Kenya Brides That Can't Be Bought: A Few Begin to Fight a Tradition

Single women take stand against their clans to protest the idea of being property.

When Francesca Kinyua decides to marry, there will be chaos.

Because she is educated and "well mannered," she is worth roughly 500,000 Kenyan shillings ($8,000), a sum her future husband will be expected to pay for her. Her mother is keen to collect. But Ms. Kinyua has different plans.

"I am not something you can buy," she says.

What Kinyua plans to do is tell her mother that there will be no "bride price" to pay for her marriage into another clan of the large Kikuyu tribe to which she belongs. Her mother is likely to put up a fight. She will have solid allies: centuries of tradition and her daughter's entire clan up in arms, clamoring for the money.

"Wambui, daughter of my mother, keep your chastity that I may sell you for something substantial," goes an old Kikuyu song about a brother's plea to his sister. Times have changed, but not the custom of bride payment.

Kinyua's generation may be the first to take on the age-old custom of wife-purchasing on the grounds that it is demeaning and heightens the potential for abuse. "All my classmates feel like this," she says, "Becoming someone's material possession is not what we want."

Bride prices can be exorbitant. A dowry such as the one Kinyua can legitimately expect is four times what the average Kenyan earns in a year. Yet while modernity has eroded many old tribal customs, the payment of dowry remains a must, expressing, in the best of cases, respect for the clan and commitment to the woman. "It's a case of putting your money where your mouth is," says Rose Nalo, a teacher and mother of three. But "the men can beat you and abuse you and say, 'After all, I paid for you,' " Rose adds.

After nine years of marriage, Ms. Nalo's husband is still paying for her in installments. Should his payments become erratic, her family would be justified in taking her back. It happened to a friend of hers: After five months of marriage, the woman's family whisked her away. "The husband had to borrow money to get her back," recalls Nalo. "After that, he started beating her."

Nalo never questioned the tradition, which she regrets. Other women her age are in a similar predicament: They despise the practice but submitted to it. "I can tell you right now," says Esther Kimori, a bank manager. "My daughter will not be bought."

The crisis Kinyua's peers may bring to a climax has been long in the making, reflecting a clash between modernity and tradition. "There is no uniformity in the laws that govern our lives," Robison Ocharo, a sociology lecturer at the University of Nairobi said in a controversial interview with Kenya's Daily Nation. Dr. Ocharo says it will not be women like Kinyua who will make the practice obsolete but rather a gradual loosening of clan ties in Kenya's tribal structure.

Wahome Thuku, a male student at Kenyatta University, agrees. "In the old days, you had to face an entire clan, an army of cousins and uncles. Today, [marriage] has become much more individual. The clan is still strong, but the nuclear family is replacing that structure."

Kinyua's father, who in 30 years of marriage refused to pay for his wife on principle, was a precursor of today's trend. "He was cast out and there were enormous problems," Kinyua recalls, "My mother never forgave him. But he treated her like a wife, a friend, and that is the point I will make."

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