Sunday, August 9, 2009

CNN needs an anthropologist

All day yesterday, the news crawler on CNN included this item:
Kenyan offers livestock dowry for Chelsea Clinton
The story as reported on CNN's web site provides more details:
(CNN) -- What can 40 goats and 20 cows buy a Kenyan man? Chelsea Clinton's love, if you ask Godwin Kipkemoi Chepkurgor.

The Kenyan man first offered the dowry nine years ago to then-President Bill Clinton in asking for the hand of his only child. He renewed it Thursday after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about the proposal at a Nairobi town hall session.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the session's moderator, commented that given the economic crisis at hand, Chepkurgor's dowry was "not a bad offer."

However, Clinton said her daughter was her own person.

"She's very independent," she said. "So I will convey this very kind offer."
Now, I don't know who introduced the term "dowry" into this context, but this is not an example of dowry as anthropologists understand it. Dowry is wealth transferred from the bride's family to the groom. Wealth transferred from the groom's family to the bride and her family is called bridewealth or sometimes bride price.

This is an important distinction, because it can be an index of the relative importance of females and males in different societies. In societies where females are highly valued, and where marriage means that a female family member's productive and reproductive output are lost to the groom and his family, bridewealth is more common. It's compensation for the loss of a female. This is the case for many traditional African cultures, including some in Kenya where the offer for Chelsea was made.

In some traditional European and Asian cultures, where females are not so highly valued, dowry serves to compensate the groom and his family for taking on the extra burden of a female. Of course, the iconic example of dowry and the problems related to it is in India, where brides whose families fail to hand over the negotiated dowry may be killed by the husband or his family. The European dowry tradition continues to be expressed in the custom of the bride's family paying for the wedding.

In small-scale societies that have little material wealth, like the Yanomama (Venezuela and Brazil) who subsist on horticulture and foraging, another way of compensating a family for loss of a valuable female is for the groom to perform bride service for his wife's family, perhaps by gathering firewood, hunting for them, or clearing the forest for their new garden. This is tricky in this case because Yanomama men are supposed to avoid their mother-in-laws at all cost.

For more on this, visit the Anthropology Tutorials web site at Palomar College.

1 comment:

  1. Dr.Martin of the Oakridge School


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