17 October 2012

Congo-Kinshasa: Getting Married in Congo - Mission Impossible?

Aimé Kwete has been preparing to marry his fiancée for almost a year now. He attributes the delay to the fact that, so far, he hasn't been able to pay the dowry to his in-laws. He will, however, not resort to a 'shortcut marriage', an increasingly popular 'bypass' for young Congolese forced by exorbitant dowries.

"I hope my marriage will take place within the timeframe that I have set," says Aimé Kwete, a 37-year-old Congolese man, who is still living with his parents in the capital Kinshasa. "Based on my current income, I think it is a reasonable [timeframe]."

Kwete was forced to postpone the wedding a couple of times because of the costs involved. "I need to raise enough money to move into a new place, pay the dowry to the in-laws, and organise all the ceremonies - traditional, civil and religious. Also, I need to save money to ensure a relatively decent family life."

Dowry on the rise

It is customary in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the suitor to pay a dowry to the relatives of his future wife. The dowry traditionally consists of a certain amount of cash, and goods such as clothes for the bride's parents, cows, goats, beverages, kitchen utensils, blankets, etc. In recent years, the amount of the dowry has been on the rise.

As far as Aimé Kwete is concerned, his in-laws' demands are unrealistic. "The dowry was initially set at 1,500 US dollar," he recalls, "but I finally managed to have it reduced to 1,000 dollars. In the past, 500 to 700 dollar used to be enough. But my family-in-law would not accept anything below 1,000 dollar. Because of my love for [my girlfriend], I will pay up, despite the fact that the amount is exorbitant," says Kwete, who is facing an additional 1,500 dollar bill for the goods.

'Shortcut marriage'

For fear of having to wait indefinitely for the union to be sealed, and concerned about the menopause, Dodo Walo, 34, chose to have children with her partner without getting married. Having a baby in order to earn the right to live together outside marriage is called a 'shortcut marriage'. "We decided to have children because we are in love, but he does not have enough money to ask for my hand," says Dodo with a smile.

In a city where the unemployment rate is above 60 percent, very few men can afford the dowry, according to a study by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The survey, which was conducted in the early 2000s, states that 40 percent of couples aged between 23 and 35 opt for the 'shortcut marriage'. Twenty years ago the practice was almost unheard of.

No choice

Dodo and her partner have been engaged for five years, and now have three children. Others, especially her mother, are helping her bringing them up. Living together with the father of her children is still not an option. "I cannot leave my mother's house to move in with him, since he's living at his friend's place," says Walo. "So for the moment I decided not to have any more children."

Her partner, who has occasional painting jobs, is there for his children, and contributes to the daily needs what little he can. As he has dinner at his mother-in-law's every night, he sees his wife and children very regularly.

Walo's mother, who is well in her fifties, understands the couple's difficulties. Living off a modest civil servant salary, she does her best to cater for the needs of her daughter and grandchildren. She raised the money to send Walo's eldest daughter to school. Despite the support, the young unmarried mother says her life remains difficult. "I go through all this because I don't have a choice. But I deeply wish to get out of this situation," she says.

Blow to tradition

The 'shortcut marriage', which has become quite popular amongst the youth in Kinshasa, is frowned upon by those who attach importance to marriage and family values in general, such as Walo's neighbours, a couple who believe that poverty does not justify starting a family without being married.

"[Living together is] the consequence of debauchery," says Robert Lutonde. "Marriage is sacred. As far as the dowry is concerned, people should compromise. Not everyone can afford to pay the whole amount at once. But you can pay in instalments. That way, you will at least have the parents' blessings."

"It's a lack of organisation," Lutonde's wife, Jeanne adds. "I think people can wait even 40 years if they don't have the means to get married. They should take time to prepare instead of having babies without the financial means to take care of them."

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