There’s a well-known African proverb which says that: “it takes a village to raise a child”. In the African culture, family plays a crucial role in the society. John Mbiti, a Kenyan philosopher has once commented that “each person in African traditional life lives as part of the family”. As a result, when a couple decides to get married, the entire family – including their extended family – is involved.
Kenyans have various wedding traditions, generally differing between tribes. However, most communities will hold at least 2-3 formal meetings prior to getting married. Such process will begin with a visit to the parents of the bride-to-be whereby the groom formally express his interest. Generally, a dowry negotiation will follow. Then in the final occasion, the dowry is often paid or the wedding plans are gone over.
Over the weekend, we were greatly honoured to be part of my friend Ciku’s Ruracio party – the dowry. Ciku’s family is part of the Kikuyu tribe – the most populous tribe in Kenya – who are traditionally farmers and livestock keepers. The dowry payment was therefore counted in form of goat, sheep and cattle. According to their customs, all Kikuyu girls are valued at 99 goats. It almost seems easier to just round up such value to 100 goats but it was intentional that the remaining 1 goat of the herd remains with the groom’s parents in order for the mass of a new flock. Whilst cash payments are generally preferred by most modern Kenyans, the dowry terms continue to be negotiated by the number of goats. The dowry process is not intended to be a way of “buying the bride” financially, rather the bride price is perceived as a token of appreciation to the future-in-laws. However, there are instances where the parents of the bride use this custom to exploit the groom-to-be which results in the failure of the marriage union.
The Ruracio – the dowry – at the centre of an elaborate process is the formal meeting of the families negotiating the dowry and dine together to celebrate the courtship. Following the traditional Kikuyu culture, our feast began with a song battle where the groom and his family sung and danced their way into the bride’s home. In line with expectation, the groom brought the agreed dowry payment in honouring the bride’s family and was subsequently introduced to the family. The Ruracio is perhaps best known for the veiling of the women, with the bride-to-be and her cousins all wrapped from head to knee and the groom must then identify his bride by her legs. If he picks the wrong legs, he must pay a fine. Our smart groom-to-be of course passed the trial, though I secretly speculate the bride-to-be to have given clues!
Along with more than 200 family and friends of the bride, we happily feast and celebrated together the engagement of the love bird and the union of two families at a Kenyan Ruracio!