One of my sisters in Nigeria is about to get married and the thorny issue of "bride price" has arisen. It is a fascinating and complex process steeped in tradition. My father has issued to the prospective groom's family a carefully drafted, typed list of 36 very specific items required before the traditional wedding can proceed.
I can't go in to all the details as negotiations are reaching a critical stage. Mediators have been appointed. Venues for the bilaterals have been agreed and talks about talks have commenced (although at this stage the UN Security Council has not been brought in to play). However I can reveal that the precise number of "smoke dried pure river fish (maggot free)" may be disputed.
For those whose culture does not include a "bride price" this whole exercise is easy to misunderstand. The brides family is not "selling" their daughter. The thinking is this. A man comes along and says he wants to take your daughter away. Naturally you refuse. Who does he think he is and why does he think he can deprive you of your beloved daughter? Go away and leave us alone, you cry. Our daughter is ours and we want to keep her.
Oh we beg , the man's family says. Look, they say, come on be reasonable. You say you love and value your daughter. Well, tell us how much you love and value your daughter and we'll see what we can do to help soothe the pain of the loss that you will suffer?
The girls family go in to a huddle. Wise old folk gather and discuss the issue. Remember old so-an-so's daughter? We loved and valued her this much. Then there was Mrs Muggings daughter. It was that much. Okay, let's put our list together.
A list is draw up. it is non-negotiable. It is a statement of the worth of the daughter in the eyes of the family. It is designed to send a message so it is pitched high. Some items are there to amuse and entertain. Some are genuine points of negotiation. Some are for the celebration (in the UK the bride's family pays for the Wedding, in Nigeria the Groom's family contributes a lot to the Traditional Wedding and that gets added to the list). It's part serious business, part pantomime. Finally in a serious of complex manouvers, the list is handed over.
The boys family are in a tricky position. On the one hand they are obliged to recoil in horror at the huge price being demanded by the bride's family. However, are they saying that their family isn't wealthy enough to afford the price? How embarrassing. Or are they saying that the girl that their son has chosen to marry isn't worth that much? Hmmmm. Tricky business.
And although I said that the list isn't negotiable, a compromise can always be reached. The position taken by the brides family is this - the list is a clear statement of the worth that the bride's family puts on their daughter, who they don't want to part with anyway. However the groom's family will come and present what they feel they can present and after much grumbling and dissatisfation from the brides family, including threats to walk away from the whole thing, everything will get sorted out.
Now, as the father of a clever, beautiful, talented young daughter here in England, I will not have the opportunity to set a bride price. But boy, oh, boy if I did have to put a value on my daughter let me tell you the groom's family, friends, casual acquaintances, descentants and anyone else who knows the groom would be paying out for generations to come!