Marriage falls victim to Congo's war

Flouting centuries-old rituals, more and more young couples are choosing to elope.

When businessman Etienne Ucoun Bralani counts the costs of Congo's civil war, it's not his looted stores or stolen cars that weigh most heavily on his heart.

His greatest loss, he says, are the two daughters who ran off with their boyfriends. They left without permission and without the traditional exchange of a dowry. In purely financial terms, their elopement cost him only 10 cows and 14 goats. But it is the blow to family and tradition, Mr. Bralani says, that hurts most.

"It's because of this war that boys and girls are marrying in such ways," he says. "In normal times, those boys would be punished for their disrespect. Just because we are at war doesn't mean we should tolerate such behavior."

The Congo's four-year civil war has killed some 3.3 million people. But the conflict has also destroyed families in subtler ways, tearing the fabric of culture and tradition that binds communities together. The most telling sign, people here say, is the wave of young couples who have eloped - violating centuries-old marriage customs.

"Most girls are just running away with the boys," says Marie-Therese Kavira, who has seen three sons leave with their girlfriends since the war began in 1998. "To find those who are respecting the traditional ways is very difficult."

As in other African countries, a marriage in Congo is cemented by the exchange of gifts. When a boy wants to marry a girl, their families negotiate a bride price - usually cows and goats, but sometimes money or cellphones.

The tradition, say women here, is not about selling the bride. Rather, it's a sign of respect showing that a husband values his new wife and can support his new family. The word for dowry in Swahili is mali, or "the worth."

These days, however, few families can afford to pay the mali. And young people, surrounded by war, see no reason to wait the months or years it may take to save for one. Nor is there much a family can do to stop lovers from eloping - the war has diminished the authority of traditional chiefs who once mediated such disputes. Other traditions, such as umoja, or "oneness," the belief that people should help their neighbors, is falling by the wayside as people struggle simply to survive.

Last month, when instability in Bunia closed schools and forced residents to flee, 18-year-old Anuarite Batolanza ran away with her boyfriend. Her parents wanted her to finish her studies, but she didn't see the point of waiting for schools that might never reopen.

"Because of the war, I thought we wouldn't study anymore - so many teachers and pupils had fled," she explains. "I love my husband and wanted to live with him."

Anuarite's mother warned her that she would be disowned over a man who would probably leave her for another woman. Such marriages, her mother said, were not blessed by God, and such wives were easily discarded. But Anuarite refused to return home.

"What is important to me," she says, "is to enjoy a good life. In the old days, people could do things the traditional way. Things are different now because of the war."

The languages here have no word for unmarried men and women who live together. So when a girl runs off to live with a boy, she is called his wife and he her husband.

But elders say there are consequences for ignoring traditions. In a cluttered corner of a refugee camp nicknamed "Kinshasa" by its residents, after the country's capital, the Ramazani family keeps a close eye on their daughter, Carine. A month ago, she sneaked out to live with her boyfriend. Two days later, her parents brought her back - pregnant and disgraced. The man she thought would be her husband already had a wife.

Still, some stories end more happily. Florence Dz'da and Emmanuel Losindo, who ran away when she became pregnant, have since reconciled with their families. Mr. Losindo is working to pay Florence's family four goats.

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