Sunday, July 27, 2008

Have You Finished Paying For Your Wife Yet?

After two days of trying, I finally managed to connect with our Kusassi co-worker, Pastor Emmanuel, yesterday afternoon. For some reason, the 10-10 numbers that I usually use didn’t work this time. I ended up dialling Bell direct. Definitely more expensive, but at least I got through.

In the course of our conversation, Pastor Emmanuel told me a story about his younger brother who lives in one of the more remote Kusassi villages. Apparently he had just lost his wife. No, she didn’t die. Her family came and reclaimed her! And this despite the fact that the couple have already been married for two years and have a young child together! How can this be, you ask? Well, in Kusassi culture, men have to pay for their wives. The price is 4 cows, 3 pigs, 1 guinea fowl, and 1 chicken. To give you some idea of how much this is worth, I can tell you that one pig will cost a normal working man a month’s wages. You can just imagine the price of a cow!

In a society where most people just manage to scrape by, paying such a bride-price up front would mean that most young men would be middle-aged by the time they could afford to get married! So for those who are less than affluent, Kusassi society has developed a way around this requirement similar to that used in our own society for purchasing items we’d like to have now, but can’t afford to pay for up front: payment by instalments. Pay two cows, get the girl, and pay off the rest over the next few years. Most young men can’t even afford the two cows, but they can appeal to various older family members (father, older brothers, and uncles) for help with this.

Pastor Emmanuel’s younger brother must have been a sweet talker because he managed to get the girl without even paying the first two cows up front! However, over the past two years, he had not paid anything either, so the family finally got fed up and exercised their cultural rights. When I asked why he had not paid anything, Pastor Emmanuel said that it was because he had several other children to send to school and this was taking all the meagre income he was managing to make. It turns out that this is actually his second wife. For some reason, his first wife left him after giving him three sons, and despite the efforts of both extended families, refused to return and married another man instead.

“Well, since his first wife left him, can’t he ask for the bride-price back from her family and use that to pay for the second wife?” I asked. The purpose of a bride-price is not only to give value to the woman by compensating her family for the loss of her labour, but also to encourage her family to make every effort to help keep the marriage intact. Should the woman walk away, they will be obliged to return the bride-price, something they will go to great lengths to avoid since chances are high that they’ve already spent it for one reason or another.

“Well, no,” replied Pastor Emmanuel. She gave him three sons and each child is worth a cow.”

“But he paid four cows,” I rejoined. “So they at least owe him one back.”

“Yes, but she had several miscarriages. Those count too.”

Okay, so much for that argument. I’ll let you know how things turn out.

By the way, when the Kusassi ask me why we’ve been away so long, I’m thinking I’ll tell them that I had to visit my parents and finish paying for my wife! These are reasons no Kusassi can argue with!


Michelle said...

This is really something else Mike. So extremely different from other cultures where the bride's family pays a dowry to the groom, as a means of payment to take her away and remove the burden of her parents having to look after her. All very foreign to me, but nonetheless very interesting. Perhaps I should remind Jorge what a great deal he got me for - absolutely NADA!

Mike Steinborn said...

Yes, I find it interesting that this practice occurs in a male-dominated culture where women are not traditionally highly regarded, and sometimes even seen as mere property. Yet in our more "enlightened" and gender-equal western cultures, men are required to pay nothing for their brides (unless you want to count the engagement ring!) and the bride's family still has to bear the cost of the wedding.

And if Jorge ever forgets what a prize he got in you, I'm sure a little visit from your family would be a great reminder, especially if they began to pull your suitcases out of the closet. You never know, he might even be inclined to start paying a cow or two... :P