Growing up Kenyan, I regularly ran into cultural traditions so deeply rooted in history and largely rural lifestyles that they didn’t square with my very Canadian life. Half-joking and yet entirely serious, my parents have always insisted on a dowry of cows. We are of the Kisii tribe, which is one of Kenya’s 42 tribes; across the tribes, the dowry is a fact of life. There are differences, however, in what form the dowry will take. For the Kamba tribe, some combination of cows, goats, honey, and gifts—usually money—forms the dowry. For others, donkeys, chickens, blankets, and other gifts can be added in.
My parents have never been explicit about what the proper traditional Kisii dowry is, so I set out to find the exact amount. Luckily, in 1950, a researcher named Philip Mayer published “Gusii Bridewealth Law and Custom,” which is impressive in its exhaustiveness and even more so in its respectfulness. Mayer provides a useful equation with some basic requirements: “a number of cows and heifers, one bull, and a number of goats (including at least one he-goat). If both parties agree, the goats may be substituted for an extra heifer, which has a fixed value in terms of goats according to the prevailing rate of exchange.”
In all honesty, for Kenyan-Canadians (and many in Kenya), the cows and attendant livestock are only ever symbolic. First, it’s really impractical to keep any amount of cows in Canada. Even the ever-useful goat can cause problems: At a 2009 wedding in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the groom’s Kenyan family wanted to slaughter a goat to celebrate the wedding, which was pretty traumatic for the bride, who had not been warned and cried bridal tears of anguish. Second, cash is much easier to carry. Beatrice, a Kenyan-born doctor who married Richard, a Canadian man, in 2003, says the modern dowry has changed. “Nowadays it’s all cash, cash, cash. It’s all about money,” she said. “People quickly realized that the cows are not worth a lot of money or bring a lot of milk so they want cash. If not cash, they want expensive clothing, good food, and stuff like that. So when a daughter is getting married, that’s the time to milk the system, milk the tradition.”
Beatrice is a Russian-trained doctor fluent in English, Swahili, Kisii, and Russian. If language skills alone are factored into cow calculations, then Kenyan women like Beatrice are an expensive catch. “Richard wanted to do it the Kenyan way, so he googled dowry payments in Kenya. So he got a variety of prices and payments. He took what was average, and that’s what he paid. So when my parents came to visit and all that, he said, it’s not a gesture of buying your daughter or anything, it’s just a tradition that I want to maintain,” Beatrice explained. Having already married Beatrice, Richard insisted on honoring her culture’s traditions.
For other couples, the clash of cultures is unworkable. For Josephine. a nurse in the GTA, and her daughter, Nengo, a student, the contradiction was insurmountable. In her fiancée’s tradition, the woman’s family paid a dowry, so she ruled out any form of dowry. It was a jarring moment for Josephine, who had already imagined a modern version: “I was hoping to make it a little more modernized, ’cause we’re here, and make it more of a game… In reality, we weren’t going to ask for much.”
Half the fun is in the asking. I often feel bad for the poor non-Kenyan man who has to tackle this tradition. There are so many technical details involved that Kenyans living in North America simply let go of the strictures of tradition. Ndimu is a Kenyan foster mom living in Brampton, and when her daughter, Kavivi, was marrying an African American man from Detroit, Ndimu ended up doing some of the work of the dowry.
“I think I ended up paying dowry. I wanted my friends to have fun, and I knew these Detroit-ians would not do it, so I used my friends to reverse it. I didn’t give the things, but I entertained,” Ndimu said.
For the women I spoke to, the dowry tradition has evolved in a variety of ways. Beatrice said she will not want a dowry for her daughter. “The thing I’ve learned from North America is the key is you want your kids to grow up and become very independent. Whereas back in Africa, we have that spirit of depending on each other, which can be a very big burden.” Ndimu thinks the dowry process brings families together, saying, “We have a saying that goes, ‘When you eat together, there are things you can’t.’ You can’t fight, you can’t disagree.” For her, the dowry is a way that in-laws can discover one another.
I am always thinking about my cows. Actually, I am frequently reminded about my cows. Life’s milestones have been marked by cow talk. “Congratulations on the new job. You know, we will get more cows now.” “Happy graduation! Now we can add cows.” A smart person would have married me right when I turned 18; at that point, the family would probably have accepted a three-legged cow. I am sorry to say that now I might run above market prices. I am fresh bluefin tuna, and I will cost you.
That said, I am and have been conflicted about having my choices validated by a livestock exchange—even a symbolic one—that seems somehow counter to my feminism. However well-intentioned the tradition, and however it is modernized by Kenyan-Canadian families, it comes from a culture that attaches a value to women. I can’t make it OK because it extends across a patriarchal and frequently misogynist culture. I can’t make it OK because once upon a time (and maybe even today) the wives of dead men were inherited by their husband’s brothers and family. I can’t make it OK to consider—even for fun—that any woman is owned by anyone else. I can’t make it OK because the same complaint I had as a kid still holds true: Women are priceless.
And yet, in demanding to have Kenya—and Africa, for that matter—seen in rich and nuanced ways, how can I dismiss and render invisible this particular exercise?
This is how cultures get lost. It is a special kind of erasure when one does it to one’s own people: a betrayal of the self. There are parts of being Kenyan and African that, try as I might, I can’t betray. I love my culture, and I think everyone should. Everyone should see a round of Kenyan aunties lead a singing charge around a bride at a wedding. Everyone should try nyama choma and mandazi. Everyone should wonder why Kisiis are obsessed with bananas. Also, how can I turn down the opportunity to guarantee a steak for myself and my family, but most importantly, myself? There are few progressive values that I wouldn’t sell out for prime rib. Most people would understand that, especially Kenyans.
– VICE Canada.