Bride Wealth in African Societies: A Noble Exchange?

In Sub-Saharan African societies, whether patrilineal, matrilineal or bilateral, marriage is considered an institution through which every adult should pass. Marriage is viewed as not just a union between husband and wife, but a union between two families, functioning as a nexus to lineages and individuals. It also acts as the cornerstone of social organization, impacting the political, economic, and cultural aspects of society. In some societies, marriage is legitimized by the letter of the law from a courthouse. However, in many sub-Saharan African societies, for a marriage to be considered legitimate, the important customary rite, payment of bridewealth, must be part of the marriage procedure. 

The customary exchange of bridewealth has served to cement relationships between all families concerned and provide stability to the marriage. Both the poor and the rich participate, providing what is economically within their capability to secure a wife of their choice. Usually, it takes the form of the groom’s family offering clothing, fabric, livestock, goats, sheep, beads, household goods, imported products, drinks, or some special symbol of wealth alongside an acceptable sum of money to the bride’s family. Amongst the Anufo (Chakossi) and Konkomba (Komba) who reside in the Northern and Sansanne-Mango enclaves of Ghana and Togo, they practice a unique form of reciprocal sister-exchange marriage. The bridewealth right is only guaranteed by returning another woman to the bride-givers, i.e., the family of the woman. 

Criticisms of Bridewealth

Traditionally, individuals working in agrarian and livestock economies used farm products, livestock, goats and sheep while those in informal sectors and formal modern professional sectors have procured cloths, imported drinks, cars and even houses as their bridewealth. This emerging use of expensive commodities such as houses and cars as bridewealth has caused some poor families to demand huge sums of money, Holland cloth and modern gadgets such as saloon cars, motorbikes, Plasma TVs, iPads, laptops, iPhones and other Android devices. This emergent commodification of bridewealth in Africa’s prevailing neo-liberal environment has also served to reaffirm a historic, erroneous description of the exchange of bridewealth as ‘bride purchase’, ‘purchased price’ and ‘purchased money’, positioning the customary rite for renewed criticism.

To its critics, bridewealth is a means in marriage whereby men buy women to satisfy the requirements of their waist, acquire and own children and control the rights of women. Radical feminists, for instance, have attacked bridewealth as patriarchal ideology crafted within the institution of marriage to oppress and suppress the rights of women. They contend that the patriarchal power embedded in the African culture offered men, particularly those in patriarchal society, a carte blanche to enact rules that shape and perpetuate gender inequality. In fact, feminist scholar, Wendy James in her 1978 article, ‘Matrifocus on African Women’, contended that bridewealth and the exchange of women are the key factors responsible for patriarchal formation and that if there is no bridewealth, the system shifts back to matriliny.

These claims have already been challenged by Africanist feminist scholars like Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí in their various 1997 monumental works, ‘Re-inventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture’ and ‘The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses’. Still, a look at how Africans view the customary rite of bridewealth can bring greater clarity.

Bridewealth: The African worldview

For the African, the exchange of bridewealth is the most important symbolic gesture in the series of prestations or payments which leads to final consummation and legitimation of marriage. This means, apart from bridewealth, there are other gifts and prestations that go into marriage right from the moment a man sees a woman and commences to woo her. It should be noted that, even after the exchange of bridewealth for the legitimation of marriage, prestations in marriage continue.

Amongst the Ga people of Ghana, the validation of their six-cloth marriage system consists in the performance of the following acts: Agboshimo (gate knocking fee); Kplemo daa (consent rum); Hebaatser/Shibimo (Hand asking or espousal fee) which is equivalent to the provision of the engagement ring; Fotoli (marriage meal fee); Hernor-too-bo (a special waist girdle); and finally, Gblanii (head money or marriage consideration) plus one bottle of gin and one bottle of schnapps. Anthropologist Margaret Field in her book, ‘Social Organisation of the Ga People'(1940) recorded that even after the payment of Gblanii, when the wife becomes pregnant the husband will provide her with two or more cloths called adiden. Thus, whilst the Gblanii serves as bridewealth and legitimizes the marriage, other forms of gift-giving to the woman and her family continue.

Bridewealth payments also confer conjugal rights, especially the husband`s domestic and sexual rights over his wife. These are rights in uxorem, which are further divided into rights in personam (the husband’s rights over the domestic duties of his wife), and rights in rem, (his right to claim compensation from a third party in case of her injury or adultery). Although the focus is often placed on the rights given to the man, it is of import to note that these conjugal rights are also bestowed to the woman. Thus, they are reciprocal conjugal rights that benefit both the husband and the wife when bridewealth is exchanged.

The underlying notion is that the legitimization of the marriage and conferment of conjugal rights via bridewealth payment offers the man/husband the right to secure penalties for violations of conjugal rights. For instance, when another man has an affair with a man`s wife he can go to court to ask for compensation from the man who had an affair with his wife. Where the man had not paid the bridewealth, he cannot recover any compensation on sexual violation of his wife. Indeed, the woman can also engage in sexual intercourse with other men and the man cannot ask for recovery of other gifts paid to her, nor force her to be faithful to only him. It is only when the bridewealth has been paid that upon termination of marriage, the bridewealth can be asked to be returned, and this is subject to specified conditions. In the same way, bridewealth offers the a woman the right request for compensation if her husband has violated the marriage. His payment of bridewealth signalled an acknowledgement of her value – both in economics and affection – and his violation of the marriage is a devaluation. Thus, bridewealth payment offers legal rights to both husband and the wife, and so where any of the parties engage in adultery, the injured party can claim compensation or obtain a divorce with the backing of the public authority. 

In patrilineal societies, payment of bridewealth guarantees the right of the men to possess children born into the marriage. In case of divorce, when the man keeps the children born to the marriage he can recover only a part, and sometimes none of the bridewealth, whilst in a few societies, the man cannot recover a part or any of his bridewealth if he is judged the guilty party in the conflicts leading to termination of the marriage. For the Wala people of Ghana, the man can keep some number of children or none depending on the percentage of his bridewealth payment. But for the matrilineal societies such as the Akans of Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, payment of bridewealth does not give the man the right to keep children born to marriage; that right is exclusively for women. Children born in marriage in matrilineal societies belong to the woman (wife) and it is a non-negotiable right owned by the woman. Even where the woman commits adultery or causes the marriage to be terminated, she still keeps the children born in marriage and only the bridewealth is paid back to the husband as compensation for the wrong done to him. In both patrilineal and matrilineal societies bridewealth only serves to legitimize the marriage and the affiliation of the children depends on the society in which the children are born. These variances challenge assertions often made by Western scholars and feminists; the one that says that bridewealth is“child-price”.

The third most important aspect of bridewealth is its function as an attempted replacement of the woman in her family. Marrying a woman takes her away from her family and it creates a socio-economic and physical vacuum or loss to the family. The loss to the woman`s family is in the form of labour services, physical presence and affection, and the reduction of family size. Exchange of bridewealth is a working concept to take care of these major losses to the woman`s family for the gain to the man`s family. In this regard, A. P. Cheater in his paper, ‘The Role and Position of Women in Pre-colonial and Colonial Zimbabwe,’ argued that one of the major reasons for the exclusion of women in the direct control of means of production and family production in Zimbabwean society was payment of bridewealth (roora or lobola), because paying the bridewealth does not only transfer rights in a woman`s labour and reproductive capacity from her own family to that of her husband, but it also identified her family for this loss.

In some societies, no amount of money nor object of wealth can replace the preciousness and the loss of a woman. As a result, the bridewealth for a woman is her replacement with another woman. For the Anufo and Konkomba people, their sister-exchange marriage prestations commence right from the wooing. The suitor renders services to the father and mother of a girl, weeding in their farms and carrying firewood, paying frequent visitations to them as a sign of respect whilst giving out small presents, like a bowl of millet beer or some cola nuts. His object is to establish a friendship that will result, finally, in the girl’s parents promising their daughter in marriage. These services and gifts are called ashibyeya. After this, the would-be-husband and his family as a whole make a formal promise to the settlement of the bride-debt, i.e., to give another woman (probably his sister or a woman from his lineage) to his would-be wife`s family or lineage. The ashibyeya is not a genetricial payment and it does not entitle the bride-receivers to the offspring of the bride. That right is only guaranteed by returning another woman to the bride-givers. Thus, here, the concept of reciprocity and equality in sum as theorized in Mauss’s concept of gifts takes place within the marriage. You marry my sister, you also promise to give me your sister as both bridewealth and surety for my sister that I and my family have lost to you as your wife. A lineage that receives a woman is not obliged to repay the bride-givers immediately. Often a woman is given in return only after the first woman has borne children and in many cases the repayment of the debt is postponed until the next generation.

The exchange of bridewealth in Africa is largely seen as no more than an aspect of prestations in the African marriage process. Its importance lies in the legal formalization of the marital union and the conferment of conjugal rights. It further serves as a replacement mechanism that facilitates the equal exchange of women between two families: A win-win situation. 

But you determine: A noble exchange?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *