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When families demand dowry before allowing one to bury their spouse

 A man exhumes the body of a wpoman following a court order over unpaid dowry. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

Joseph Orina lost his wife of three years in a road accident along the Kisii-Sotik road, after which a painful experience with his in-laws set in.

His wife died on the spot.

What followed shocked the father of three. His wife's family asked him to pay dowry first before he could bury her.

At 38, Orina had invested in real estate together with his wife. Their firstborn son was ten-years-old, and the last was barely one year.

The in-laws argued that Orina had not paid dowry and had no right to bury his wife. They also wanted a share of the family property.

Orina took matters into his hands and buried his wife. The courts were on his side; no court order was issued to bar him from burying his wife.

Eventually, the two families reached an agreement following mediation by elders. He was asked to pay Sh350,000 dowry. This is despite the fact that he was solely taking care of his three children and had catered for the funeral expenses of his late wife.

"I remarried two years ago and paid Sh130,000 for my current wife. Many people have had to conduct fund drives to pay dowry for their dead spouses in order to be allowed to bury them. Some families take advantage in cases of death to demand huge sums in the process," said Orina.

Millicent Kemunto lost her husband at the age of 32. Her family had not received the dowry.

"It had never crossed my mind that my father-in-law could be forced to pay my dowry so I could be allowed to bury my husband," said Kemunto.

Kemunto and her husband had bought a piece of land away from their rural home, put up a house and settled there.

"We had some money in the account when my husband died after a short illness. My father-in-law was ailing when my husband died, and he had no capacity to pay the Sh300,000 that my parents were demanding," said Kemunto.

Where the dead are not allowed to rest in peace

She took their savings, and gave it to her father-in-law to pay the Sh300,000 dowry her family was demanding.

"I had no plans to get married again with my two sons. I had to secure their future and make peace with my parents and in-laws."

She was three weeks later allowed to bury her husband.

"I could have invested the money for my children, but as it is cultural and other customs took precedence. I would not wish anyone to go through what I went through. Being dragged through hell at a time when one is supposed to be mourning a loved one," she added.

According to Kemunto, a secondary school teacher in Kisii, such demands can bring about discord among in-laws.

"I don't hate my father, he was pushed by my uncles and other relatives. Levels of education should never matter in dowry negotiations, this is archaic. Let love thrive in any union and not monetary gain," said the teacher.

A week ago, Jane Mongare* died while giving birth to her thirdborn. She was married in Luo Nyanza, but her husband had not paid the dowry.

The man had to pay Sh450,000 to his in-laws before he could bury his wife of 11 years.

At the time of her death, Jane was pursuing a master's degree in International Relations at one of the private universities in Nairobi while her husband was working with an international organisation in Somalia.

Dowry takes the form of backing to the bride's father by the groom; it is a goodwill gesture, a generous gift without strings attached.

Among the Abagusii community, customary dowry is a negotiated amount paid using live cows and goats. The symbolic two cows are non-negotiable, even if there is a token of cash given to the in-laws.

After dowry has been paid, the girl cannot return to her father's home in the event of a failed marriage and, in the event of death, her family of birth cannot claim her remains.

Mary Kemunto, a marriage counsellor at the Kisii Central SDA Church, says the loss of a loved one is such a hurtful period, and you may find your mind diverted from the pain of the loss to worrying about your in-laws' expectations.

"Dowry has been commercialised. There is a gradual dehumanisation of our mothers, sisters, and daughters. In-laws demand quantifiable goods even in death."

Kisii County Director of Culture Services Obino Nyambane argues that the Abagusii community will continue paying for dowry whether a spouse is dead or not.

"This is an appreciation and never a punishment. No one is forced to pay dowry. It is a cultural process. The process will be there in the years to come. It is through dowry payment that children are given identity."

Obino opines that, even in death, one has to pay dowry.

"It is not that dowry is only paid for the bride in instances of death. Even when a husband dies, the wife's family must receive dowry if indeed she intends to stay with her in-laws."

He explains instances where the wife is not culturally allowed to bury the husband because dowry was not paid.

Peterson Isoe, a Senior Citizen and a member of the Gusii Council of Elders, explains that dowry payment after the death of a spouse depends on the two families involved in the negotiations.

"Yes, it is a cultural process, but we should not allow wrangles to take centre stage. We need to consider the welfare of the children left behind before giving out those huge sums of money."

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