We should rethink dowry negotiations in our era

Wednesday March 18 2020
Dowry

African bride leads groom into the compound on her traditional wedding day flanked by dancing maidens to the cheer of the guests. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

By MAGUNGA WILLIAMS

I have got to that age where my friends are starting to get married. The male ones, that is. The lady friends starting getting scooped when we were still in university, as it usually happens. And as a young man, that did not give me any pressure. But now when your best friend of about ten years calls you up and says he needs you to take him for an important walk, you start to think about it. Not to think about whether or not you would accompany him, no. Some requests were accepted long before they were even asked. What you think about it is where the time went, all of a sudden. Ten years ago seems like just the other day.

On the day of the important walk to his future in-laws, you all show up for your boy. All eleven of you come out, dressed in stylish Ankara outfits, and those with cars bring them out because you all want James to make a good impression. Personally, I rested the rickety jalopy I inherited from my brother and convinced him to give me the Mark X for the day. It is not every day your friend goes to meet his in-laws for the first time.

When we got to the girl's house, and after we had been welcomed with a drink, and stuffed our bellies with food, that is when the reality of these engagements dawned on me. How much I dislike them. One moment we are eating and laughing and making jokes about the BBI, and the next thing, an elderly man stands up and asks us, "So boys, what exactly has brought you here? And who are you?"

Which is crazy, when you think about it. Because they know exactly what has brought us to this house. And how come you welcome someone into your house, wine and dine them, and then ask them who they are? Like, in your everyday life, do you treat strangers this way?

Then the whole rigmarole began. And at this point, it is important to mention that I was one of two Luos sitting in a Kikuyu household and ceremony. In such settings, 'Kuyos' will always speak in their mother tongue, without subtitles. So to keep up, one of the boys kept translating.

During introductions, we were warned to say who we are by name and where you are from only and that is it. Do not say why you are here. Do not say that you know the girl who has brought you here. Do not say who amongst you has come for the girl. You can crack a joke, but make sure you do not swell the visitors' heads. And many other don'ts which, in my opinion, were petty, but my opinion did not count here. Only tradition.

In the end, we were told my friend was not ready. Apparently, he had skipped some steps. Turns out there is a goat he is supposed to have slaughtered and eaten in the forest with his friends. Which was funny, because while James is a buff, ex-rugby player, underneath all that muscle is a heart as soft as a marshmallow. He cannot kill anything bigger than a mosquito. Now imagining the thought of him taking the life of a goat in a forest so that he can transition into manhood was not just funny, it was sad.

They also asked if he owns a piece of land anywhere. He doesn't. And then they said they will not negotiate dowry (we did not come for that) because men do not negotiate with boys. And by the time we were leaving, in my head, I was like, you know they could have just sent some of these terms and conditions on WhatsApp, eh?

But this was not my first rodeo at wedding negotiations. When my sister decided she was going to marry a man from Nyeri, at first my mother was sceptical. But then after a while, she warmed up to the idea because it is hard to fight love with force. However, after witnessing a marriage ceremony in Central Kenya, and saw just how much people pay for dowry, she was convinced that we Luos gave away our girls for free like gifts. So in that regard, her daughter had to be married as per Kikuyu customs and traditions, not through the charity that happens in Luo weddings.

And before that, I accompanied my brother when he was taking cows somewhere in Ikolomani. Where, after a whole afternoon of discussion, they kept insisting that they were not selling us their daughter. That this was about nobility. Their daughter was not a sack of maize. Yet, we spent the whole afternoon haggling over the price of dowry, after which our in-laws insisted we sign a contract that is supposed to be binding, complete with witnesses from both ends. It was a business transaction in every sense of it, but the Ikolomanians insisted that love has something to do with it.

I am also slowly nearing that day when I will have to go visit someone's father. To sit through the tragedy that is wedding negotiations. I am the lastborn in a family where everyone is now married and now - even though they refuse to admit it - all eyes are on me to make that trip. And even though I keep bidding my time, at the back of my head, I know this is reggae that cannot be stopped.