Ms Rita Muchiri wants to get married. And like many women, she has set standards for the kind of man she hopes to settle down with.
He should be tall, brown, financially stable, well-educated, and responsible.
And although she would not mind walking down the aisle with a man who lacks one or two of the above, her main concern is the bride price.
For a man to marry her, he should be ready to pay not less than Sh1 million worth of bride price to her parents.
“Marriage is not just about a woman moving from her parents’ home to the groom’s place. It is more than that. He has to pay my bride price. But the amount differs from woman to woman depending on the family, her success in life, and most important, her level of education,” she told Money.
The 25-year-old legal professional believes that an educated woman who is working and earning a decent income is worth more in terms of bride price because she is an investment to a man.
“In my case, when I get married, I won’t just go to my man’s house and sit down. I will contribute and pay part of the bills. The Sh1 million is just for him to say ‘thanks’ to my parents,” she justifies.
Ms Muchiri says about Sh1.2 million has been spent on her education, beginning from primary, secondary, and university. She is currently pursuing a masters’ degree in law and economy.
“A woman is priceless. You cannot quantify her worth. But if she is educated, independent, and moneyed, it means that she is worth more when it comes to dowry.”
Ms Muchiri is not alone. Some modern women are now influencing their parents when it comes to deciding what their suitors should pay for bride price.
Ms Joyce Kairu, a businesswoman in Nairobi, saw her suitor turned down by her parents because he was unable to raise the bride price they wanted.
“I agreed with my parents that he should pay Sh500,000.
“And although it was open to negotiation, he could only raise Sh120,000, which made me and my parents think that he was not serious about our marriage.
“I loved him, but he had to go because bride price is important and he should pay it to show his commitment to me,” she explains.
Many young bachelors, caught between higher education and increasing inflation, are growing increasingly unhappy at the high bride price, which some equate to “buying” their bride from her parents.
Daniel, a 32-year-old graphic designer in Nairobi, says he is still single because he was not able to raise the Sh700,000 the parents of his former girlfriend demanded.
“Bride price is acceptable as long as it is reasonable and should be in moderation. It should be a token of appreciation and not a price tag since you cannot put a price on a human being. Anything more than Sh100,000 is too high. That mindset that educated women cost more in terms of dowry should change,” he says.
In recent years, bride price has climbed to unprecedented levels, to the point where many young men can no longer afford to marry. The result, say observers, is that girls either remain single or get married to older and richer men instead.
Unlike in the past where dowry, mainly in the form of cows, goats, or sheep, was seen as a stabilising factor in marriage, the rapid increase of education and urbanisation has made it obsolete.
Most young people, frustrated and defeated by excessive bride price demands, choose to elope and live together without the benefit of a marriage.
For such couples and others who cannot marry because of the excessive demands, marriage in modern Kenya is rapidly becoming an economic relationship in which the choice of a wife depends on the man’s ability to pay rather than mutual respect and love between a man and a woman.
They are concerned that only rich suitors will be able to get wives. Many a young, struggling single man has a lot to worry about.
He has to demonstrate to his girlfriend’s parents that he has the ability to care for her by his intelligence, diligence, and success in making the most of the opportunities that come his way. This will be in the form of true wealth to pay the expensive dowry that they demand.
“In modern society, paying bride price is evidence that the man is serious about his intentions to make the marriage stable. It also demonstrates that the husband-to-be is capable of caring for and supporting a wife.
“It also makes the bride feel that she is worth “something” and that her husband considers her valuable. It is a modern proof of love. So a man who wants to marry a modern woman should be prepared to demonstrate his love with his wallet,” says Mr Oyunga Pala, an anthropologist based in Nairobi.
And as bride price soars, haggling and bargaining have found their way into the negotiations. This ideology of putting money first, according to some women’s rights activists, is destroying the love and respect that ought to characterise future relationships between the families of the couple. They add that it also contributes to abuse of women by rich men.
“The modern dowry process encourages wealthy husbands to treat their wives any way they wish because they have ‘paid’ for them. It also makes the woman to consider herself virtually a slave to such a husband.
“Many parents do not encourage their daughters in such marriages to resist injustice because they fear that they may be asked to return the bride price.
“In other words, the dowry system contributes to the degradation of women in society,” says Mrs Michelina Lengewa, a women’s rights activist in Maralal.
Some people believe that bride price is the ultimate symbol of marriage. Whether it is money, a house, or a couple of cows, a man has to prove his worth in one way or another to both the woman and her family.
But observers say that in the modern world, marriage is becoming a means of wealth accumulation due to the monetisation of the dowry.
In 2009, a research commissioned by wedding services company Samantha’s Bridal, found that wealthy Kenyans are spending up to Sh40 billion ($534 million) a year on weddings, making the business one of the few growth sectors in the current difficult economic environment.