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Essay

Backstory: The Bride Price

"So are we doing any traditional stuff, respect our ancestors up in here with a roora ceremony or are you just letting this white boy get off real easy?"
 — Nyasha in Familiar by Danai Gurira 

The concept of “bride price” or “bridewealth” refers to money, property, or other forms of wealth paid by a groom or his family to the parents of the woman he is to wed. The practice has roots in many ancient cultures, and continues to play a significant role in marriage rituals and customs throughout the world today. In Thailand, bridewealth is called sin sod, and can range from nothing if the woman is divorced, already a mother, or known to have had sexual relationships with other men, to the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a woman of high social standing or exceptional education. In China, the groom is often expected to offer a house and car in addition to a cash payment. The custom exists in various incarnations in Central Asia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and throughout the continent of Africa, including — as featured in Danai Gurira’s Familiar — in the Shona culture of Zimbabwe, where bridewealth is called roora.

Though the practice is declining somewhat in the 21st century, the negotiation and payment of roora is still by far the most widely observed and socially significant form of marriage in Zimbabwe today. While religious and civil marriage ceremonies may be performed in addition to the traditional custom, such ceremonies are considered by most Shona people as incidental or extra — no substitute for the more meaningful, socially binding traditional practice of negotiating the bride price. "In Zim there is NO marriage without it,” says Nyasha in Familiar. “It IS the marriage."

According to custom, an engagement between a Shona man and woman becomes formal, and public, when the man approaches the woman’s family through an intermediary called the munyai, usually a male relative or a close friend of the suitor. If the woman’s family consents to the union, negotiations for the bride price will begin. The munyai speaks on behalf of the prospective groom, who generally is not present during the formal negotiations. The payments brokered in this process consist of several parts, each with symbolic meaning (to honor the father and the mother, for instance), and usually involve both cash and cattle. In additional to the roora itself, gifts for the bride’s family may be offered during the proceedings, such as blankets, shoes, hats, and clothing. Once the bride price is set, the expectation is that the son-in-law will make a down payment; it may take him years to pay off the balance.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the practice of paying roora has come under scrutiny by some Zimbabweans. Critics of the tradition argue that it is rooted in a patriarchal culture and that the custom objectifies women by reducing them to tradable property, limiting female autonomy and creating a climate in which women may be vulnerable to abuse. But supporters of the custom disagree, countering that women enter into marriages of their own free will, and that the tradition is a public health and a social good, in that it promotes premarital virginity (for women) and longevity and monogamy within the marriage, stemming rates of sexually transmitted infections and fostering stable family units. More significantly, proponents argue, by explicitly attaching value to a woman’s role in continuing the male family line, the practice serves to acknowledge and dignify women. 

“Valuables are given to the girl’s family to legitimize the marriage.”

Much of the tension surrounding the custom seems to arise from differing interpretations of its meaning, symbolic or otherwise. “Roora should not be seen as a payment for the bride,” argues one Zimbabwean blogger of the politics of the custom. “Valuables are given to the girl’s family to legitimize the marriage.” The Zimbabwean authors of a 2010 research paper in the Journal of African Studies and Development emphasize that the payment of roora is an outward sign that the husband values and esteems his wife, arguing that the woman who enters into traditional formal marriage “is a role model for both younger sisters and young unmarried girls in the community.” These authors define the practice of roora as “a tying knot that builds affinity and social capital between families,” and frame their discussion on existential as well as social and political terms: “How can we discuss modernity without lapsing into a Western-dominated view of history? How do we avoid losing sight of the diversity of local forms?”

While some of this might sound alarming to Western ears, it seems worth considering that the tradition arises from the same impulses which historically have shaped marriage practices and norms throughout the world, for good and for ill: to formally establish the rights, obligations, and roles contracted between the marrying persons and their families, their children, and the wider community; to regulate sexual behavior (especially female sexual behavior); and to organize and regulate the inheritance of property — while also striving, in the best of circumstances, to express and acknowledge love between two people seeking to commit their lives to one another. Though the forms may register as foreign, the tensions that result from these varied and tangled impulses seem decidedly, well, familiar. One sees them playing out in conversations about marriage in the United States today: about marriage equality for same-sex couples, about women’s health and contraception, about divorce and the rights of parents when a marriage is dissolved, among many other points of cultural contention. In Danai Gurira’s deftly humorous, wonderfully nuanced Familiar, they play out within the Chinyaramwira family, whose eldest daughter’s journey towards marriage represents an encounter with her origins, her future, and in the end, herself.

Sarah Lunnie
Literary Manager