For nearly a year now, Aimé Kwete has been preparing to marry his fiancée. 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’, a route young Congolese are more and more being forced to take.
By Alice Bafiala, Kinshasa
“I hope my marriage will take place within the timeframe that I have set,” says Aimé Kwete, a 37-year-old Congolese man 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 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 organize 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 a suitor to pay a dowry to the relatives of his future wife. The dowry traditionally comprises a certain amount of cash and goods, such as clothes for the bride’s parents, cows, goats, beverages, kitchen utensils and blankets. In recent years, the dowry value has been on the rise.
And as far as Aimé Kwete is concerned, his in-laws’ demands are unrealistic.
“The dowry was initially set at 1,500 US dollars,” he recalls, “but I finally managed to have it reduced to 1,000. In the past, 500 to 700 dollars was enough. But my family-in-law would not accept anything below 1,000 dollars. Because of my love for [my girlfriend], I will pay up, despite the fact that the amount is exorbitant,” says Kwete.
He is facing an additional 1,500 dollar bill for the goods.
For fear of having to wait indefinitely for their union to be sealed, and concerned about menopause, Dodo Walo, 34, chose to have children with her partner without getting married. Here, having a baby in order to earn the right to cohabitate unmarried is called a mariage raccourci, 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 Walo 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. Twenty years ago, the practice was almost unheard of.
Walo and her partner have been engaged for five years, and now have three children. Others, notably her mother, are helping 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,” explains 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 what little he can to their daily needs. Having dinner at his mother-in-law’s home every night, he sees his wife and children very regularly.
Blow to tradition
Mariage raccourci, which has become quite popular among youth in Kinshasa, is frowned on by those who attach importance to the institution of marriage and family values, in general. Among such people are Walo’s neighbours, a couple who believe that poverty does not justify starting a family without being married.
“[Unmarried cohabitation] 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 organization,” 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.”
But Walo’s own mother, who is well in her 50s, understands her daughter's difficulties. Living off a modest civil servant salary, she does her best to cater to the needs of her progeny. It was she who raised the money to send Walo’s eldest daughter to school.
Despite the support, Walso 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.