Congo: Calls to scrap the dowry system

By Issa Sikiti da Silva August 17, 2021
Models in traditional white gowns at a Kinshasa fashion show. Models in traditional white gowns at a Kinshasa fashion show.

How exorbitant dowry demands are causing a major rethink on marriage in the DRC. By Issa Sikiti da Silva in Kinshasa.

 

Four pictures on the wall show a pretty woman hugging a handsome man.

The photos were taken at a Durban beach during a holiday to South Africa. The smiling couple looked happy and very much in love.

‘These are distant but unforgettable memories, which I will cherish for the rest of my life,’ said 32-year-old Clarisse, who lives in the outskirts of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

‘If my parents were not greedy like Satan and did not act in bad faith, we would have been married a long time ago and probably had a child by now,’ she recounted emotionally.

Three years ago, Clarisse’s parents asked her fiancé to pay a dowry in order to marry their daughter – a common practice in the DRC.

They demanded $5,000, stating that the amount was justified because it was meant to compensate them for raising and educating their daughter, a Master’s degree holder. 

There was a list of items that Clarisse’s fiancé had to purchase for the woman’s family.

It included a car, a laptop, a generator, a deep freezer, imported shoes and bags, men’s suits, gold jewellery and 12 lengths of the expensive, brightly coloured fabric given as a dowry in the DRC: pagne wax hollandaise.

According to Clarisse, the items would have cost nearly $7,000 and pushed the total dowry price to $12,000.

‘Did they mean to sell me like a slave? I believe so because my mother told me clearly that the fridge would help her start a small business selling drinks and frozen foods.’

Her fiancé, a successful businessman, offered to pay $3,000 and cut the number of items by half, refusing to buy some of the big-ticket items like the car. But the bride’s father would not budge.

‘My father told my fiancé and his family that since I was well educated and pretty, I deserved better. He categorically refused to reduce the price, saying that I was not some sort of merchandise being sold at the city’s market.’

Clarisse, who has a well-paid job, was 29 at the time.

The negotiations went on for about a year without a deal, leading to the man and his family becoming exasperated.

The frustration led to the couple drifting apart.

Now aged 32, Clarisse is still unmarried and living at her parents’ house.

Her former fiancé has since got married to a woman whom he met during a trip to Mbuji-Mayi, the provincial capital of the diamond-rich Kasai Oriental region, in central DRC.

 

Dowries

A bride-to-be hands over her dowry.

NewsAfrica tracked down the man’s best friend, Alain, who described the unsettling way his friends were haggled over.

‘I have never seen a greedy and cruel old man like Clarisse’s father. I participated in dowry negotiations four times, but the Clarisse case sent the chill down my spine.

‘The reason why women in this country are not getting married is because parents are exaggerating the dowry price. We haven’t seen anything yet. I think it’s about to get worse.’

Such greed is sadly common in the DRC.

In a country where the minimum wage is about $40 a month and an estimated 73 per cent of its 83 million people live on less than $1.90 a day, many young Kinshasa men like Clarisse’s former fiancé are forced to travel to poorer regions like Kasai Oriental to bag a ‘cheap’ bride.

Clarisse’s ex-beau paid just $800 for his wife, according to Alain.

The amount included a list of items that cost nearly $300, plus $500 in cash. 

‘Though the majority of Congolese men are poor and living precariously, they nevertheless want to get married,’ explained Richard, a bartender who paid $1,500 for his bride. ‘It’s only the high bride price that is blocking them.’

Jonathan, an unemployed university graduate, lamented the high cost of dowries: ‘$3,000, $5,000 or $10,000. Where will we get that kind of money?

Like a lot of Congolese men, Michael, a 29-year-old bricklayer from Kinshasa, said he planned to travel to another poorer region, Grand Kasai, to meet his match, adding: ‘It’s the only place left in this country where one can marry for cheaper.’

Locals in Grand Kasai are surprisingly blasé about the influx of cashed-up men looking for cheap brides.

Alfred Tshimbalanga, a Kasai traditional leader, welcomed the development, and reserved his ire for the parents in Kinshasa and other big cities for ‘commercialising’ the marriage of their daughters.

‘A dowry should not be like a mountain to climb,’ he told NewsAfrica.

‘In Kasai, we make it easy for every mature man to get married.

‘We are the only people in this country who believe that dowry is a continuous process. If the girl’s parents or one of her siblings gets sick, our father-in-law can help us pay for medical bills. You know why? All of that remains part of the dowry,’ Tshimbalanga explained.

‘If we are hungry, we can send someone to my daughter’s house to ask for some food or money to buy maize. So why do we have to ask for too much money?

‘Therefore, I call on every man in this country who wants to get married to come to Kasai. We have beautiful and well-mannered girls waiting for good men to take them away.’

Wedding at refugee camp

Happy couple: Congolese refugees celebrate at a mass wedding ceremony.

As the debate around excessive dowries continues unabated in this vast, mineral-rich nation, many observers appear to be calling for bride prices to be scrapped altogether and let women marry unimpeded.

‘This dowry price thing is a terrible mess,’ said university student Melissa Nkoy.

‘I’m only 20 and still at school, but my father is already telling me and my two sisters, aged 24 and 27, that if our boyfriends are intending to marry us, they should prepare to pay no less than $3,000 for the dowry.

‘It’s really scary and disgusting. I think the only way to clean up this mess is to scrap this archaic thing called dowry. It is an obstacle to women’s development,’ Nkoy added.

Dorcas Mwehu, 25, echoed Nkoy’s sentiments, saying: ‘It is indeed a major obstacle. Do you know why many black Africans who go to Europe or America end up marrying white women? It’s because of this damn old thing called dowry. It is uncomplicated to marry a white woman, all you need is a cup full of love, mutual respect and understanding.’

But while young women are rallying against dowries, older Congolese see bride sales as an integral part of local culture. 

Retired sociology teacher Simon Mayala described younger people’s rejection of dowries as a form of neo-colonialism.

‘It’s mental slavery,’ he said.

‘We are not white people; we are black Africans and we have our own way of life.

‘Dowry is a legacy of our forefathers which should be kept as it is and be valued. The problem lies with people’s mindsets. I have been witnessing with disgust how the bride price has been skyrocketing over the years, going from a little $100 to a whopping $10,000.’

He said the bride price seemed to be following the curve of the rising cost of life. 

He explained that Congolese elders view dowry payments as a token of appreciation from the man to the bride’s parents, and a polite way of saying thank you for raising and educating the woman.

He blamed today’s spiralling bride prices on poverty and deteriorating living conditions, with families demanding big money simply to make ends meet. Whatever the reasons, the net effect is the same: lots of unmarried and unhappy young men and women.

Marriage counsellor Marie Matondo said the high cost of dowries was causing serious socio-economic problems, such as marriage postponement. 

‘Over the years, the age of getting married seems to have shifted from the early- and mid-20s to the mid-30s or sometimes early-40s for men.

‘People who earn less must start saving early in order to reach a reasonable amount.’

She said it can take men up to five years or more to save enough money to pay off their fiancé’s family: ‘And while you are making your fiancée wait, some deep-pocketed man who is ready for marriage can take her away from you.’

Meanwhile, many men, according to Matondo, simply get bored of saving and try to find cheaper wives elsewhere.

‘Many women have been left in limbo, not knowing what to do next after the sudden disappearance of their husbands-to-be.’

Weddings at refugee camps

Congolese celebrate at a mass wedding ceremony in a refugee camp.

In a country where a census has not been conducted for 37 years, it is difficult to determine, conclusively, what impact the practice has had on the country’s demographics.

But a source who works at one of the 24 Marital Status Registry Offices in Kinshasa told NewsAfrica the traditional nuclear family is becoming rarer and rarer in the capital.

‘You don’t need official figures to notice that the rising cost of life and the subsequent high dowry price have been bringing down the number of weddings,’ said the source.

‘In the past, let’s say 15 to 20 years ago, we used to register at least 50 weddings every month. We used to be outnumbered by the people coming to register their official unions in our offices.

‘Last month, we only had two weddings, and this month we have so far had only one. That tells you that the dowry price factor is playing a role in the fall of weddings.’

This collapse in official ceremonies has been mirrored by a rise in unofficial unions, known locally as yaka tovanda – literally ‘come and let’s stay together’.

Under this system, the woman’s family, especially the ones that are poor, gives permission to their daughter, pregnant or otherwise, to stay together with her boyfriend, provided that the man has the capacity to take care of her financially, mentally and psychologically. No cash is traded between the two families.

Louise Masamba, 55, whose 25-year-old daughter gave birth to two children in a yaka tovanda union, explained: ‘It is better than nothing. We don’t like it, but we have no choice because life is becoming difficult, and suffering keeps increasing day by day, pushing the bride price to the extremes. It’s wise to let her go in order to alleviate the family’s suffering.’

After five years of yaka tovanda, Masamba’s father-in-law finally paid a dowry last month. But not everyone likes the unconventional method.

‘I will never let my daughter stay in a yaka tovanda union,’ said 50-year-old Getou.

‘It’s un-Christian and immoral. People are not the same. Some men make fancy promises to the girl’s parents but never fulfil those promises. In fact, they do not pay a cent even after having five kids and staying together for 10 or 15 years. They are irresponsible. It’s an enormous loss for parents.’

Calls for intervention 

The heated debate around the high price of dowries appears to have reached the National Assembly.

A new law, initiated by MP Daniel Mbau, is currently being scrutinised by the Congolese parliament. If approved, the law will set the price of a dowry at $500.

Many young men across the country seem to be overjoyed by this prospect, while parents and women are disheartened. 

‘$500 is peanuts, degrading and insulting,’ Deborah Vata, an angry street seller, said.

‘This Daniel Mbau guy is crazy. There are better things to do in this country.’

Seventy-year-old Gregoire Tsimba also rejected the government’s intervention in the matter of dowries.

‘This is not the government’s territory. This country has too many important problems to deal with. There is not enough electricity, our water taps have been running dry for years and our hospitals and roads are in an appalling state. 

‘Many of us are hungry and our youth are unemployed. That is where they should be focusing their efforts, not trying to reduce the bride price or scrap it. It is absolutely nonsense.’

Meanwhile, retired civil servant Jean-Pierre Mafema said he would not give away his five daughters for a mere $500 each. ‘I can settle for at least $2,000. That is the best I can do. Do you know how much it takes to raise a child in this corrupt country? Everything is expensive. Clothes, food, school fees, etc.

‘Did [Congo’s leaders] give me a cent to buy food or school fees for them? Zero. I sweated alone to put them where they are now, with my civil servant’s monthly salary of $150. My daughters are not the government’s property. Never ever.’

Regional differences

With nearly 250 ethnic groups in the DRC, the dowry system is by no means uniform across the country; the bride price isn’t even retained by the father of the bride in some areas.

Sylvain, whose 22-year-old daughter is expected to get married at the end of July, explained: ‘My elder brother came all the way from our village and took all the bride price money. He will spend it as he deems fit. Though I’m the girl’s father, I have no right and no say over that money.'

‘He can give me some if he wants. But I see no problem because I’ll wait for my turn, when his daughter will get married. That’s how we do things in our culture.’ 

Men from Grand Kasai are famous in the DRC for practicing polygamy (multiple marriages) and often rule their family with an iron grip. 

Many call their wives, girlfriends or children ‘choses’ (French for ‘things’), instead of referring to them in their first names, and women often have no say over crucial family matters.

In the big cities such as the capital Kinshasa, where different cultures and ethnic groups intermarry, managing the dowry is totally different again.

Eric is a spokesperson and uncle of a Kinshasa family, whose niece got married last year to a man living in France.

He explained how his family adopted a hybrid system where half the dowry was used to pay for the ceremony.

‘They paid $3,500 cash and brought 10 items, including a generator, a fridge, two sheep, two goats, a laptop, and shoes, bags and suits that came from France.

‘We put at least half of the money aside, which we shared equally between the two families,’ he recalled, adding that a large chunk of his family’s share was used to organise the wedding reception and the party after the separate civil union.

This more co-operative approach is becoming increasingly common in Kinshasa, according to Alexis, a marriage broker who regularly negotiates the conditions of dowries.

‘Both families get some money and the rest is used to organise the party or parties. That’s why the bride’s family asks for more money.'

'It is not about selling the woman to the man, it is about making sure that the party is successfully organised and every guest has had enough to eat and drink, and goes home happy.'

‘Dowries will keep becoming expensive as long as the cost of life keeps rising, and the responsibility of organising the wedding party or parties will still lie with the bride’s family. Brides' families bear the brunt of this heavy and unfair task, believe me, it is not child’s play.’

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