Bridewealth (or lobolo, lobola, mahari, mahali) is a widespread practice across Sub-Saharan Africa and, in many regions, traditional marriages are dependent on bridewealth payments to be considered valid. In many cases, a couple cannot request permission to marry in a religious or civil ceremony until the bridewealth payment is received by the bride’s family.
The anthropological literature has revealed that giving bridewealth became initially widespread amongst pastoralist and horticulturist societies where labor force was of critical importance. The practice is also prevalent in societies characterized by virilocal residence, i.e. where women move with their husband’s family after marriage. Finally, the tradition of giving bridewealth is common in societies characterized by agnatic descent, i.e. where the children born to a couple are automatically affiliated to their father’s lineage and clan. The aim of bridewealth transaction is thus to balance the transfer of rights to the bride’s workforce and future children from her natal lineage to her husband’s lineage and clan.
In Africa, the visits between families to negotiate and remit bridewealth payments are a crucial part of marriage and the larger social life of the community. As families may be from different regions or cultural groups, marriage is a true opportunity for alliance between these groups. The initial visits between family members from the bride and groom’s families are the initial step in forging bonds that are intended to last for generations.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, cattle remain the predominant form of bridewealth payment, though cash, real estate, and other gifts are often combined with cattle. Bridewealth payments typically consist of a combination of perishable and non-perishable goods. Non-perishable good of common occurrence in most African marriages are livestock (especially cows and goats), shell (cowries), clothing and fabric, and metal objects (especially hoes). Perishable goods include sacks of potatoes and rice, and traditional alcohol.
In most African countries, it is the responsibility of immediate kin to pay for bridewealth. The amount of a bridewealth payment is set by a bride’s parents and can be influenced by a number of factors, including their investment in tradition and the wealth of the groom. In some cultures the mother of the bride receives “consent money,” this is because she is considered to be the most emotionally affected by the departure of her daughter. The majority (or totality in some cases) of a bridewealth payment is remitted to a bride’s father. Bridewealth is then employed by the bride’s father to serve a variety of functions including paying for household costs, reimbursement or redistribution among other family members (particularly those in financial difficulty), or to put aside to pay for future bridewealth for his sons.
The acceptance of a bridewealth payment by the bride’s parents represents both permission to marry and a blessing upon the couple. Sentiments concerning bridewealth payments vary enormously across the complex cultural landscape in Africa, however participant discourse often centers around bridewealth payments as a demonstration of respect on the part of the groom and his family, rather than a process of ‘purchasing’ a bride.
However, since bridewealth payment is designed to compensate for the transfer of rights over the woman’s workforce and capacity of reproduction from her natal group to her husband’s group, the dissolution of unions where such payment is made is difficult. Divorce from marriages where bridewealth is given generally necessitates the reimbursement in full or in part of what was given at marriage. In August 2015, however, the Uganda court made history by outlawing the refund of bridewealth in case of divorce, this after the non-governmental organization MIFUMI addressed a request to the court to declare the payment of bridewealth unconstitutional.
National and international organizations working in the area of human rights have increasingly denounced the ramifications of the practice of bridewealth in Sub-Saharan Africa: bridewealth violence, i.e. conflicts and tensions emerging around the amount and payment of bridewealth and domestic violence linked to the men’s consideration of their wife as their property. In some countries like Uganda, the practice of bridewealth is also associated with early and forced marriage. In impoverished areas of South Sudan, men feel compelled to steal cattle in order to be able to amass the bridewealth for their prospective wife. Between 2008 and 2012, in the state of Joglei alone, 2 000 people died in the context of these “cattle rustling.” (Aleu 2016).
Alexis Black and Kathleen Rice
Alexis Black and Kathleen Rice
Aleu, Philip Thon. 2016. “Risking One’s Life to Be Able to Marry.” Development and Cooperation, June 26 edition.