The payment of dowries in parts of Rwandan society is rooted in centuries of custom and tradition. But like all traditions, the content and nature of dowries has shifted as the surrounding environment has changed.
Traditionally, marriage in Rwanda would be marked by the presentation of a dowry in the form of cows or agricultural tools by the groom’s family to the bride’s. This exchange served to recognise the bride’s family’s efforts in raising its daughter and preparing her for marriage.
But with the rise of the money economy, and given the inappropriateness of some exchanges (such as the presentation of cows to families not used to keeping cattle), dowries increasingly came to be made up of money. “Nowadays everything is counted in money,” explained Marie Paul, lecturer of sociology at the Catholic Institute of Kabgayi, to Think Africa Press. “Everything you could need is quantifiable in monetary terms.” With this shift from the unquantifiable and largely symbolic to the definitively calculable and imminently fungible, the culture of dowries changed.
The monetisation of dowries, for example, contributed to a trend whereby the value of the specific bride-to-be increasingly came to be calculated, and dowries worked out accordingly. For example, as university student Nirere Jeanne explained, “These days, families fix the value of the dowry according to the girl’s educational level”.
Furthermore, once the dowry has been paid, some Rwandans report that it can continue to play a part in the marriage. “When we quarrel at home”, commented one 38-year-old Rwandan woman, “my husband tells me that I’m like a burden to him. Once he reminded me of how my family had asked him to pay lots of money as a dowry.”
Indeed, the conversion to cash has also encouraged some families to demand very large dowries for their daughters, which can lead to tensions between and within families. For instance, one Rwandan man recounted: “I was planning to marry the girl I loved. I was earning 32,000RWF [$50] a year, but the family of my bride-to-be were asking for 300,000RWF [$500]. I could not find such a sum without help so I decided to take out a bank loan of 400,000RWF [$600], and so we got married. When my wife discovered my debt, she starting screaming, asking me what it was for. Until now I haven’t been able to tell her.”
In that situation, the man’s struggle to pay the expensive costs of the dowry was a source of embarrassment. But sometimes the payment of a large dowry can act as an opportunity for a family to rise to a challenge and show off. “It’s a matter of great pride to pay what you’re asked for, no matter what the amount”, explained a 45-year-old man. “It’s a way of showing that you’re strong and able to provide for your future family”.
According to sociologist Marie Paul, “This ‘visibility’ is what makes the person appear strong and capable; [the dowry has] a social value.” In a society where the payment of a dowry amounts to a display of power, and in which dowries are immediately comparable and quantifiable, size matters.
There are, however, some ways out for those unable to pay.
For example, it is not uncommon for the couple to engage in the negotiations themselves. Fulgence, a young resident of Muhanga, explained that he and his wife decided on the amount and then talked his wife’s family into agreeing.
The dowry is not necessitated by law; according to the Rwandan Civil Code, it is a "condition of the celebration of the marriage and not one of its validity". And while dowry transactions are meant to be supervised by local authorities, many couples simply lie about having already completed the exchange in order to circumvent the issue.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of couples are resorting to koco marriages: informal arrangements that forgo the dowry entirely but do not qualify as civil marriages. “When your fiancé cannot afford a dowry and your family refuses to haggle down, you can visit your fiancé at night and stay with him,” said a 28-year-old lady. “Then your family will know that you are married.”
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