Then and now: Has bride price lost its essence?

 Historically, the payment of bride price served as a validation of customary marriage and to strengthen family bonds 

By Beverline Timanoi 

The beginning of marriage an institution common to all cultures is marked by an exchange of gifts between the families of the groom and bride through the payment of dowry or bride price. A celebration follows where vows are exchanged. 

Historically, the payment of bride price served as a validation of customary marriage and to strengthen family bonds, legitimizing the children born in a marriage. 

However, dowry payment has undergone major changes, in the process losing its whole essence. With commercialisation of the once sacred practice, several factors such as the groom’s wealth and status and the bride’s level of education have today changed the game completely.  

In extreme cases, the bride’s family does background research on the financial ability of the grooms family and from there, the amount to be charged is determined. 

Cash ranging from Sh300,000 up to Sh2 million is demanded, not forgetting all the material requirements that accompany the cash. 

Back in the old days, bride price was a family affair with a standard amount and type of payment fixed to it five to six cows, Sh100,000 in cash, blankets and bundles of sugar were the standard requirements in bride price negotiations among Maasai families. 

Today, many eligible bachelors are running away from marriage because of what they are expected to fulfill before marriage. 

“All my hard-earned savings will be wolfed by greedy uncles,” says 30-year-old Edwin Saruni. “What is the point of spending too much money on bride price with a family whose daughter I will supposedly spend my entire life with?”  

The bride’s level of education, which is used as a bargaining chip, is not justifiable seeing as it is the responsibility of the bride’s parents to educate their child and thus should not be paid for. 

“In any case, grooms also go through education,” he adds. “Who pays us for that?” 

Some women, however, see it as a way of bestowing respect and dignity in marriage by giving men a culturally assumed masculine identity and authority in marriage. 

“It gives us a sense of self-worth and appreciation in marriage when your husband-to-be pays your bride price,” says Esther Kapapu, adding that it also grants a woman the moral obligation to respect and obey her husband’s commands and wishes. 

The commercialiastion of dowry payment has in one way or another contributed to marital abuse. 

According to May Tayiana, a psychologist, bride price payment creates an ownership mentality in men. “Men start to see their wives as their purchased goods” over which they exercise unfettered authority, including physical and psychological abuse,” she says. 

The exchange of items and money for a bride, particularly a high bride price, creates indebtedness in the minds of both the bride and her family. This means that when the husband mistreats his wife in marriage, the family feels that they can’t intervene. 

Bride price, though, was a wellthoughtout cultural aspect among the Maasai and served the community well for generations. Benjamin Tipatet, a retired civil servant who is well versed in cultural issues, notes that bride price in the Maa community was in the form of cows and only brought forth a love bond between the families.  

Exchange of cows was significant for the family bond, love and strength of the marriage. An in-law in the Maa community is treated with respect and love,says Tipatet 

“Back then, there was absolutely no commercialisation; precedents determined the bride price. Lately, we have seen a bit of commercialization, where the girls family claims to have invested much on her education and thus demands some form of ‘refund’, which they include in the bride price negotiations since that education will now benefit the groom’s family,” he adds.  

Bride price, before its commercialization, was also not standard; there were instances where the bride’s relatives would ask for an excessive number of animals as a deterrent in instances where they didn’t want their girl to marry into a certain family but could not openly say so as it may be used against them later.  

“Family friendship or the lack of it was also a determinant factor,” explains Tipatet. 

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