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Let’s Talk Dowry

Mentalacrobatics pointed the way towards a very funny article in the The Standard.

I have two sisters, the white kind, which for some reason seem to garner some attention in our lovely continent of Africa. While growing up in Sudan and Kenya, I was offered all types of farmyard animals if I would just petition my father for the unfortunate soul who only wished a beautiful mzungu as a wife. At least a couple dozen cows were an acceptable offer in my book, though I took offense at one young lout who only promised a few goats and a couple scrawny chickens.

On a more serious note. I know my African friends can set me straight if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard that it’s not unusual today for a dowry to be a car, house, or even money paid to the parents for the rest of the parent’s lives! I sometimes wonder how prevalent dowry’s are within the city as compared to rural Africa. My guess would be that they are less likely to happen, or if they are, to be less of an issue and more a token to the cultural past.

From this white African’s perspective, I can tell you that I think the practice is a little dated. Just as centuries-old practices in Western culture have gone by the wayside (when was the last time you saw the wedding sheet hung out over the balcony?), I believe this will too in Africa. As the world economy becomes more global, the investment of livestock into a woman (as a commodity) just doesn’t make sense. Not to mention the social ramifications of women’s rights and everyone’s understanding of their place in society.

It’s just a practice that is bound to die out eventually in everything but token practice and lipservice. Lastly, I’m not sure Chelsea Clinton is worth 20 cows!

14 Comments

  1. I’d never really thought of the dowry thing seriously other than reading that Masaii did it until I found out that within my own (extended) family there was dowry exchanging involved when some of my cousins were married. It is strange and for people like me who tend to shrug off “tradition” for what seems to be reasonable, I thought it was backward.

    But having recently been married myself now I’m aware that tribal cultures exist in the west too – similarly backward procedures related to love and marriage. For example:
    + the bride’s family pays for the wedding/groom pays for ring and honeymoon
    (my approach is to figure out the wedding together as the first major project as a couple)
    + wedding showers and thank you cards.
    (what a drag)
    + opening presents w/ family
    (way materialistic, almost mechanical in writing down things to return and things to keep. In AFrica when someone gives you something it’s not because it’s valuable, but it’s a gesture. I’m not into making lists of things I “need” and then tossing/returning the stuff that is in excess. I’d much rather a nice card or letter.)

    re: Chelsea Clinton – Miros can be shameless.

  2. Good point David. We do have traditions/practices in the West as well. My point is that they are not as economically imbalanced as the traditional dowry practices in Africa.

    Question for you: what did your cousins do for a dowry? Was it the traditional cattle, or was it some other form of monetary property? Just curious as to what current urban Africans are doing.

  3. I think it was an obscene amount of money. The family had to actually band together to have the resources. Oh, and in Uganda it’s ass backwards; the family of the bride pays to have her taken off their hands!

  4. Hey traditons are good though today its more like lets take the groom/groom’s family to the cleaners! As long as the bride’s family remain sensible, dowry’s got to be paid but not demanded.

  5. Farmgal,
    I think the key to what you said is “sensible”. If dowry prices were sensible right now, we probably wouldn’t be talking about them. The problem is, they take a young man 8 years to earn/grow. Then, he takes his hard earned assets and gives them all away. Now he starts from scratch again. Doesn’t make sense economically to me.

  6. I think dowry as interpreted today and even as far back as the generation that got married in the ’60s and ’70s, is v. patriarchal and innapropriate. It was meant as a token of two families joining together as a result of this man and woman hooking up. But in typical (read:patriarchal interpretations) it became and has become (yes even in urban areas!) a chance to ‘fleece’, get paid for raising a girl and in some cases – cause untold tension.
    I have expressly told my father and all those sneaky uncles, that under no circumstances will dowry -wether it is a goat, cow or sheep be given in exchange for me. I’m not a commodity.
    I think also that couples need to start paying for weddings they can afford, to avoid the usual trap of one side paying for this or that! There have been cases of the woman’s family not asking for dowry, only to demand a huge payment either on the actual wedding day, or worse still – disguise it, in the form of requests for ‘transport to wedding’, ‘wedding outfit for bride’s whole family from cucu to new born baby!’.
    Sorry didn’t mean to blog on your blog…but the whole dowry thing makes me MAD!

  7. Afrofeminista – thanks for chiming in, and don’t apologize for responding – it’s expected!

    It’s good to hear an African woman’s view on the dowry issue. I think you struck the nail on the head – the dowry and one side paying for the whole wedding thing are out dated.

    I guess I’m still wondering how often it happens in 21st century Africa though. It has to be still going strong in rural areas right? How about urban? What forms does it manifest itself in?

  8. I am an African American woman and I live in Atlanta, GA. Last November, one of my closest female friends last-minute-invited me to one of her engagement ceremonies–the exchanging of the calabash. Her fiancé is from Sierra Leone, though he has lived in the States for most of his life. He has quite a large network of family here, so there was a concerted efforrt to make sure all the engagement activities (I am told) were as traditional as possible. I had no idea what to expect and blogged about it in depthly here.

    I am extremely bothered by the dowry question–but so, too, am I bothered by many of the things that concern matrimony. Anyway…this is quite an intersting post you have here. And Afrofeminista, you have no idea just how many times I have had to drill in to my father, uncles, cousins, grandmother, boyfriends that neither am I a commodity–though dowries were in no way referenced, I find that I fight off this being part of my identity daily. So many…too many things re-enforce the same kind of oppression that it seems, sometimes, as though all the branches of that evil will never be hewn.

    What was most peculiar/disturbing to me about the calabash ceremony I attended was just what was inside the calabash. I am a feminist, so when I saw needle and thread, fabric…I almost spoke out. But it was not the time. It is not my life, though I did let my friend read what I wrote about the ceremony. She was not bothered either by the event itself or my remembrance of it–it made her cry, actually, a good cry. She thought it was a really beautiful ceremony, I believe. And I always though her just as vocal and political and feminist as I am–but here she was so in love, and I dare say, afraid to offend her new in-laws, that she never protested once. Not even when her mother opened the envelop containing the payment for her daughter. I cried because the symbolism was much too much for me not to come apart in some slight way. And her mother accepted the money.

    So, I guess I just wanted to comment here to say that we sell brown daughters here, in the States, as well. And not for livestock or ghastly amounts of money, but money is money…and it seems as though we do it here to keep alive, in whatever ways we can, a connection to the continent from which we are descendants. If it is African, my friend seemed to believe, I will take whatever I can get so long as it connects me to there–where I’ve never ever been.

  9. I agree on all counts, Afrofeminista. Good thoughts from you.

    Fuego, I think you’ve got a good perspective, and your words about holding on to tradition were really moving. Thanks for reminding us, my dear.

    I personally wish it weren’t so traditional in the States for the parents to pay for the wedding – either set of parents. Weddings seem like such a blown-up, bloated, sugary princess-day for the bride instead of the sacred joining of two people. It’s one of the Western industries that I really hate. I’ll cut myself off here before I really get going… [smile]

    Cerise

  10. Fuego, good to hear your side, thanks for chiming in. I think we’re all in a good deal of agreement on the usefulness of the dowry practice.

    I think it would be great to hear from someone who really believes in the dowry practice, I’m sure there are some traditionalists who have strong arguments for it, but I’m just not sure what those arguments could be.

    HASH

  11. That kikuyumoja dude is a big reason why dowry isn’t such a bad idea. If you end up marrying a goon such as kikuyumoja, then dowry helps. It prevents the idiot from being able too financially afford many wives, or even having high maintenance girlfriends on the side. It is also something to fall back on should the bride leave her husband and return to her parents, something, in the case of the dim-witted goon above is highly likely. Men have also been known to completely abandon thier family, and start a new one. Can’t be that easy if you have to pay dowry each time.
    Dowry has also been a way to show a mans commitment. A man who goes as far as to pay dowry shows an ability to provide for his family, and preparedness for married life, responsibility and maturity. I’ve seen plenty of muzungus from europe, U.S, etc pay dowry for their african girlfriends. If they are commited enough, they’ll do it.
    In modern urban dwellers, dowry probably will not be in the form of domesticated animals.
    Traditionally, a woman leaves her parents home and goes to live with her husband and his family. This is a loss to her family, dowry is a compensation.
    Unfortunately there aren’t real laws that protect women in case of divorce. In the west, women get half or more than half of the assets, they get alimony and the children, who end up for the most part living with their mother, get child support and so on. In Africa, dowry is a substitute for all that. It isn’t a backward tradition at all. When I was young and romantic I had afrofeminista’s views, no one was going to pay dowry for me. Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m not so sure.

  12. Dear anonymous,
    first of all, the plural of Mzungu is Wazungu, not M(u)zungus.
    Secondly, in case you didn’t figure that my “comment” above actually refers to a blog entry in my own blog, your comment where you’ve apparently misunderstood the irony and satire I’ve tried to express with this dowry issue (“being the traditional person”, “having two wives” etc) somehow tells me that while there are some people understanding satire, other are just flabbergasted by my writings and maybe, only maybe, I should apply some (satire) and (/satire) brackets in future.

    Please check my article and the corresponding pictures within the text to understand that I was actually referring to my two guitars and an ukulele.

  13. hi everyone but one thing i want to add is that it’s not all diaries that are devilish for economy or so old. in my tribe for examples the good that you give return back to your wife. usually it alcohol not more than 12 bottles for the price they cost in africa it is nthing, plus some jewels for your wife some kitchen furniture and tissus (i mean fabrics) for your wife. in my tribe all that gift is to show that you can really take care of their daughter. in fact in my mother dowry mu parents paid the dowry together and when the dowry was finishing they brought back some items and were refund. i think that in africa the problem is that people want to show they are wealthy they lend money too much. and after start crying that they get poor. GUYS ORGANISE THE MARIAGE YOU CAN AFFORD. PLZ

  14. Dowry – even the British way is changing, mostly the girls parents do not pay for all the wedding ceremony costs, as things become more expensive it is normal to find the prospective groom, his parents and the bride and her parents all chiping in for the celebrations.

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