By Samuel Ouma
Kenyans were left reeling in shock when the news about a 63-year-old man who turned down millions of shillings offered as a bride price for his daughter emerged. The report indicated Hussein Maro hailing from Tana River County, a coastal region of the East African state, only asked for Ksh7, leaving the groom’s entourage puzzled.
“My fellow elders, it is a great joy to have my daughter married to a good family. Therefore, as my daughter and I had already agreed, we shall take seven shillings,” he told the Nation media. The old man’s move elicited mixed reactions given the hefty amount, which Bride’s parents usually demand. While some made fun of Hussein, others praised him, calling him the “wisest man on earth.”
“The Bride is not a commodity for sale. He is the wisest man on earth. Let bridegroom appreciates the in laws and respect and love their daughter for she is a precious jewel with no price tag,” said Rossie Omwamba.
“A peaceful marriage is better than money, this Mzee (old man) could be old but very wise. This is a powerful message to the families who use their daughters to solicit and milk cash from poor brides. Kudos to Mzee (old man)!” added James Odhiambo.
Bride price, also known as dowry or bridewealth, is a long-standing customary practice in the African culture. It is the gift given by the groom to the kindred of his prospective wife before marriage. In Tanzania, it is called Mahari. The Shona community of Zimbabwe calls it Roora, and the Yoruba of Nigeria calls it Iyawo. The practice was meant to bring two families together. It was treated like a gift, not a price; it serves as a token of appreciation to the lady’s parents for bringing her up and further proves that the man can take care of his wife.
Bride price among Kenyan communities
Forty-two (42) Kenyan tribes have not been an exception in dowry payment. Traditionally, it was a high-esteemed norm that was celebrated in all communities. Besides being a token of appreciation, it also adds value to a woman, legalizes customary marriage, and validates children born in the new union. Each community has a local name for dowry. Luo community calls it Ayie; in Agikuyu, it is known as Ruracio, Kambas call it Ngasya, and in Kalenjin, it is called Koito.
The dowry payment varies from one community to the other. For example, traditionally, a man seeking to marry a lady from the Abaluhya community was required to pay thirteen cattle heads. The Maasai, Kalenjin, Luo communities, etc., also accepted dowry in the form of cattle. Agikuyu, it’s composed of goats, traditional brews, honey, and cows. In most communities, dowry is not paid once; it is given in phases or installments to create strong ties between the groom and the Bride’s family.
Society’s role in dowry payment
Dowry payment used to be a society affair. After a man had proposed to a lady and agreed to marry him, he was supposed to approach his parents or guardians and inform them about his intention to get married. The parents would research the lady’s background information, and once satisfied, they would go ahead and notify the extended family and the clan. Once every relative was informed, a select committee consisting of reputable elders was established to facilitate dowry payment and probably marriage.
The Bride also approaches her parents or guardians and notifies them about her decision to get married. Like the groom’s side, they inquire more about the man, his clan, and his community and then inform the entire clan before forming a select committee of elders. The elders would meet and agree on what to be paid to the Bride’s family as a gift paving the way for the wedding.
Commercialization of bride price
Dowry, once a noble tradition, has been contorted in the recent past. What was supposed to be a uniting factor between families has become a business venture. Parents perceive their daughters as an investment that should fetch much gain when they get married. Unlike in the past, when virginity was the determinant factor during the dowry payment, it is education level, social class, and career in the modern era. A highly educated lady is expected to earn millions of shillings for her family.
Traditionally, the man and his family had the right to settle on what and how much to pay for the Bride’s family. However, things have changed. Today, such freedom does not exist. The Bride’s family set the price, and two families must negotiate. Moreover, some ladies also conspire with their family to fleece her future husband his hard-earned money, a behaviour that should be condemned by society.
The unreasonable demand for dowry is now causing what we did not expect. Marriages are ending, relationships are breaking, and weddings are being called off, but no-one is taking responsibility; instead, we blame the devil. The number of single motherhood and young couples who have chosen to cohabit to avoid dowry has hit a high record. Overpriced bride prices have also seen women being seen as acquired property that a man can mistreat the way he wants.
It does not end there; some families have plunged into crippling debts as they were forced to take loans to raise the required amount of dowry. Some men have also been exposed to harassment and mistreatment by their wives and in-laws simply because they cannot pay dowry. It is high time the Kenyan government regulates dowry payment to save vulnerable means from the hands of greedy parents who are out to use bride price as a gateway to riches.