Efua Sutherland’s ‘The Marriage of Anansewa’ is a well-crafted drama with hints of folk-tale, littered with amusing scenes that will make you reflect on traditions and their loopholes. Considering its thematic unity, this book could have been titled ‘The Bride Price’ as it projects the whole politics of the bride token.
Soaked up in the culture of consumerism, crafty Mr. George K. Ananse, uses emotional blackmail to initiate his daughter Anansewa into his plan of auctioning her by exploiting aspiring suitors. 20yrs old Anansewa has been out of school for lack of fees, she acknowledges that the burden of her need is on her father. Hence he identifies and capitalizes on her need for education to manipulate her. Anansewa is subtly pressured by her father to go behind the camera for a click. Ananse then goes on a tour, covering miles with different postured pictures of Anansewa to market her. Reluctant but helpless Anansewa speaks:
‘…Oh, my Father is selling me, he is selling me…I will not let you sell me like some parcel to a customer, I will select my lover myself, I will not take part in any photograph engagement’.
Secretarial education was the carrot Ananse dangled to Anansewa, symbolized in the overpriced typewriter he gives her. Yet beneath all these, Ananse aims to fulfil his ridiculous ambition, and Anansewa’s marriage was a means to his successful ending. The metrics of success for Ananse, was him resting his bones on a bouncy dunlopillo, attending burials in fine clothes, making open donations in church inside the gleaming collection plate, and finally being buried in a coffin drawn in a private hearse, and not the municipal.
Ananse has good knowledge of the traditions and the loopholes therein, hence he exploited it. Until a suitor’s bride price is accepted, and the head-drink ceremony is conducted, he cannot be given the privilege of a husband. Hence any appeasement suitors do is considered a gift with no emotional invoice; it is unaccounted for. He knows his daughter Anansewa can be married to only one man despite his enticing so many rich suitors, so he builds a net of competition for intending suitors to pay their way with gifts.
In an intricate way, Ananse exploited the laid down procedures for establishing a marriage, using it as a means of securing upkeep for himself. One is lured to read through the drama to understand how he extricates his self from the pending conflicts of his greed. With the help of Christie his girlfriend, Ananse eventually fakes his daughter’s death, using her resurrection as a selector of husband from the many chiefs he exploited.
‘The Marriage of Anansewa’ is another work of fiction that focuses on the marriage market framework, expressing marriage as a strong polarizer. Ananse showcases for us the politics and economics of the bride price, an extensive phenomenon that has continued to be executed in an organised way in many societies.
In social development, the concept of payment between families at wedding is sensational especially amongst activists who explore the practices and its impact. Be it is the groom price (dowry) paid to the groom’s family or the bride price token paid to the bride’s family, or the dower, all of these have over the years become an integral part of marriages. Steeped in the traditions of most African and Asian culture, these traditional rituals have been explained with different understanding. Some consider the price as the purchase cost of a wife; paying for her nurturing from birth, her mother’s breast milk, her education among others. Others consider the bride token of jewellery, furniture, and livestock among others received as a proof that a bride will be well catered for by the groom. Another group finds it a deterrent for divorce or desiring polygamy, while others find it as an element of marriage entertainmentas expressed in the new app at www.brideprice.com.ng
Many hypothesis hover over this seemingly sexist practice. People advocate for it because it gives economic value to a woman as payment is made in exchange for her family’s loss of her labour and fertility among her kin. Others claim that the dowry paid to the groom is a way of supporting the newly wed to establish their household. But the arguments many put up against the dowry system is; why should a woman’s family give money and gifts to a husband’s family when they are already giving their daughter?
Advocates argue that these transfer of valued gifts and payment between families at the time of marriage contributes to the subjugation and objectification of women. The prices are weighed to appreciate the woman’s agricultural labour value, educational qualifications, and family pedigree, amongst others. Be it as it may, this payment phenomenon has become a major factor triggering marriage anomalies; rather than strengthen marriages, it has caused an increase in violence against women. Often conceptualized as ‘Dowry Violence’, this act is perpetrated by husbands or in-laws intending to extort a bride’s family of more dowry price when the years of marriage has nibbled away the significance of the paid price. Fuelled by the rising culture of consumerism, their greed is expressed in sexual, physical and mental violence against the woman.
When Efua Sutherland published the ‘Marriage of Anansewa’ in 1975, it may have reflected another form of violence or abuse; emotional abuse. But bride price oriented violence has indeed grown. Female infanticide and Bride burning now exists; many women are driven to suicide, discouraged to seek divorce, suffer marriage squeeze and most of them become victim of dowry death. Dowry harassment remains a visible phenomenon in India, despite its being outlawed since 1961; it’s quite under-reported as the laws are not enforced. India’s government National Crime Bureau reports approximately 6,000 dowry deaths annually.
While the dowry and bride price may not be converse, their impacts are related. Stephanie Sinclair’s photo video ‘The Bride Price: Consequences of Child Marriage Worldwide’ includes compelling images of child brides in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and India. Most of them are married off to settle inter-family financial dispute. In Africa, a disturbing but prevailing attitude remains that when you have paid a price for a wife, she becomes your property.
The fact that some culture practices the two blurs distinctions between bride-price and dowry. Arguments persist on whether a bride price or dowry should exist or not, and should it be a refundable gift? The MIFUMI Project has worked extensively in African country, Uganda especially, seeking litigations to rule that the practice of bride price is un-constitutional. In Thailand it is called Sin Sod, southern Africa is lobolo, in my culture it is called Ego nwanyi.
All of these appreciations in different languages go to say how widespread and deeply entrenched this practice is in cultural processes of establishing marriages. Banning such practices may be to some people as being anti-cultural and against valued cultural practices which may represent a way of promoting friendly courtesy, hospitality and alliance between kinship groups.
Considering welfare impacts of marriage payments, women are disadvantaged. While the arguments persist on the abolishment of payment during marriage, perhaps we may consider a value shift also that will help such cultural exchanges become a stronger deterrent, and more so, a source of security for many women who walk in and also out of marriages with nothing. My argument is; can people begin to consider structuring a price or agreement that will protect all partners during and maybe after the marriage? Can we consider something in line with the Islamic bride gift of Mahr that should be given to a bride not at the consummation of their marriage, but at the end of a marriage partnership? Considering persistent economic disadvantages women suffer as a result of unpaid labour, can we focus more on divorce settlement where the woman is compensated when the marriage being her major form of social security fails? This I believe will have implication in securing marriages and also give more social security benefits to women especially in developing countries where wedding payments prevail as deterrents but yet its speedily failing to hold power.
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye