Bridewealth and gospel: an African quandary?

In his recent world tour President Russell Nelson visited Kenya and spoke about a specific cultural custom in Kenya, the bridewealth or bride price. President Nelson called it ‘dowry’, which is technically incorrect, but that is not the issue I want to raise here. Bridewealth consists of the valuables that are transferred from the family of the groom the father of the bride, as a compensation for the loss of a woman. Dowry are the valuables a bride takes with her into her married state, often part of her inheritance, to be used by her and/or her husband. African marriages, throughout, are bridewealth marriages: one ‘pays’ for a bride.

While lauding the Africans for their family orientation, Nelson denounced the custom of bridewealth, arguing that it does not square with the practice of the gospel; in fact Dallin Oaks had done so before him in a talk about gospel culture. One major reason for raising the issue of bridewealth payments, is that it puts a heavy burden on the young men who need many years to get all the cows and money needed for such a transaction, before they can settle down with a family. That not only tends to postpone their marriage, but also precludes them from going on a mission, and one can understand why both church leaders frowned on the custom. So the advice to the Kenyan members was not to follow the custom and marry without bridewealth payments. In this blog I want to argue that the blanket condemnation of the custom is based on lack of understanding of the African situation, and suggest a more productive approach bridewealth.

For most North Atlantic countries, American as well as European, the critique on bridewealth sounds reasonable: Why should one have to pay for a bride? In fact, we come from societies in which in the past dowries have been much more important: brides brought money into the marriage, especially when coming from wealthy families; this enabled the husband to keep his wife in the lifestyle she was accustomed to. In our days these dowries have disappeared – with the ‘trousseau’ as a cultural survival of this arrangement – but the reasoning is still with us, and is antithetical to the notion of bridewealth. Indeed, we do not pay for a wife. (As an aside, we do pay to get rid of a wife, though, an arrangement called alimony.) So there is a cultural gap between ‘us’ and Africa, and we need to take a closer look at the institution of bridewealth, before passing judgment. For outsiders all foreign customs are weird.

Joseph Zra Mpa brings a couple of sheep to his prospective father-in-law a part of the bride wealth for his bride Kwashukwu. Mogode, Cameroon, 1972. Photo: W.E.A. van Beek

In practice, bridewealth requirements do tend to make boys marry later and girls marry younger, that is correct. However, most bridewealth comes from the boys’ family, his parents, uncles, aunts, thus from the family at large. The amount various between the various ethnic groups in Africa, ranging from a token bridewealth to herds of cattle. The Dogon I study in Mali demand that the groom works for some time on his father-in-law’s fields; helped by his age-mates the young man clears the fields, and prepares them for sowing before the rains come. In all a light bride service, as we call this (as another aside: compare this with Jacob’s travail for Laban when he wanted the marry Rachel). But among many East-African cattle raisers, like in Kenya, bridewealth can be substantial, in cattle, money or both, and the sheer amount might postpone marriages, or, stated differently, increase the age difference between groom and bride.

What is the cultural rationale of the bridewealth. Definitely not one of simply ‘buying a bride’. If anything, the value transferred before marriage is an expression of the importance of the woman. In three ways. The first is fertility: children are very welcome in African cultures, a pro-natality that permeates the continent. Second, the labor by the woman is highly valued, both domestic and in the fields, as well as her earning capacity in trade. The third way evidently is the husbands exclusive right on sex. The first reason is crucial. Women are the source of life and that does not come free. People matter, and children are an asset. My Cameroon assistant told me that he highly respected his mother-in-law since she had given him the most valuable gift possible, a wife, and one cannot repay life. Even the bridewealth he had paid, was never really enough. A good wife is the best investment any man can ever make.

African marriage is a family matter, and binds two families in a lasting relationship, that anthropologists call affinity. Families are of supreme importance in Africa, and the bridewealth payment cements this relationship. Also, it serves as a tool against easy divorce. When a married daughter leaves her husband, her father will have to refund the bridewealth, something few brides’ fathers look forward to. Both bride and groom stand in some debt to their families, linked as they are to the larger whole by a series of mutual obligations. Family members can rely upon each other, since they have invested in each other’s relationships.

Luc Sunu pays the remainder of the bride wealth for Kwushukwu to her father Ndewuva, on behalf of his clanbrother Joseph Zra Mpa. Mogode, Cameroon 1972. Photo: W.E.A. van Beek

There is a lot more that can be said about family-cum-bridewealth, precisely because it is a pivotal institute in the fabric of African society, and anthropologists have studied it in depth; I myself have done so in Cameroon. But this much is abundantly clear: it is an expression of the value of a woman, of the value of life, of the desirability of children, of the importance of the family and its values, of the permanent character of families, of the centrality of marriage. How much closer to the gospel can a cultural institution come? This is pure gospel, albeit the African way. Of course, in some groups the cost is so high to preclude young men from marrying at a convenient age, since rich old men then dominate the marriage market. And some youngsters do not have family to support them, and have a hard time gathering the bridewealth. But usually there are loopholes around these problems.

Thus, a simple denouement of the custom of bridewealth, is – to say the least – ‘culturally uninformed’. Bridewealth is the LDS marriage ideology given African form. Opting out of the custom, as the Kenyan saints were advised to do, is hardly a possibility. They may refuse to pay, but who will then give them their daughter in marriage? Any man who would acquiesce to do so, will be unable to help his sons get enough for his own bridewealth, a terrible risk. The only option might be to marry a girl with an LDS father. That means that renouncing the bridewealth would mean a totally endogamous situation, marrying only ‘on the inside’. Now endogamy is not alien to the Church, but it would lead to a complete isolation of the local Saints from Kenyan society at large, which is a bad idea. Those ‘cheap’ marriages will not be taken seriously, the members would lose any respectability and so would the Church. One simply cannot go, as a minute minority, against the dominant strain of society without severe costs. Unless one aims at being a sect or cult, exactly the image we are eschewing.

But my main point is that there is preciously little reason to be so negative about bridewealth in the first place. The institution is embedded in the heart of the African culture, closely tied in with family values, the value of life and of children, all embodied in the supreme value of women. One cannot separate these items from each other; lauding the Africans for their family orientation while condemning the bridewealth is nonsensical.

In a worldwide church we cannot and should not judge other cultures by our own cultural standards. Our North-Atlantic way of organizing ourselves around the gospel is not the only way, neither in the Domestic Church, nor in the International one. We need multiculturality in a world church, and the wider the good news is spread, the more we should be in for some surprises.

Now, what could be a solution of the issues that Nelson and Oaks addressed? After all, the custom is not without its problems. The first would be to keep the bridewealth within bounds. All African countries strive prevent excessively high bridewealth payments, and the Kenyan LDS church should support those. Furthermore, wards and branches can serve as crowd funding organizations for those boys without the backing of a family. Then the mission. Let us be clear: most African boys going on a mission are not able to pay for their own mission anyway, and that will not change quickly. That is why the Church has a mission fund in the first place, and no better continent to use that fund than Africa. But also here the ‘larger families’, the branches and wards, can butt in, proud as they are to have a missionary in the field.

So, instead of a blanket condemnation of bridewealth, let us realize that since Africans are joining the church, we have to cherish the family orientation that they so amply demonstrate, and thus have to work towards adapting the bridewealth requirement, that belongs to the very same family orientation. It can be done, but only if we respect other cultures and try to understand them.

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