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Dowry in the modern age: Awkward clash of old and new traditions

 A marriage hanging on by a thread. (Courtesy)

A few months ago, a list of what constitutes a Kamba dowry payment surfaced online, eliciting hilarious reactions. Among other things, the girl’s parents wanted 20 litres of traditional brew, 84 goats, 12 cows, four chunks of unripe bananas and eight crates of beer.

Nothing wrong with such requests, many thought, since many communities have similar requests to the prospective groom’s family. However, it was the monetary part of the dowry that cast the girl’s family as materialistic.

The family wanted what was termed as a rope, (mukwa) that was valued at Sh300,000, a rungu for the father valued at Sh100,000, a coat for Sh50,000 and other high-value items that had to be converted into monetary value.

In addition, the family wanted 13 water tanks each enough to hold 10,000 litres of water. If the groom’s family could not afford to bring two debes of pure honey, they could bring 100 kilos of sugar as a substitute.

After this list appeared online, other Kenyans posted lists with similar or even more requirements.  According to one Igwe Clinton, such hard to fulfil requests do not elicit respect between the couple. “How can someone pay for all this (with) the wife still disrespecting, misbehaving, and challenging me in the house? Traditionalists have to look into this because it is too much,” he said.

Joseph Kaguthi, a former provincial administrator and a mentor to many men says such financial burdens have taken the flair out of marriages with new husbands viewing the woman merely as a piece of property.

“Everything has been commercialised. We now have pre-wedding parties that are just money-minting exercises. Then comes the exorbitant dowry figures from a girl’s family. No man should ever be denied the chance to marry a woman he loves because his family could not raise the set amount. In any case, the new wife will be helping the man nurture the little they have and make it grow,” he says.

Emerging trends

 “The way people are doing things today is a bit different,” says Daniel Mutua*, a father of two grown-up sons from Machakos.

“While it is normal for women to sit in during the negotiations, they were never required traditionally to give money for the dowry. They would carry other material gifts to be presented to the girl’s mother and her aunties. The father of the boy and his close male relatives such as uncles would give a sheep here and goat there and only these would be privy to the total amount to be presented to the girl’s family.”

Mutua says the current behaviour where young people take it upon themselves to not only fundraise for dowry but even engage directly with a future father-in-law is watering down the revered tradition.

“People are diluting the dowry customs and sacrificing respectable customs at the altar of modernity,” he says.

Mary Njoki, a mother of four sons and who is in her late 70s says that when her boys were getting married, her role was to arrange a meeting with her counterpart to get to know “how things are done in the other home”. She would make the preliminary visit with a few other women.

“Of course, we never went empty-handed. We took some porridge and a few other items. We were never involved in contributing the money for the dowry. It is the older men who took the lead in the negotiations.

“However, just like the women, the two fathers would get together beforehand and agree on the procedure to be followed during the negotiations to avoid any surprises from either side,” she says. Njoki too has seen the evolution of the dowry customs, and a few leave her with consternation.

“A prospective groom would never sleep in the in-laws’ home or overstay during dowry negotiations due to the deep respect between the two families. But the current generation will not think twice before sleeping over at each other’s homes and bumping into future in-laws in the corridors,” she says.

Strict religious customs, some feel, have come in the way of what was traditionally acceptable. Yet, some feel that dowry customs that do not conflict with one’s Christian ways ought to be respected.

Strained relationships

John Mwaniki, a taxi driver in Kitengela says making dowry matters communal has ruined relationships since “there are those who only look for you when they want contributions though you may not relate well on a personal level”.

He says while he has no problem giving a ‘small push’ to a friend, some of his friends have almost come to blows as a result of persistent demands.

He recalls a case where he accompanied a friend to a dowry ceremony in Murang’a. 

“We were all told to meet up at Kenol so that we could continue with the rest of the journey as one unit. However, our meeting proved to be a fundraiser. I recall some of us being so embarrassed because the amount our friend was seeking was beyond what we could afford. Some opted out of the trip, and out of the friendship.”

His take on such involuntary contributions? “When I give my money for the dowry, especially through coercion, do I not have a stake in the relationship? I cannot be a shareholder in a company and fail to enjoy the dividends.”

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