give customary land to his daughters.
Yet, increasingly, people from my village are seeing the benefits of changing their ways and sending girls to school. They see my sisters and I educated and working, supporting our parents and contributing to the development of our country. When they see us pulling our resources together to build our house, the best in the village, they are seeing the benefits of education and economic empowerment for women.