Marriage can be hard for all of us. A friend of mine, we’ll call him Charles, works far away from home. One day he told me his wife had left him. ‘She has gone back to her mother. What’s worse, she left the children behind and there is nobody taking care of them.’ I felt terrible when he said they were having to cook, clean and get themselves to school. I asked, ‘How can I help?’
He asked me to mediate. I soon discovered the problem came down to the bride price. When Charles had married some years before, he had agreed to pay a dowry of three cows to the woman’s family. The debt had not been settled. When I visited the father-in-law he complained, ‘I’ve never had even a goat or a sheep from him — and he’s got three kids out of her!’
‘Surely, a man must be given time after he marries to pay the bride price,’ I argued. ‘A few years is nothing.’ The reason is that when a man ties the knot he is still too young to have accumulated wealth. And everybody feels better about paying up after a few children have come into the world.
‘Yes — but she’s my favourite daughter. And, besides, Charles has offended his mother-in-law.’
‘Oh dear, that’s bad,’ I said.
The old man nodded, ‘Yes — things are bad.’
It turned out that the old woman had ordered her daughter home. When I said I thought it was outrageous the children were the victims here, the elder just shrugged.
I took Charles off to one side. ‘I don’t understand. Why would your wife obey her mother like this? Even if she respects her elders she doesn’t have to do everything they tell her — she’s your wife and she has her own children now.’ I was baffled by the whole story but, later, a woman I know lectured me: ‘It’s our way. You must respect what your parents say. You don’t understand because you’re a mzungu.’
After some quick thinking, I returned to the father-in-law. ‘Right, old man, we are ready to pay you one cow — a fat steer — but it will take a week or so to get. But we want your daughter to get on the next bus back to the children. The other two cattle, well, we’ll discuss when those come later.’
The elder agreed, and I felt pleased with myself. But several days later the wife still hadn’t climbed on the bus. ‘The mother-in-law is the problem. She wants a white heifer, not a steer,’ Charles sadly revealed.
At that I lost my temper. I had thought we’d get away with supplying a low-grade steer from the market, but to shut the woman up I now realised I’d have to help Charles by handing over a pedigree Boran beast from among my own beloved animals. It annoyed me intensely when the elders sniffed at the first offer from my herd. But finally, after plenty of window-shopping, they agreed to one magnificent creature that broke my heart to let go.
The cow left and the wife went home — and it was only then that I heard the rumours. Charles, so the story went, had been caught in flagrante with a girlfriend. The furious wife revealed all to her mother, who said, ‘You come home, dearie.’ Abandoning the children was a nasty thing to do but, whether the reports were true or not, it certainly made Charles wake up immediately.
For me, the demand for a heifer was the giveaway. I recalled the famous tale of the man who had slept with his wife’s mother, her married sister and two unmarried sisters. To avoid being castrated by the irate family, he was forced to pay compensation of a cow for his mother-in-law, a goat for his married sister-in-law and two lambs for the unmarried females.
Of course, Charles denies everything. Who cares? A cow has given Charles another chance. But I did get worried when Charles looked greedily at my herd of 150 cattle. ‘Oh, no, you don’t,’ I warned.