Bride Price is not the Cause of Insecurity in Jonglei state

By Nathaniel Athian Deng

Dear Governor Kuol Manyang Juuk Chau,

June 19, 2013 (SSNA) — I am writing to you about the high-rocking dowry (bride price) payment and perceived, subsequent insecurity among the communities in Jonglei state, and what changes I think are needed to address these challenges for the harmonious coexistence of citizens in the state. I was delighted to read about your brilliant ideas or opinions on bride price and insecurity on Radio Miraya (5th May, 2013). Thank you for opening up avenues for public debates or awareness about the social, economic and political effects of these problems on the marginalized groups the children, elderly, youth, and women   who have been pushed to the lowest social class during the decades of the traumatic, long civil war and displacement to and from South Sudan.

I agree with your opinions that Jonglei state community leaders, or those in various positions of leadership, should discourage the payment of high bride price, as well as any negative aspect of a culture that does not go well with the modern way of life. In this regard, I acknowledge that the high-rocking bride price does not only contradict the traditional purpose of marriage among the communities, but also negatively affects girls’ education in the state due to the increasing commercialization and individualization of the institution of marriage among our communities, and the high, or demanding, societal expectations about how a girl should behave, or look like, in order to fetch huge amounts of money or cattle for her parents.

However, I am not in agreement with your ideas that connect insecurity to dowry payment, and legalizing or restricting bride price to only 7 or 10 cows among the communities in Jonglei. Your ideas on insecurity and related issues ignore the complex factors that bring about insecurity in the state, give skeptical excuses about the government failures to protect the citizens, and give go-ahead signals to the criminals, who continually ransack property and inflict suffering on the innocent citizens with no fear of being made accountable for their atrocious actions or activities.

Bride price is not the cause of insecurity in Jonglei

I view your argument about the causal relationship between insecurity and bride price as skeptical reason to sway the public away from talking about the government failures in addressing insecurity in the state, or simply a shift of blame from the government and an attempt to make the politicians ‘saints’ in the eyes of the voters though they are the manipulators of this havoc! You seem to imply that David Yau Yau, Dr. Riek Machar and George Athor, among other former and present dissents/criminals in Jonglei state and the whole of South Sudan and their loyal mercenary soldiers are/were mercilessly destroying public property and killing people as alternative and easy means to get cattle to pay for bride prices. No, not true at all to me.

Imagine there are neither cattle to raid nor girls to marry for free in Burma, the town which David Yau Yau’s soldiers recently captured. You also know that the 1991 massacre and George Athor’s rebellion, which have left bitter death memories and have been used by politicians to continually stir up conflicts between Dinka and Nuer communities, were not step-by-step means to seek cattle to pay for the high bride prices. You will also realize that when the Sudan People Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) recruited young Nuer and Dinka men into soldiers from the herds of cattle, the SPLA/M authorities sent Jieeng representatives, such as Late Majier Ghai and Chagai Atem, to deceive young men that they would get guns from Bilpam to protect their cattle from fictitious Murle. The same fabricated lies were told to Nuer and Murle young men by their representatives that they would come and destroy Dinka and take their lands and property.

I think these individually and politically fabricated actions or lies planted the seeds of hatred and the subsequent conflicts among the communities. The innocent citizens are made to believe that their neighbours are worse enemies that need immediate annihilation than the common enemy of the southerners, the Arab-Khartoum cruel regime, whom these communities have been jointly fighting against. Ironically still, the Khartoum government smartly takes up the tribal deceit game and uses it against the South Sudan government (SPLA/M) and poor citizens, whom the SPLA/M depend on for food and manpower, to increase discord in the area by arming any dissent member, for example, Dr. Riek Machar, Dr. Lam Akol, George Athor, and David Yau Yau, among other former and present dissents/criminals, who come up against the South Sudan, in order to bring about insecurity in Jonglei, as well as other states in South Sudan.

This means that the escalating insecurity in Jonglei is not connected with bride price because, as the following paragraphs elaborate, the insecurity does not spring up as a result of an individual’s search for wealth to pay the bride price, but a failure by the South Sudan federal and state governments to make laws and policies that adequately protect citizens and address social, economic and political challenges, such as poverty, political interferences or maneuverings, leadership wrangles, unemployment, urban gang or alternative sense of identity and belonging in towns, among other factors, whose main triggering factors politically originate from Juba or Bortown, and are impacting the lives of the poor citizens in negative ways, or are benefiting few individual elites or criminals, who stir up the insecurity in order to loot public property.

The Nilotic communities, especially the Jieeng (Dinka) and Naath (Nuer) in Jonglei, traditionally practise marriage solely for procreation, not for individual fulfillment, intimacy or sexual satisfaction though these factors will soon, or later, take over the institution of marriage in the state due to the increasing global interactions and economic constraints in our modern days. The bride price was a communal affair, whereby brothers and relatives contribute cattle to cover up marriage expenses for their brothers and sons. Consequently, a wife and children received reciprocal treatment from the community at large in terms of protection and provision of needs.

In addition, these communities also make marriage adjustments to accommodate changing situations and appreciate the services provided by women, particularly wives and girls. For instance, when the disaster, commonly known as pawɛɛr, hit Dinka communities in Duk, Bor and Twic East counties in the 1950s or 1960s, girls were married off for free, or with hoes, sack of sorghum or anything that would enable both the husband and wife to procreate and bring forth children, who are perceived as the continuity or the survival of the communities or societies. Recently after Dr. Riek Machar genocidally masterminded the killing of innocent civilians and destruction of their livelihood means, cattle and sorghum, in the same area from 1991 to 1994, the same adjustments were made. A man could take a wife for free, or pay fish and mosquito nets, hoes, sacks of hooks, bags of maize, or give anything that will help him appreciate the beauty in his bride as they stay together till the man gets cattle, or money, to pay for his wife, or till his sisters, aunts or daughters are married and bring in alternative wealth to pay for his wife.

Furthermore, these communities practise barter trade: they exchange goods and services, or skills, such as masonry, carpentry, and building houses, in order to get cattle to marry. They also allow their sons and daughters to marry from the other tribe in order to generate wealth and continue to live happily in the area. This happened recently in 2000-2001 when Lou-Nuer and Gawer-Nuer moved to Twic East and Duk territories or grazing plainlands, toc, and exchanged their cattle with blankets and sauce pans, among other items, in Panyagoor. This peaceful exchange of cattle, skills and goods was interfered with by thieves, who started stealing cattle from the herds (which belong to both Nuer and Jieeng communities).

I must admit I know less about the institution of marriage among other tribes in Jonglei, such as Murle and Jie, but these adjustable examples suggest that the bride price is not a prerequisite before establishing families among these communities, and that young Jieeng and Naath men did, and still do, not resort to stealing cattle from their neighbours to pay dowry. Let us, therefore, count increasing insecurity as a miserable failure from the South Sudan federal and state governments to amicably address administrative issues (transparency and regional balance) in Jonglei and protect the citizens in the whole country. It is not about bride price.

In the latter example about barter trade, instead of looking for the criminals as individuals and take action to deter the illegal activity, the government went for community chiefs and relatives of the people they suspect of cattle raiding. This strategy did not work effectively because these innocent civilians viewed the government as the partaker in the organized crime, just like the criminals, who inappropriately or brutally treated, oppressed, marginalized and suppressed the innocent civilians. The government took the few remaining cattle as fines for the failures or lack of cooperation from the communities to identify the criminals even when the people did not know their whereabouts, or did not support their activities. The citizens, therefore, did not cooperate with the government to close the gateways to cattle rustling. Instead, the few youth, who did not initially involve in the organized crime, were forced to join gang activities as a retaliatory strategy against brutal mistreatment from the government, and to protect their property from criminals after realizing the government neither help bring back the cattle that were stolen nor take action against the few thieves, who were brought to their jurisdiction. For instance, the former Kongoor (present-day Twic East) county commissioners released two young men, who were caught to have allegedly involved in the killing of two civilians in Wernyol and Payom in 2000, and told the Twic East chiefs that it was due to “pressure from somewhere.”

Why is it that the young Jonglei men and women, such as Karbino Kolen and Isaiah Abraham, who have taken the challenge to mobilize the communities to live in peace, sadly die in cold blood, and some narrowly escape death and leave Jonglei and Juba for exile as seen in the life of John Penn de Ngong (in Kenya), John Aborcup Akuer (in Uganda), Mading Ngor (in Canada), Daniel Omot Ojullo (in Ethiopia), and Abraham Nyitaak (in Kenya), among other outspoken Jonglei citizens, who meet their unfortunate death or force to leave for exile, after they are allegedly accused, tortured and brought before the government and security authorities for writing some articles that the government thinks give hints to what UN right groups use to back up their claims about violations of human rights in South Sudan? Why is there no government involvement in investigating the murder and persecutions of these citizens?

Before I divert to talking about a different idea: the legalization of bride price, I request your administration to get your hands off bride price and focus on poverty, political interferences or maneuverings, leadership wrangles, emergence of gang or alternative sense of identity, among other main causes of insecurity that originate from Juba or Bortown. In this regard, I suggest that both the federal and state governments should protect the disarmed communities appropriately, encourage citizenry participation in public affairs that affect their lives on daily basis, and prevent the onset of poverty and criminal activities. These social, economic and political challenges can be addressed by: (1) reducing and regulating the prices of essential basic needs or goods in the market; (2) building roads for easy transportation of farm produce from and to the main commercial, trading and industrial towns; (3) deploying police and soldiers at each county, payam or buma level for early rescue of stolen cattle, and to allow civilians to embark on traditional farming and other agricultural activities; (4) increasing educational, employment, sport, and recreational opportunities to minimize youth idleness; and (5) making individuals accountable for their actions, not the communities they come from, or the chiefs representing their villages. The communities, or chiefs, may not support the criminal activities and the government only recruit them to involve in the crime game once they pay for such actions.

Bride Price does not Need Legal Ceiling

As you might realize from the introductory paragraphs, I also disagree with your opinions on legalizing or restricting bride price to 7 or 10 cows, in as much as I disagree with your argument about the causal relationship between insecurity and dowry payment among the communities in Jonglei. Marriage does not belong to any politician, political party, or government. It belongs to the community and any legalization or criminalization of bride price – putting prescribed legal tag or price on bride price and making individuals accountable by legal-punitive measures once they do not adhere to the prescribed price – must be analyzed critically in view of the circumstances surrounding the social lives of the communities affected. Marriage, in addition, is not anything that needs political maneuverings or jurisdictions to dictate its purpose and threaten its intended activities because these maneuverings may be driven by individual self-interests and they may, therefore, ignore the reality about the institution of marriage and the subsequent shifts in purpose and activities in considerations of the demands of the communities.

I agree with other country men and women that there are many causes of insecurity, and that our communities and parents are smart in other own ways. They alternatively figure out how to legally or illegally escape the effects of legal rules: sending their daughters to get married in other states, where dowry is unlimited and demanding 7 or 10 cows plus the cash equivalence of other additional cows so they can use the cash to buy extra cows that they would have demanded from the groom’s family prior to the imposition of the ten-cow legal rule. We have witnessed similar dynamic social adjustments among Dinka communities, starting from your attempt to restrict the bride price to 30 cows in the 1980s, and the subsequent escalating million bride prices we have today. What happened to that 30-cow threshold law and what has brought about that the high demands for millions of cash and hundreds of cows taken away from young men’s families to the girls’ families? Let us attribute those sky-rocking quartiles to the dynamism of cultures and communities and the unpredictability of the intentions or motives of our very leaders, or politicians, who invent the laws for self-glorification and self-interest, but do not implement the same laws equally across social, political and economic classes and age spectra.

It is impossible to respect the selective laws enacted with certain motives for personal gain: prestige or wealth. In present Jonglei marriages, I wonder why I, or any other young man who wants to marry a prominent South Sudanese politician’s daughter, have to pay for all the party officials, or community leaders. I equally wonder how, and why, Dr. Riek Machar and Hon. Malok Aleng would politically officiate and exchange words at the glamorous wedding for Ms Nyathon Hoth Mai and Mr. Peter Biar Ajak, when their fathers, or elderly uncles, who do these marriage tasks in our traditional communities, are alive. Politicians and community leaders alike seem to forget that the daughters and sons are not government or party assets because mothers were married by the whole communities with the exception of some Dinka and Nuer men who went to marry from Equatorian tribes, where they cover marriage expenses individually without the help of siblings and relatives. Their daughters may as well choose to marry without the legalized price tags because their mothers do not have community tag prices in the first place.

Equally surprising is the fact that marriage has been used as a gateway to individual mobility up the social ladder. Our Jonglei Jieeng sons or politicians, such as Thon Leek, Kuol Manyang, Bior Ajang, and Malok Aleng, among other politicians and community business or wealthy individuals, who could have been the best examples to reduce bride prices because they are aware of the 30 cows’ threshold level, did not require 30 cows but 4 million, or closer to that amount, when their daughters were married. Though these exemplary people in authority later returned some money as gifts for their daughters and sons-in-law, or some still support their daughters’ families by paying for the school fees for their sons-in-law after they first drove them into bankruptcy, members of our communities see bride prices and these subsequent actions as an easy gateway for political gain and individual sense of pride. It might have been leaders’ kindness and show of responsibility as fathers, but other community members view it differently. Marrying daughters off with huge amounts of money or cattle is a sign of pride though it is a bad example to the young generations. We would not, therefore, blame or make accountable, other Jieeng parents, who want to fetch the same huge amounts from their daughters, because nobody else would have respected the law than the above community role models, leaders or politicians.

As a result of the inefficiencies of the legal ceiling, I see no need to legalize or criminalize the institution of marriage using political lenses or individual quest for popularity. The unnecessary encroachment of politics into other aspects of the community life in Jonglei and the fact that marriages are being used as gateways to propagate political agenda and ideas contribute to disunity among the members of the same community as well as the neighbouring tribes they have been in peace for centuries and beyond. This messes up peace and unity among the communities. I call upon the government officials to get their hands off bride price and leave the issues about bride price, or other aspects of marriage, to the communities concerned. They have already contributed to high prices by increasing the amounts for weddings and bride prices and making their party friends get cows or money. If they would not tolerate leaving the responsibility of negotiating dowry payment to the community elders, parents, and young girls and men, because talking about bride price makes them busy and caring for the larger social aspects of the communities than the political jurisdictions you are responsible for, then you would better draft a law that advocates for zero dowry payment at all. This will encourage girls to easily access education and other opportunities closed for them due to high dowry demands.

Bride Price, Girl Education and Domestic Violence

Let me move away from disagreements to agreements. It must have been hectic to read all these objections for your opinions or ideas, but that should not discourage you from communicating with citizens like me. I took that approach to let you know that disagreement in opinions is not rejecting personalities so you may withdraw your sentiments if you were about to burst out and threaten me with “Do you know who am I?” I know you very well, and that is why I am expressing my ideas as a concerned citizen hoping that you need some ideas to use for the benefit of curbing some of the insecurity issues in Jonglei. I firmly agree with your opinions that Jonglei state community leaders, or those in various positions of leadership, should discourage the payment of high bride price, as well as any negative aspect of a culture that does not align with the modern way of life. In this regard, I acknowledge that anything that divides citizens into haves and have-nots should be eliminated as we embrace new means to live happily. As an individual opinion, I would like to stress that societal perceptions and expectations of bride price negatively affect girl child education and increase domestic violence among the communities in the state. It is better to do away with bride price and encourage communities to seek other better means to utilize the usefulness of girls to support themselves and their families differently.

I would like to distance myself from the Western feminist ideas, which are grounded on the misconceptions or fallacy that boys are favoured by African parents more than girls, and consequently, girls are denied education as they are left at home to do domestic work while boys go to school. I believe that is not the case for the lagging behind of girl children in education in South Sudan, Africa and around the world. I don’t think a parent will leave a girl child at home because she is a girl and allow a boy child to go to school because he is a boy. Among the Jieeng, for example, children are not treated differently or segregated due to their sex or gender, but on the expectations on how they fulfill their assigned duties or responsibilities and how they are perceived to tolerate specific unpredictable circumstances that may face them when they move away from the care of their parents. Due to these concerns, Jieeng socially and culturally live more on the fallacy of tradition than on the fallacy of newness. Any new idea or change is shunned or grilled at in preference of the old idea till its importance is seen by experimenting it with children, both boys and girls, who are expected to execute their responsibilities tolerably.

Furthermore, the high chances for boy child education increased during civil war, especially when cattle were taken and boys had no much to do for their parents and the society. However, girls’ duties – cooking, fetching water and firewood, and caring for younger siblings, and other formerly less tedious and non-energy-wasting duties unlike running after cattle and hunting for game – remain unaffected by the disaster since the biological desires for food never wans away. These unaffected former duties put girls in double jeopardy in multitasking school work and home chores. Besides, more boys than girls were exposed to educational opportunities during civil war, where boys were compulsorily recruited into soldiers and taken to different places in Sudan and Ethiopia for training as seen in the case for Lost Boys and other refugees from Finyudo and Polataka. As a result, the onset of civil war and urbanization, and their subsequent effects, dictated the manner by which communities in Jonglei search for food and other social means of living and how more boys than girls accidentally chanced for education, not that girls are treated as lesser beings than boys or girls are seen as commodities for sale.

I hear many stories among the Dinka and Nuer communities that most of the SPLM/A and other educated members went to towns, where they were later blessed with the gift of education, because they were either unable to take care of cattle appropriately or they explicitly revealed other near-adulthood ‘irresponsible’ qualities that forced their parents to forgo the services they would have offered at home and allowed them to live with relatives in town. Many girls were, consequently and agreeably, left behind because of the much love given to girls than boys and due to the perceptions and expectations that girls are seen more vulnerable to live on their own away from parents than boys. These were some instances that might have led to fewer girls than boys going to towns and join school as well as the army. Though there were instances of boys, who did not go well with their parents and those from second or other subsequent ordered number of wives apart from the first wife, the idea that there were better children (sons) than the other (daughters) was not among the primary selecting factors for boys and girls to get education.

However, after the perceived ‘stubborn’ and ‘irresponsible’ sons took advantage of the chances in town, got education, secured high SPLM/A ranks, and supported their families, the parents did not only allow the boys and girls, whom they were so proud of and had restricted them from going to towns and get education, but also encourage them to get education and be successful like the other educated boys: the role models. I remember almost every girl wanted to marry Dr. John Garang de Mabior or Kuol Manyang Juuk or Bior Ajang Duot when we played riddles in the evening before we went to sleep in the decorated mud walled-houses and lay on dried hard animal skins as our beds. Though the attitudes towards these sons were different by the time they were allowed to go to school, the observable outcomes of what they brought out of school was the key determining factor in their admiration in the society. These ‘educated’ folks were talked about by elders and parents alike in order to influence girls’ choices in riddles, as well as daily life if they might get chances to marry to them. It was unlikely that a man of my calibre would have competed with these men for a wife. You know what I mean! This shows how effective utilization of role modality changes the perceptions of people in the community.

As I maintain my own perspective about the fact that most communities in Jonglei treat children equally, my opinion on the relationship between bride price, girl child education and domestic violence is based on the idea that men are predominantly the breadwinners and custodians (own children) in the families among communities that rely on bride prices. I am also worried that communal care for women has diminished over time since the wife is increasingly becoming individual assets and no relatives help cover up for the marriage expenses anymore. Consequently, husbands can now treat wives as individual property and none among the brothers or relatives could intervene to help her because relatives did not contribute anything when the husband paid 1 to 4 million or hundred cows. These shifts in communal duties and individual dowry payment couple with the fact that school life is not bed of roses, and any individuals, especially girls in our case, may be highly susceptible to school push factors when they develop the dependence notion that comes expectations about bride price: the male breadwinner support in the family, the mystics of beauty and individual quest for marketability, which encourage girls to adapt and live by in order to attract suitable suitors for marriage. These are important causal factors to educate our communities about and I still hold that there is no need for the government to stipulate the number of cattle or amount of money to pay as the value of a girl.

Think about ‘equality’ in the family, please! Imagine if we pay bride prices, the latent reasons are that the owner of the wife (husband) treats her as an asset to get rich or demands unconsenual full services from her because he bought her to enjoy those things! He may decide on number of children the wife will give him depending on the number of mouths he wants to feed. Does that sound scary and devaluing to a wife? Yeah, it is the very reason we should aggressively start advocating for zero bride prices and educating girls and women so that they are seen more productive in other ways than dowry. I understand some bridegrooms think they appreciate their in-laws for kindly bringing up their lovely daughter by paying a dowry. However, this appreciation can be done in different way because of the negative impacts of the above implied reasons for paying dowry. I do not think it is appropriate or acceptable to be hypnotized that bride price is sign of appreciation for a lady and how the man values her. Why not appreciating the value of a man by paying equal amount of dowry to him since he is also a human being and his family has enduringly raised him like the girl’s family? Nowadays, dowry is even higher when the girl has certain level of education because parents say "you are marrying a ‘doctor’ so give us higher amounts of money or cows." However, when a man has the same equivalence or even higher level of education than a girl, the man’s family demands nothing for that. Let us end dowry during our time and enjoy full equality between the sexes and genders.

I acknowledge the opinions of some educated girls, who suggest that men should go through the habitual traditions of bride price because eradication of bride price will give men a free ticket to remarry the next girls knowing that women outnumber men in community. There are other control mechanisms that such girls can use if they lack trust for their husbands and they fear that they may marry again. I also disagree with girls, who argue that girls will be inferior to other married girls when they are married for free and that men will care for their wives more when they pay huge bride prices because people cannot throw away valuable things they toiled for, such as undergraduate or graduate degrees. Exploiting men to pay high bride prices just because the wives think their value is appreciated, don’t trust their husbands at home or don’t want their husbands to remarry, is less harmful that the suffering and dehumanization of women in families where husbands emerge as home controllers because they paid bride prices and wives are not educated enough to contribute to family income. Girls don’t even propose relationships, let alone paying dowry! Why double standard to oppress men who pay dowry to please the parents and cover huge wedding expenses to please the girls on the other side of the spectrum?

Dependence on bride price does not only devalues a women by equating a wife to individual asset or commodity, but also leads to exploitation of both men, who pay huge amounts and immediately become bankrupt after paying for such huge money and cattle, and women, who receive brutal domestic violence when the flashbacks about the marriage procedures come to a man’s mind even when he did not intended to treat her that way. It is my opinion that any practice that does not align with the modern way of life should go away and we adapt the equivalent practice for the same function of marriage. Some men will argue that if they marry with huge dowry, their daughters should expect to bring in the equivalence of what they paid for their mothers and the cycle continues and so it is even better we end it now. I am talking as one among those disadvantaged by dowry in terms of breaking families and draining accounts and I hope the above reasons are good start to campaign against dowry payment and get free wives during these times when equality between genders should prevail, not oppression of women.

I would like to see the increase in the employment opportunities for the few educated girls. These will change the perception of parents about girls and how the education would benefit the whole family. Some girls will even buy seven or ten cows to their parents and be married for free. The girls’ income earned before marriage is her asset and she will decide to leave for her parents or take to her husband depending on how she chooses to use it responsibly. You don’t have to force people to accept new changes because their resistance may backfire. You only maximize the open windows or opportunities and increase the usefulness or the positive outcomes of the changes they resist and their perceptions will change in support of your opinion. This does not require the interferences of the government or politicians, who may want to make business of fame and search for popular votes out of marriage in modern times. When employment opportunities are increased for few educated girls in the state and these girls subsequently earn substantial income to support their families rather than the families relying on dowry payment, the emphasis on bride price as the main source of wealth that a daughter would bring to the family, the general public perceptions and expectations about the role of girls to her parents and her husband, and the societal pressures on beauty and marriage will lessen and girls will eventually be freer like boys to attend schools and acquire education. Boys, on the other hand, will be relieved from daily stresses of saving money to pay for the girl who will not contribute to family income. This adjustment in eradication of bride price and increase in girl child education will save some pounds to the economy and individuals. I want a free wife: a wife who makes her own choices about how to plan for her holidays and care for her children without depending on my income or the social control measures of her community!

Nathaniel Athian Deng is a South Sudanese priest and a social work student at the University of Regina; he lives in Saskatoon, Canada and he can be reached at [email protected].

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