Saturday, June 9, 2012

Money and Marriage in Congo

The goats given to Mapendo's family as part of a bride price

Kupana mali: To give wealth
In the US, we give fancy engagement rings.  OK, mine isn't really fancy, but I am often amazed by the amount of money that men are expected to spend on engagement rings in this country.  Why do we continue with this tradition and where did it come from?
Surely there is some underlying message to this ring (besides the Diamond industry's success in the marketing slogan "A Diamond is Forever").  
Surely there is some way that we see the ring as a demonstration of the man's love, and perhaps of his ability to provide for his soon-to-be-wife.  We may not like to think of it that way in our modern culture, but I am amazed at the extent to which this material "tradition",which was in fact heavily promoted if not outright created, by the diamond industry, remains central to our engagements and marriages.  I have watched no shortage of women prominently displaying their large diamond engagement ring to flocks of admiring women.  I've listened to those women guessing at how much the man spent on that ring.  Exactly what is being admired here, if not the extent to which this ring communicates the great love of her fiance and his intention to care for her...materially?

In Congo, the giving of gifts is a bit more direct.  We're talking about goats and cows, pots and pans, clothing, and cooking utensils. And this is given not to the bride, but to her family, as a form of a bride price, in an engagement ceremony.  This bride price is negotiated in advance, and represents a very sizable amount of the man's supposed wealth.  As you can imagine, most men in Eastern Congo have very little wealth to speak of, and struggle heavily to arrange for any sort of acceptable bride price.  
Here you see the giving of pots and pans

The gift of new cloth (being wrapped around the head)

And yes, in the middle of those hands being raised in celebration, that is a suit which I assume is another part of the bride price given to Mapendo's family. 

As you know, both Mapendo and Solange recently got married.  Before the civil marriages they had engagement ceremonies where bride prices were given.  These are the photos from Mapendo's ceremony.  We are very happy that Mapendo and Solange were able to celebrate these rites of passage which they thought might never happen due to the reality of living with disabilities (women with disabilities often find it difficult to find a husband since the disability is perceived as lowering their "value" as a wife).  I am sure that both Mapendo and Solange's husbands worked hard to find the money and give the appropriate "mali", and this is a real achievement when resources are so limited.   

In the US, a couple might decide to skip the fancy engagement ring, and spend the money elsewhere.  But in Congo, the decision is not so easy.  The bride price is considered a necessary step prior to a legal wedding.  Many men find that they simply cannot afford to pay it, and so couples end up living together without a marriage.  This is seen as a real offense to the woman's family, both because it represents a sizable loss of income, and because it is seen as disrespectful.  Many men spend years, long after living together and starting a family, trying to pay the debt they owe to their wife's family. 

The bride price is an interesting tradition, and no doubt holds value within the traditional culture.  But just as many American traditions have lost context and become overly materialized and commercialized (can I mention the holiday shopping madness at Christmas time), I think the bride price suffers similar issues in a country where overwhelming numbers of men struggle to find any real source of income.  Still, the tradition remains extremely important to people, and we are very happy to see these photos of the SHONA women celebrating in Congolese fashion, a life they once only dreamed of.

Here is the wedding ceremony, including a"traditional" fanta soda sharing...much like a our cake sharing...and just as sweet!

 Here is the signing of the wedding certificate.  That is the biggest smile I think I have ever seen on Mapendo's face.  In Congolese tradition the wedding party does not smile during any of the ceremonies, especially not in photos.  (Perhaps to show the seriousness of the events?)  I guess Mapendo decided to dispense with that tradition...


~And Best wishes~