Can Uganda Help Africa Break the Church’s Grip on Weddings?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Humanist weddings are banned in most of Africa. A growing movement in Uganda is trying to change that.
By Amy Fallon
- Humanist weddings are illegal in Africa except for South Africa.
- A growing humanist movement in Uganda is demanding that nonreligious weddings be recognized.
The bride wore a white strapless tulle gown with a beaded bodice and carried a bouquet of red and white roses. Red, to symbolize “how deep she loves the groom,” and white, “to give them a spice.” Rings were exchanged. Guests clapped joyously. To an onlooker, the September nuptials of Faridah and Derrick at a hotel in Kampala, the capital of God-fearing Uganda, looked like any other wedding.
But there was a notable absence — that of a divine presence. The wedding was actually a mock humanist ceremony involving celebrants who had recently graduated from training to officiate these nonreligious ceremonies instead of a priest. In a country where 86 percent of the population identifies as Christian and most of the rest as Muslims, according to a 2010 Pew survey, it’s a bold move.
Humanist weddings — personalized ceremonies without religious connotations, tailor-made for couples who choose their own vows and the text that the celebrant reads aloud — are currently illegal across Africa except for South Africa. But if Uganda’s growing number of humanists have their way, these ceremonies could soon become routine in the East African nation, potentially leading the way for the rest of the continent.
The African Humanist Celebrants Network (AHCN), a Ugandan nonprofit formed in August 2019 to train celebrants and organize humanist weddings, wrote to Ugandan Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Ephraim Kamuntu in July, requesting a clause in a proposed new marriage law to legally recognize such ceremonies. “In Uganda today, the number of humanists requesting for humanist marriages is on the increase,” the letter said. The group argues that the Ugandan constitution guarantees protections against discrimination for those who are nonreligious. Thirty other Ugandan humanist groups backed the letter, although some refused to be named due to fears of reprisal.
It’s my dream to have a humanist wedding.
Faridah, humanist celebrant trainee
A separate petition has garnered 417 signatures from people in support of humanist marriages in Uganda. AHCN is also distributing brochures and running ads on local radio stations, promoting humanist elopements and weddings in safari parks in addition to humanist baby-naming ceremonies and funerals.
At the moment, these weddings aren’t officially recognized, so couples who exchange humanist vows need to have a civil marriage as well. In addition to Uganda, the Kampala-based Humanist Association for Leadership, Equity and Accountability (HALEA) and its partners are training celebrants in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Sierra Leone.
Uganda was the first country to register a humanist organization, the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO), in the mid-1990s. Humanist schools had begun appearing by the mid-2000s; today there are more than 16 across the country. Kato Mukasa, a lawyer who leads the AHCN and is the UHASSO chair, says a survey conducted between February 2018 and February 2020 shows the country has more than 3,000 humanists. And many other humanists may not have formally acknowledged their beliefs because of the associated stigma, Mukasa suggests.
“My car was burned, my home was attacked twice, our offices have been attacked from 2012 until recently,” Makusa says. “Haters of atheists and humanists give you a space of three months to rest and come attack you again.”
Mukasa admits that it won’t be easy to introduce legal humanist marriages in Uganda. “The majority of people here are very religious — those in Parliament who make decisions in the ministries are all very religious,” he says. “They are looking at us as strangers, as people who are a bit weird or abnormal.”
Yet the only “abnormal” practice the humanists are proposing is the legalization of ceremonies designed by the couple, without God in it.
Faridah, 23, who did not want to give her last name, was born Muslim in eastern Uganda. After her parents divorced, her mother got remarried, to a Christian. Faridah discovered humanism when she was 13 through a HALEA-organized debate at her Christian school; later, she stopped wearing a veil. When she revealed her beliefs to her parents, they temporarily stopped paying her school fees, and she missed a school term. Faridah was later attacked by a family member who broke her finger.
“It’s my dream to have a humanist wedding,” says Faridah, who has completed 15 months of online humanist celebrant training along with approximately 17 other Ugandans, including bankers, entrepreneurs and accountants.
Giovanni Gaetani, membership engagement manager at the London-based Humanists International, which is funding projects to encourage humanist weddings and funerals in Uganda and Lithuania, says the popularity of such ceremonies is growing globally. Scotland, for example, had more humanist weddings than Christian ones in 2019.
In Uganda, though, there continues to be pushback. Bishop Jacinto Kibuuka, president of the Christian Ecumenical Council of Uganda — which consists of six churches — says they’re drafting a document addressed to Parliament to block efforts to legalize humanist marriages. “We pray that God saves Uganda from this terror, from this vision of evil,” he says.
According to Mukasa, the Justice Ministry is still consulting with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, a semiautonomous government agency tasked with civil registrations, and has promised to reply to the AHCN. He says Uganda’s humanists will go to court as a last resort, if need be. “'[The court] will ultimately give us justice,” says Mukasa, citing the successful legal registration of humanist weddings in Ireland and England. “We have good legal precedent and high chances of court success.”
- Amy Fallon, OZY Author Contact Amy Fallon