By John Kariuki
Brideprice is supposed to be an appreciation to the bride’s parents but to some, it is an opportunity to ‘eat’. John Kariuki wonders what happened to old African discretion.
It’s the wedding day and the groom’s party approaches the iron gates of a fortified mansion in an upmarket Nairobi suburb. A guard opens the gate as dogs bark in the background. A two-car convoy drives in. Other cars park outside the compound, jamming the narrow estate road.
As the men spruce up their ties while women chant songs to signify their arrival, all hell breaks loose. A woman emerges from the house screaming. "Wuui, wuuui!"
She momentarily gasps for breath and lunges: "You thieves want to steal my daughter! And out of the large house emerge more stern faced women whom the groom’s party have never seen or negotiated with before.
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It emerges that they are all "aunts" of the bride and their brief is to ensure she does not go away on the cheap.
"You must pay for the earthenware pot that my daughter broke," one aunt yells.
The groom’s spokesman makes a speech laden with idioms and proverbs. The gist is that they must be conscious of the hard economic times. Nevertheless, he deftly whips out Sh5,000 for these aunts’ soda. By the time the bridal party gets to the living room, they have paid for many small fines ranging from being late, a fee for opening the door and charges for flower vases, spoons and knives the bride allegedly broke or lost.
Then in a strange twist a turbaned woman makes a declaration. In the presence of the girl’s parents, she announces: "In this family we demand Sh100,000 for any girl who has seen the door of a university before releasing her to tie the knot."
The groom’s relatives look at each other and at their hosts. They realise it is not a joke although it was never mentioned during dowry negotiations. Their ominous look sends shivers to the groom’s spokesman. The presence of the "aunts" is set to spoil the party. The groom’s spokesman is quiet for the first time.
"Don’t you people know this girl is learned? One of the ‘aunts’ says in the awkward silence. The groom’s party begs to consult outside.
Their spokesman whips out a mobile phone and calls the groom, who is waiting in church and informs him of the new development. Apparently, the groom is not going to take this line of fleecing and Instructs his team to leave without a word.
They drive to a pub nearby and wait for the groom who arrives in a huff. They all pull out their ties and get in the mood for a drink which the groom buys as they strategise on the next move. They remove the balloons adorning their vehicles. After consultations with his team, the groom switches off his phone to enjoy an early morning drink.
Meanwhile the groom’s parents and other kin get frantic looking for their boy who has bolted out of the church compound. And too ashamed to mend fences, the bride’s "aunts" and parents sit dejectedly at home, praying for divine intervention. It takes the pastor’s intervention to stop the two families from trading insults and for the wedding to proceed, albeit mechanically with frayed nerves and a lot of suspicion.
That modern weddings and bride price paying ceremonies have been commercialised is an understatement. They have turned out to be the perfect opportunity for unparalleled greed and lack of social decorum. And which begs the question, what happened to good, old African discretion?
Weston Mwangi rues the day he visited his in-laws for the first time in Murang’a. Apparently, the entire family had been told of his coming and they milled around the entrance to his in-law’s compound. After the introductory rituals came the money matters.
"Their spokesperson rose and without much ado stated that we were thieves, for stealing and living with their daughter for the past eight years and for which we were fined an instant Sh20,000," says Mwangi. This spokesperson explained that the fine was not even part of the official bride price and would not be recorded anywhere.
The same spokesperson noted that Mwangi and his bride had got a child whom they had not "officially" brought home for blessings.
"Consequently, we were fined an additional Sh10,000," he says. This was despite the fact that his mother-in-law and other women had visited him in the city to see the child years before. All in all, the preliminary fines for soda, beer for wazee and other small items added up to Sh80,000 before the in-laws demanded the actual bride price.
"What had you planned to offer as bride price?" the spokesman asked. Mwangi says that this old geezer asked as if it was an auction or demanding payment for a debt.
Deeply upset by this shamelessness, Mwangi took his team outside for consultations. He enumerated the good things he had done for the bride’s family and which they now wanted to brush under the carpet.
He had been paying the hospital bill of her ailing father and only recently he had bailed out her brother from police custody with Sh50,000 after the young man crushed his employer’s vehicle. And only the previous day he had been at the home to bring all the food and drinks for the occasion.
"As a manager, I had secured jobs for her sisters and other relatives in various companies in Nairobi," says Mwangi. But all these appeared not to matter. He directed his team to mention these favours as mitigation and to state they had only Sh20,000 remaining to pay.
On hearing this, the chief negotiator threw a tantrum. He lambasted the visitors and stopped short of calling them cheats.
"Go out and consult again because we cannot accept such useless money," he said. But at this point, Mwangi disregarded custom and took charge of the events.
He stood up and addressed them.
"I told them I had run out of patience and there was only one option left under the circumstances, to leave," he says. He went out and called his wife and demanded to know from her who between them would take care of their daughter for he was driving out of that compound and for the last time.
Mwangi’s wife began wailing. His father-in- law came out quickly and apologised for the impasse. He immediately substituted his spokesman with a moderate fellow and the ceremony continued with a measure of respectability and decorum.
Whereas Mwangi had the courage to challenge custom and right wrongs, Peter Mugo did not wait that long. He remembers arriving at his bride’s gate in Kiambu one fine morning to seek her parents’ blessings for a wedding only to find her clan meeting. "This man works with a bank," he heard murmurs from inside. His bride must have divulged the information. He and his team steeled themselves and knocked on the door.
"We took roughly 15 minutes in that house before they demanded Sh200,000 bride price down payment. I promised to get back to them in the afternoon and that was the end," he says. He had to seek a transfer to a different town and to change his phone line and email addresses to shake off the girl out of his life.
"The picture of the greedy looking ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’ who would be my in-laws today, crowding at the table still lingers in my mind like a nightmare," he says.
But James Kioko’s dreaded first trip to his in-laws in Mwingi was a little different. After all the rituals and fines were over, he and his team were hosted to a party.
"My father-in-law later called me aside for a ‘man to man’ talk. He told me not to take seriously all the things that had been said during the negotiations and he shared out half of the bride price with me," Kioko says. His father-in-law said he knew Kioko must have borrowed the Sh100,000 that he had paid and so he was loaning him back some Sh50,000 to take care of his daughter well.
Brian Muriu, a Nakuru businessman also feared his first visit to his in- laws in Laikipia. But when he sent word that he would visit, his father-in-law came to town. He urged him to write a cheque or deposit the money he intended to take to him in a bank account owing to insecurity in the area.
"He left everything to my discretion and would not be drawn to say the figure that he wanted. We settled all this between the two of us and when we finally went home, there were no rituals but feasting. In deed, my father-in-law instructed his spokesman to skip the part of bride price payment," says Brian.
Brian’s father-in-law is among the generation of men who often invoke a new saying "just bring whatever you have" to their sons in-law.
Brian says that such fathers-in-law understand the current economic hardships and are not too concerned to make a kill out of their daughters.