Bride Wealth

The bride price or bride wealth system constitutes assumes an important role in the distribution of family property and the arrangement of exchanges and alliances among families in many socieities. This institution specifies that a prospective husband, usually with the help of his relatives, must provide a substantial sum of money or highly valued goods to his future wife's family before a marriage can be contracted. In many patrilineal societies the payment is also made for the rights to assign children to their father's family rather than to their mother’s.

Bride payments have been interpreted in numerous ways. In many cases, groups justify the practice by claiming that the wealth received compensates them for time and trouble taken to raise a daughter who will be sent off to live with another family. In others, it is viewed as compensation for the loss of a daughter's economic services or for the children she adds to her new family. For example, among the Dani of New Guinea three separate conjugal assets are recognized in transations that are separated in time. A man must make gifts of special valuables, such as pigs, shells, or stones to his wife’s family when:

  1. he first contracts a marriage and his bride starts working on his farm, 
  2. he acquires sexual rights in his wife and consummates the marriage, and 
  3. his wife bears a child.
Among the Igbo, the bride price is more narrowly thought of as a payment to acquire rights in the children of the marriage and must be returned if a woman is barren or leaves the marriage before producing children.

Photo Credit: Lewis, Herbert S.
Examining Bride Wealth, Oromo Wedding Sequence.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.
Africa Focus. 2000.

The first European observers of bride wealth arrangements concluded that it constituted an actual purchase of wife akin to buying a slave. The general anthropological interpretation is that the actual funds transferred are less significant as economic inducements or assets than as counters in a social exchange system that binds the bride's and groom's families together in the course of the marriage. Thus the exchange of material items (money, cattle, pigs) as well as of women assume mainly political and symbolic value. Sometimes they constitute a special purpose currency that can be used only for marriage payments. Bride wealth also contributes to the stability of the marriage. Since they often must be repaid if the marriage is dissolved, a woman’s family has a interest in resolving any problems between their daughter and her husband to ensure the stability of the union.

It spite of their obvious integrative importance, the value and relative scarcity of bride wealth payments does have implications for the accumulation and use of both physical and social capital. In general the need for bride payment supports the institution of polygyny, where men marry more than one wife, since it will take a man a long time to accumulate the necessary marriage wealth. In the process, older men, who have had more time to acquire the requisite resources, will be able to marry several woman before their juniors have assembled enough wealth to begin their own marital careers. Their larger families will both attest to their prestige and social status and provide them with a considerable productive base to accumulate more wealth.

The institutions of bride wealth and polygyny are present in many societies. They involve a variety of wealth forms, in many instances special items that are used exclusively for marriage payments. In some areas special valuable shells or stones are used. In others, domestic animals, such as pigs or cattle are prominent. For example, many South African societies, such as the Zulu or the Swazi, require bride payments, known as lobola, in the form of cattle, which are considered to be a special wealth object whose exchange is restricted to a few highly prominent social transactions (Kuper 1982). The marriage cattle are transferred from the groom or his family to the bride’s father or brother. However, the recipient of the payment does not fully assume the right to dispose of the animals involved. If his daughter fails to bear children or becomes divorced, he must return them to his former in-laws. He may otherwise use them to acquire wives for himself or other members of his family. A father is expected to provide first wives for his sons, although this contribution, as many other transactions in the system, sets up a debt. A son must hand over the lobola payment that he receives from his first daughter’s marriage as a repayment to his father.

In the South African system marriage cattle form the focus of an alliance system similar to one constructed through cross cousin marriage, except that cattle as well as women are systematically transferred from family to family. In some cases lobola and cross cousin marriage are interrelated.  Among the Lovedu, a man holds a special relationship to his “cattle-linked sister”, whose marriage payment he receives. He will usually use these cattle to acquire a wife of his own, a benefit for which he becomes indebted to his sister. Accordingly, he is required to give her the right to determine the marriage of one of his daughters and forgo any expectation of a bride payment. His sister may marry off her niece to her son, creating a matrilateral cross cousin marriage.

Lovedu Marriage Exchanges

She can also give her to her own husband to obtain a dependent co-wife, or may even marry her in her own right and become a female husband, within the Lovedu system of “woman marriage”.

The South African example introduces a curious problem related to the status of family and lineage groupings. The alliance theory of marriage maintains that the circulation of women and cattle binds the groups that make up the society into a system of reciprocal exchange and cooperation in which all units are equal. However, both economic and/or demographic conditions can create or support a situation in which the groups involved assume higher or lower statuses according to the number of women or the amount of cattle they possess. In the South African systems economic, political, and social inequalities are actually structural features of marriage institutions. Selected patrilineages assume aristorcratic statuses in numerous kingdoms and chiefdoms in the region and maintain and validate their leadership positions specifically in terms of the lobola system. They possess larger herds of cattle and exchange them for wives according to a pattern in which wife givers/cattle recipients are subordinate to wife takers/cattle givers. This arrangement is term hypergamy, an institution in which women marry upward rather than in an egalitarian circle. They accumulate at the top, where the major power holders benefit and enhance their status by having many wives in return for the redistribution of their cattle to lower ranking groups. High status occupants includes kings and ranks of subordinate chieftains and, sometimes, queens and other female power holders, who use their wives and cattle as political currency in the same way as their male counterparts. For example the Lovedu rain queen, regularly received wives as tribute from all the districts of her realm and their numbers may have been as high as a hundred women (Kuper 1982:72).

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba Created: May 2002
Last Modified: October 2003