The food is nice. Doreen’s parents have gone out of their way to prepare for this day. They seem to have hired professionals to cook, at least gauging by the quality of food and the fact that the people who are serving are uniformed. There are chapatis, rice, matoke and mukimo served with beef stew, dry fry chicken, vegetable salad and either a bottle of water or a bottle of soda. But Jediel is finding it difficult to relax and enjoy the food. His budget has a seventy thousand shilling hole; fifty thousand more than the emergency cash he had set aside. That means that after paying the “gate-pass tax” and the “food-warming tax”, he is left with fifty thousand shillings, an amount that both he and Yusufu agree will not be enough. After consulting Yusufu, Jediel has decided to raise another a hundred thousand shillings for the dowry negotiations. He has told Yusufu that he cannot go beyond this figure without putting his business in serious jeopardy. In fact, he has been forced to get that extra a hundred thousand from the business.
There are about two hundred and fifty people present at the event: fifty from Jediel’s side and two hundred from Doreen’s. On the surface it seems as though everything is fine. Everyone is chatting away, some even laughing, and Jediel cannot help thinking that this would have been a fantastic day had Doreen’s people been more considerate. This is not the first time he has come here. He first came here when he was a second year student, a few months after he and Doreen started dating. Their homes are only about fifty kilometers apart, so it was easy for them to visit each other during school holidays.
Doreen’s parents have always treated him like their own son; they have watched him mature, so to speak. That is why the behavior he has witnessed today is surprising. Clearly, they are out to make a profit from him. Jediel smiles sadly when he remembers that he had suggested to Doreen that they combine the white wedding and the ruracio.
“What if we combine the church wedding and the traditional wedding?” he asked a few months ago. “Why do we Africans hold two weddings anyway?”
Doreen, who had been fiddling with her phone, suddenly became alert.
“What? Are you crazy?” she shot back. “Pastor will hear none of it, neither will our parents. There are stakeholders to a wedding you know.”
“The only stakeholders to this wedding are you and me. We are the only ones stressing over money. Anybody who wants a stake in it should pay for it. About parents, my parents are game. I already talked to them. Perhaps you should talk to your parents to find out what they have to say.”
“You what! Why would you do that behind my back? What will your parents think of me?”
“My parents think you are awesome. You worry too much about what people think Doreen. We don’t have money to hold the kind of wedding that you want, and that is a fact. I am just trying to help the situation. Combining the two events will help us save on costs.”
“So how will the event flow?”
“My people come for the first visit, and that is when dowry will be negotiated and agreed upon. Once dowry is agreed on, it means that negotiations on the main day will be just a formality. That can be dispensed with within thirty minutes in the morning. When the elders announce that everything has been agreed upon, the celebration will begin. It will be basically a traditional event, but the pastor will be present to preach, pray for us and to preside over the signing of the certificate.”
“Will I be a wearing a gown?”
“It is an African wedding. You do not need a gown. We will find a classy African outfit.”
“Do you even love me? I am not getting married without my dream gown. It has to be imported from Italy.”
“I am sorry to have to tell you this Doreen, but even if we do a separate church wedding, you will have to settle for a locally sourced gown. We cannot afford that Italian gown that you want. I mean, it is just a gown, and you will wear it for a single day.”
Doreen did not talk to him for three days after that.
Once most of the people have finished eating, the MC of the day takes the microphone and declares that it is time to go to the next step. The next step, he says, is the actual negotiation amongst the elders. The negotiations will be conducted inside the house. However, he continues, the elders cannot negotiate over “something” they cannot see. The bride has to be presented first.
With a lot of drama, ten girls are presented. They are all wrapped from head-to-toe in lesos.
“How am I supposed to know the right one?” Jediel mumbles to Yusufu.
“Doreen has not given you a leak?”
“What kind of leak?”
“Maybe the color of the leso she is wrapped in, or her position on the line.”
“No I haven’t heard from her since I arrived.”
Yusufu sighs and shakes his head sadly.
“This thing is supposed to be a game. They give you a leak, but you pretend you are clueless to make the crowd happy. If you haven’t been given a leak, then this is another rip off son.”
“How do you mean?”
People are now staring at them, and excitement is building.
“You pick the wrong girl and you pay a fine.”
“I don’t know. It is up to them to decide. Now relax, smile, go out there and do your best. We will re-strategize after this.”
Jediel stands up with a forced smile on his face and walks to the front. He walks up and down the line of girls. It is difficult to make a choice. All the girls have approximately the same height, weight and body shape. And they have all been sprayed with the same perfume. The crowd is murmuring with anticipation.
Jediel sighs and picks one of the girls at random.
One of the aunts removes the lesos and the girl that is revealed is Doreen’s cousin Agnes. The crowd groans empathetically.
“Don’t you know your bride?” the MC taunts him. “You will pay a fine of thirty thousand shillings for embarrassing Doreen’s parents. Then you will come back and try again. If you get the wrong girl the second time, the penalty will be double.”
Jediel smiles broadly as he walks towards the MC. He pulls him aside and whispers into his ear.
“If you don’t cut this nonsense, I am going to walk out here and nobody, not even Doreen, will ever hear from me again,” he hisses, although he is still smiling.
“I am just doing what I was told,” the MC whispers back, clearly surprised.
“I know. I am going to get that thirty thousand and give it to you. As I do that, go and tell whoever sent you what I said. And find a creative way to confuse the crowd.”
A few minutes later, the MC makes a dramatic show of accepting the fine money from Jediel. But as the crowd cheers, mostly the people from Doreen’s side, he whispers Doreen’s position on the line to Jediel.
The negotiation is tense from the onset. Jediel has been allowed in, but he and his parents are not allowed to talk. That is a good thing, because he is seething. When the discussions were opened, the first thing that Doreen’s people did was to demand a refund for the money they spent on the food, plus the money they will use to pay the MC.
“You are the hosts, why are you charging us for the hospitality?” Yusufu asked, horrified.
“Traditionally, this is your event even if it is being held at our place,” Doreen’s uncle, Kingi, shot back.
“What tradition is that? I know the customs of our people, and some of the things I have seen here have nothing to do with tradition!” Samueli, another of Jediel’s uncles, shot back.
“Do you want the girl or not?” Kingi sneered. “Our daughter is not desperate for marriage, and we will certainly not allow her to be married into a family of misers.”
It took the intervention of Yusufu, and one of Doreen’s uncles called Hezekiah to diffuse the tension. But things did not improve much, because Kingi stuck to his guns, and insisted that the family would have to be reimbursed the ninety thousand they spent on food and the MC.
“We are not even charging you for the tents and the chairs.”
Yusufu decided to flow with the tide, and asked Kingi to go on with the negotiations. The list of demands from Doreen’s people led to a total of three million, six hundred thousand shillings. Yusufu stares at the list in disbelief. There are thirty cows each valued at fifty thousand shillings, and a hundred goats each valued at twenty thousand each. There are several other smaller items such as honey, traditional beer for elders and clothes for the parents, all listed in monetary terms.
“This number of goats and cows is too high, going by traditional standards,” he says
“Girls traditionally did not go to University, and did not hold plum jobs like our daughter,” Kingi says, and then his tone becomes conciliatory. “But dowry is never paid in a day, so give us a million and we will give our blessings for the children to conduct the wedding.”
Yusufu throws a glance and Jediel, and when he sees the storm that is building, he acts quickly.
“Give us a moment to consult, and then we will come back to you,” he says and then walks Jediel out of the room, before the younger man erupts in anger.
“You have done your best uncle, and I am grateful. But these people just want to get rich off me. Go back there and tell them that I don’t have a million to give them. Pay them the ninety thousand they are demanding for the food and tell them they can keep their daughter. I am no longer interested.”
“But son, what about Doreen? She shouldn’t suffer because of her elders.”
“She is part of this entire scheme, uncle. Believe me when I say that. Right now I am going to find her, break up with her and head back to the city. I will call you when I get there.”
Before Yusufu can say anything, Jediel walks away while dialing Doreen’s number.
(As usual, I plan to wrap this up on Friday. Get ready to grab your copy for only Kshs. 100)
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