13 cows + 1 goat

Today I write in dismay! In a good way though.

Yes, it’s strange how one grows up assuming they know their customs and are rudely shocked to discover that they are quite wrong. This has just happened to me.

Well, in the past few weeks, my family broke down to me about the customs and traditions of Bukusu dowry. This is because, I have to share this information with my soon to be inlaws and of course given my uptown upbringing I was clueless on what transpired. So of course as the full information was being given to me, I was agog at how elaborate it all was.

Lets just say that this is when I have come closest to knowing what it takes to marry a Bukusu (my tribe) woman. Traditions and customary symbolism hit me smack on the face.

To think that I was this know-it-all urban, sophisticated, practicing Catholic brought up lady – with no chance of me relating to my Luhya ethnic aspects… I was so wrong. In fact I realized that there was actually more to making ‘attempts’ at speaking the language. As the fascinating facts were shared I just got mesmerized by it all.

I was wide-eyed as my cousin broke down to me, what seemed like an endless list of items that I needed to ‘tip’ the ‘other family’ so that at least they were more conversant during the negotiations.

A special bakora. Lesos. Mum’s envelope and even paraffin were just some of the bizzare items that were included on the list. Each symbolic, each with a specific meaning that should be given as a gift to my parents as a sign of respect and mutual cordiality, mixed with an appreciation for having taken care of me.

I tell you, the preparation for both families is detailed. Representative delegates are chosen. Official letters are dispatched. Clarification is sought after. Air time is burned and of course travel arrangements to the fiances home are made.

Long ago, it was the wisest elders in the clan who would accompany the father of the bride to the matrimonial home of the man to negotiate dowry. Nowadays, with the extended family ties being less communal, the close brothers and cousins to the brides father are the ones who accompany him. An eloquent spokesman is appointed to steer the negotiations.

When I told my colleague Hannah (she is so Brit) that it was going to happen tomorrow, she asked me,
“So, how much do you think you shall be worth?” I smiled. It was a queer yet honest question that was difficult to answer. Essentially because dowry isnt just a ‘price tag’ for me. Not knowing how to answer, mumbled some insufficient explaination.

How do I explain the complexity of traditional norms when I myself too is struggling to comprehend the rich symbolism and manner in which my culture does their dowry? I silently vowed to go to TBC and look for a book on ‘Traditions & Norms of Kenyan Tribes’ just so that I could expound my volcabulary and knowledge of my traditions in order to adequately answer these kind of questions.

One thing I must say is, I hand it to our ancestors, who came up with these elaborate customs. How creative (ahem, yes the word finally pops up now 🙂 ) they were in spelling out these processes.

For example the mother to the bride is given approximately 20 ltrs of paraffin and cash for utensils because apparently when she raised her daughter, there were times when the daughter broke some of her precious utensils and also used up the paraffin in the lamp way into the night as she studied. Hence the token is a compensation to the mother to relieve her off some of the sacrifices she made whilst bringing up her daughter.

I just think these were (light bulb) brilliant thoughts. Heck, the whole traditional bits is what movies should be made from (Afro-Cinema Kenyan edition). It’s this heritage and customs that makes us Africans so unique.

So tomorrow my family and my fiances family will meet to lay foundation for our union. It is a crafting of a long-life friendship, relationship and establish mutual cordiality and respect between us.

So as much as 13 cows + 1 goat may be the main agenda of the negotiations, the true essence of this event goes far much deeper than the translated cash value of the dowry. The closest description I can conjure is that it is a pact between the union of two families that on one hand, a daughter has gone into a good family where she will be taken care off like a daughter, be loved and florish in her new home and on the other hand, the husband will always be there to provide for her and their family, treat her respectfully from the time they marry till the end of their days.

One cant make this stuff up (stolen). Neither can one patent it (own composition). We own it to ourselves to be proud of who we are as I think it is traditional ceremonies/ events such as these that really solidify our humaneness and keep us Africans grounded in embracing good norms and values. Design shapes Culture. Culture shapes Values. Values shape a Society.

As for what will be agreed upon tomorrow, your guess is as good as mine!

NB: Here are a few sites Ive pulled out to expound on Luhyia traditions; in case you’d like to know more:


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