Our driver Charles has been with his “wife” Janet for many years now. They have two children and Janet lives with Charles’ mother and nephew in his family’s rural home in Machakos (where he visits one or two times a month and whenever he has holidays from work with us). This what is known here as “an African marriage” as they are not legally/officially married and Charles has never paid the dowry to Janet’s parents. This is, however, not Charles’ fault. Janet’s parents have been in an African marriage for 30 years now as her father never paid the dowry to her mother’s parents, and according to the tradition Charles cannot pay Janet’s dowry until his father has paid her mother’s dowry.
Something is happening now though…apparently, the father has managed to pay his wife’s dowry, which gives Charles and Janet the chance to get married. They had set a date for August 2010 and then cancelled it, and then they set it for December this year but something came in the way. Normally the dowry is paid over many, many years because, as the Kenyans say, “it is not like you are buying a goat”. The dowry is mostly courtesy and a gift to the parents to help them get over the “loss” of their daughter, as she then will live with the husbands family (in this case, even though that has been happening for years already).
Charles had spoken to Janet’s family and they agreed that he didn’t have to pay anything right away and they could just figure it out over the years. This happens more and more often in some tribes now. However, when December started to come closer the old men from Janet’s village disagreed with Janet’s parents’ decision and demanded that Charles would come and see them to negotiate with them. Apparently, they want a lot up front even though they have no direct connection with Janet.
This obviously embarrassed Janet’s parent and you can’t really get married without the blessing from the old men. Janet was furious, she told Charles that she didn’t even wanted to get married now and that they should stay together forever without the approval of the wazees (the old men). Charles remained calm but they did cancel the wedding (this was all communication over the phone as Janet’s parents live over 200 miles from Charles’ rural home, but they are the still from the same tribe), which we think was a big disappointment to Charles.
On a completely separate note, Lisa and I have been thinking for a long time that we should contribute to Janet’s education as a primary school teacher. Janet has amazing grades from high school and wants to be a teacher so badly, but for reasons I have never completely understood Charles priority has been to build a new house and do some other things before he would save up money for his wife’s two-year education. Her education will allow her to earn considerably more money than him and secure their family financially. Anyway, we really like Janet and think she is a very smart lady, and we also strongly believe that supporting women – and teachers - is the way to help developing countries the most. So, we’ve made an arrangement with Charles’ family and will now pay everything up front for Janet's education and he will pay off half of the costs in small increments, which will be deduced from his salary. Janet will start the 3rd of January and she, Charles and his mother are profoundly happy. Charles said one morning: “I don’t think she sleeps much these days” (out of excitement).
They haven’t told Janet’s parents yet and it is perfect timing. They will tell them when Janet enrolls in January and Charles is replaying the future conversation over and over in his head; he laughs out loud as he tells me how the conversation will go… something like this: “So Janet is going to be a teacher as I have enrolled her in a private teachers college.” The parents would then be sooo happy and say “REALLY, Charles! How much are you paying?” Charles shall then reply: “ONLY USD 2,000 (KES 160,000)!” He wants to tell people that he is richer than he is and will likely leave out our involvement in helping her attain her education. But that will give them a very good reason for why they are not getting married now: Janet is very busy getting an education!