High Bride Price is the main driving force of rampant conflicts in South Sudan

Posted: June 19, 2018 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Commentary, Contributing Writers, Junub Sudan, Opinion Articles, Opinion Writers

A socioeconomic perspective: High Bride Price is the main driver of rampant conflicts in the Lakes region in particular and South Sudan in general

By Makur Garang Apadieer, Juba, South Sudan

The Wedding of Amer Mayen Dhieu and Makwei Mabioor Deng, 14 October 2017

The Wedding of Amer Mayen Dhieu and Makwei Mabioor Deng, 14 October 2017

  1. Synopsis

Tuesday, June 19, 2018 (PW) — This article focuses mainly on the bride price, its history, benefits and consequences. The main theme of writing this article is to highlight both advantages and disadvantages and how the interrelation of both positive and negative aspects of the high bride price can be harnessed by creating and institutionalizing the guidelines that can regulate the conduct of marriage to meet the interests of the bride and family, the groom and family and the bride and groom respectively.

The article follows a specified sequence or outline which includes definition, introduction and history of bride wealth, merits of bride wealth, and evidence of practice and consequences of high bride price, existing control mechanisms, coping mechanisms and demerits of bride price and proposed policy option for addressing current and prospective negative consequences emanating from high bride price.

The work draws examples mainly from pastoral ethnic communities within South Sudan. Citations from earlier work on same topic have also made. The article is an attempt to advocate and bring to the platform the most pressing issue of our time for collective resolution by multiple stakeholders: government, community, CSOs, NGOs and UN agencies.

  1. Definition and distinction between bride price and dowry

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “bride price or bridewealth is money, property, or other form of wealth paid by a groom or his family to the family of the woman he will be married or is just about to marry. In parts of Africa, a traditional marriage ceremony depends on payment of a bride price to be valid.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, bride price must be paid first in order for the couple to get permission to marry in church or in other civil ceremonies, or the marriage is not considered valid by the bride’s family. The amount includes a few to several herds of cattle, goats and a sum of money depending on the family or culture. The cattle and goats constitute an integral part of the traditional marriage for ceremonial purposes during and after the original marriage ceremony”.

In contrast bride price differs markedly from dowry.  Dowry refers to any sum of money, cattle, goats or any other property paid to the groom, or used by the bride to help establish the new household. In our context and practice, arueth in Agaar and Gok marriage custom and other inherent payments made by the bride family to the groom and family would constitute dowry.

  1. Introduction and Historical Background of Bride Wealth

Since time immemorial, ethnic communities of South Sudan do practice and grace the marriage between a man and woman by paying valuable assets: beads, hoes, cattle, goats, sheep and chickens as bride price. For the Dinka, Nuer, Collo, Taposa, Didinga, Murle and Mundari, cattle constitute the prime bride price, though goat and sheep form a smaller and meager percentage. The tradition has gained acceptance and thus is sustained to date with little modification.

The topic of bride price has been written about so extensively worldwide but not so much about the actual reality pertinent to our contemporary and past contexts. The notion and practice of paying bride price will inevitably never change any sooner. Conversely efforts to advocate for modification in the bride price amount (level) and value in view of the present realities should start from now.

In the past three decades, the average bride price ranged from 10 -30 herds of cattle. But those who are well off and also threatened and influenced by a steep competition could raise and pay on average between 30 -50 herds of cattle for one to get married. But at present, the trend has extremely shifted and is exacerbated by pegging the bride price on cattle but floating the cattle value at the prevailing market price which makes the whole marriage affair quite expensive and unmanageable by many youths.

The youth who could not afford, try to avoid the hurdles of following the traditional marriage system with starkly and vividly clear consequence: violation of established marriage norms and traditions by circumventing the horror of abidance to the set custom. The proliferation of early pregnancies, elopements, forced marriages and rampant cattle raiding attest to the fact that the established marriage customs are stringently inhibiting.

  1. Merits of the bride wealth

In the Dinka and Nuer cultural contexts, bride price represents the value and worth of the girl and the reciprocity of the usual contribution a girls makes towards the family wellbeing before she marries and leaves the family. The bride wealth is allocated to number of family stakeholders who principally include, father, mother, brothers, sisters, paternal and maternal uncles, paternal and maternal aunts and friends, each taking varying number of cattle or goats as established by the system and influenced by the level of competition and the affordability by the grooms or families of required and negotiated amount of the bride wealth.

The allocation (division of bridewealth) is merely premised on the continuum principle of existing relations, previous cooperation and contribution towards the success of marriage between the father and mother of the girl (bride) who is currently getting married. The groom family also has the same setup where different members contribute cattle or goats towards the payment of the bridewealth in order to let their son or brother marry.

The prominent essence of the bride wealth relates to the ability of letting the brother (s) of the married girl also use the cattle to get married to a girl of his or family choice. This is the bottom line of instituting and perpetuating stringent control of the female members of community. Another credit which accrues from formally marrying your daughter or sister to another man is to provide a sense of honor and prestige to the families, the girl and the groom.

The bride price creates a platform to leverage other different and similar social events and functions, now and in the future. It is, therefore, believed in Dinka custom that, the prospective daughter of the current bride who marries at a high bride price will invariably be married at either similar or even higher bride price. This is very contentious and can be empirically corroborated through more research.

Besides, the bride wealth serves as a spread of risk and redistribution of wealth among the deserving members of either side. For example, the groom family spread the risk of paying the bridewealth by contributing varying number of livestock depending on position a person holds in the family or clan and ability to afford the required number of livestock.

The redistribution of wealth or resources follows similar rule as described above in that each deserving member of the bride family receives in accordance with laid down rules and procedures. The contribution towards the groom bride price payment by the groom’s relatives and receiving from the bridewealth by the bride’s relatives enhance social connection, mutual cooperation, love and peaceful coexistence among the closest relatives and friends and thus serve as a benchmark for the rest of community members.

  1. Evidence of high bride price being a driver of conflict

“Male and female youth must marry to be recognized as adults; however, male youth are under severe pressure to meet escalating bridewealth costs” (United State Institute of Peace Special Report 2011: P.4). The foregoing excerpt attests to the plethora of challenges that male youth usual face when deciding to marry with limited resources on one hand and threat of competing with youths from wealthy families on another hand.

“It is possible if not probable that some well-armed youth are motivated to raid cattle to help them pay bridewealth and marry” (United State Institute of Peace Special Report 2011: P.6). It is really a common practice by youths in Lakes to venture into often precarious raiding activity with dreadful outcome for the sole objective of amassing cattle to get married, although exception exists.

Not all the youth get involved in cattle raiding and theft for the purpose of getting cattle to pay as bride price but other youth from well off families also indulge in the vices to satisfy the greed for wealth accumulation.

For example, a few cases of marriage conducted by wealthy families within Lakes in the recent past set the unprecedented bride price of 300 – 400 herds of cattle to marry a single girl. This tends to create a guide and has thus greatly influenced the demand for higher bride price by the bride’s family. The exorbitant scale set by the elites and wealthy members of our society has extremely disadvantaged majority of youths from average and poor families to cope with the new and unprecedented shift in the settlement of social union between a man and a woman.

The foregoing scenario led the youth to seek for alternative means of closing the deficit in the bride price by often engaging in notoriously dangerous and dreadful activities of cattle rustling and theft. The price of such adventures is too high and irrecoverable: deaths, permanent disablement and antagonizing and disintegrating the social fabric of the society, although the later can be recovered. Revenge killings and retaliatory raids complicate and aggravate an already complex circumstance.

The proliferation of guns in the hands of illiterate civilians coupled with inadequate enforcement of law and order exacerbates the scale of cattle rustling, theft and revenge killings in Lakes. The following quote from United State Institute for Peace (p.9) summed it up thus: “If you give a male youth a gun, that’s a means to employment. He can loot, ambush, stop cars, and get money.”

This is exactly and typically what happened in Lakes over the years. Thanks to Government for initiating the disarmament process. It is our hope that it is done with utmost exactitude, honesty, diligence and transparency in order to restore the lost tranquility and freedom in our society.

  1. Existing customary control mechanisms

There exist quite a number of legal and customary control and mitigation mechanisms instituted by different communities in South Sudan. For example, in Collo Kingdom, the bride price is pegged at 10 herds of animals. In the neighbouring Nuer community the bride price is officially set at the maximum of 15 herds of cattle to successfully conclude and grace the marriage of a man and a woman.

Dinka Padaang have also set the limit of bride price at 15 herds of cattle but paying below 15 will still cement the union of a man and a woman in Padaang communities. Dinka Bor and Bahr el Ghazal (Wanh Alel) set the maximum at 30 and 31 herds of cattle respectively. Bari community in Central Equatoria set the bride price at 12-15 herds of cattle and the value of each animal is predetermined and maintained at SSP 20,000 despite changes in livestock market prices.

However, the above customary measures and regulations to control bride price and its resultant effects have proved futile long time ago as the bridewealth is preferentially open to competition while the value of one cow is floated at the prevailing livestock market prices. This where the current rise of inter communal conflicts stem from.

The rise in the bride price number and value is moderated by other sections of Dinka tribe namely Agaar, Gok, Rok and Malual respectively by immediately returning a proportional percentage of the bride price calculated at 30% of the total bride price paid. The objective of returning the portion of the bridewealth is to economically strengthen the couple to quickly establish: repayment of debts incurred during the marriage discussions, clothing of the bride and feeding, treatment, feeding and care of the prospective unborn children and having a buffer and insurance against any sudden outbreak of calamity.

This caring attitude and practice is completely opposite in Yirol and Bor where the bride family could demand exorbitant bridewealth payment including giving condition to bring one or two herds that the groom might have kept aside for the sole reason of supporting easy establishment and coping of the new family, or else the wedding cannot take place. The economic base of the groom is emptied out and the in-laws hand in their daughter or sister to groom who does not possession any item of economic value.

How do they expect the new couple to cope? Besides, the return is usually one or two herds of cattle after a long period of time for the case of Yirol and Bor but honoring the set practice is difficult at times. The worse thing done by in-laws after having received the bridewealth is a severe restraint to use or spend any cattle or goat from the bridewealth but rather they would go back to the extremely impoverished and stranded groom to ask him for another cow, goat or money to settle a debt or solve hunger or any other problem.

Where can a groom get the other assets when he had paid all (including contributions from relatives and friends) to in-laws who did not return even a thing? We need to be realistic and honest with ourselves. Let’s accept the fallible act and collectively start confronting and addressing it as a community.

In the contexts of Bor and Yirol, this remorseless practice has depicted and presents the girls as commodities to be traded off without bearing any significant care and responsibility by the family once they get married. Not adhering to the established customary practices often begets craving for alternative and negative coping mechanisms in order to marry. This point leads me to provide cogent but brief discussion of the coping mechanism under the following heading.

  1. Coping mechanism and demerits of bride price

Desires, wants and needs are not the same for all individuals. Similarly ideas and mental construct of the social and economic setting also differ from one person or community to another.  This lack of unanimous and automatic homogeneity with regards to desires, wants, needs, ideas, decisions and actions serves to explain the sheer reason of no adherence to established tradition or not creating modification or a new paradigm shift which balances the interest of the majority.

Faced with and overwhelmed by formidable social predicaments relating to acquiring the acceptable number of bridewealth in the contemporary society, youths are obliged and tempted to venture into socially and legally unsanctioned vices such as cattle rustling, theft and corruption for the ultimate reason of meeting the bride price when intending to marry.

As alluded to above, the corollary of engaging in unsanctioned practices breed insurmountable consequences such as death, permanent disablement, escalation of conflict which results in further destruction of assets and loss of lives, and eroding social network and capital. Both the bride and groom families are at the receiving ends: the role of being groom or bride family intermittently changes with time and presence of a girl or son who wants to formally marry.

Therefore, we deserve to exercise high level of vigilance when standing and acting at either side, for what you sow is equally what you obviously will receive.

Other youths who are law abiding and cannot raise the required bride price, take a different course of action when intending to marry by selecting a partner from any neighbouring community whose customary laws consider the scarcity of resources. For example, Nuer youths who fall in this category marry a woman from Collo or Shilluk and Dinka youths from Lakes marry from Bele in Wulu and Jur Modo in Mvolo.

I applaud this alternative course because it encourages widening and strengthening of social linkages and harmony among the communities and can thus ameliorate the ethnic tensions and conflicts which normally arise. However, there are two defects of this: many Dinka girls may not get married and the last inevitable route these girls may take will be morally and culturally unacceptable, causing yet an onset and spiral of conflicts with fatalistic outcomes.

Besides, the youths from neighbouring communities whose customs consider the prominence of marriage and limited resources are prohibited by the prevailing high bride price, though they may be interested to marry from Dinka. This curtails the potential effectiveness of the best intention by the resource poor families whose sons extend social relations to different communities or ethnicities.

Public image and reputation of the government officials are inversely tarnished and tainted as a result of corruption to satisfy various wants and needs which include marriage. The resources are not wholly directed at service delivery. This, moreover, diminishes the established reputation and support for the government. It also creates internal rifts and schisms that may be violent at times, thus feeding into socially perturbed tranquility and harmony, which flare and widen the scope of conflict and confusion within the agro-pastoral communities such as in Lakes.

The woman whose worth brings wealth is severely neglected particularly in Yirol and Bor where no payment of arueth is practiced. The new couple really finds it hard to cope with the new challenges of a new social status without remnant of limited resources; all was paid as bride price without any proportional percentage of the total value being returned as is usually done by Agaar, Gok, Rek and Malual. The bride comes with new and high set of expectations that the groom should fulfill and failure of which the man is considered to be not caring, poor and weak.

This gross neglect plants the seeds of discord in the new family whose members have wonderfully performed their social duties to the full expectation and acceptance by the community: 1) the bride has conducted herself in conformity to the customary and cultural values which attract an able groom to pay the bride price.

This is quite a highly commendable task that should always be rewarded to entice other potential bride or girls. 2) The groom had also dutifully fulfilled the expectations of the two families and community at large by mobilizing resources to pay the bride price. He formally presented his interest for scrutiny and judgment by the elders, women and youth. These are social ideals worth rewarding and sustaining.

The economic challenge in the new home or family may sometimes lure the bride/wife to think of alternative to evading the social and economic trap that she finds herself in, by eyeing or possibly committing adultery with the men who have reasonable amount of resources in possession. This has been a major reason responsible for the breakup of some marriages. But the cause lies in the insatiable wants to possess wealth without considering fare treatment of the sources or people who contribute to the accumulation of wealth.

  1. Proposed policy options

To use economic term, marriage is inelastic. This means that almost every living and normal human being marries at a certain age regardless of any prevailing or limiting factors. But the bride price is strangely highly elastic: the higher the bride price, the lower the number of youths who officially get married within a specific community. This explains the current increase in the number of unsanctioned marriage practices such as pregnancies, elopements and cattle raiding to generate bride price.

A shift to and an increase in trans-ethnic marriage is a circumvention of the existing unsupportive marriage conditions and arrangements. For the case of Dinka, the trans-ethnic marriage is a paradox: Dinka may afford to pay 10 -15 herds of cattle to marry a girl from another ethnicity but youth from other ethnic communities cannot afford to pay over hundred herds of cattle to marry a Dinka girl.

The same reason for which many of our youth may not afford the current exorbitant bride price is equally similar reason youth from other ethnicities cannot do so. The element and kernel of trans-ethnic marriage to create social network, peace and harmony is self-defeating on our side as Dinka because the bride price is too high and the value of each cow is floated.

You buy at the prevailing market rate or pay money equivalent to a value of a cow at the current market price. Many potential grooms will automatically think twice before deciding to formally present his interest to the bride’s family although the two opposite magnetic poles of love will continue to fall towards the centre.

With above brief and cogent analysis, I would like to propose key policy options for further research, modification and adoption with the main aim of curtailing the bride price as a driver of conflict in the region. The proposed policy options include:-

  1. Repeal of Wanh Alel customary law with the object of lowering the bride price and upholding and enforcing the repealed law. Government and nonprofit institutions should thereafter actively partake in popularizing the law by creating awareness and sensitization of the public about the law.
  2. Consider payment of bride price in terms of other valuable property such money, land, or other items and enshrine this in the constitutions and customary law. This together with proposal of repeal above, will enable our youth to rescind criminal act since there will be less motivation to involve in such illegal activities. This will allow other ethnicities to marry from Dinka and thus fortifying, inter alia the social capital, peace and harmony.
  3. Encourage the Agaar, Gok, Rek and Malual to continue upholding and strengthening payment of arueth as this practice balances the economic bases of the new couple and that of girls’ family. Both the bride and groom will feel honoured and can commit themselves to maintaining the union until old age. On the same note, I request people of Yirol and Bor to adopt and embrace paying of proportional percentage of the total bride price back to the groom. The approach is mutually reciprocal and offers a vital platform for a lasting marriage.
  4. Offering vocational training opportunities to youth as a way of empowering them to gain or create employment, which will in turn boost their economic base to pay bride price.
  5. Accelerating and supporting girl child education to meaningfully contribute, after graduation and marriage, to the family wellbeing through employment or business even if bride price is less or not paid when she marries.

The author is a concerned citizen who needs to advocate for devising best solutions to arrest and get rid of the monster (high bride price) from the society to enhance stability, peace and harmony. He can be reached at garangkerbil@gmail.com

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to paanluel2011@gmail.com. PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.

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