In case you have never heard of the name James Mayaka. Let’s do a quick introduction of him, he’s the secondary school teacher in Kisii who did what most men would think twice about: demanding refund of bride price.
While in years gone by Mayaka would have dispatched some wazee to his wife’s rural home to renegotiate reimbursement, the 45-year-old went to court. The father of two successfully sued for compensation and refund of bride price after his wife, Everline Kerubo, for whom he paid college fees, eloped with another man after five years of marriage.
The Marriage Act Supplementary of April 3, 2017 has provided for registration of customary marriage, making it easier for any party in the marriage to seek legal redress without involving elders.
Mayaka had spent Sh209,000 on his estranged wife’s college education, having earlier paid Sh120,000 as bride price, totaling to Sh329,000. The Kisii court on February 17, 2015 dissolved the marriage and ordered his 43-year-old wife to refund half the total amount which rose to Sh205,000, interests included. He said justice had been served as “huwezi lisha ng’ombe mwingine akamue” (you can’t feed the cow for another to milk it).
Mayaka is not alone. Late last year, Solomon Birgen, 35, from Narok stirred his father-in-law’s home in Suswa when he went for a refund of the bride price.
Birgen’s marriage collapsed after two years over what he termed irreconcilable differences and after negotiation with his in-laws and elders, it was agreed he be refunded.
“Everything had been amicably agreed upon and I was to receive refund of the money and cows in installments at specified periods,” recalled Birgen. “Unfortunately, they dishonoured the promise, arguing that I used their daughter and wasted her time.”
Birgen went amok and it took the intervention of elders when the tussle spiralled out into a fistfight. He threatened to come with elders from his side to claim everything to the last coin he gave the family of the wife.
Then there was the case of Salim Mutwiwa Twota who sued Rehema Dzuya, his wife of 12 years, for abandoning him for another man. The Kadhi’s court instructed Rehema to return to her husband, but she filed for divorce on grounds that she hated him and promised to refund the bride price. Her wishes were granted by the court. Salim had paid her bride price with furniture worth Sh40,000. Their marriage was annulled in January 2016. Salim and Rehema were childless.
Just why do some men demand refund of bride price? Well, some communities allow it, like the Kalenjins, where when a marriage collapses, the bride price paid is refunded, including young animals born while it lasted. But in case some of the animals paid as bride price died, then they were not replaced with living ones.
In Bukusu tradition, children belong to the father. If bride price had been paid and the couple divorced, then, refund of bride price took into account the number of children. For each child, an animal is subtracted from the total number paid (since bride price is traditionally paid in the form of livestock) and only a number representing the net bride price is refunded.
But while in western Kenya it appears normal for men to take to their in-laws agitating for refunds when their unions went south, in Central Kenya, it is not very common, despite bride price being one of those near-mandatory payments to ‘buy a woman’ and make her the future mother of your children.
Samuel Kamitha, the director general of the Gikuyu and Mumbi Cultural Museum explains that after a mwati and harika (ewe and billy goat) have been given to the woman’s family and the two families share njohi ya njurio (liquor for asking hand in marriage), the marriage takes a path unlikely to make a turnaround.
“Kikuyu traditional marriage is an oathing and at no point can you send your wife away. Even if she becomes a nuisance or cheats, you can only build a separate house for her and her children, but she will remain your wife,” says Kamitha, adding that it is the sanctity of the oath that restrains many from rushing to court for redress for fear of facing ‘the consequences.’
“Dishonouring ruracio (bride price) comes with severe consequences, such as losing children after birth, ailments or leading an unsuccessful life. In case a party is offended, there are procedures council of elders follow to sort it out without necessarily creating a scene,” says Kamitha whose sentiments are echoed by Kikuyu Council of Elders secretary general Rev Peter Munga who says sending back a woman with children to her parents is tantamount to messing her life as she is unlikely to get another suitor.
It was the same among the Kisiis, to whom refund of bride price was an uphill task as Ekegusii traditions deemed divorce or refund of bride price an alien thing. Even stubborn wives were never sent back to their folks, instead, they were apportioned land and a house built for them.
But seeking refund of bride price is not new and stretches back to even after Kenya’s independence.
There was the case of Ndanga Muasa vs Kimulu Syengo of 1971 in which Muasa demanded repayment of Sh953 bride price and a Sh20 goat he paid in 1962 for Syengo’s daughter.
The case went through two trials before the High Court ruled that “since the case was premised on Kamba customary law, the bride price had to be repaid when there is a divorce”.
In January 1974, one Onchiri Mariera sued his ex-wife seeking custody of their three children after a divorce. The marriage was governed by customary law thus; “custody of children is governed by bride price (cattle paid)”.
The ruling was premised on the law thus; “The herd of cattle are deducted by the woman’s parents for every child taken by the father, but when children are more than two, only half the bride price is refundable to the husband”.