Is Bride Price Still Relevant in Africa?

By David G Maillu

The family is the foundation of African values, where the philosophy behind life is in addressing the matter of being born, living, procreation and death. The best of life, for any human, is living happily or with minimum problems. The failure of life is inability to obtain instruments which make life worth living.

Your life is consummated primarily within the context of the people you live with. Your weight is measured by the scale of balance in other people’s hands. On the ground, the immediate people who affect your life positively or negatively are members of your family; and the success and failure of your life can be measured by how you relate to those people.

Life on earth is manufactured by the sexual interaction between man and woman. The sexual attraction between the two is given many interpretations. It is within this premise that love is contextualized and marriage is born and maintained.

African religion pays tribute to the relations between man and woman. It starts off with how man and woman acquire each other for lifetime companionship. To be born does not guarantee you acquisition of a spouse. In life everything is acquired at a cost. One has to spend some energy and material things in order to acquire the opposite sex.

In African philosophy it is a man who goes out hunting for a woman. But when he finds the suitable one, how does he go about convincing her that he means business? How does he convince her family that he is genuine responsible and they can trust him with a member of her family since words are not enough? Beyond words he must sacrifice something in order to convince them. This is the beginning of bride price or dowry. In Africa, unlike in India and other communities, it is the man who pays the dowry because it is acknowledged that in matters concerning family and marriage, woman’s value overweighs man’s value.

To pay something in order to have a wife is different from buying an animal in a market place. “You can’t buy a human being,” goes the philosophy underlining bride price. Brice price is simply a test of commitment.

In traditional society the bride price is not the property of the parents of the girl. It belongs to the family. This is why the father cannot translate it into money form and then take it straight into his bank account.

Traditionally, the bride price obtained from a daughter called Titi was further used by the family to pay for the bride price of getting the brothers of Titi wives, with a strict memorandum of understanding that if Titi’s marriage fails and she is forced to return to her parental home, the brothers will take full responsibility of maintaining Titi and her children. Furthermore, a fraction of the bride price was used on members of the extended family who, in turn, are expected in future to help supporting Titi in case of the failure of her marriage.

Payment of the bride price by the suitor was a pride to the girl. It was a confirmation that she was a full woman. She shared her pride with the extended family. She got married with a family social insurance policy.

Today’s sham regarding the meaning of bride price is that, in so many families, it has been given commercial interpretation in which the bride price becomes strictly the property of the parents. In traditional society the bride price was given a standard by the clan. But today a father can proudly say, “I want so many shillings for my daughter.” The figure gets inflated if the daughter is highly educated. What the parents get, in most cases, does not profit her brothers and lay foundation for an insurance policy for her future.

Today the father can use that money to buy private property. When he dies the daughter may not even inherit anything from that property. Her brothers do not any more feel responsible for her social insurance. She is nobody. Even is part of that money had been used to pay for the school fees of a brother, there is no written contract that she will get any support from that brother.

It is from this angle that bride price has lost its nobility and has become a liability to the daughter. On one hand she gets absolutely nothing from the marriage of her brothers; but on the other hand her brothers feel entitled to the share of the bride price from the man going to marry her.

From here where do we go? In that miserable case, the person to decide to put this to an end is the daughter. She should not expect her parents to do it for her. She stands adversely affected because the man who paid the bride sees her from commercial aspect as an object he bought and consequently she has little say in the marriage. The second responsible institution to address this is the government. The government is too busy talking about bringing genital mutilation to an end, yet it does not address this discriminatory out-of-fashion practice. In fact, today bride price is worse than genital mutilation.

It is the daughter’s life which is at stake. If any down has to be paid at all, she is the one who should demand legal document signed in her protection. Indeed, she should be given equal treatment with her brothers.

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