by Christine Karanja Mutua and Del Chinchen
The dowry is going the way of many other important cultural practices in Africa —down the hill of eroding values. The going rate for an educated wife in Kenya today could be as much as a Mitsubishi Pajero.
The dowry is going the way of many other important cultural practices in Africa —down the hill of eroding values. The going rate for an educated wife in Kenya today could be as much as a Mitsubishi Pajero. What used to be a morally-uplifting cultural practice has become exploited by greed and because of these abuses, some missionaries dismiss the practice as non-Christian. Could it be possible there is some value to this custom which makes it worth our consideration—even in terms of missions? This article is intended to explore that possibility.
Since dowry is best understood in its holistic context of marriage and family, Del will begin with an anthropological study of African marriages. Christine will then provide a case study of the marriage gift ceremony drawn from her own personal experience. Missiological implications and strategies derived from this study will conclude the article.
WHAT IS THE MARRIAGE GIFT?
The term dowry, also called the “marriage payment” or “bride price,” is filled with misconceptions. Often, it has been used inappropriately to mean the purchasing of a wife. These terms, marriage payment and bride price, originated from foreigners who did not understand the meaning behind the practice. The more accurate terminology for a dowry would be “marriage gift.” Four sources below confirm this.
African theologian John Mbiti explains:
Under no circumstances is this custom a form of payment as outsiders have so often mistakenly said. African words for the practice of giving the marriage gift are, in most cases, different from words used in buying or selling something in the marketplace.…This marriage gift is a token of gratitude on the part of the bridegroom’s people to those of the bride for their care over her and for allowing her to become his wife. The gift elevates the value attached to her, both as a person and as a wife. (1969, 140)
African cultural anthropologist Aylward Shorter confirms, “Bride wealth is not ‘bride-price,’ women are not bought and sold…it is a legal document signifying that the marriage has taken place… and legitimates the children of the union” (1998, 90).
According to anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, the dowry does not exist in Africa (1950, 46). He compares the African marriage gift to the modern-day engagement ring. The ring and the marriage gift are expensive yet symbolic gifts, not perceived to be business transactions (1950, 48).
Among the Kipsigis of Kenya the transaction connected with marriage is not looked upon as a purchase in any way. The expression used for the transfer of marriage cattle (kegoita tuga) has no connection with buying. Kegoita tuga means “to give away cattle” and kegoita alone means “to prepare a gift” (Orchardson 1961, 81).
Once the woman leaves her family and joins the family of her husband, she ceases to be a member of her clan. It is a huge sacrifice on the part of the wife’s family. For this reason the man needs to show his appreciation to the wife’s family through the marriage gift. It is a way for the husband’s family to show appreciation for the good work the woman’s family did in raising and preparing their daughter for marriage. Indeed, the husband expresses gratitude by giving gifts to the wife’s family throughout the marriage.
WHAT IS MARRIAGE IN AFRICA?
It is important for those who are not Africans to suspend any preconceived ideas about what marriage should be when discussing African marriages. African marriages are not like Western ones. Radcliffe-Brown reminds us that the Western idea of marriage is very unusual and has developed quite recently (1950, 43).
First, an African marriage is an alliance between two families, not just the union of a man and a woman. The bond between the couple’s families grows with each gift given. The wife’s family is reminded of this bond every day by the sight of the cows or goats in their backyard (given by the husband of their daughter). The cattle take on relational value—the herd becomes a “shadow family.” When the marriage gift is given all at once—or when money becomes the principal medium—the nurturing of the family ties, symbolized by the increase of the number of cows or goats, is lost (Kituyi 1990, 220).
Second, it is not a one-time event; it is a process. Just as cement must cure slowly for it to become strong, so it is with African marriages. There is wisdom to be found in this understanding of a lifelong relationship. Over a period of several years there are various stages. Each requires a different kind of ceremony, with different gifts. Some say the marriage gift is never fully completed (Middleton and Kershaw 1972, 61).
For the Maasai, the final ceremony is performed after the children are born but before any of them are at the age of initiation. It is important to note that the entire celebration seems to revolve around the wife. The ceremony begins with the wife receiving a blessing in her mother’s home. Then the wife makes the symbolic procession back to her husband’s home (just as she did when she was first married). There is much celebration because the wife has now established herself and her family’s reputation in her husband’s home. She now commands honor and respect. When the gift of an animal is given, the legs of the animal are tied to its neck just as the marriage is bound in a permanent knot. Mutual trust has been built between the families and the husband speaks warmly of his wife (Spencer 1988, 33).
WHO IS THE MEDIATOR IN AFRICAN MARRAIGES?
An essential component to every African marriage, especially for the arrangement and presentation of the marriage gift, is a mediator between the two families. Both the individual’s and the community’s equilibrium are upset when there is a rearrangement of the social system. At every important transition in an African’s life, an experienced individual who has “gone before” comes alongside to walk him/her through the delicate process of change. Transitions are unpredictable and require the assistance of someone with experience. The marriage mediator is there to provide the support the couple needs during this major change in their lives.
This “marriage sponsor” fills the role of counselor, advisor, mediator and representative to the families. The Cewa of Malawi, for example, require that the man and woman each find an nkhoswe, or marriage sponsor: “The formal meeting of the ankhoswe, who have a status of something like that of diplomatic representative, is the essential act that makes the marriage legal” (Mair 1951, 108). The role of the ankhoswe is so prominent in the marriage proceedings that in some modern marriages in Malawi the couple goes to the wedding ceremony with their ankhoswe, instead of their parents.
As we hear Christine narrate her experience during her most recent marriage gift ceremony, much of what has been conveyed in the anthropological material above will be substantiated.
CHRISTINE’S MARRIAGE GIFT CEREMONY
My name is Christine Wambui Karanja Mutua, adjunct teacher at Daystar University and Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. I was married to Daniel Muvengi in 1997. God has blessed us with two children.
December 2003 was special for me because after being married for about seven years my husband chose this time to go to my village to present the marriage gift. According to the Kikuyu culture, the marriage gift never ends (ruracio rutithiraga). Even if a man is rich, it is not considered proper to bring the entire marriage gift at once. After the initial gift, given before marriage, the man should, according to my father, “Go, think and say that he has decided to bring a small token, and then bring something.” This should be an occasional, ongoing practice during the years of marriage.
On December 20, 2003, Daniel, together with his good friend (the go-between) and his wife, came to my home to give the marriage gift. Daniel’s mediator was the one who negotiated for him with my family before the wedding. He has also been Daniel’s main confidante.
My husband had asked me to go home early to prepare for the big day. During the preparation I was able to catch up with my parents and others with whom I had been raised in the village. My preparations also involved inviting a few neighbors who would be on hand to greet my husband and his entourage.
My parents, brothers, sisters, grandmother, cousins and neighbors graced the occasion. Food was in plenty. My husband arrived with his friends around mid-morning. They brought along a live goat and lots of food. Everyone ate their fill. The serious meeting began in the early afternoon.
My husband’s friend was the spokesperson. All my husband did was nod in agreement as the conversation progressed. It would be considered disrespectful if he were to address my parents directly on such an important matter. The spokesperson started by expressing gratitude to my parents, tracing their goodness and their gracious acts from the moment they entered the home. He cited their kind acts: their warm welcome; their reasonableness during the initial marriage arrangements; and their support for the young couple over the last seven years. He then presented a gift of ten thousand Kenya shillings (about $150) in appreciation.
Then it was my parents’ turn to speak. Each expressed gratitude for their coming. The other family members expressed the same thoughts, adding that even today, when many people seem ungrateful, it was good to see some who still value occasions to show gratitude. According to my dad, this event was significant in a number of ways:
1. It demonstrated that the relationship between the two families was solid and had a firm foundation. He used the expression gutiria kiande, meaning “cutting the shoulder.” Traditionally, to signify that a negotiation process had been responsibly and legally completed, the upper part of a roasted goat is cut and shared with everyone.
2. It was a sign that both families had lived well and had become one.
3. It showed that the relationship had matured to the extent that one family could not do something without consulting the other.
The ceremony ended with a word of prayer offered by my mother, a born-again Christian.
Daniel understood this ceremony as a way of expressing his gratitude to both my parents and to God for giving him a wife. Along with other advantages, I had improved his social status. He is in agreement with the writer of Proverbs that he who finds a wife finds a good thing (18:22) and that a wife is a gift from God (19:14). God had blessed him with children through this relationship (Ps. 127:3-5, 128:3). The entire ceremony was a reminder to celebrate his marriage.
In an age where cultural values are being eroded, I felt honored to participate in a cultural practice so rich in gratitude. The event demonstrated that my husband values, appreciates and loves me. It was his way of thanking me for adding value to his life. It reaffirmed to me that he is committed to our marriage. I also appreciated how my husband served as a good role model for my brothers and the other young men at the event.
DANGERS OF EXPLOITATION
Unfortunately, visitors to Africa seldom see this custom as it has just been described. Instead, they often see the exploited side of this practice. Some materialistic families take advantage of the marriage gift in order to become rich. They will put pressure on the man’s family to make payments, sometimes beyond his ability, leading to strained relationships. The abuse of the marriage gift does not stabilize the marriage, it undermines it.
I (Del) have a friend who is regularly badgered by his wife’s family to pay some of their debts. He has become trapped in a web of obligation with no clear alternative except to comply with their demands. As a result, he has become bitter and resentful. If he had been preemptive with his marriage gift, initiating it as Christine’s husband had, and using it ceremonially as an opportunity to express his appreciation to both his wife and her family, he may not be in the predicament he is in today.
MISSIOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS AND STRATEGIES OF THE MARRIAGE GIFT
1. It combats eroding family values. Modern values, like individualism, are breaking up the close-knit family system. This marriage gift ceremony combats the erosion of the family by enriching family ties. It ensures that relationships within the home and the extended family are not only established but maintained. We all know how difficult it can be for in-laws to get along. This practice is intended to bring them together and to help the relationship grow. The marriage gift process keeps the man accountable to the family. Because the relationship has been nurtured through ongoing ceremonies, the families grow close. Some modern Christian weddings promote the giving of the marriage gift only on the day of the wedding, but this defeats the purpose of the practice. There are no shortcuts to nurturing relationships.
2. It elevates the value of the wife. The marriage gift is also a symbol of the value of the wife. The family treasures her, and this symbol guarantees the husband will value and cherish her as well. The African man has a different way of expressing love and affection for his wife than does the Western man. It is not the “romantic” way we think of by publicly kissing her or saying “I love you.” We need to realize that because an African couple does not show affection publicly, it does not mean they do not have a romantic relationship. Missionaries need to check their own behavior and teaching, being careful not to impose on the African their romantic styles of expressing love.
Missionaries and visiting church teams from the West are conducting marriage seminars all across Africa. These teams need to understand the cultural equivalents for showing affection. For example, some missionaries expect married couples to sit together at their seminars. Public displays of affection are not culturally appropriate in most of Africa, and we should not present one particular form of expressing affection as “biblical.”
3. It helps hold the marriage together. The marriage gift is a mechanism that holds the marriage together. The gifts communicate the husband’s commitment both to his wife and to her family. The practice is a way for the couple to renew their wedding vows. The practice is also a preventative to divorce. A husband who values his wife—and a wife who feels valued—are less likely to entertain thoughts of divorce. Divorce is rare in traditional societies and incomprehensible to most Africans. A Kenyan man recently took the life of both himself and his two sons when his wife divorced him. His culture and worldview provided no solutions or safety nets in the event of divorce.
4. It provides the role of a mediator-mentor-counselor. A young, Christian couple in Africa today who are planning to wed will often select an older, married couple whom they admire and respect as their “Best Couple.” This places the Best Couple in the position to counsel and disciple this young couple before, during and long after the wedding day. Most of these young couples do not realize they are incorporating into their modern wedding the age-old practice of “marriage sponsor.” The practice is rooted in centuries of African tradition, as is seen in our anthropological study. Its modified presence within the modern wedding setting is confirmation of its sustained value. This traditional ideal has remained intact within the minds and hearts of even the most modernized Africans. Like an undertow in the ocean, this need for older, wiser counselors during a significant life transition pulls at the young couple and counters any foreign substitute.
Unfortunately, the Best Couple are poorly utilized, possibly because their roles have become unclear in today’s world. Perhaps Best Couples who are Christians do not know what their discipling responsibilities are. The pastor could guide the soon-to-be married couple in selecting their Best Couple carefully. The pastor could also remind the Best Couple of their roles and responsibilities towards the newlyweds.
It is encouraging to see that, as strong as the pull of modernization is, valued practices like the marriage gift have not been discarded. The Karanjas have shown us how the marriage gift can be used as a strategic discipleship tool for building strong Christian marriages and families in Africa. We are instructed to love and cherish our wives as Christ loves the Church. When a wife in Africa is loved and cherished (not purchased) with God’s love through the marriage gift practice, that love extends to her entire family and community. Spreading God’s love can take many forms—one of which is through the marriage gift.
Kituyi, Mukhisa. 1990. Becoming Kenyans: Socioeconomic Transformation of the Pastoral Maasai. Nairobi: ACTS Press.
Mair, Lucy. 1951. “Marriage and Family in the Dedza District of Nyasaland.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 81(1/2):103-119.
Mbiti, John. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.
Middleton, John and Geert Kershaw. 1972. Ethnographic Survey of Africa—East Central Africa—Part V—The Kikuyu and Kamba of Kenya. London: International African Institute.
Orchardson, Ian. 1961. The Kipsigis. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.
Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred and Daryll Forde. 1950. African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. London: Oxford University Press.
Shorter, Aylward. 1998. African Culture: An Overview. Nairobi: Paulines Publications.
Spencer, Paul. 1988. The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Christine Karanja Mutua is director for the Christian Ministries program at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya. Del Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for twenty-seven years. He is chairman of the Bible program at Daystar University in Nairobi.
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