Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Marrying on Credit: The Burden of Bridewealth on Refugee Youth

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Marrying on Credit: The Burden of Bridewealth on Refugee Youth

Article excerpt

Young Sudanese refugees may benefit from greater freedom and opportunities in camps but the need for bridewealth payments when they return to their homelands can impose severe restrictions on their choices and integration prospects.

Having spent 15 years in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, Peter - by then in his late 20s - decided to return to Nyal, the village in southern Sudan1 where he was born. While in Kakuma, Peter had met Angelina, also from South Sudan. When they decided to get married, Peter started bridewealth negotiations with her family members both in Kakuma and in South Sudan. When Peter returned to Nyal, however, he discovered that during the years of conflict his family had lost most of their cattle and the remaining few were being used for the marriage of Peter's elder brother:

"What will I do now? I am in big trouble with Angelina's family. In Kakuma, they agreed to give me Angelina on credit because I convinced them that I would give them the cows when I return to Sudan. I gave them some small money, as a down payment for the bridewealth, but now I am expected to pay the cows. Angelina is educated [she finished four years of schooling in Kakuma] so she is expensive. They asked for 60 cows but my family [in Sudan] does not have anything."

Peter's story reflects some of the challenges that war and displacement pose for young men and women in terms of prospects, negotiation and conclusion of marriages.

Life in Kakuma

The Nuer and the Dinka, the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, comprised the dominant populations in Kakuma at the time of my field work in 2006-07. Predominantly agro-pastoralists, prior to displacement they relied on cattle herding, land cultivation and fishing and, to some extent, trade. The life of Nuer and Dinka men and women was closely associated with the care, protection and exchange of cattle, with cattle used in bridewealth payments.

The marriage process for Nuer women and men represents a rite of passage into adulthood, access to rights and a status within the household and community. Marriage is a lengthy process of negotiations and exchanges of bridewealth, becoming more secure with each transfer of payments and each ceremony.2 It is a pivotal point in inter-generational relations as a mechanism of handing over resources from fathers to sons, building alliances between families and exchanging cattle for both productive and reproductive labour.

During displacement, significant changes took place in social relations, especially for young people. With educational services available and a particular focus on access to education for girls in the camp, life in Kakuma opened up opportunities for boys and girls, young women and men to (re)negotiate social and gender norms. In Kakuma, the issue of marriage dominated conversations. Due to poverty and gender imbalances in the camp, marriage was unattainable for most residents. The majority of marriages taking place were of 'lost boys' resettled to Western countries to girls who had stayed behind. For the young men who had stayed in the camp, marriage was only a distant possibility, for several reasons.

Firstly, the agro-pastoralist Nuer and Dinka were not allowed to keep cattle or cultivate land and instead had to rely predominantly on food aid and remittances sent by relatives from abroad and, for some, money earned from trading or working for NGOs. As a result of this and of economic changes more generally, the cattlebased bridewealth system was partially monetised. Although money was the dominant medium of payment in Kakuma, marriage could not be completed without some transfer of cattle, which usually took place between the remaining clan members in Sudan. Money, although important, has 'no blood' for the Nuer and Dinka and hence is not seen as guaranteeing the solidity of marriage. "Marriage with money is not a real marriage. When the 'lost boys' come back to Sudan, they will have to pay in cows again," commented one of the local chiefs in Western Upper Nile region. …

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