Marriage is a critical rite of passage in South Sudanese culture, whether living in the diaspora or in South Sudan. It is important in bringing together kinship groups and the community at large. An important aspect of marriage is the dowry. Although the practice differs from one community to the next, it generally includes the exchange of an agreed amount of cash equivalent to a particular number of animals. The grooms family gives this amount to the brides family as part of the process towards marriage. The dowry system, although an important tradition, is increasingly becoming unsustainable, particularly among south Sudanese in the diaspora.
Animals have been used by many South Sudanese communities as the means through which social relations, in particular, marriage is mediated. According to Fanjoy (2014), the introduction of a cash-based economy during the colonial period, mass migration and reduction in cattle during the two civil wars in South Sudan between 1955-1972 and 1983-2005 led a major shift in bride-wealth practices. The reduction in cattle led to a shift towards a cash-based dowry system as animals, particularly cows, became harder to obtain. However, whether in the diaspora or South Sudan, one can pay solely in terms of cash or a mixture of cattle and cash. The dowry is usually paid in cash where most of the in-laws live in cities or overseas (Madut-Kuendit & Anei, 2011). However, it is not practiced by all tribes.
In case of divorce, part of the dowry can be returned. Although this practice is catered for by the customary law in South Sudan, in the diaspora, there is no recognition of dowry hence no legal ground for returning it. In South Sudan, both families try their best to salvage the marriage before divorce (Madut-Kuendit & Anei, 2011). The same occurs in the diaspora as the family back in Sudan will be forced to return the bride price if the couple living in the diaspora divorce. Given that the bride-wealth would have been spent by the time of divorce, the woman can have a lot of pressure to stay in a marriage for fear of the repercussions. Additionally, dowry ensures that the children become members of the husbands family, hence in the case of divorce, it can be confusing for people in the diaspora as to who should stay with the kids (Fanjoy, 2014). Child custody hearings become complicated as the law in the diaspora does not recognize dowry or its implication for children.
The Dinka and Nuer communities of South Sudan share numerous characteristics regarding bride-wealth exchange. According to Fanjoy (2014), both communities highly value dowry as a way of formalizing the marriage and building and maintaining relationships within and between families. Additionally, they are among the communities with the highest bride prices. The least that can be paid in 30 cattle, with each cow being equivalent to A$ 350- A$800 (Juuk, 2013). The Acholis traditionally paid dowry in the form of tobacco, food and animal skins. These differences in bride price may cause difficulties when people from different ethnic groups marry. These items may not be available in the diaspora, hence their cash equivalent is accepted. For the south Sudanese, marriage is not a one-day event where the marital and legal status of the couple change, but is a process of negotiation and exchange that where every ceremony enhances the kinship ties between families.
Marriage is a rite of passage into adulthood for both men and women. A young man is only considered as a true man after he has managed to get married, procreate and set up a household. On the other hand, a girl becomes a woman through childbirth and marriage (Fanjoy, 2014). The exchange of dowry formalizes the marriage, hence, South Sudanese men and women in the diaspora feel the pressure to ensure that the dowry is paid, as the inability to come up with an agreeable dowry results in remaining single. Given the importance of marriage in the identity of South Sudanese men and women, the inability to pay dowry can be a source of stress.
South Sudanese men in the diaspora have the choice to marry non-Sudanese women, Sudanese women living in the diaspora or go back to South Sudan to get a marriage partner. According to Fanjoy (2014), most men prefer choosing a bride from South Sudan which is time-consuming and expensive. In Canada, the immigration process to bring the bride from Sudan to Canada may take two to three years and the bride-wealth exchange will necessitate great expense and travel back and forth. However, many young men prefer this time consuming and expensive way of getting a bride as many of them believe that the South Sudanese women in the diaspora are not marriageable. The traditional wife from South Sudan becomes the preferred choice.
Diaspora men marrying women from South Sudan have to endure long-distance relationship. The girl is usually chosen among the many girls introduced to him by his parents when in his visits to South Sudan. On agreeing on the girl that he thinks is appropriate, the bride-wealth exchange negotiations start (Fanjoy, (2014). On the other hand, the parents may choose a girl they think is appropriate and start engagements with her on behalf of their son. This usually occurs in the Greater Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal States. Particular traits such as beauty, intelligence, and family background are considered while choosing a girl (Dowries in Australia: negotiating a wife, 2015). For the Dinka, the marriage process involves engagement, negotiation, acceptance, and exchange of dowry. The same is experienced in the Diaspora. Disagreement in the bride price halts the marriage, and the couple will not be considered married (Dowries in Australia: negotiating a wife, 2015). The young men living in the diaspora have to work more than one job for years to raise the bride price, increasing pressure on them.
The dowry system is a source of conflict for many youths in the diaspora. For instance, in Australia, a couple are legally recognized as married once they have the marriage certificate. However, if the man has not paid the dowry to the brides family, the marriage will not be recognized by their South Sudanese family. Given the increasing bride price and the challenging economic conditions of many young people living in the diaspora, couples may find paying the bride price highly challenging. However, most of these couples still hope to meet their traditional obligations to their brides family (Dowries in Australia: negotiating a wife, 2015). As such, despite being miles away from South Sudan, South Sudanese living in the diaspora still feel the impact of their culture.
Dowry is considered as a means of securing the marriage. Many South Sudanese, regardless of whether they live in the diaspora or in South Sudan consider bride price as a way of expressing love. According to them, a person who truly loves their bride will pay dowry (Dowries in Australia: negotiating a wife, 2015; Fanjoy, 2014). A man does not have to pay the dowry alone as others, particularly his family and friends, can help. As such, not only does it symbolize the love of the man to the woman, but the bride price also facilitates the growth, development, and maintenance of broad networks composed of people who helped the groom in paying the bride price.
South Sudanese living in the diaspora usually face challenges in converting the bride price into the currency of their adopted home. Inflation and the increased bride price over the past two decades have resulted in having one cow becoming equivalent to approximately US$1000 (Dowries in Australia: negotiating a wife, 2015). This amount is not the equivalent amount of the cost of a cow in South Sudan, but is a combination of cattles status price and the growing amount of money from the diaspora that is injected into the marriage market (Madut-Kuendit & Anei, 2015). Therefore, bride price becomes almost untenable for many men living in the diaspora.
The conditions of young South Sudanese men and women living in the diaspora is not the same as their counterparts living in South Sudan. The men have to work more than one job to be able to pay the dowry for their brides. The overvaluation of cattle has caused some South Sudanese living in the diaspora to be unable to fulfill their obligations. Therefore, although the dowry system is very important in the culture and identity of South Sudanese living in the diaspora, the excessive bride price imposed on them is unsustainable. Considerations of the living conditions of these youth ought to influence the bride price to avoid overburdening the young men and resistance to the tradition.
Dowries in Australia: negotiating a wife [Video file]. (2015, September 22). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-hfuY29C9c&t=16s
Fanjoy, M. (2014). Cattle, Money and the Search for "Good Girls": Shifting Gender Relations and Transnational Marriages among South Sudanese Refugees in Canada. In K. M. Kilbride (Ed.), Immigrant integration: Research implications for future policy (pp. p. 295-308).
Juuk, B. (2013). South Sudanese Dinka customary law in comparison with Australian family law: Legal implications for Dinka families. Australasian Review of African Studies, 34(2), 99-112.. Retrieved from https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=684894680552533;res=IELIND>
Madut-Kuendit, L. A., & Anei, L. (2015). The Dinka history: The ancients of Sudan: from Abuk and Garang at creation to the present day Dinka (2nd ed.). Osbourne, Australia: Africa World Books.
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