earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel
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Posts from — July 2016

An Engagement in Usagara

Last Monday I participated in a Tanzanian rite of passage: the negotiating of a bride price. After such a brief time working in Usagara we are already heading toward the first marriage among us. Since it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the engagement official, we agreed that the young man along with representatives of the church should meet with the young lady’s family to make intentions known.

couple in Usagara

A Christian Version of Tradition

Traditionally, marriages were negotiated between families. These days the church is more often filling the role that role especially when the couple are Christian and the family is not. The church’s involvement preserves the good aspects of tradition while enabling believing couples to dispense with non-Christian customs. For example, covenant-like accountability in marriage is good; but overbearing parents trying to force traditional religion on the new family is not good.

Most of our churches favor a procedure like as follows: the young man ready to marry approaches church leadership. The pastor counsels the young man and plans are made to start meeting with the young woman’s family for negotiations. The pastor and other adult men from the church would represent the young man in these meetings. Their objectives would be first to secure the consent of the young woman and her family, agree to a bride price which would be paid to the bride’s family, and then arrange plans for the wedding.

Meaning of Bride Price

An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. (Proverbs 31:10)

The bride price is an expression of the groom’s commitment to his bride (Compare Gen 34:12; Ex 22:16–17). Traditionally, it is also seen as a compensation to the bride’s family for giving up one of their household workers (to start a new family usually near or at the groom’s parents’ home).

The closest thing we have to the bride price is the engagement ring. But unlike our customs, the bride price is arranged by families, paid collectively from one family to another, given as cows and/or cash, and could be relatively more costly than the equivalent of that ‘one month’s income’ guideline we hear from Western jewelers. At any rate, the comparison makes for some pretty interesting thought experiments. I couldn’t help but imagine my parents sitting down with Laura’s parents to negotiate how many carats her diamond engagement ring should be. If the discussion went any thing like bride price negotiations here, her parents would certainly point out that she has a college degree, there are other eligible men lining up, and so on. (I’m so glad we did not have to do that!)

how many cows?

Outcome and Take-Aways

For our part we were successful last Monday. We received the bride’s family’s blessing and reached agreement on a bride price. If deadlines for delivering it are met, we should have a wedding by this time next year.

Other miscellaneous observations as an outsider:

  • The negotiating skills at work on that day truly impressed me. The Tanzanian reputation for talking their opponents into submission was proven on that day. Negotiations lasted 6 hours that day, but typically could go on for days.
  • The trip provided the opportunity to visit a part of the country I’ve never been to before.

    Msalala, Geita Region, Tanzania

  • I might consider introducing our family to this custom by the time Kyla comes of age (but most definitely after Ian marries)
  • When asked to be one of the young man’s representatives, I hesitated thinking that I had nothing to offer the negotiating process. But I was told that the family would be interested in pastoral involvement. So, in the end, I was glad to represent the spiritual interests of the couple.

July 20, 2016   1 Comment