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The In Law Stuff

14 Nov 2006

Tread very carefully if you meet your Baganda In Laws. Any encounter should adhere to the strict "In Law rules".

There is a popular song in Uganda at the moment that is called "In law Stuff" (when you translate it from Luganda). I like the song not because of the lyrics or tune but because of the video. The songtress belts out her tale that apologises to her parents for her new white husband that does not know the In Law etiquette and rules.

The lyrics on the screen are translated in subtitles and the scene begins with an old man leaning out of the mud hut window. He asks his wife below, if they are really expecting a white man to visit them today "Is it really a musungu coming or is he just called that because he has a lot of money?". His wife, laughing, confirms that it is a real musungu coming. Soon we see the singer and her musungu- a gangly man with a mop of curly dark hair and glasses. As is customary in his culture he comes over to greet his mother in law. Hugging her causes the mother to faint. She's carted off, trumatised by the event. Next up, the musungu stuffs the fruit offered to him into his large suit pockets as his in laws look on with amazement. The lyrics tell us that the muzungu doesn't eat maize, beans or soya but prefers sweets.

In the next scene we see the singer kneeling in front of her parents and some elders as is the custom in Baganda. She explains to her parents about her experience of meeting her Muzungu in laws. They hugged her and they were informal without any boundaries. Her elders look at each in astonishment but she continues to apologise for her husbands behaviour imploring her parents to forgive him because he does not know the customs. We look on at the fussy haired muzungu as he tries to dress himself in the traditional wear of the Baganda (known as a Kanzu). He fumbles with the costume until his wife explains it to him.

For me, I am learning about the in law rules slowly. At a function you will see a rectangular arrangement of tables and seating. The respective families are completely opposite from each other as you are supposed to keep a certain distance from your in laws. This is also the case in a smaller environment. When you visit your parents in law you must not touch the father in law if you are the daughter in law and you must squeeze yourself in the furthest corner away from him. You may not look directly into the eye of your father in law and it is also the same for the son in law with his mother in law. So when the songtress explained that her father in law hugged her there was uproar. This custom came about when one of the Baganda kings decided to marry the mother of his wife even though he did not know that it was the wife's mother. There had been no proper introduction or way of knowing who she was and before knowing he had declared her to be another wife. The elders assembled and said that this should never happen again so many rules were introduced to avoid such scandalous connections. If you do touch your father/mother in law you are flirting with them and you can provoke the wrath of the family or the elders. At a wedding for instance when the husband is serving cake to his in laws he must not directly offer cake to the mother in law. Instead he will give the plate to his best man to offer or he will lay it in front of someone else to pass it to her. It is the same for the wife serving the father in law.

The daughter in law or son in law must stay as quiet as possible in the company of his/her in law. He/She must be as modest as possible not raising their voice or having a controversial opinion. It is not proper for a daughter in law to wear trousers in front of her father in law as trousers are highly sexual revealing the rear and the back in contour which will be read as some way to flirt with the father in law.

When you learn about these rules you begin to see why the Senga (paternal aunty) is so important.

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