Director Matrid Munene combined the story of a fictional couple and traditional documentary interviews to build a narrative through which the audience experiences the entire process of Kikuyu marriages from courtship to the payment of dowries. Uhiki starts with interviews with Kenyan professors who attempt to define what culture is and then introduces a fictional couple who plans on getting married. The couple’s story begins with Macharia; played by Gitau wa Mitambo, proposing to Wanjiku (Wanjiru wa Gathu), while she carries a water container toward her village. Scriptwriters Mwangi Gachara’s and Gitau Mitambo’s Kikuyu dialogue effectively portrays the everyday interactions of the Kikuyu people. To further dramatise the story Matrid added a few challenges to the couple’s fictional relationship.
At first, Wanjiku refuses Macharia’s advances, but after Macharia’s father informs Wanjiku of his son’s proposal she decides to accept Macharia’s proposal for fear of disappointing her father. I am curious to know how Wanjiku’s parents and her extended family would have reacted if she had told them she did not want to marry Macharia.
The young couple’s relationship is set during modern times but ignores the impact of British colonialism on Kikuyu culture, which continues to influence present marriage practices. Colonial Kenya’s religious belief and the majority of Kenyans have abandoned their traditional beliefs and adopted Christianity: the religion of their forefathers’ colonial master. Most Kikuyus no longer worship Ngai: the god who according to Kikuyu folklore rests upon mount Kirinyaga. They now worship the God of the bible.
In terms of changing religious practices, Uhiki also does not mention how the father, the spiritual head of the Kikuyu family, would sacrifice a ram to Ngai seeking blessings for his son’s union. The practice of sacrificing a ram was called mbũri ya kũgũra. Most Kikuyu couples have abandoned this tradition which they now consider a “heathen” practice.
Uhiki also ignores some of the most important Kikuyu traditions such as polygamy and the tradition of Kuhura hoti in which the visitors/representatives of the groom arrive at the gate of the bride’s in-laws’ homestead only to find the gate locked and start singing traditional songs for the gate to be opened by the bride’s in-laws.
The film offers some insight into a few well-preserved matrimonial traditions including; naming children after animals that are never consumed, having a man cut the shoulder of the goat at the beginning of the wedding (gutinia kiande) and having the groom pay the bride price (kuingira kuracia). Gutinia Kiande symbolises the everlasting nature of marriage. A husband, by cutting the shoulder of the goat agrees to never leave his wife and children. Modern Christianity allows divorce and Uhiki gives no insight into how such a symbolic practice might lose its meaning over time.
Not only is the evolution of many traditional customs ignored, but the importance of the bride price, which is mistakenly translated to dowry in the English subtitles, is also minimised. Now that Kenya has an educated middle class how often is the bride price used in today’s marriages?
Other aspects of Kikuyu gender roles needed more examination as well. The bride was, for example, once unable to eat in front of her father during the wedding, but this taboo no longer exists. Uhiki mentioned how men are mentored by their fathers on which land belongs to whom and how to use herbal medicines while women were mentored by their mothers on how to cook, fetch firewood, collect water and carry out all other household chores.
Uhiki explores many traditional marriage customs but does not show the subtle ways Kikuyu culture has evolved over time such as how educated Kikuyu women have changed traditional marriage practices to suit their modern lifestyles. Nowadays, many women have a university education and pursue the same careers as men. Uhiki leaves much unsaid about Kenya’s changing gender roles, the most important aspect of traditional Kikuyu marriages.