Why Africans Give Bride Price …
The Ugandan supreme court has ruled that bride-price is legal but not mandatory. Further, bride price is not refundable. A good ruling in my opinion. This reiterates the fact that bride-wealth is not meant to buy a woman or as has been aptly put in the ruling, a married woman is not on loan.
Refunding bride-wealth might be difficult. Can one refund the care given to the livestock. What if the livestock have reproduced? If bride-wealth can be refunded, can the man return the woman in her original condition and pay for all the contributions she has made to the family?
If we do not know why a certain practice exists we are wont to misuse it or rubbish it. The relevance of bride-wealth has always been misrepresented. Some women view paying bride-wealth to the equivalent of being bought. In Kenya bride-wealth is not illegal but it is also not mandatory. Bride-wealth has also been commercialised, making it difficult for young couples to marry and condemning others to a bad start in marriage.
Is bride-wealth about buying women? Not really, ask people who are well versed in tradition and most will tell you that it’s meant to be a token of appreciation to the girl’s family . The girl will be missed and there’s a loss of a helping hand too. The care given to her and her upbringing will be an asset to her future family. That’s something to be thankful for. Bride-wealth also reinforces the idea of mutual assistance and the redistribution of wealth. Some find it relevant as it demonstrates the man’s capability of taking care of his future family. Bride-wealth was never meant to be a money making venture. Ideally, the payment of bride price may be done in installments depending one one’s capability and is ongoing. As such, a man may find himself paying bride-price even after his children are grown. Among the Akamba (my ethnic community) marriage is legitimised when the groom’s family has given three goats (mbui sya ntheo). Bride price (ngasia) may be set to a higher number of livestock but once the initial amount is paid, the marriage is legal. Other communities may have different customs.
To find out the role of bride price in African marriage, you have to ask the right questions e.g. what would happen in various situations in the event that bride-wealth has not been paid.
It boils down to lineages and belonging. As I have been taught, it legitimises the children and the woman too. When bride-wealth has been paid, the children and wife effectively belong to the husband’s lineage. If not, the children belong to their mother’s lineage. The woman is also deemed to belong to her father’s lineage which is why you will find that if bride-price has not been paid the woman will be buried by people of her parents’ lineage. Ultimately, bride-wealth is given away because an increase in the number of people in the lineage is something good, it’s a blessing and this has to be balanced out by giving something to the woman’s family. Compared to livestock, children are the ultimate wealth. Nothing compares to human capital. In a society where children are viewed as extra mouths to feed and supporting human life is becoming more difficult, the payment of bride-wealth may not be relevant but it teaches us something about human value. Human beings are the ultimate wealth. Without the human person nothing else is possible.
Picture Credit: Monica Dart Photography