By Diana Diaz Delgado Raitala

“I want to go home [to my birth family]”, says the wife who has been mistreated by her husband, but her parents do not want her. There is so much poverty, her parents have no means to feed her, and her husband is her owner because he has paid for her with cows. Jane, a Luo woman, related this to me in order to explain some aspects of customary marriage on my ethnographic trip to eastern Kenya.

Bridewealth is the payment given by the groom and his kin to the bride’s family before or at marriage. Customary marriage involving bridewealth is a very common form of marriage in Kenya regardless of the ethnic group (Goody & Tambiah 1973; Comaroff 1980; Kanogo 2005). The brideprice is set in terms of cows and/or goats. Importantly, the payment is essential to legalize the union (Fortes 1972). The topic of bridewealth became the centre theme of my Master’s thesis.

Lanscape of the fieldsite. © Diana Raitala.

Lanscape from Nairobi towards the fieldsite. © Diana Raitala.

Although my dialogues with Jane and the other 28 participants in my interviews often were surrounded by an atmosphere of sadness and resignation, I have to say that the happiness of the ritual of customary marriage which I had the opportunity to witness will remain in my memory for ever. The ritual took place in a hut belonging to the grandmother of the bride. The neighbours and the congregation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which has many parishioners in Kenya, were all invited to the ceremony. A day before the ceremony the women (the bride, her family, the neighbours and I) started preparing the Kenyan delicacies which I show in the picture below. 

Kenyan delicacies. © Diana Raitala.

The white dish is ugali, a porridge made from maize; the red dish is a traditional sauce made from tomatoes and masala called ring'o; the yellow and red dish is called rabolo, made from beans and vegetables, and avocado and banana are served as garnish.

I feel that my role in preparing food was that of a well-behaved spectator, ready to do something whenever the bride and her family asked; in fact I did physically nothing, only watched, but even to this day, some of the cooks insist that I was a great help. In the ceremony, two head of cattle (see picture below) were given as payment of bridewealth. 

Bridewealth. © Diana Raitala.

The happiness of all the participants in the ceremony was palpable. When I asked the bride how she felt, she answered me with a smile, “Very happy!” In the ceremony, one of the bride’s close relatives confided in me: “She is happy although she is going to be owned by her husband.”

This ownership is an important consequence of customary marriage. In my dialogues with participants, ownership was understood to mean two things: 1) the obligation of the husband to protect his wives and children, and 2) the rights of husbands over wives and children. Some of these rights over wives include the fact that a wife needs permission from her husband to visit her birth family; and the right of the husband to perpetrate violent acts on her. Due to this right of ‘ownership’, violence is usually accepted or tolerated (Ludsin & Vetten 2005: 24). I was told by some participants that traditional marriage bestows legal custody of the children solely on the father.

In other words, the payment of bridewealth is essential for giving the father ‘ownership’ of his children, otherwise there is no legalized marriage and the husband does not have legal custody (Goody 1973: 12; Radcliffe-Brown 1950: 54). If the husband, for instance, promises to pay bridewealth after the marriage but does not pay it, the children will belong to the ethnic group of their mother (Ladislav 1996: 128). According to my participants, this situation is a cause for embarrassment to the father and mother and their respective ethnic groups. Robert, a Luo man, told me over supper in the house which he shared with his first wife that an honourable man always pays the bridewealth for his wives. 

The house of Robert and 2nd wife (the darker house is the
kitchen). © Diana Raitala.

Payment is not always an easy task to accomplish; this is illustrated by what happened to Keanu, a Kikuyu man, whose wife died before he had paid the bridewealth to her family. Keanu’s interview revealed the importance of the payment for being able to bury his wife and for retaining custody of his children. Without having paid bridewealth, Keanu could not be the one to bury his own wife. Keanu had a difficult time paying the bridewealth because the father of his dead wife was missing, and although her mother was available, it is the father who should negotiate and receive the payment according to custom. 

After much effort to find his dead wife’s father with unsuccessful results, Keanu and his kin and the grandfather of the deceased (who was in these circumstances authorized by tradition) arrived at an agreement on the price, and Keanu paid it. In this way, Keanu did not lose his child to the ethic group of his deceased wife. In my conversation with him, Keanu described to me his pain at the loss of his wife, his fear of losing custody of their child, and his sadness at having to negotiate over the dead body of his wife.

One of the central aspects of customary marriage mentioned in the academic literature and in my conversations with Kenyans relates to children and the importance of offspring (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde 1965; Goody 1973; Ansell 2001: 699). I was told by many people the more children the better. I observed in my ethnographic fieldwork that the responsibility for taking care of parents falls to adult children. Kenya is a country in which basic needs such as medical health, potable water, education and housing are not met by the state. Children have a moral duty to provide for their parents when they grow old (Offlong 1999: 25). As my friend and participant Paul, a Meru man, told me, responsible children provides for their parents; they should pay their parents’ medical bills as much as they are financially able, as he did for his mother until she died.

My ethnographic research for my Master’s thesis was carried out in 2012. I conducted interviews/dialogues with members of the Luo, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Meru, Kamba, Maasai, Kisii and Luhya ethnic groups. All the names in this article have been changed. Additionally, all the participants mentioned in this article are middle-aged, married and highly educated with the exception of Robert, who is a tailor.