Friday, August 7, 2009


I just read this article on BBC about a marriage proposal for Chelsea Clinton from Godwin Kipkemoi Chepkurgor. It involved an offer of cows and goats as the dowry, or bride price. In many places, the family of a daughter will receive a gift from the family of her fiancé. There are lots of variations on how this is done, but my closest friend in Kinshasa was seeing his daughter married while I was visiting so I have been thinking about it.

In this case, his daughter and her fiancé are both from the same ethnic group (Lega), which makes things less complicated than in increasingly common inter-ethnic unions. They had a meeting between the families and agreed on the price which is usually counted in goats. The exchange in goats rarely takes place. The cash value of the goats is figured out—today between $50 and $60 each—and the exchange takes place in cash, which might be around $1,000. There are variations—two Kongo friends of mine got married last year and their exchange included fabric and clothing in addition to cash money.

It is something that may seem very strange or foreign to people in the US, but I am not convinced it is all that unusual. As my friend explained, as the father of the bride, he is responsible for throwing the parties, which in Congo frequently have 400 or 500 people. Plus there are two parties--the wedding and the engagement. Essentially the dowry is the groom’s family contribution to the feast, which in many cases does not even cover half of the expenses. There are similarly gendered customs in the US about who is responsible for paying for what. Of course, there are many variations to this practice in Congo and elsewhere but this is one that I know.

The engagement party is traditionally where the dowry is exchanged. However, recently in Kinshasa, there have been robberies of these exchange-of-dowry parties, because word gets out that a large amount of cash will be on hand. Now, people typically meet a few days before the party and privately exchange the cash. At the party, the bride’s family now gives an empty envelope to the groom’s family.

Other things are discussed at the family meetings as well. In the case of my friend’s daughter, it had to do with her education. She is currently a graduate student in computer science and wanted to delay the marriage until she completed her degree and has long hoped to study abroad. Her fiancé and his family had agreed to this. This was the situation when I left Kinshasa.

Last week, on what I thought was the night before the party, I telephoned to offer my good wishes. But the party was called off. Earlier in the week, my friend’s daughter found out she was going to be able to go to India to complete a Master’s degree (or its equivalent). Her fiancé’s family wanted to schedule the marriage before she traveled. She refused. Her family supported her. The engagement has been called off, at least for now.

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