Random thoughts from dowry negotiations

Random thoughts from dowry negotiations

150 150 Al Kags

Today I attended a wonderful ceremony – a Gikuyu traditional dowry negotiation. In this age, such things as dowry have been given bad connotations laced with greed, backwardness and a lack of regard for human life (particularly that of the woman). I would not feel qualified to debate these.

The event I attended today was so beautiful, so colourful that the echos of these modern complaints faded into the background. Instead it caused me to be ever more aware of the richness of the languages of our ancestors, filled with proverbs, sayings, adages, aphorisms maxims, idioms and -isms. I was so acutely exposed to portent lessons in the art of negotiations, the means to say no without ever saying the word, the ways to turn situations around by a simple turn of phrase.

In my mind, I have a nagging worry for my son’s generation – and his kids’ generation. Something is being lost in our way of life and I am not assured that what is left is as rich in quality and depth. The “layered-ness” of the event I went to today – they were Christian and referred constantly to the bible and in almost the same breadth regularly invoked the ways of their ancestors; the way in which they negotiated the terms of the dowry and enabled the bride and other young people there to understand that this was in fact not a sale but an expression by both families of the value they placed on her…

More so perhaps was the process that they went through to gel as families, get to know each other and foster friendship and kinship. As the women sang and pealed loud ululations, as the men stood to shake hands and spit lightly on their chests in a sign of blessing, as they argued and debated on points of tradition – and then heartily agree with each other, and as the young people hang out outside and exchanged business cards and phone numbers.

Will my generation learn ever to negotiate in this way? Will the opportunity ever come for me to negotiate on behalf of my kids in this way? I recognize that chances are high that my kids’ generation will not marry into the same ethnic groups as their parents – in fact, in the same way my son is the product of a mixed bag of heritages, so is his future wife likely to be. In fact, she may very well not even be an African

So, then, I wonder, how do we ensure that we don’t loose the richness of our ancestors’ (multiple though they be) heritage? How do we learn this “non-capitalist, human-love-led” ways of life. How do we retain the wealth of intrinsic knowledge that they have – even as we learn the globalised traditions that we must adopt?

But then I wonder if this isn’t what fosters and fans tribalism – this fear of the impending and inevitable loss of the familiar, exclusive culture that we feel confident to call “mine”, “ours” – this thing that gives us belonging, enables us to have an identity that we can claim, like a home. This tribe that we would own like a prized possession, and our worry is that pros dissension is being devalued into oblivion after so many generations had invested in protecting it – sort of like a family business that is facing closure after generations of our fore fathers had invested all of themselves into it.

Is it that we are sliding so fast into the unfamiliar that we feel out of control? Maybe there’s nothing in fact to have the nagging worry about.

1 comment
  • Yes, great article on the uncertainty we feel in the loss of traditions, some of which are declaimed as 'backwards.'
    In many countries I've visited in Asia, the dowry is a kind of insurance for the bride in the event that things don't work out and she is left on her own.
    In America, the divorce court is the instrument of insurance here. You have to ask how much more successful a method it is when you see how it rends families apart. (Just asking.)

    As the middle class grows in parts of Asia and Africa and women are more educated, the insurance has much less importance, but the dowry persists for its greater value of showing, sincerity and commitment. Not appreciating these aspects, many Westerners are shocked at the prospect of participating in such a tradition.

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