Negotiating the bride price
29.06.2015 27 °C
It’s a Saturday and it is a momentous day for Richard. In his words, he is going to buy a wife…!
I have turned up in the car at Richard’s village home to pick up a group of men who are either family or close friends chosen by Richard to represent him in negotiations over the bride price for Eunice, Richard’s girlfriend. As the only non-Ugandan, I help make the team ‘international’ and feel particularly privileged to have the opportunity for an insight into Lughbara cultural practice.
The group meet for some pre-negotiating preparations in a head-teacher’s small living room near where Idi Amin’s family still owns land. Eunice’s clan from their village have sent through their itemised ‘price list’ which includes numbers of cows, goats, chickens, welly boots and blankets. The ‘reserve price’ of each item is discussed which is the maximum price that Richard’s group feel willing to reach. It is hoped that negotiations between the 2 clans will bring agreement on the final bride price or dowry. Sitting there in the dark living room, it felt to me like a football team discussing tactics on how to beat the other team.
Soon, we are on our way to remote Terego.
Since we are in Africa, 10 guys, including me, are squashed into the car, and I am thankful that it is a strong 4wd vehicle used to difficult conditions but I am hoping no police stop us en route.
The road out of Arua passes the airstrip and starts of smoothly on tarmac that the Chinese have recently laid. Quickly, though, we hit the dirt road and as we head towards Eunice’s village, the road progressively gets smaller and rougher until we are driving on footpaths through fields. As we get closer, a tall old lady welcomes the car singing and smiling, her teeth showing as she enthusiastically shakes a gourd like maracas.
Outside a mud hut smeared dark with cow dung and next to 2 small tamarind trees, Eunice’s clans people are waiting and have erected a temporary structure from tarpaulin under which the 2 groups sit facing each other shaded from the hot sun.
Although the village welcomes Richard and his team, I sense a tension and certain weightiness in the occasion. Richard looks nervous in his dark suit and white shirt at the back. He really wants to marry but wants to do it properly according to the preferred customs of Eunice’s clans people. In today’s world, things are changing as more young people begin to live together, have children and skip the longer and more expensive process of negotiating bridal price. This is a risk, however, since the women’s family will still lay claim to any children subsequently produced and take them away from the father. If the wife dies, her clans people may even take up arms to fight if the man has not paid anything for her dowry.
This ‘traditional’ wedding process is expensive, but separate from the church wedding that seems to copy the ‘Western’ model. Most people never have a church wedding because the cost is insurmountable.
Despite growing up as a missionary kid in the very heart of Africa, African culture and customs have always been a mystery to me. I have desired to better understand the African mindset and behaviour and I am sure this is partly behind the reason for my return to Africa as an adult. However, sitting there in the middle of discussions for acquiring a bride for Richard, I feel very foreign, an outsider, something I often feel living in Uganda. Here, customs and behaviour are so very different to what takes place in the West.
As the 2 groups debate the number of cows, goats, chickens and other items that will be eventually handed over by Richard for Eunice, I realise how much value Africans place in these type of group discussions. There is a gamesmanship in haggling and negotiating, like playing an oral game of chess. Part of the expectation seems to be trying to ‘trick’ or outwit the opponent and getting as much benefit as possible. People seem to enjoy debate and listening to one another. Other villagers watch the proceedings from the sidelines, it seems to be entertainment for them, like watching live theatre. The debate will take as long as is necessary for both groups come to an agreement. Sometimes, negotiations will take longer than a day and a group will need to stay the night. Sometimes, negotiations will fail altogether.
During this afternoon, though, discussions seem to be proceeding quite quickly, so it doesn’t seem like we will get home before dark. On a few occasions, Richard’s team (my team) disappear behind some huts for consultation together deciding how to respond to Eunice’s family’s suggestions.
After almost 6 hours of debate, both groups of people seem to come to a conclusion and seem satisfied. Instead of 12 cows, Richard will need to find 8. The number of goats has been reduced to 20. 26 chickens have come down to 12. In total, Eunice will ‘cost’ Richard about £2300, almost half of the previous figure. Richard’s people are happy as they have reduced the debt that Richard will feel towards his future wife’s family, however they have done it in a way which shows the family respect. Showing respect seems to be the reason for this exchange. Still, £2300 is a huge sum for Richard (though he is very lucky and works with an international NGO, earning just under £200 per month). For others, such a debt to the woman’s family can even be carried forward to Richard’s children when Richard passes away one day.
Although negotiating for a wife is often seen very negatively back in the West, I could see real benefits of 2 families meeting together to come to an arrangement. In our highly individualistic culture, joint decision-making is something that we have lost, or we have left to the MPs in Parliament. In this culture, once a decision is reached between the 2 families, there is a strong bond and understanding that seems to occur.
In the Lughbara language, a girl is called ‘zamva’, which translates as ‘meat-child’ as she represents value to her family as she can be bartered to her husband for food and money. The more educated the girl, the more value she would have, but on the flip-side, if the girl is sickly with HIV, as happens, she will suddenly offer little value to the family and be a big disappointment.
In this very hierarchical culture where men are higher up the social ladder and women are often treated very poorly and have far less opportunities, it is very easy to understand why Western countries want to change such customs and cultures. Western countries feel they have the moral authority to influence and change developing nations and do so by giving or withholding aid, but the Christian beliefs that once guided the values of the Western nations are now being completely eroded. In the West, who can say what is right and wrong anymore as there is no one and nothing to guide decisions? As a Christian, I believe that the Bible says a lot about women and their value in God’s eyes. It tells us that male and females are equal in the eyes of God and for there to be love and respect between husbands and wives. It can help guide a community like the Lughbara people to consider whether the practice of ‘buying’ women is a good one or whether some changes are needed. In my own opinion, although there is a lot of good about 2 families coming together to discuss and support a couple joining together, there are also huge pitfalls in thinking about a woman as an object to be negotiated over, and ultimately ‘bought’.
In the end, though, I can only offer my support and encouragement to my great friends Richard and Eunice as they begin their journey as a couple. Together, they will have to figure out how to negotiate the cultural maze of community expectations and behaviours. I hope they also think for themselves what the Bible says and how God expects them to behave within their cultural contexts. It won’t be easy for them to forge a different path.