In 1990, Mary Achol Garang, a 43-year-old widow and mother of seven children, married a dead man. “When I was a young girl, the man who was dating me eventually told me that he courted me to be the wife of his elder brother who had died long ago as a baby boy. I was shocked at the time and protested the marriage but my parents convinced me to marry the dead husband – it is our tradition as Dinka,” Garang says.
She went on to have seven children with her brother-in-law and all of their children were named after his brother, their dead father. “For now,” she says, “the family members refer to me as a ‘widow’ because my ghost husband is not alive”.
In accordance with tradition, a woman who bears only girls, for example, a barren woman who has no child at all has the right to choose a girl of her choice to be married to her assumed “son” as the wife of a deceased man, to retain her wealth and continuation of her family’s linage.
An international tradition
Among the South Sudanese the tradition of “ghost marriage” is widely practiced by the Nilotic tribes with the aim of maintaining the family bloodline.
Ghost marriage is nearly exclusive to the Dinka and Nuer tribes of South Sudan, although variations of such marriages also exist in Sudan, China and France. In Dinka and Nuer cultures the names of the dead family members live on from generation to generation to avoid “extinction”.
A brother’s duty
David Mading Majok, a 60-year-old chief from Jonglei State based in Juba explains that in his family of six children, there were three boys and three girls and the two older brothers are deceased. Traditionally it is Mading’s duty to marry his brother’s wives. “It is my duty to marry their wives to ensure the continuation of our family linage,” he says.
Majok has three wives: the first belonging to his eldest brother, who died as a baby at the age of eight months, the second wife from his second brother, killed as a soldier during the 21 years of civil war in Sudan.
Thirty-nine-year-old Adhar Bol Mabil, a mother of three children says that she married a deceased man to follow tradition. “It wasn’t my will to be married to a dead husband, rather the will of my parents.”
“I have seen the picture of the husband that I am married to. I was only informed of his name and told a little bit about his background. All of my children are named after him. Since it’s our culture I have no other option,” she says. “As the Dinka people, we remain a majority because of ghost marriage,” says Peter Deng Manon. “We keep the names of our dead people alive through ghost marriage,” Manon praises ghost marriages.
Younger generation opposed
Monica Mamur Deng, a high school graduate of Supiri secondary school in Juba describes the practice of ghost marriage as an outdated custom that should be stopped. “The tradition only targets women and forces them to marry a dead husband,” she says.
Tabith Anger Mathiang also strongly condemns the practice of ghost marriage. “This is mere backwardness. How can you force a young girl of less than eighteen years of age to marry a dead man?”