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Lessons learned at a dowry/engagement party

Last weekend we had the chance to go to a mahari(dowry)/engagement celebration. In the past we have been included in the church service where the ring is put on and the party afterwards. However, this time the ring ceremony was to happen on the same day as the dowry. We always feel honoured to be included in these special rites of passage and love learning about them.

We arrived at 11am just as the dowry negotiations were starting. These negotiations happen inside the bride’s home and we were not allowed in. Neither was the groom! He sends his representatives in: his mshenga (normally a close friend), another friend from the same tribe as his prospective bride, and some older family members. However, only the first two speak. The family members are only witnesses. The mshenga speaks for the groom and represents his interests; the other friend is there to present things in a way that the bride’s family understands and to smooth the way. The negotiation is done in Swahili but if things get tense, they will switch to the tribal tongue so someone from the groom’s side needs to be able to speak it.

The rest of us from the groom’s party and the groom were left outside on the street in the sun. It is very important that we do not enter as there are strict protocols about how these things are conducted, particular to the tribe or even the family so you may not know what they are and it is very easy to transgress. If you do make a mistake, it is seen as an offence and the groom is ‘fined’, that is, extra is added to the dowry! Mistakes can include entering before you are allowed, or if the parties inside sit down out of turn or say something impolite.

Though the dowry has mostly been agreed upon beforehand, the groom will still be very nervous about the fines and whether there might be any surprises from the bride’s family’s side. This is often the first time the families will be meeting. Prior to this, everything has been private, just between their couple. It was recently explained to me by another friend who just got engaged that ‘dating’ or ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ is not really a thing because as soon as something is public, it’s an invitation for everyone to get involved, so you keep your ‘intentional friendship’ secret, just between the two of you (maybe with the accountability of your pastor) because once it’s public everyone else takes over and you don’t get an opportunity to actually work on your relationship or see if you are compatible.

At some point, the dowry negotiations had progressed enough that we were taken into a neighbour’s garden and given chairs upon which to sit down. We were there for several hours. Once the negotiations were settled though, all the tension evaporated. We were invited into the bride’s family’s compound which was decked out with decorations and had a sunshade set up. It’s definitely the bride’s family’s show. It’s hosted by them and the groom just sat in the crowd with us while there was much excitement and ululating about the entrance of the bride. This was the first time those of us from the groom’s side had seen her.

The service part of the celebration involved some singing, a mini-sermon from the minister, a prayer for the ring, presentation of the ring (the bride kneels to receive it – sometimes there are vows but not this time), another speech, more singing and celebrating, then photos. There was also a meal – you know it’s a feast because there were four carbs, two meats and 4 veggie dishes on offer, plus fruit, a cake and sodas, juice and water. It was all completely delicious. The event wrapped up shortly before 5pm.

Dowries in Tanzania have various meanings. They are always paid by the groom to the bride’s family but people are quick to clarify to us that it is not a bride price – it is a thank you to the bride’s family for raising her and investing in her, and a symbolic compensation as they are ‘losing’ her because she will be joining the groom’s family. (There is also the official ‘Send Off’ party before the wedding when they officially farewell her.) Among the Wagogo in Dodoma where we lived for three years, the dowry can act as a kind of insurance: if the wife is mistreated and returns to her family of origin, the groom’s family has to pay back the dowry! When people find out we don’t do dowries in our culture, they consider it a sign that we don’t care about our women.

Categories: Tanzanian culture

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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