I helped out at a day workshop for girls not long ago. The topic was relationships and dowries came up during the question time. After I’d sorted out the language (the word for ‘dowry’ sounds remarkably similar to the word for ‘place’, especially in an echo-y lecture theatre!) I was asked if I wanted to contribute. I said, ‘We don’t have dowries in my culture; I’ve got nothing to say!’
Afterwards I picked up the conversation with my co-leaders and one of them asked me how much Arthur had paid for mine. (Keep in mind that Tanzanians don’t have the same hang ups with talking about money as Australians do.) I tried explaining that dowries and bride price are not something we have. I said that it’s something that existed in western culture way back in the past but we don’t really have them today.
The response was, ‘What, you just get a woman for free?’ This is not as mercenary as it might first appear. One friend explained that in his central Tanzanian culture, you pay a dowry in order to demonstrate to a girl’s family that you are able to care for her. The bigger the dowry, the more you can provide. However, in other Tanzanian cultures, the dowry is an expression of how much you value the woman: the bigger the dowry, the better. There also seemed to be some kind of healthy limitation imposed by a dowry, as if without it, ‘What’s to stop a man having more and more women?’
Even among Tanzanian cultures that have the same understanding of the meaning of a dowry, there can be different expectations. One of the women in this discussion was an Mchaga from up Kilimajaro way who got married to an Mgogo from around Dodoma and one family expected three times as much for the dowry as the other!
I also learned that dowries and bride price are often negotiated by committee. The girl’s father will be consulted, but he is kept out of the negotiation. I asked if fathers find this difficult and was told that it is actually an honour, because the others in the community are saying that they care for the girl too. She is one of them and so all of them have an interest in taking part in a process that will protect her and bring the best outcome. It’s about belonging and community.
This is definitely a hot topic and the girls all had different ideas about it. Some wanted to see dowries done away with; others wanted to see the custom protected. Some saw it as condescending; others saw it as empowering. Eventually I did explain that some Australians do have some customs around marriage that probably come from an idea of dowry e.g. glory box, engagement ring, who pays for the wedding, etc. There was great relief among my audience at this point, and I realised that they were looking for a point of connection with me.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.