There has been much ado about the state of matrimony in Rwanda lately, social trends seem to point towards divorce but if we look closer it is not as bad as stated. Rwanda went from 26 divorces the previous year to 1,000+ divorces in the last year, the Taliban would be proud, not even their moral authority is that powerful. 1,000 out of 3m+ marriages is still 99.999 stay together. People fear this is the “thin end of a wedge” or “first trickles of a flood” but we never thought that our near 100% success rate in marriage hides a deeper malaise, people stay with the wrong person out of social pressure. The marriage is the basic building block of society in Rwanda, to marry is called “to build” even if you are renting. When you marry you become a brick in the wall of society, you marry the family not the person. Our concept of marrying for romantic love is a very new one, most people in history married out of necessity, life was fragile, and people were few. It is only with economic security when all basics are met that you even start to contemplate romance. You married to build a family, to build alliances, to get protection, to extend lands, to further the will of Gihanga who demanded it. It was understood that you would learn to love each other, that personal feelings were subordinated to the wider Good.
Our ancient marriage institution was insanely liberal, that is why we still maintain 100% success. The myths are true, even wilder than we thought, the was no time of moral purity in our history, we were and are above all, practical and pragmatic in our approach. The Spear planted in the doorway, was an indication that your wife had male company and didn’t wish to be disturbed. Polygamy was not allowed but co-wives or Bakyeeba were common, if you did want to commit adultery then do it openly and bring them home. Whatever the couple agreed was their business as long as they could maintain their social obligations. Even with our 99.99999% retention rate, many marriages are just shells for show, but the show is so important, understanding the many levels of duty in marriage beyond romantic love. Many parents co-parent but live apart, or sleep in separate wings or the house. Quite often the solution is maintaining two homes, one rural, one urban, no questions are asked. We need a more detailed survey on the state of marriage in Rwanda, to take into account all the small fixes we use. Looking at rural areas, which is reflective of most Rwandans beyond the urban elite who got the 1,000+ divorces, men are carrying on as usual. However, women are waking up and knowing their rights, kicking abusive men out. Women empowerment will bring more divorce until men start adapting to women’s needs.
However, many of the laws to supposedly protect marriage have a negative effect on it. The tough adultery laws with prison time for a straying is making many young men just cohabit with their women, never to fully regularize their marriage. Many young men feel the law penalizes them unfairly, or that it favors the woman, but this is just correcting centuries of laws and customs favoring men. A couple have a religious blessing, invite friends like a full wedding, exchange rings, she changes her name, but she is not legally covered by marital law, this has effects on property ownership, child custody, tax and government services. We made the laws so tough that people are bypassing the law entirely. We need to accept we have a false picture, many couples are staying together out of obligation and social pressure. Maybe it is better to have a fake foundation than none at all. In this day and age of digital connection, that will fuel more divorce, the world is becoming small, what you see online is seen here very quickly as well. Overall the state of marriage is secure in Rwanda, it is still the building block of society and Government. However, some trends among the wealthy point to where we are heading socially. That 1,000 must have been comfortable middle-class couples, when women can support themselves and their children they opt for divorce. Poorer women don’t have that choice, they fear being abandoned financially and their children suffering. All countries have shown as women get economic independence they are less likely to stay in a loveless marriage, this will happen here too. When people complain of breakdown of society, they are often denying something that has happened for a while. For now, I won’t fall for the moral panic.