GOMA - “My life is going to change thanks to my daughter. I am going to ask for four cows. Each will be worth 2,000 dollars, and with that I’ll buy a car!” Jean-Pierre, a resident of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been thinking about this for a long time. He is explaining his project to the man who will represent him during negotiations for his daughter’s dowry. These "spokespeople" have the last word: they decide what the terms are, and often settle the negotiations against the interests of the young groom-to-be.
It is a situation that upsets many young people who would rather live with their partner without their families’ blessing. “I live with my fiancée, not my wife, because my in-laws were asking for an outrageous amount of money that would take me at least four years to save," says 29-year-old Theodore. "They didn’t want the little that I had, and the waiting would be too long. So my fiancée and I decided to live together without their agreement. The rest will follow.”
Many young women often argue in favor of their suitors. Theodore’s fiancée, Yvette, acknowledges that as a sign of respect to the family, parents have a right to a gift, but says it shouldn’t be out of proportion. "I followed my fiancé for two reasons: first for love, and then because he was willing to give the little money he had to my family," she says. "But my parents wanted more! If he gave them what they were asking for, how would he provide for my needs?”
She says she tried to explain her fiancé’s situation to her parents and tell them they were hurting her. “By asking so much money from him, you are making my life difficult. Give me a chance to get married. Otherwise I’ll commit suicide!”
But other young women play into their parent’s projects, by plotting against their future husbands. With her wedding approaching, Helene explains to her friends at the University of Goma how she sees it. “My husband has to give me a lot of money to prove he will respect me and consider me as important. And my parents will take advantage of it and buy land downtown," she says. "They struggled to raise me and pay for my education. They have to take advantage of the situation!”
Other family members are just as interested, like this uncle telling his brother-in-law “each member has to get something out of it. You must not forget that uncles and aunts are privileged beneficiaries. We must respect this custom in order for the bride to be blessed.” This practice leads to rivalries between families, some of whom see receiving an important dowry as proof that the family is important.
Faced with high expectations, some fiancés give up. And the older these young women get, the fewer fiancés they find. “My marriage was cancelled because the dowry was too high. Two years afterwards, boys still neglect me,” says Gisele. Some families are now ready to compromise to avoid having their daughter staying with them forever. “The world has changed. We shouldn't just focus on material things. Leaving our daughter without a husband isn’t going to help anyone,” says an older man.
Daughters are also increasingly offended about the symbol of the dowry. “It's a gift from the boy’s family to the girl’s family. But it isn’t nice to sell me like a product. It’s love that matters in a household, not material things,” says Rolande as she argues with her father.
“We need to give young couples guidance without confusing them,” says Joséphine Nabishusha, a renowned spokesperson for dowry negotiations in Goma. "We should make things easier for boys so that they don’t feel the need to lie about their situation to our daughters."
Read more from Syfia in French.
Photo - babasteve