Monday, September 25, 2006

Virtual Wedding, Real Brideprice

The BBC reports of a couple of Zimbabweans who met in London, but wanted a traditional wedding back home. They couldn't afford to go home just for the wedding – and similar couples couldn't get back into Britain if they did go home – so their relatives held a wedding ceremony in Zimbabwe for them. The wedding was complete with everything, except the bride and groom. This last point was the news hook for the BBC.

What struck me about this story, though, was that the main reason they needed a Zimbabwean service was to make sure that the brideprice was properly negotiated and paid between the families. Since this is a negotiation that the couple do not take part in even if they were at home, the couple's residence thousands of miles away was no real impediment.

An American might ask, though, if the couple have indeed made it to London, met on their own with no family help, and are not only supporting themselves, but sending money back to their families, why do they need to pay a brideprice at all? The whole social structure that created the brideprice system – where women are scarce, and her family can, in effect, sell her to her husband's family – is missing in London. If they were truly emigrants, we might think that brideprice would be one of the first customs they would want to leave behind.

But, of course, they are not emigrants, but temporary guest workers, by their own choice. They are commuting to a job from the homeplace, like tens of millions of poor people around the globe. They are like hundreds of Appalachian couples over the decades who met in Lexington or Cincinnati or even Detroit, but came back home for the wedding. But in this case, the trip itself is too expensive and legally fraught to make even for a wedding.

These Zimbabwean couples don't want to leave behind the world of brideprice. They just want to pay it in pounds.

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