08 February 2013

Zambian Culture: The Bride Price

It's every young man's nightmare and every father of the bride's dream. The bride price. Most father's take it as an opportunity to make a little money, make a down payment on a vehicle, go for a holiday or renovate the house. Indeed one man's poison is another man's cup of tea. Here's how it typically works.

A young man finds a girl and wants to marry her. He looks for a representative, another man who IS NOT his father. This man becomes the young man's intermediary between him and the girl's family. This is in keeping with African Culture. It would be disrespectful for a young man to approach the father of the girl he is eyeing to declare his interesting in taking her hand in marriage. Thus he elects a man to represent him. The young man then tells the young lady to inform her family that he wants to marry her and would like to declare interest in a gesture normally called "taking plates". These plates are a token perhaps of appreciation at being given an audience. A small sum of money is put on a plate and covered with another plate. If these plates are accepted, then the man has been approved of and negotiations may begin. If they have been rejected it is just that. His representative travels to a location where he has been told the plates must be brought. There, a meeting is held where, through his representative, his interest in the girl is declared. This process is then followed immediately or in another meeting by the pronouncement of the bride price by the older men of the bride's family, particularly the mother's and father's brothers. The father may attend but not participate actively. He leaves this to his brothers and brothers-in-law. He is not forbidden however, and may or may not choose to actively participate.

Before the negotiations (which is the second process) may begin, the man is called into the meeting (until then he would have been present), and is asked to confirm whether or not the girl, who is also called in, is in fact the one who he wants. The girl is also asked to confirm if the man is indeed the one. After this process, both of them are excused and negotiations may begin.

At this point the wisdom of the young man in his choice of a representative is put to the test. His representative must use his 'negotiation skills' to ensure that the bride price quoted is favourable to the young man. When a price is agreed upon, the young man is free to pay whenever he is ready. If at any point the girl's family change their mind about him or he about her, the plates are returned and negotiations are terminated. The price may be monetary or otherwise but mostly will be largely monetary with a few items such as a suit for the Dad, a chicken etc.

Once the price is paid in full, traditionally, the girl is his wife. In reality, he may now marry her with her family's blessing.

What then is the use or purpose of the bride price? The general assumption and understanding is that the man is buying the girl. Nothing could be further from the truth. The bride price has never been, even historically about purchasing the girl. Father's, unfortunately, have distorted the beauty and use of this important tradition.

Even young ladies misunderstand the bride price. If they heard that their father had set the price at an amount so low, the question in their minds would be, "I'm I so cheap?" They don't realize that if they bride price was about buying and selling, they would die spinsters.

What then is the use of the bride price?

A lot of flings take place among young people in the world. A father may be aware that his daughter is in some kind of relationship. However, he will only rejoice when he hears that the young man wants to "bring plates". The only way a young man can really prove his seriousness is by offering to bring plates which as I have explained is indicative of a man's intention to marry a girl. Until then, that relationship is not guaranteed to culminate into marriage. That is the first function of the bride price. It is proof of seriousness intent.

Secondly, the bride price plays a pivotal role in ensuring the young man can take care of the girl. Many instances, the man is completely new to the girl's family. They have no idea who he is, where he is from, etc. This only comes to light when the girl is privately questions. However, they cannot depend on the girl's testimony as proof that he can financially provide for her. What better way of finding out than giving him an amount for him to pay?

The bride price is deliberately high. This serves a third function. The bride price is high to also see how resourceful the young man is. Will the young man be able to cope when there are financial demands in the home that he does not have the money to satisfy? If he was able to source the money for the bride price, he probably will manage to find money in tight situations to keep the family afloat.

What if the man's family helps him pay the bride price? Surely his resourcefulness will not be put to the test. Well, if his family paid for his bride price then his family's assets are likely to pull them out of any tight situation they find themselves in when they are married. You may further probe, what if he borrows the money to pay the bride price? If he has the contacts to borrow enough money to pay the bride price before marriage, he probably will after marriage! What if he has a problem and lands the family in debt? Well, the bride price doesn't guarantee 100% that a man will be able to take care of the girl. There will obviously outlier cases where a man who cannot manage to take care of the girl finds the money however, as a general rule, if a man can find the money to pay the bride price, he is resourceful enough to take care of his family. If he can come forward and take the girl as his wife in the right way, following the traditions and the culture in a way that honours the girl's family, he is responsible enough to take care of his family and if he can pay the money, he will be able to take care of his family-as a general rule.

A lot of young men hate having to pay the money. And many times they are required to pay unreasonable amounts of money. However, if men can look at this as an opportunity to prove their ability to take care of the girl, they would do it more cheerfully. They would send their representatives to the negotiation table with the words, "Tell them to bring it on."

Many of our traditions do not go against God's law and will, particularly, and we keep them because they still hold value and meaning in our lives. I believe the bride price is one such tradition. It separates boys, who want to flirt with girls, from men who want to marry girls. And helps put confidence in the family that they are giving their daughter away to a man who will care for her in such a way that she never goes without and a man who loved her enough to go through the lengthy and often taxing process.

One other thing you notice in Zambian culture is that the man is always held in high esteem by the girl's family post the wedding. This is because if he has married her then he has jumped through all the hoops and hurdles our culture puts between him and his beloved in order to finally get her and has been able to overcome the biggest hurdle of them all, the bride price!

Long live the bride price!


Musa said...

very wise words...I cannot add more.As a father with lots of daughters it makes a lot of sense to show the daughters this wise culture

Chama Shanyinde said...

What a load of rubbish.
The only people who benefit from this are the girl's greedy relatives. As if paying for the wedding and setting up a home isn't enough, you want to further burden these poor men. How is financially cripling her soon to be husband in your daughter's best interest? As a young Zambian woman, this practice offends me and I want no part of it. I am not some prized cow to be bargained over.