What’s the Price of Love?: Monetized Dowry, WhatsApp Groups and a Pressuring Wedding Financing Industry

By Dr. Felix Mukwiza Ndahinda
On 31 August 2023 at 12:09

Editor’s note: Views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of IGIHE.

Getting married in many communities across the Great Lakes Region is quite a serious, and increasingly costly business! This piece seeks to debate some contentious emerging practices in an ever-expanding wedding industry. It focuses on marriage schemes in which the collision between tradition and capitalism has created an unhealthy and unsustainable system of “paying” for bides and lavish wedding ceremonies by imposing an unnecessary burden on families, friends, and communities. The core argument in the piece is that neo-capitalist features of marriage processes and wedding financing practices through fundraising schemes – often using WhatsApp Wedding Fundraising Groups – represent an abuse of African positive values of collective solidarity and interdependency. The piece is informed by personal experience of active involvement in weddings, and exchanges with key informants for complementary insights.

For starters, it should be recalled that marriage is considered one of the oldest human institutions and as such, the solemnity of wedding celebrations is a shared feature by many societies. Across cultures, different norms regulate the form and substance of matrimonial unions. Such norms differ from place to place and often evolve over time. There are different, historical, economic, philosophical, and cultural factors that exert an influence on the form and substance of marriage celebrations in place and time. For the diverse peoples of the African Great Lakes region, marriages are regulated by cultural traditions and legislations of the countries where they live. Traditions and state legal norms are diversely influenced by changing values and practices in increasingly globalized, modernized, and networked societies.

One contentiously debated marriage-related cultural practice that survived colonial rule and, at variance, modernity, is the institution of dowry (dot). For many traditional societies in the Great Lakes region, there was some arguably sound cultural justification for the dowry. When a man married a woman, the characteristically patriarchal norms governing most communities meant that the woman would leave her home, village, and people to settle in her husband’s community. The dowry was paid by the (family of the) man to seal an alliance between the two families but also as a form of symbolic compensation for taking the bride away from her family and environment. The value of the dowry, whether paid in livestock or material objects, often remained symbolic: through gifts to the couple, including practices such as kurongoranya, the balance sheet of property transfers from the groom’s family to the bride’s remained often insignificant.

These features are still observable in some culturally conservative, often rural, societies where the geography, economics, and practices of marriage are still largely aligned with tradition. However, as societies change and lifestyles evolve, with a shift from exchange-based transactions to a market economy, these features of traditional marriage have increasingly been eroded. The essence and value of the dowry have significantly changed: from assets such as livestock or, agricultural, metal, and artistic objects, the value of the dowry is often calculated in monetary terms. There are cases where the wealth of the (family of) the groom, or the level of education of the bride, are factored into the determination of the dowry. It is not uncommon for ordinary individuals or families to be asked to pay 1000$, 3000$, or more in dowry. Since state laws in the DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda do not determine, or impose caps on, the value of the dowry, the practice is often abused, begging the question as to whether the dowry still performs the traditional symbolic function of sealing the alliance between families or has morphed into a commodification and reification of women whose worth, as brides, is determined on the marketplace.

Hence, the legal pluralism subjecting marriage to customary and state laws clearly carries loopholes open to abuses. While modernizing influences in Burundian and Rwandan family law have led legislators in both countries to provide that the validity of marriage should not be conditioned to the payment of the dowry - inkwano is clumsily mistranslated in the 2016 Rwandan family law as “bride price” – Congolese law provides that the marriage should not be celebrated unless at least part of the dowry has actually been paid. In the absence of clear and enforceable guidelines from customary or state norms on what qualifies as dowry, it is increasingly hard to defend the institution of dowry when families use purely capitalistic calculus in debating the value and worth of young ladies to be married.

Determining the value of the dowry is one thing, covering the costs of the various wedding rituals is another. For many communities, marriage formalities often involve at least three major rituals usually spread across two to three or more days: a civil registration of the wedding (marriage civil), a formal dowry ceremony (dot), and a main wedding ceremony. In some cases, other ceremonies such as the post-wedding gutwikurura (unveiling) or equivalents are added. Each of these ceremonies often involves significant costs.

The civil wedding ceremony is often a very formal but least demanding event in many communities. It is essentially a process involving the formalization of the union between spouses to be before a competent civil servant who prepares the necessary paperwork to be signed by the couple and witnesses, characteristically in the presence of a limited number of guests. Whether a reception for the guests is held after the administrative formalities often varies from one marriage to the next.

The dowry ceremony, on the other hand, has gained significance in recent years in countries such as Rwanda and beyond. Traditionally a relatively modest ceremony involving representatives of both families, the ceremony has been reinvented and expanded to serve as both a theatrical re-enactment of already concluded dowry negotiations between families and a sendoff party hosted by the bride’s family for their daughter before she starts a new life.

Held on the same or a subsequent date as the dowry ceremony is the main wedding ceremony. It often consists of a religious blessing followed by one or more reception parties. Typically, a general reception welcomes hundreds, sometimes thousands of guests. Depending on the context, a dinner may be served during that general reception or as a separate function. Some weddings add a late-night dance party (soirée dansante) to the ceremonies. These different functions may be held at the same or separate locations.

These multiple wedding ceremonies and functions characteristically carry considerable costs. Ceremonial wedding clothes for the bride, the groom, their entourage, and sometimes their families, transportation vehicles for the couple and some guests, wedding venues, decoration, drinks, food, wedding cakes, entertainers, the sound system, and gifts costs typically add up into large amounts of money. Overall, average wedding budgets easily range between 6,000$ and 10,000$ or more. Typically, the bride and her family are responsible for the costs of the dowry ceremony (often the groom makes an indirect contribution to the costs through the payment of the dowry) while patriarchal rules that the groom and his family should cover the costs of the main wedding and other additional ceremonies. Arrangements where the two sides share all the costs either equally or in proportion to their wealth still represent an exception to the norm and likely a product of modernity rather than tradition.

While some wedding couples and their families can, and do, cover the entirety of wedding costs, many can’t and don’t. Depending on wealth and income, some partially or almost entirely rely on collective solidarity to pay wedding costs. Traditionally, it was common for members of the groom’s close family to contribute to the wedding costs or make property transfers to the newly married couple. However, an evolving practice is to organize fundraising campaigns for the marriage involving society at large. Creating a WhatsApp Wedding Fundraising Group (WWFG) has become a common fundraising technique and wedding fundraising has become an art and, at times, a lucrative business! The increasing popularity of WWFGs lies in two interconnected factors.

First, as a combined product of cultural conceptions of a wedding and, pressures from the wedding industry, most marrying couples and their families apply wedding templates. Rather than tailoring their wedding plans, ceremonies, and costs to available financial means and other realistic considerations, couples often copy and paste plans and budgets from previous marriages; with a view to emulate or outcompete them in pomp and class! Second, the application of the rules of reciprocity entails that when you invite people to join a WWFG for your wedding, the wedding of your son/daughter, or another family member, you should expect to be invited to make similar contributions from any person you invited. This has spiraled into a cycle of mutual financial obligations that increase as days go by and more weddings are celebrated. It is no longer uncommon to receive up to five, even ten wedding invitations within one month. Unlike in the past few years when receiving a print invitation meant being genuinely convened to attend the festivities, WWFGs primarily have a fundraising aim. Individuals across five continents are added to WWFGs regardless of whether they are realistically expected to attend the wedding or not. It is common to receive invitations to join WWFGs from close and extended family members, friends, colleagues, acquittances, and people you have not heard from for many years or even barely know.

Depending on the relative popularity of the couple, their families, or the ingenuity of individuals involved, fundraisings cover part of the budget, the entire budget or, yield more than budgeted amounts! Interestingly, since weddings typically involve ceremonies expected to be separately financed by the groom’s and the bride’s families, it is not uncommon for each family to open a separate WWFG for the same wedding. Depending on ties and friendships, households are sometimes invited to join and contribute to both groups for the same wedding. While modern celebrations of weddings visually present numerous (neo-)traditional features, fundraisings for weddings, just like some dowry arrangements, have characteristically become a calculatingly capitalistic enterprise.

Many individuals I spoke to expressed discomfort with the increasingly normalized wedding financing model for different reasons. First, contributions through the various WWFGs are framed as a way of supporting new couples in building a new family. However, upon closer scrutiny, the economics of wedding financing show that service providers in the wedding industry, rather than the married couple, are the main, if not sole, beneficiaries of the collective contributions to marriages. Most wedding budgets cover consumables for the various wedding ceremonies. It is all about throwing a beautiful and impressive wedding party rather than procuring the new couple with needed material assets to start their life together. Fundraising methods used in WWFGs, including individualized or collective reminders of deadlines or the drawing of lists of those who have and those who have not discharged their contributions often turn voluntary commitments into supervised executions of financial burdens.

Second, while collective solidarity is one of the most treasured positive values in many African communities, imposing a collective burden on communities for the financing of outsized weddings is seen by many as an abuse of the principle of interdependency. In communities where poverty, unemployment, limited social security, and health care systems leave many peoples’ primary needs unmet, the frequency with which collective solidarity is mobilized for weddings imposes an unnecessary burden and competition for collective interventions in tackling these other more pressing issues.

Just as it may sound absurd to fundraise, or take a loan, to pay for an expensive birthday party, organizing wedding ceremonies whose costs go far beyond the marrying couples ‘and their family’s resources defies logic and rationality. It makes more sense in many communities to fundraise for an expensive emergency and specialized medical intervention (often abroad) or to financially support a self-empowering project benefiting a destitute member of the community than to pay for expensive wedding ceremonies that confer no lasting material benefits to the purported beneficiaries.

To sum up, the changing practices on dowry and marriage financing pose real challenges for societies across the Great Lakes region and beyond. Societies need to reconcile the collective nature of marriage celebrations with the growing collective burden of wedding financing. The current trend of excessive monetization of dowry and global fundraising for weddings is simply irrational and unsustainable. More progressive customary, alternatively state-sponsored, standards aimed at limiting the excesses in dowry payments are arguably desirable. Equally desirable are more rational funding models for weddings, tailored to the financial capacity of marrying couples and their families.

Marriage is considered one of the oldest human institutions. Photo iStock