A Field Guide to Igbo Bride Price and Dowry
The topic of Bride Price suddenly crossed my mind this afternoon and I decided to randomly google it. Being Nigerian and Igbo, I am intimately familiar with the tradition, as well as the many critcisms of it.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Bride Price refers to an indeterminate amount of wealth (in material goods, cash, and services) that the groom-to-be gives to the family of his bride-to-be as a symbol of his estimation for his bride.
It is NOT (as the Western media would have you believe) the purchasing of a woman. In fact, like many many gross misconceptions about our culture, 90% of the reason why people think this is because the British who reported about the custom with their limited understanding of it labelled it Bride PRICE (as if the Bride is a product at a supermarket that you can buy for a certain Price). Not only has this cast negative aspersions on this aspect of our culture, but the general misinformation about it has also emboldened men with little understanding of the culture to misinteprete it and use it as an excuse to abuse their wives. Another prime example of how British mislabeling has altered the world (and Nigerian ) perception of our culture – Fattening Rooms. Thanks to the word FATTENING, almost everyone now has an incorrect idea of their purpose. (I could go into a rant about this, but that’s a post for another day).
On the surface it would appear that every woman should be the fierce opponent of bride price, especially considering how it has been portrayed in the world media and the way uneducated (and even educated) Nigerian men view it but to be honest, I think it is a beautiful part of our culture and should be practised PROPERLY rather than twisted and abused.
I’ve heard a lot of Nigerian men spout rubbish to their wives along the lines of “I paid for you/I paid your bride price so I can beat you, or you can’t question me, etc”. This is absolute nonsense. No man in any of our cultures which practise BP can “pay” for a woman. BP is not a payment; it is a token, a symbol. It is annoying to hear about miseducated and unscrupulous people holding out their daughters for auction to the highest bidder. BP is meant to be undertaken only by woman’s intended, not by a flock of suitors vying to pay the highest amount.
In Igbo culture, no matter how high the BP a groom gives, it is always considered as exactly half of what he intends to give. One half is given before the wedding, and the other half is given upon the death of his wife. The idea is that the first half is a material expression of his esteem for his wife, with respect to her family for their combined efforts and care which turned her into the person that she is, and the second half is again an expression of love and esteem for his wife, in gratitude for the opportunity to live his life with her as his wife and to cover her burial expenses (as an Igbo woman is always buried with her people – well at least that’s what’s supposed to happen although modern inconveniences might mean this is not always possible).
The idea that BP demeans women because the man is ‘buying’ the woman is ridiculous and untrue but unfortunately thanks to lack of education, many Nigerian men now believe that this is what BP is and act accordingly. Nigerian men are in sore need of reorientation about what BP really is. In our culture BP does not give a man any right over a woman. Just as a western man buys an expensive engagement ring for his intended as a symbol of his love for his intended so too does an Igbo man give BP to his intended’s family to show the magnitude of his love/respect/desire for her. And just as an engagement ring and wedding ring does not give a man any power over a woman, neither does BP give a man any power over a woman.
Anyone who believes or argues otherwise is just trying to use BP to bolster their male chauvinism and sexism. Don’t let them. If you are from a culture that practises BP, any man who loves you should be more than happy to give the highest BP possible for you. I cannot understand how women can shudder at the thought of receiving $5 million BP but would salivate over a $5 million diamond platinum engagement ring. Maybe it’s my inner Okoro talking but as far as I am concerned, they are both the same thing. If you argue that the man is buying you with $5 million then he is equally buying you with a $5 million engagement ring. At the end of the day it’s all an exchange. He gets you as his wife, you get five million. Why does it matter if the five million is in the form of shiny jewelry or in cash (or lace, or yams, or whatever)? Logically, anyone ethically opposed to receiving BP should also be ethically opposed to engagement rings, yet the western media approaches BP with an air of condescension, derision, or alarm. It’s all bullshit. Same script, different actors.
BP should not be used as a means for extortion. It is wrong for families to use BP as an excuse to suck the groom-to-be dry. At the same time, if a man intends to present BP, it is extremely disrespectful for it to be low (and by low, I mean low relative to the man’s economic circumstances. If you are poor don’t go and borrow money for BP o! Don’t say I told you to!). That being said it is perfectly acceptable for the bride’s family to demand a certain minimum if they think the man’s BP proposal is disrespectfully or insultingly low. Remember, the object of presenting BP is NOT for the Bride’s family to make money but for the groom to make a material statement of the vaulted position of his wife.
It is also okay if a man declines to present BP (although it is rather insulting), but if as a man you fear that you do not have the means to put on a proper display then the correct thing to do is to skip the BP part entirely. That way you will save face both for yourself, your family, and most importantly, your bride. BP is not a competition either. Just because another woman’s BP was much much larger than her friend’s does not mean that her friend is somehow worth less, or less beautiful, or special or deserving. This is another common misconception about BP that makes it appear sexist. BP is NOT a ranking of women. The size/amount of a woman’s BP is simply a function of her husband’s finances. Full stop. It is nothing more and nothing less. It is extremely rude to insinuate that one woman is better than another based on the size of their respective BP.
Now the technical details. BP can be presented in any number of forms. It can be all monetary, all material goods, all services rendered (although this is very rare), or a mix of all three. Personally, I think a mix of all three is the best way to go, and here’s why.
An all monetary presentation tends to reinforce the negative stereotypes about BP because it greatly resembles a commercial transaction.
An all material goods gift is a pretty good way to go in any scenario. It’s practical, useful, and depending on what it is (e.g. if it’s mostly fabric, gold jewelry, food crops, animals, etc) a large portion of it will most likely end up going to the bride.
All services rendered is probably the worst option because more often than not this involves devoting precious years of your life working in some way for the bride’s family. Avoid this option if possible.
A mix of all three is the second best option because the services you provide are reduced in duration but are a valuable opportunity to bond with the bride’s family in addition to the rest of the BP that you provide.
Personally, I think the correct modern day etiquette for presenting BP is that it should always be at the very least three times the amount of the most expensive car you would ever plan to buy according to your means. This is something the man should provide of his own free will and it should ALWAYS be a freely given expression of love and respect for his wife not extorted under duress. And because it is freely given, any man intending to present BP should put his back into it and make a good show. When it comes to BP, go big or go home, and if you can’t don’t even go at all. There’s no shame in skipping it. There is MORE shame in doing it and then presenting fucking one naira. That is where the insult lies.
Now I’d like to talk about Dowry. A lot of people confuse BP with Dowry much to my eternal frustration. Dowry and BP are direct opposites of each other and many Nigerian cultures (Igbo included) practise BOTH. Just as a man presents BP to a woman’s family, a woman’s family presents dowry. The key difference is that BP goes directly to the woman’s family while Dowry enters the man’s family indirectly because the Dowry is given to the woman/bride and is completely her own property but will obviously indirectly benefit the man’s family as she is their in-law.
Similar rules apply to Dowry as to BP, although my inner Okoro tells me that the rules on Dowry are not as stringent. Typically, preparation for a woman’s dowry should begin from birth. Ideally it should consist of money (loads and loads of it if possible – sorry, I think Okoro is taking over again), items that will be useful to her in setting up a household (e.g. furniture, homegoods, etc), jewelry (again, loads of beautiful, quality pieces, the older and more inherited the better – coral, gold, and ivory are a MUST but if you don’t have any inherited ivory in your family, coral and gold will suffice. If you don’t have any gold, there MUST be coral involved – sorry). If the new family is going to be the domestic type, you might want to throw in plots of land, houses, and domestic animals (ideally cows, rams – if you’re from the north -, goats, chickens – and if you’re from certain parts of Igbo land, horses should also be included). Numerous bolts of uncut fabric should also be included in the dowry (with special emphasis on fine lace, lots of ankara, akwete, and abada). All fabric should be tastefully selected with care, and custom or family designs are even better. Other miscellaneous things are fun to add to a dowry (e.g. artwork, businesses, etc) but the point of the whole thing is to set your daughter up as well as you possibly can for her new life.
And before I forget, although I compared the symbolism of BP to that of an engagement ring, BP and engagement rings do not serve the same function. In Igbo culture, the official mark of engagement is one ivory anklet and when the marriage is completed, a second ivory anklet is added. Of course, thanks to poachers, ivory is pretty hard to come by these days (not to mentioned frowned upon). However, if your intended presents you with an inherited ivory anklet, squeal in excitement and present your leg immediately. If on the other hand he presents you with a new ivory anklet, beat him on the head with your shoe and call the World Wildlife Fund. Poachers are evil, sick people.
I think I’m going to rewrite this post later because it feels a bit disjointed to me. It’s meant to be taken a bit humourously but remember a lot of truth is said in jest. I just felt like Bride Price (ugh! I HATE that name) gets a bad rap in the world and I think it’s a beautiful part of our culture that is too often misunderstood and misused and I just wanted to put that out there.