Dowry, a payment made by the family of the groom in the form of money, presents, or a mixture of both, to their future in-laws at the start of their marriage, to enable the groom to marry the bride, has endured the strong wave of westernization in the Africa continent. The long-standing customary practice is shared across the societies from Egypt to South Africa, down to Ghana and Rwanda. On the other hand, in the Hindu culture, the bride’s family pays the dowry to the groom. In some cultures, factors such as income or status determine the value of the dowry.
Dowry (also called bride price) bears different names in different society, tribe, or country. In Tanzania, it is called “Mahari,” the Shona people of Zimbabwe call it “roora” and South Africans name it as “lobola.” In some cultures, dowry is paid before the wedding, others during the wedding, and few societies accept it after the event.
In traditional African societies, dowry payment was a family affair, and negotiation did not exist. The groom and his family had the right to settle on what and how much to pay to the bride’s family. People used animals such as goats, sheep, and cattle as the method of payment. Some societies also used agricultural products or gifts such as beer, blankets, and palm wine.
Traditionally, dowry acted as a token of appreciation to the bride’s family for bringing up their daughter and nurturing her for marriage. It also served as a unifying bond between the new families created by the union. It also legalized customary marriages, validated children born in marriages, and added value to the woman. The payment was also proof that the man can take care of his wife and the new family.
“It’s a cultural symbolism that, sort of, puts two families together. The coming together of two families which acknowledges that this is who we are and we are creating a new family,” said Nqobile Zulu, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
According to Lebogang Ramafoko, a South African social activist, the custom created a bond at the family and clan levels. It equally cemented peaceful co-existence between clans involved in the dowry ceremony.
“So when person A meets person B, African cultures acknowledge that person A and person B both are part of a system. In fact, the rituals that are involved in lobola (dowry) negotiations are bringing those two systems together, acknowledging that we are stronger working together than when we work as individuals. I think that is the beauty of the practice,” she reiterated.
But with our present social, political and economic advancement, dowry has been given a new twist. Our forefathers did their best to transfer this high esteemed cultural practice to the current generation to ensure a smooth marriage process, but their efforts may have hit a snag. Things have taken a U-turn, eliciting debate on the significance of dowry payment in the modern era. People have contorted the meaning of this traditional practice and effectively commercialized dowry. What was intended to be a token of appreciation and a uniting factor between families has become a money-making business.
Today, some greedy parents are using the marriage gift as a gateway to riches. Few societies still accept items like cattle, goats, and agricultural products as the mode of payment. Nearly everything is paid in the form of hard currency. Marriage has become an expensive entity due to unreasonable dowry charges by the brides’ parents. Today one has no freedom to offer what he can afford as a bride price. The two families have to sit down and agree on what the groom’s family is needed to pay and the amount to be paid depends on the man’s social status and the bride’s level of education.
For example, In Zimbabwe, educated brides fetch higher bride prices, said Sambulo Ndlove, the chairperson of African Languages and Literature at Great Zimbabwe University. According to him, a woman with a master’s degree or PhD. can attract between $15,000 and $30,000 dowry; and for women with a college degree, the price tag can range from $8,000 and $12,000.
The modern perception of dowry is now a matter of concern. Ironically, men put much importance to having a male child, whom they believe will culturally inherit their name/root after their death. This cultural expectation and practice put incredible pressure on their wives, who feels insecure in their marriages without a male child. Yet, some parents see their daughters as an investment that should generate profit for the family when they get married. The pressure is extreme for men who cannot afford the outrageous demands from the potential in-laws. That means finding a wife of your dream does not necessarily transcend into marriage if you are not financially sound to pay for the dowry. Other men are forced to pay beyond their financial limit and capability, simply to fulfil cultural expectations. Unreasonable demands for dowry have seen planned marriages and engagements broken. Demanding, for example, $3,000 or more for a bride price, from a man who earns $100 or less per month is ridiculous and malicious.
“When you have paid a hundred and thirty pounds bride-price and you are only a second-class clerk, you find you haven’t got any more to spare on other women.”
Chinua Achebe, The African Trilogy: Things Fall Apart; Arrow Of God; No Longer at Ease (Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition).
But the pressure is not only on the man. In many African societies, unmarried women are often treated with disrespect, and the affected women regarded as “bad.” This attitude simply put enormous pressure on both unmarried men and women.
But logically, he who pays the piper calls the tune. If a man is forced to spend his life-saving on his wife’s dowry, logically, he may most likely see the wife as his property and treat her so. The attitude towards one’s wife encourages subordination, mistreatment of wives – and to a great extent, women – as an appendix to their husbands. The treatment puts unnecessary pressure on marriages and even cause them to break. Apart from the cultural pressure, the majority of parents and families are responsible for the failed marriages and increase in single motherhood.
“No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Human rights activists have warned that the sudden twist (Which “twist”? There must be “unity” between each sentence / paragraph, otherwise, it will be difficult to follow one’s argument )
Human rights activists have warned that the recent commercialization of bride price has turned women into a commodity or property, with men being perceived as having full rights, authority and control over their newly acquired “properties.” That perception devalues women in marriage and treats them as second-class citizens in various societies. That is not all. Some women have been denied the rights over their children, and others are blocked from getting into their marital homes. Gender-based sexual violence has become the order of the day. Those women who cannot bear the gender inequality and discrimination in their marriages hardly find comfort in their fathers’ home either, which culturally belongs to and inherited by the male family members. Worse still, husbands mostly exercise total control over their “properties,” and thus hardly entertains outside intervention in their marriages. Many families who have demanded much bride price from the groom are sometimes helpless when their daughter is being mistreated in a marriage. Some of the families are hardly eager to caution their son-in-law or accept their daughters back because of the inability or unwillingness to refund the outrageous bride price they collected from the groom. Result? Unhappiness becomes inevitable in marriage; families often encourage their daughters to bear the sometimes, unbearable condition in their marriages rather than save her the unhappiness, pressure, hardship, discrimination and fragmentation that come with her marriage.
Some of these atrocities have been recorded by the Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA). A study by two researchers Dorrit Posel and Stephanie Radwick of Witwatersrand University in South Africa, on marriage rates in Kwa Zulu-Natal Province, disclosed that the numbers of young couples who have chosen to cohabit due to inability to pay high dowry demands. Others choose elopement as the only answer since they have to get married in line with the African culture.
Overpriced bride prices have also plunged some low-income families into a crippling debt; often, they are coerced to sell their lands or acquire loans at an exorbitant rate to raise the money demanded by the bride’s family. Some men who cannot pay a dowry or make a top-up on what they had paid before, had been bullied and mistreated by their wives and in-laws. In India, where the family of the bride pays the bride price to the groom, many mothers-in-law mistreat or even sometimes, kill their daughter-in-law to cash in on another – and sometimes higher – bride price. Many young unfortunate Indian brides, who cannot afford to pay for their bride price end up killing themselves, rather than face the mockery of being unmarried.
Some human rights organisations have labelled bride price a “modern-day slavery” and called for the abolition of the practice, which they argue oppresses women. In 2007, MIFUMI, an Uganda-based international women’s rights advocacy group, filed a suit in the country’s Supreme Court seeking to have the custom eradicated. After eight years of the court battle, the judges unanimously uphold the dowry’s payment but barred men from claiming a repayment from their wives’ families in the case of divorce or marriage dissolution. The judges also banned parents from marrying off ladies who are under 18. In Zimbabwe, Prisccilar Vengesai a Harare lawyer, who was once degraded and mistreated in her previous marriage also failed in her attempt to ask her country’s Constitutional court to stop payment of a dowry or to mandate both parties to share the payment of bride price.
The culture, customs and practices of a group are the existential rope which binds and unites them as an entity and defines their identity; it brings coherence to their existence. However, what happens when the same cultural cord that binds a group together seems to be the same that effectively strangles it? If people have created a practice, they can modify it to fit their existence. Rather than eradicating the bride price, it is time to change it to suit with present reality. That necessary modification will go a long way in ensuring the survival of African culture and the people.