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BRIDEWEALTH: Cultural Implications and Impact of the Monetisation of African Economies in Marriage Prestation Systems

Full Text of Article , 2016

Bride wealth: disambiguating the ambiguities

Bride wealth has often been termed as purchase money. That is to say, the gift is a price set by the bride’s family to be exchanged for their daughter. This is as a result of many misinterpretations given to it. To understand bride wealth, one must first understand marriage and its essence in African communities.

Marriage is defined by Maxwell Assimeng (1999) as “the coming together of a man and a woman from two different clans to establish a family such that offspring could ensue to replenish and perpetuate the [ethnic group]” (p.79). Thus marriage serves as the platform for which lineages, clans and ethnicities can be continued. The continuation of the kinship system is essential to African societies and she or he “who does not participate in it is a curse to the community” (Mbiti, 1969: 133) as it may be regarded as a deliberate attempt to discontinue the lineage system upon which the names and memories of the ancestors depend. John Ogbu (1978) posits that marriage is a publicly recognized union between two members in a society in accordance with the given rules in that society. The given rules in most African societies stipulate that a form of agreement be reached between both families and this is where the issue of the bride wealth comes in. The acceptance of the gifts bestowed upon the bride’s family by the groom shows that an agreement has been reached by not only the bride’s family but by society as whole in recognising the two partners as a man and wife with reciprocal rights and obligations. Amongst the Gusii in south-western Kenya, and this is also characterised by most African societies, it was a crime for a man and a woman to live together as a couple in cases where the bride wealth had not been paid 5. Marriage is not seen as a union between a man and a woman but also between families, societies and ethnicities who could be considered as stakeholders in this union. It was thus a threat to social order when the permission of authorities in one’s social group was not sought. This was seen to be gross disrespect.

The bride wealth however is seen as the custom of presenting a gift to the brides people 1. In the process of marriage, many gifts are presented to the family of the bride, but the bride wealth is that which Fortes (cited in Ogbu, 1978) terms as the prime prestations. That is to say, it is that which constitutes the “sole jural instruments for the transfer of marriage rights” 4(p246). The acceptance of the gift is thus the recognition and legitimization of the marriage by society as a whole and may be equated to certificates issued to couples in modern states to signify their legal union.

During the marriage process, many gifts are presented to the bride’s family. “There are frequently…some in the [groom’s] direction” 6(p47) thus it is reciprocal although the gift from the bride’s family “may be materially smaller than those of the man” 1(p140). Amongst the Nkundo of Belgian Congo, the collective gifts given to the bridegroom’s family by the bride is called nkomi and with the exception of the ikula, payed by the bridegroom’s family to the bride’s family to signify formal betrothal, all other prestations given to the bride’s family are reciprocated. This reciprocity ensures a lively and welcoming relationship amongst both kins.

Names of all kinds have been used to describe this prestation system. They include “purchase money”, “brideprice”, “wife-purchase”, “bride wealth”, “lobola” and it is sometimes wrongly referred to as “dowry”. Henceforth in this paper, I will use the term “marriage gift” to refer to this custom due to its reciprocal nature and its symbolic meaning to the people which is in no way similar to the buying and selling of items on a market.

The gifts exchanged may be of many items or materials and sometimes a direct exchange of sisters as amongst the Tiv of Nigeria. The agreement on the gifts to be given to a large extent depends on what the said society values. In the Northern part of Ghana:

The Gonja payment consists of minimal amount of 13 shillings and 12 kola; it is small by any standard, though it is supplemented by courting and greeting gifts to the future bride and to her parents… Among the Lowiili, the transactions flow in the same direction; there is a small payment of 350 cowries which is said to be all that is needed to “legalize” the union. In addition, payments amounting to some 3 cows, 1 goat and 20, 000 cowrie shells should be made during the lifetime of the marriage, the last of these at the time the bride joins her husband. If they are not forthcoming at the right time, the bride’s father (or his kin) will try to persuade her to return home until the husband meets his obligations. Among the Gonja the transactions are returnable 7–9.

The Ashanti’s however accept drinks, mostly bottles of gin, (tiri nsa, lit. head wine) and money as the marriage gift 10,11. Amongst the Anlo to the far east of Ghana and Togo, the gift is known as sronu, includes drinks, kente cloth, wax printed cloth (dumas) and cash 10.

Bride wealth vs. Dowry

The marriage gift must however be differentiated from the dowry. Above, it has been established that the marriage gift is a prestation made mostly by the family of the bridegroom to the bride’s family to ensure the legitimization of the marriage. The dowry, a practice in medieval and Renaissance Europe and today largely practiced in India, were inherited goods by the bride from her family which she brought to her new home with the groom with the intention to support her new family with it (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015). These two prestations are strikingly different yet similar in the sense that the former was given strictly to the family of the bride to symbolize the union whereas the latter was wealth acquired by the bride from her family to ensure the smooth running of her new home. However, in most societies, both were to be restored or given back in case of a divorce.

The cultural implications of the Marriage gift

Above, the importance of the marriage gift in relation to marriage has been emphasised. Marriage is so pivotal in African societies and the marriage gift lies at its core that essentially, it can be said that marriage in many African societies is the rendering of the marriage gift to the family of the bride and the rendering of the marriage gift is marriage. “The giving of the [marriage gift] is not regarded as an economic or at least not as a business transaction. It is symbolic” 6(p48). The symbolic value is essential for coming to terms with its usefulness. Its symbolic value will be discussed below.

Legitimisation of marriage

The legitimisation of the marriage is the quintessence of the cultural implications as it is from it that all other implications can be inferred from. Firstly, the giving and acceptance of the marriage gift implied that a smooth relation existed between the family of the bride and that of the groom. The marriage gift greased this relationship even more. It also served as a token of gratitude by the groom’s family as the care of the woman had be entrusted to them 1.

In addition, the legitimisation of the union between a man and a woman is principal to conferring on the offspring they beget a social relation. “Social fatherhood is usually determined by marriage” 6(p11). Children are cherished in many African societies as through them, the lineage is continued and the memories of those gone before into the hereafter are still held in this life. So valued are children that amongst the Abaluyia of Kenya, if a woman with not more than two children dies, her body is returned back to her family and the marriage gift is given back to her husband 1. Children must however be given a place in society and this is done through their being born into a legitimate union. It is thus important that the union between a man and a woman is recognised by society as a whole.

In modern societies or nations, the legality of a marriage can be proved by showing a certificate issued by the state to symbolise its recognition. This is a practise which stemmed from a relatively recent past. The certificates issued by traditional societies was the acceptance of the marriage gift by the family of the bride. This was the most important evidence symbolising the union 1. Thus, it was regarded as a crime for a man to live with a woman in British Kenya, whose family had not received the marriage gift from him 5. The gift was given and accepted after all necessary enquiries had been made by both families to ensure both partners were suitable. Once the gift was given and accepted, it meant a formal betrothal, elevating the status of the man to the position of husband and the woman to the prestigious position of a wife 1,4–6.

Also, by legitimising the marriage, formal authority over the bride by her father shifted to the bridegroom and it ensured a safe position for the man as husband 6.

The legitimisation in turn confers upon both spouses, conjugal rights which includes sexual rights as evidenced by the traditional Ssenga institution in Uganda in which women were encouraged to be sexually assertive. Amongst the Ashantis, this right was to ensure sexual satisfaction amongst both partners with the intended result of an offspring 11. Moreover, it was only when the marriage gift had been given could a partner claim redress for the abuse of conjugal rights 4.

Amongst certain societies like the patrilineal Ewes of Ghana and Togo for example, it is given to the family of the bride to ‘compensate’ for the disruption in the structure of their kinship lineage. The gift is thus “used to replace the daughter by obtaining a wife for some member of the family, usually a brother of the woman who has been lost” 6(p50). This, thus restores the temporary imbalance in the structural composition of the family.

The Impact of the monetisation of economies

The monetisation of the economies of African societies disrupted many modes of exchange across the continent. Pertaining to the marriage gift, it converted many existing prestations into money transactions 4. However, the money was to be found in the pockets of the elites as old as they were; and army men who had served in the second World War fighting unknown enemies and obeying words they did not understand. This was of disadvantage to young men especially who had to marry but the traditional subsistence activities did not fetch in much for them. Being young, they had not acquired much to be offered in the exchange of a bride. This thus led to the betrothal of many women to older men against their will resulting in a series of elopements as exemplified by Shadle (2015) in her study of elopement cases amongst the Gusii in British Kenya. This eventually attached new meanings to the marriage gift practice 12.

The monetisation, also as a result of the formation of new national identities, saw the rise of new systems for recognising and legitimising marriages.

Labour migrations in new nations across the continent, a major characteristic in Africa in the late 20th Century saw the birth of new behaviours and attitudes towards the conjugal rights of spouses 4. In South Africa, as a result of the brutal and inhumane apartheid laws, husbands seeking greener pastures were separated from their wives for as long as a year getting a chance to meet for about only a week in that year. This resulted in many adulterous practices and led to a widespread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The development of these new urban centres which saw huge numbers of the youth seeking wealth resulted in new behaviours being created 4. These behaviours relegated the traditional practices. In relegating these practices, the authority and power of elders in kingroups were also undermined. Marriage, which used to be a communal affair now only needed the consent of the man and woman involved. This, side-lined the role the elders played in the marriage process and diminished the marriage gift.

The monetisation of African economies thus, led to a shift from the extended family system to a nuclear one. This has had an impact on family systems and has resulted in the challenge of hierarchical positions which the elders of the kinsgroup enjoyed.

However, despite a shake in the system, the old practices have not been completely thwarted. There is a glorious reincarnation of traditional practices as the ideal person in society is one who does not deviate from the norms of tradition. The Akans say “Wɔnsei ammamerɛ” (Traditions must not be destroyed) and as a reflection of such thoughts, it has led to the fusion of the old and new; the traditional and the modern. For a marriage to be recognised especially by churches today, the couple must prove that their families have been consulted and they have consented to the union. The cultural implications and status of elders in kingroups have been affected by the monetisation of economies. Their impact however is only as strong as individuals in these modern states push them.


The cultural implications of the marriage gift have been grossly misrepresented as a result ethnographic bias. Its main function is to legalise the union between a man and a woman and to elevate their positions to that of a husband and wife so their children might be accorded social roles. However, the monetisation of African economies has diminished its symbolic value reducing women to one of the materialistic objects money buys. The creation of new societies and urban centres also as a result of this new economies introduced new family systems that has shrunk to that of the nuclear. Elders in kinsgroups have almost lost the positions they once enjoyed. A regeneration of past traditions is restoring their positions however as churches demand the consent of extended families before they recognise marriages. As a result, the significant implications of the marriage gift might resurface. Culture is not static thus its symbolic meaning will only be represented in new forms.


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