Africa History Nigeria

What’s in a (bride) price?

Within the first chapters of reading Baba’s life story, it becomes clear just how important the exchange of gifts was (and probably still is) to the institution of marriage among her people. Now, we know that across several communities in the African continent, part of the marriage involves the groom paying a certain amount to the bride’s family. But who knew that among some communities, the payment went beyond this.

I present a list of gifts exchanged as part of marriages among the Hausa people as of the early 20th-century (and of course, according to Baba of Karo).

During courtship

The period when the bride and groom are still getting to know each other, a girl’s first marriage is usually arranged.

Among free (i.e. not slave) couples, a man would give woman presents while courting. Each time, during the Sallah (Eid) festival, he would give the woman he was courting the following; 20,000 cowries, a short petticoat, a blouse and a headscarf.

On market days which happened once a week, he would give her between 1,000-2,000 cowries. If he was generous, he’d give 3000. This amount would be increased week after week, so if he started at 1,000, the next week her market-gift would be 2,000 then 3,000 and so on. After a while, he would stop giving the market-gifts. When this happened, the girl’s closest friends would go to him and demand that he pays up. So, he would continue with the market-gift until the marriage is near.

Slaves did not pay as much to the bride and her family as free people did. But slave men also gave the market-gifts to women they wanted to marry, as well as the presents on the festivals.

During the betrothal ceremony

Sometimes the courtship would drag on for years. In this society where girls usually got married as young teenagers, weddings could be delayed even after they were arranged to allow for the bride to grow up.

Before the date of the marriage is set, there would be a betrothal ceremony. During this ceremony, the bridegroom’s family would be expected to bring the following; a calabash of kolanuts, salt, dawadawa, millet, sweetmeats, meat.

They would also be expected to bring cowries that will be divided among the bride’s family. 4,000 cowries for the girl’s grandparents, 2,000 cowries for the girl’s maternal relatives, and 2,000 cowries for the girl’s paternal relatives.

For slaves, gifts would be bought for their master.

When the date of the marriage is set

After the betrothal ceremony, more gifts were brought to the bride’s family when the date of the marriage is set. The gift pack includes sweetmeats, half a basket of salt, millet and guinea corn, dawadawa, rice, woven mats, 3,000 cowries for both the girl’s maternal and paternal relatives.

African woman counting cowries

During the ceremony

Four to seven days before the marriage there’s a henna party for the bride. Yes circa 1904 Nigeria, henna parties would last over several days and henna put on the bride again and again and covered with leaves for maximum effect.

The bride’s closest friends collect millet, guinea corn, cotton, money, and a chicken from the bridegroom’s family. They distribute this among themselves. During weddings, they stay with their friend preparing food, playing and dancing throughout.

Taking the bride to the bridegroom’s family

The bridegroom’s family provides a calabash of grain with a chicken on top of it, a calabash of tuwo with stew, millet-balls and sour milk (fura da nono) which the bride’s family eats.

They also provide four cloths, a pair of slippers, soap, a washing calabash, a blouse, a petticoat and a spindle for the bride.

When the bride moves to her new compound

Before the bride moves to start living with the bridegroom’s family, a hut would have been constructed for her in the compound. This hut will be empty and she’ll need to fill it up.

The bride’s dowry comprises, a sack of guinea corn, a sack of millet, rice, salt, also bowls, plates, clay pots, different types of food. She gets the same from bridegroom’s family.

Now things get interesting, till now the gifts have primarily come from the groom’s side. But when the bride moves to her new hut, gifts come from her closest friends and also from her sisters.

Gifts from the bride’s closest friends are one large pot (the one that stores water and keeps it cool), one plate, one big ladle. During the colonial era, the friends would also give the bride metal coins.

Gifts from the bride’s younger sister are a small mat, a white mat, a mat that hung on the door like a curtain.

And from the elder sister, white rice, 10,000 cowries, one cloth.

A year after the wedding

Gifting continues way after the wedding, depending on how much the bride has saved up. A year or two after the wedding, the bride buys 2 or 3 chickens, a small goat and sends them to her elder sister.

She also sends gifts to her younger sister and closest friends. It doesn’t stop there, the bride gifts her parents. She buys a gown and a ram to give to her father, she buys a cloth and a ram to give to her mother.

This gift is called “payment for bearing her” and this is what I found very interesting! It has been said that the bride price as we know it today is to “thank” the bride’s parents of raising her and here we see the bride gifting her parents to thank them. The bride gathers this gift for not only her parents but her grandparents too. The idea is that they “brought her forth and reared her, even until she reached her marriage”, in Baba’s quoted words.

If her grandmother is alive, the bride gifts her a cloth. Grandfathers get millet-balls or perfume. The bride may spend the day and the night too with her grandparents. It is assumed that she hasn’t spent time with her family since she moved to her husband’s compound. When she is returning her grandparents will give her; locust-bean cakes, salt, cotton, corn, and okras in calabashes. She will take them home and distribute to her husband’s compound.

More gifts

We’ve already seen that gifts don’t only come from the bridegroom to the bride. To add more flavour to things, the bridegroom’s friends give money to the bride when they come in during the marriage ceremony.

The bridegroom’s father gives the bride 10,000 cowries in a calabash also during the ceremony. The bride keeps this but gives her mother a share.

After the marriage

When the bride settles in her new hut, the bridegroom isn’t supposed to spend the night. That first night, her friends stay over and they spend the night spinning cotton, gossiping and telling stories. The next night, the groom comes but the bride runs away and sleeps elsewhere. Why? Because it’s not expected that couples start sleeping together soon after marriage.

After about two weeks, then come the gifts; money, kola-nuts, sugar-cane, cassava, sweetmeats. “He is wooing her with food and money”, according to Baba. From then on, they live together in her hut. This money is apparently called “money to open her mouth”.

Brides as gifts

In “Baba of Karo”, there’s mention of “marriage of almsgiving” where a woman is given as a gift to a man in marriage. In this, the groom’s kin don’t spend any money on the bride or her family yet she’s referred to as a gift because her family literally gives her away. The man who wants to give his daughter away as a gift will collect cloth, guinea corn, millet, rice and the other marriage gifts, and put them together.

Should the daughter agree to this marriage of almsgiving, it would usually happen at night and the groom would be unaware until someone came to his front gate announcing that they had a bride for him. Afterward, he would gather 20,000 cowries and take this to the bride’s father “in exchange for the gift”.

Upon the initial reading, it was hard for me to define which gift was the “bride price” here (now I think its the money giving during the betrothal ceremony). In this culture, the bride collects a lot of money/gifts but also gives some of her own. My opinion is that the practical exchange of money and gifts was necessary to ensure the wedding ceremony went without a hitch and that the bride had something sufficient to start this new phase of her life.

I’ll end this article with advice from Baba on what makes a good marriage. With some slight modifications, this advice is still practical today right?

“The things which make a good marriage are these: a man desires you, you desire him, her marries you. He keeps giving you gifts, he buys you cloth and kolanuts. If he is earning money, he takes out a little of it at the festival and buys you a cloth.”

Featured image: African woman counting cowries, Source.

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