The origin of dowry payment among Bukusu people of Kenya
Written by Timothy Makokha
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A newly married couple exchanging their marriage vows.
In the beginning people were just pairing up basing on a mutual understanding of the man and woman. Whether the person was marrying the first, second or whichever wife, he could not give anything to the parents of the girl despite the fact that she is leaving her parents to start a new marriage life in a new home, new environment and taking up of foreign cultural beliefs as it is believed that it was a woman to get accustomed to the cultural requirements of the clan of the husband.
A time came when elders saw the need for them to bring in the idea of dowry negotiations (eng’anana). There were various reasons for this, first was sirara (granary full of grain). This means that a girl might have been a hard working farmer, who had been doing a lot of farming activities on their farm when she was still under the care of her parents. When she gets married, her parents would feel the loss in terms of labor on the farm and therefore a man was to give them something to make them not mind the departure of their hard working daughter.
The second reason was kumwoulo (the goodness of a wife). Originally it was believed that a wife is a source of wealth to her husband. For example a wife would do most of the household chores including cooking, fetching water/firewood and other farming activities on the farm. Dowry was to be paid as appreciation and as a sign of respect to the in-laws. For example a man would earn respect from his in-laws after paying dowry.
Another reason was lukosi (love for the girl). Dowry was to be paid as a sign of love for a wife. This would even make the love between a couple to be stronger as the wife will feel valued and respected by her husband.
Kumuliano (feasting together) was another reason for dowry payment. Dowry negotiations were an opportunity for members of the two clans (clan members for the wife and clan members for the husband) to meet and talk freely while enjoying meals and local liquor (busaa). In such sessions the two parties get an opportunity to learn more about the taboos and beliefs of each other.
There was a slight difference between dowry negotiations for the girl who was pure and the one with a child or children. Eng’anana (dowry negotiation) for a girl who had not given birth at her parents’ home was done under a tree outside the house while for the one with children or a child at her parent’s home, the ceremony is done inside a house.
Generally, dowry payment was meant to strengthen the bond in a marriage (khuandalasia bulebe).
It was important to pay dowry just in case a wife dies of child delivery, it would be easier to handle the in-laws in such a crisis. That’s why one of the cows given as dowry was called ekhafu ye lifumo (cattle as a fine in case a wife dies during child delivery. In some cases if the clan members of the wife has prove that the wife was intentionally killed then the husband would pay for the head of the deceased wife (arunga kumurwe).
Elders were also advising people to pay dowry because of the routinely intimacy between a wife and a husband (orunga khuchia mumarango komukhasi).
Just in case a wife dies before dowry payment, only specific number of cattle is given not all the 13 animals. In this case one would be required to pay ye khusera (cow for proposing to the girl), ye lubeko (cow for shaving the pubic hair of the wife in her husband’s home), ye khukwisia situru (in payment of making breasts of a woman flat), yembako/sirara (for the work she had done in her husband’s home), ya khocha (for the brother to her mother). Traditionally, Bukusu people believed that a married woman can only shave her pubic hair only when she is in her husband’s compound but not from any other place not even at her parent's home.
In case a wife was married as a virgin, the blood stained beddings used on the first night are to be taken to the grandmother to the girl together with embusi sisonga (mature she-goat). This was done in respect for the girl who was pure. A goat is as well given to the aunt (sister to the father of the girl). For a girl who had children at home (nasikoko), a husband would not pay ekhafu ye situru as her breasts were already flat at the time of her marriage.
Traditionally one was not allowed to accept or take dowry from his daughters if he has not paid dowry for his wife. In such case, a person pays dowry for his wife first, then after one year demand for dowry from married daughters.
Those were the days when age was highly appreciated. For example, a person was not expected to organize for dowry negotiations (eng’anana) for a young daughter before organizing one for the eldest daughter. The same is applied with sons as the first son in a homestead should be the first pone to pay dowry and hold dowry negotiations as younger ones do the same up to the youngest.
In case the young son is ready to pay dowry ahead of his elder brother, then he only give the animals but the dowry negotiation is not held until the elder brothers make dowry negotiations. The same is applied to daughters, when the husband of the youngest daughter wants to pay dowry ahead of her elder sister, then the animals are received but the dowry negotiations are not done until the one for the eldest daughter pay.
Later in life after the introduction of circumcision, dowry payment was as well associated with circumcision where a male child was to be taken to his uncles (brother to the mother) a day to the circumcision day.
The reason for a boy/initiate going for likhoni (reward from an uncle, which is normally a young bull) at his uncle’s home means that there were some cultural spirits from the mother’s side that the father’s side are not aware of. The initiates were to call their uncles to oversee the circumcision ceremony and give lubito to the initiates, in the process of handing over to them the cultural spirits from the mother’s side.
Continue paying dowry, as long as mankind exists in respect to the original reasons for dowry payment. The future of dowry payment is bright despite the misinterpretation of the dowry concept by the misguided people.