I am a well-educated, well-traveled, intelligent young woman. The kind of young woman who has Destiny’s Child’s ‘Independent Women’ as the soundtrack to her life. If or when I get married, I expect my suitor to pay the bride price or ‘roora’, as it is known in Shona, to my parents.
Now, the so-called Westerner may say this is anachronistic. Why would any truly independent woman subject herself to a practice that is affiliated with notions of the commodification of women? Where the woman’s ability to birth to male heirs determines her economic value to her new husband?
The Africanist in me would quickly dismiss the Westerner and respond that modern life (read: increasingly Eurocentric life) has distorted the real meaning of roora. In the same way that the wedding ring symbolizes unity between two people, the payment of roora is a symbol of unity between two families. It represents an acknow-ledgement of the role that parents have played in the upbringing of the woman. Most importantly for a 21st- century woman, roora injects a sense of accountability into a marriage, ensuring that the suitor is serious, and is ready to make the necessary emotional and financial commitment.
That would be my response to a Eurocentric critique of roora. However, recently I read that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who is by no means a champion of the West, weighed in on the practice. He effectively called for its end at the Global Power Women Network Africa conference, bemoaning the fact that such customs tend to subordinate women in marriages.
It is a sad legacy of colonialism that we so-called Africanists are protective of traditional practices that no longer serve our best interests. And having a sparring partner in the form of Mugabe, who is arguably a staunch Africanist, forces open a window for honest reflection on roora.
Except that now I cannot win the debate on roora on the Eurocentrism vs. Africanism ticket, I have to apply my mind to the conflicting effects it has on those involved. I need to eva-luate the practicalities of roora and whether we Africanists are willing to live with them.
To begin, the abuse of roora is perpetrated by fathers and families who see their daughters as cash cows (pun intended). A daughter is sometimes perceived as a means to enrich families through her ‘sale’ to another man and his family. Fathers who see their daughters as money-spinning projects charge hefty prices. These in turn are often seen as a license for the husband and in-laws to treat the woman as ‘purchased goods’, and in the worst cases, as indentured slaves.
A 1998 study found that men held conflicting views on the relationship between roora and domestic violence. Some men indicated that they were more likely to beat a woman for whom they had not paid roora, because they could get away with it. There was no recourse for such behavior. Others reported the more common refrain that it was acceptable to beat a woman for whom roora had been paid, because, as they reminded their wives: “ndakakutenga”, “I bought you”.
It is also important to understand the effect of roora on the psyche of women. The findings of a 1999 study by South Africa’s Medical Research Council help to explain the meanings women attach to roora.
The majority of women polled felt that it was culturally accepted that if a man pays the bride price, it means that he owns her. Other meanings attached to roora include: the subservience of women to their husbands, male ownership of women, notions of male sexual entitlement and an interpretation of beating as a sign of love.
The findings are a sad, but admittedly unsurprising, indictment of the practice. Nonetheless, it is misleading to argue that roora is a license for men to abuse their wives or to treat them as purchased goods. I know many men who never paid roora but still mistreat their wives. It would be equivalent to saying that there are no wife-beaters in places where roora is not common, such as the West.
The trouble with roora is that it is vulnerable to abuse. In other words, it is analogous to the argument that the trouble with Christianity is Christians, or that the trouble with Communism is Communists.
This does not absolve roora of its problems. We cannot ignore that there is something wrong when men and in-laws from both sides abuse women in the name of roora.
And as a woman, it becomes difficult to vote in favor of a system that could be harmful to me or other women.
However, that said, culture is not static; it evolves in order to remain relevant. Roora is adaptable and redeemable for the purposes of modern society. This has been proved in the way that the payment method has changed over the ages. In its genesis, as many young men would be envious to hear, a few field mice were acceptable roora.
This then moved on to cattle and then cash. So in the same way that roora has been adapted, let us eliminate the unfavorable tenets of the practice to keep it relevant to society today.
My proposition is that roora continues, with the following reforms:
Pre-marriage – Women’s importance in society should be reinforced. The principle of roora as a token of appreciation, a priceless debt, to parents who have raised a virtuous woman should be emphasized.
Girls from a young age, as well as women already married, need to be taught that they are not bought and hence owned in the relationship. This will lead to women refusing to accept the abuse they may face in marriage. Boys and men also need to be involved in this re-education, so that they too can appreciate the true value of women in their lives.
The negotiation – The key word is moderation. Roora should be a token of appreciation and not a price tag, as no person can be sold. I will go as far as to suggest a cap on the roora, that it never go above, say, the cash equivalent of a couple of head of cattle. This would end the myopic and short-sighted thinking where parents (and even some daughters) do not see that in overcharging their son-in-law, they are only taking away from their daughter’s future household.
Parents, your daughter and son-in-law are likely to be young professionals, only just beginning to have real financial independence. With what do you expect them to begin their future together, after you have charged him an entire year’s salary?
The cap, or at the very least the exercise of moderation, would help end the sentiment that women are the property of their fathers and subsequently their husbands and his family.
Post-marriage – We should institutionalize fair treatment of women as equals. Accountability should not end with the closing remarks of the negotiation; a man should be evaluated constantly, even after the marriage has been legitimized. In the same way that damages are paid for deflowering a woman, so too should there be damages for the mistreatment of wives.
With conditions such as these, roora as an institution is redeemable. Let us keep it as a symbol of the union between two families, a gesture of sincerity and good faith. The processes need to be reformed, to ensure that the institution of marriage is not a punitive exercise for prospective wives and husbands to ensure that the virtuous principles of the tradition remain intact.
So here, I will have to disagree with Mugabe and Westerners alike. I remain adamant that roora has its place in modern society, and I vote in favor of its reform.