Monday, May 21, 2007


When the trend first emerged in the 1990s, many traditionalists in the North Eastern Province shrugged it off as western civilisation that would not survive in a conservative Somali community.

But the mantra of those ready to be married in North Eastern province of Kenya has become a condition — no gold no marriage.

Instead of the few head of cattle that would have been given as dowry to the bride’s family, today’s generation will accept nothing short of gold. Ironically, the older generation has given a nod to the gold trend.

Some 20 years ago, furnishing a herio (Somali traditional hut), with utensils and beddings was all a man was required to do and he would be allowed to marry.

Dowry, according to the Somali tradition, could be paid immediately or at a later date depending on the agreement reached between the bride and the groom’s families.

Then, with as little as Sh50, 000, a man could be entitled to up to four wives as religion (Islam) stipulates, says councillor Mohammed Nur.

It now appears the new generation is bent on discarding the tradition and making Somali marriages among the most expensive ventures in the world.

Display of splendour and opulence

Besides the gold obsession, a potential husband has to furnish his home with state-of-the-art furniture to welcome the bride. The man has to budget for a number of vehicles. The convoy will drive up and down the streets hooting while the occupants, mainly women, drum and ululate.

A lavish party is then thrown. Some families have gone to the extent of taking over hotels and hiring music bands for such occasions.

It has become a norm to display splendour and opulence, in sharp contrast with the traditional way where the bride was kept indoors the whole day and taken to her husband during the night.
"How do you announce to the world that those marrying are not just anyone?" posed the mother of a recently married woman. "It is a way to appreciate their worth."

But it is the idea of asking for gold before women accept to get married that boggles the mind in a province ranked the second poorest in the country — only second to Nyanza.

Not even the extravagant sharp price seems to diminish the lust for the shinny gems.
Eloping is unheard of in the community.

Indeed, those whose dowry was three heifers can be spotted with some gold jewellery on their body after imploring their traditionalist husbands to sail with time.

It is not uncommon to find a herdsgirl with gold hanging around her heck. Eloping is unheard of in the community. Neither does Islam advocate non-formal marriages.

"It is either you marry or stay away from women. Period!" a religious leader said.

But men are complaining that their efforts to start families have been curtailed by women’s demands. Many of them remain single because of poverty — they cannot afford the set of gold rings, necklaces and bracelets.

Incidents abound of marriages cancelled at the eleventh hour over a man’s failure to strike gold.
One such victim is Nurdin, who said he had shelved plans to marry after his would-be-wife’s relative protested at his failure to furnish the house and provide gold .

"It was embarrassing, devastating and shocking. The metal became a stumbling block to our intended marriage, if I can’t raise the money required to buy gold, I don’t see myself marrying very soon," he said.

Those who meet the gold demands do so after great sacrifices.

Some women will ask for a gold jewellery set costing up to Sh 200, 000 — exclusive of other wedding expenses — while some will do with a set of Sh20, 000.

Demand aimed at minimising divorce

The financial burden often overcomes some men. There are those still servicing loans secured to finance their weddings.

Some men who are unable to afford gold jewellery buy silver or gold-coated jewellery, but they are usually deserted when their tricks are discovered.

But why the gold craze? "Women are demanding it as a matter of pride and appreciation of their own beauty," says a woman who requested anonymity.
A recently married woman, however, said the gold demand is aimed at minimising divorce.

"Divorce is rampant here. Many part ways barely a year into the marriage. Gold can be sold to start business in case a man walks out on you", she said.

Records at Wajir Kadhi’s court bear her witness.

"At least 30 couples part ways every month," the local Kadhi, Sheikh Bulle, said. I used to grant at least one divorce a day," the retired Kadhi said.

Looking at the lavish weddings and the demand for gold, there is an obvious similarity with Indian marriage. In a province choked with Indian movies, the splendour fever exhibited in the Indian weddings seems to have caught up with the Somali community.

Gold craze goes against culture and religion

And they seem at ease with the Indian lifestyles than western practices.

India is reported to buy at least a fifth of all world’s gold each year, making it the largest consumer of the precious metal. Most of their gods are carved in gold.

Experts estimate that 15, 000 to 20, 000 tonnes of bars, ingots and jewellery is locked in Indian bank vaults and household safes.

They are regarded as tangible assets in a country that mistrusts banks and local stock market, Times magazine reported.

NEP is far from reaching such consumption levels but they could easily catch up.

Vocal religious leaders are not amused with the unfolding state of affairs, saying it goes against the tenets of the Somali culture and religion.

They accuse the parents of inciting their children and commercialising marriage.

"The precedent will leave many young men and women single and we fear the trend could lead to immorality and spread of HIV/Aids", says Sheikh Abduwahab Mursal, the secretary of Imams and preachers in Wajir.

Drought claims thousands of livestock

Sheikh Abduwahab says in case of a divorce, the woman keeps everything while the man walks away with his clothes.

Demand for gold and furniture could have been triggered by the sporadic drought that usually claims thousands of livestock.

Livestock, which has traditionally has been the mode of dowry payment, is no longer regarded as a tangible asset. That is why residents now demand gold, which is durable.

"Which man can contemplate abandoning you for another with all the expenses incurred?" posed another woman during her wedding preparations.
Most shops in NEP and sprawling Eastleigh estate in Nairobi-kenya have been stocking gold jewellery to cash in on the new trend.

In most weddings, the bride turns up glittering in gold necklaces, bangles and earrings.

"Families have been broken up by gold", a jewellery dealer in Garissa confided, "But it is good business for us.