Wives, Cows, & Marriage

In Masai culture, when a man wants to get married, he must give the bride’s parents a large number of cows. Early anthropologists called this “bride price,” but this designation was a total misunderstanding. The man is not buying the bride. Later anthropologists called it “progeny price” because the young man can marry the woman before he gives all the cows, but her children belong to her father until the agreed number of cows is given. This too is incorrect.

Women and cows are valued most highly in Masai society because they give birth to life. When a man gives cows to his prospective father-in-law, he is giving the most valuable gift he can give in exchange for the gift of the woman to his extended family. The larger the number of cows he gives, the more the young man values the marriage, so he seeks to give as many as possible. In order to gather ten or twenty cows, he works and raises some, his father contributes several, and his uncles, cousins, and brothers add a few. The father-in-law keeps some of the cows given as an expression of gratitude for giving his daughter to the young man, and the rest he distributes to his brothers, sons, and others in the extended family. 

This web of gift exchanges shows the value of women in the community and provides them with a great measure of security, for a woman has the cows to provide for her necessities if her husband leaves her. If a man tries to divorce his wife, all his male relatives upbraid him for being a bad husband, because they don’t want to have to give the cows back. If the young woman wants to leave her husband, her female relatives all admonish her to be a better wife.

In Masai culture divorce rates are low.

Paul Heibert (2008)

One thought on “Wives, Cows, & Marriage

  1. If I am getting this right, the divorce rate is low because the extended family has material assets (cows) at stake in the marriage, which motivate them to support the marriage, and not contribute to it’s demise.

    Liked by 1 person

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