Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Kikuyu Bridewealth and Polygyny Today

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Kikuyu Bridewealth and Polygyny Today

Article excerpt

This paper is on bridewealth and polygyny among the Kikuyu of Kenya, and is based on data collected in 1990. It seeks to take account of recent changes, and to respond to calls for new data. Helen Ware stated the situation in the early 1980s as follows:

In the area of family studies there is a vast wealth of anthropological materials with varying biases, a small group of studies of national elites...and very little information on the everyday lives of more commonplace individuals living within the modern sector or on its fringes (Ware, 1981: x).

While she may have understated the "everyday" materials existing then, her sentiment was echoed about the same time by Jane Guyer: "Understanding complex causation is one of the central concerns of recent scholarship, but it is hampered by the thinness of the data base for Africa" in comparison to other world regions (Guyer, 1981: 88). Even Kayongo-Male and Onyango's text on the Sociology of the African Family concludes with the following comment:

After more detailed studies by researchers on some of the issues covered in this textbook, we may then start postulating on the rationale of conceiving of one common synthesis of African family life, or, instead, conceptualizing African variations on a common family form (Kayongo-Male and Onyango, 1984: 109).

The aim of this research is to begin one of those "more detailed studies" of the "modern sector" and its "fringes."

The focus of this paper, we have said, is polygyny and bridewealth among the Kikuyu in Nairobi and in the rural area 40 miles to the north. We will look at the prevalence, value, and meaning of bridewealth in our sample, will investigate change in polygyny in two generations, and examine some connections between the two. G. K. Nukunya's summary article (1975) on "The Family and Social Change" lists seven changes usually mentioned in treatments of the African family. Two of them are a decrease in polygyny and an increase in the cost of marriage, these two being linked to some extent--and a part of that link is bridewealth.

BRIDEWEALTH. One of the costs of marriage is bridewealth, the money and goods paid from the groom's family to that of the bride. This is a widespread phenomenon, especially in patrilineal societies. Goldschmidt notes that it was called brideprice by early writers, but this sounded like the purchase of wives. L.S.B. Leakey adds that while it is not wife purchase, "it did make any children that she might bear members of the family that had paid it; they had 'purchased' her potential children" (Goldschmidt, 1974: 311; Leakey, 1977: 755). At other times it was confused with dowry, which is technically money from the bride's family to the groom's. Several recent writers have made it very clear that bridewealth is a transaction and an alliance that involves money or a gift to the wife's family in exchange for her labor and reproductive capacity (Goody, 1976; Schlegel and Eloul, 1988: 301).

Goldschmidt distinguishes between bridewealth as economic transaction and as prestation, both of which involve a gift from the groom's family to the bride's (1974: 329). The former, however, usually involves negotiation with profit as a motivation as well as alliance. The latter--prestation--is a matter of ritual and sentiment, and is very often standardized (Goldschmidt, 1974: 325-26). Likewise, Parkin distinguishes ruracio from ngurario. The former is the uxorial payment, which is mainly cash, and the latter is the childbirth payment, involving the killing of the ngurario ram (Parkin in Comaroff, 1980: 217). Describing bridewealth among the Sebei of Uganda, Goldschmidt notes that the transfer is mostly cattle, but may include cash, clothing, and consumables such as beer and tobacco--with the average value in the 1960s being about Sh 1600/, or US $200 (1974: 312). Cavicchi, speaking of the Kikuyu in the 1970s, states that the general belief is that "brideprice" is too high (1977: 47). …

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