NAIROBI, Kenya - John Daau has traded the equivalent of 70 cows to win the hand of his sweetheart Sarah in marriage. He is yet to give 30 more cows before their upcoming church wedding.
Daau is a South Sudanese Anglican priest who has been living as a refugee in Kenya since the early 1990s. He belongs to the "Lost Boys" generation of Sudan, young men and boys forced to flee their country as a result of the two-decade civil war. Daau first lived in a refugee camp in northern Kenya before going to Nairobi, Kenya's capital, to pursue university studies. Later, he attended seminary at Trinity School of Ministry in Ambridge, Pa.
In January this year, Daau returned to visit his fiancée's relatives in Nakuru, Kenya, for the near-culmination of a negotiation process that began in Juba in South Sudan last year.
For a Dinka man wanting to get married, he must be ready to give cattle, as bride wealth has to be given to the prospective in-laws. Negotiating the bride wealth, or price, is the most difficult and interesting part of the marriage customs among the Dinka, the predominant tribe of South Sudan. This is normally a prolonged discussion: It can take as long as one year. The groom and the bride aren't part of the proceedings, but both sides try to get the best deal: The bride's side wants the groom's family to pay the most, while the groom's family wants to pay the least.
The process begins with the groom first meeting young ladies from the bride's side. This is meant to declare to the bride's relatives that he has interest in her. After this, the groom and his team meet a second group composed of some more young ladies along with the bride's aunts.
In the third stage, the groom's relatives meet the bride's father and other male relatives. This is when the real negotiations for dowry begin. The bride's family puts forward a proposal, which is countered by the groom's relatives. The going rate can reach $20,000 or more, according to Daau.
For the Dinka, the bride wealth is always paid in cows and the number depends on many factors. These include the height of the bride; the taller she is, the more cows she might attract. Also, competition among other interested men may become a determining factor in bride wealth payment. If there is competition, the relatives of the bride keep the cattle from the competitors separated until the highest bidder finally takes the girl!
Dinkas are mostly cattle keepers, and they have myths depicting how, since the beginning of time, a man's work has always been to tend cattle. With their relative wealth derived largely from farming, Dinkas have become the most populous tribe in South Sudan. Many played a significant role in the liberation of the country, including the late leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement, John Garang, the late and imposing 7-foot-7-inch NBA player Manute Bol, and Francis Deng, a diplomat who currently serves as UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. Salva Kiir, the first and current president of South Sudan, also comes from the tribe.
The Dinkas are divided into clans. Some clans have established a standard of bride wealth payment at 30 cows. I asked Daau how young people manage to acquire this number of animals. "Since marriage is communal, it is the man's relatives-both from the mother and the father's side-who contribute to help raise the required number of animals," he said. Even so, he added, for many young Dinkas coming up with 30 cows is a tall order.
Even as the practice of negotiating a bride price in cows endures, it's not without its critics. Martin Olando, dean of students at Kenya's Bishop Hannington Institute in Mombasa, is a researcher on the subject. "Many young men strongly believe that it is an old practice and a source of exploitation that ought to be done away with," he said. They argue that since God has given all things, then women should be given freely in marriage, he said.
Olando maintains that Dinka wives under the custom become a slave to the husband's family, so that even if the husband dies, the wife cannot remarry without the consent of the husband's family. "Some parents have commercialized the practice, thus losing the original meaning of friendship and social bonding," Olando said. They demand expensive bride wealth gifts, which must be given for the marriage to be consummated. Instead of bringing together hitherto unknown families and clans, it has ended up making women their husbands' property, he said.
At the same time, others see nothing wrong with bride wealth practice. They say that since the Bible records the practice, it must be divine. Africans who value bride wealth highly tend to oppose anything that seems to interfere with it.
Given the overwhelming problems of war and poverty, Daau says that the practice has made it difficult for young men to find wives for marriage. "That is why many young people in our community are unable to get married," he said. "They end up impregnating young girls or eloping and running away from home."
Daau is just one example of many young Sudanese who go through the rigorous and expensive traditional process before marriage. For young Sudanese who reside out of the country-in the United States, Canada, or Australia-they often feel compelled to send more money than going rates to help relatives arrange for their marriages, Daau said.
Thus for Dinka men, finding a wife for life means spending an arm and a leg.
-Moses Wasamu is a 2012 World Journalism Institute/Africa fellow and editor of South Sudan's Christian Times, a newspaper published in Nairobi