Ruhango market, where girls sought love

IT MIGHT be over 50 years since the last girl left the spot under an acacia tree with a man she had just met, but the story of a ‘girls market’ in Ruhango town, Ruhango district, is still fresh in the minds of local residents, particularly the elderly.
Ruhango town today boasts some modern buildings. The New Times/ Jean Pierre Bucyensenge.
Ruhango town today boasts some modern buildings. The New Times/ Jean Pierre Bucyensenge.

IT MIGHT be over 50 years since the last girl left the spot under an acacia tree with a man she had just met, but the story of a ‘girls market’ in Ruhango town, Ruhango district, is still fresh in the minds of local residents, particularly the elderly.

It was around the 1950s that Ruhango market became famous and started to attract business operators from all corners of the country and even from neighbouring states.

But, as traders engaged in the trade of various commodities, another ‘business’ developed. In fact, some single girls transformed the market into an ideal place to find suitors for marriage.

And, hence, the place became more notorious as a ‘girl market’ where men, from thousands of kilometres away, would come ‘just to get one of the girls’ for marriage.

“Girls came from across the country, from all corners!” Esron Kabera, 85, recalls.

Sitting on a bench near Gitisi business centre, on the outskirts of Ruhango town, Kabera, whose hair has turned grey, narrates the story with precision, giving details of how girls engaged in an ‘operation’ to seduce and win over the love of ‘unknown’ men.

“They used to sit under a big acacia tree and carried small reed sticks which helped with identification. It was known that a girl with such a stick was looking for a potential husband,” the old man, who owned a small retail shop inside the market in the 1950s, narrates.

Today, the acacia tree has been felled and the place where it stood – as well as the surrounding area – is occupied by Ruhango modern market. But, as Mzee Kabera retells the story, he refers to the exact place as if he had mastered the spot where the girls used to sit awaiting potential husbands.

“I saw many of them there. Every Friday was a market day and that is when the girls would come. They came in groups of about five or six with their reeds,” Kabera recounts.

“I saw many of them talking with unknown men and later going with them.”

According to other accounts, the practice became widespread sometime between 1952 and 1958 and involved unmarried girls aged over 25.

“They considered themselves old and had lost hope of ever getting married,” Kabera says.

“During our time, girls usually got married at 16 or 18, thus a 25-year-old girl was considered too old for marriage,” Emmanuel Nsanzabera, 63, another area resident, recalls.

“We had been accustomed to the girls. No one seemed bothered by their presence,” Kabera says of the practice. “Even local leaders did not mind.”

According to Kabera, the girls were mainly taken to Uganda and Tanzania and their suitors seemed to be rich people and traders.

“No one was paid before being taken. It was just negotiations between the girl and the man which almost always ended with a successful conclusion,” he says in reference to the girls accepting to accompany the newly found husbands-to-be.

However, despite the apparent consent, the fate of the girls once they reached their destination, remains unclear – as if the girls’ story almost ended the moment they left with their ‘men’.

Whether they were taken for marriage or as slaves, none of the area’s oldest residents could provide a well-informed answer.

However, Kabera says there is an unconfirmed theory among storytellers that upon arrival in the neighbouring countries, the girls were exchanged for money to a third party.

 “How could a self-respectful girl accept to marry a man she had just met a few minutes before?

How sure was she that the man was single or whether he would treat her with respect?” he questions.

“Even the fact of leaving their home with the aim of wooing unknown men is itself a clear indication that they could easily end up in the wrong hands,” Kabera deduces.

Those girls who came looking for men, according to Kabera, had sometimes turned down advances from local men.

While the story of the ‘girl market’ remains unrecorded and with fears that it might one day die, authorities in the district are considering gathering facts about the practice and  the area in order to preserve that history and use it to attract potential visitors to the place.

According to the district mayor, Francois Xavier Mbabazi, they are studying the possibilities of turning the place into a tourism site.

“It is still at discussion level, just an idea,” he said.

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