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Emmanuel Gambiri, who lives in Terekeka village in South Sudan, says an educated wife in his Mundari tribe costs 50 cows, 60 goats, and 30,000 Sudanese pounds ($12,000) in cash. At that price, some men must steal livestock, says Gambiri, citing a friend who is rustling cattle to pay for a bride.
Like many countries, South Sudan, which won its independence on July 9, is grappling with inflation. Only here the rise in costs is measured in the cattle needed to pay the bride price—what a young man gives a young woman’s family for her hand in marriage. It’s a reversal of the dowry payment by the bride’s family, a practice once widespread in the West. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are valued as partners in the cultivation of crops by tribes that raise millet and other grains as well as herd cattle.
Gambiri recalls a time when wives cost as little as 12 cows, and tribal chiefs would call in the parents to broker an affordable deal. A two-decade civil war with northern Sudan has eroded traditional authority and farming, leaving a generation of young men who grew up either in the army, militias, or refugee camps. “These boys now don’t know how to cultivate. All they know how to manage well is an AK-47,” says Gambiri, 37, a program manager for a nonprofit.
With hostilities over, thousands of men have returned home, driving bride prices up 44 percent since 2005. Half the male population in rural areas can’t afford a bride, according to an unpublished Untied Nations report. Frustrated by the cost, some aspiring grooms go into debt. Others join cattle-raiding gangs. In a survey conducted last year by the UN and a Norwegian aid group, two-thirds of the respondents said men had to raid livestock to pay the bride price.
About 350,000 cattle are stolen a year, costing farmers 200 million Sudanese pounds, according to a 2010 study carried out by SNV, a nonprofit organization, for the Ministry of Animal Resources and Fisheries. In 2009 about 2,500 people were killed in cattle raids, the study estimated. The deaths set off a cycle of reprisals and tribal violence.
Some development officials question how solid the link between cattle raiding and bride price inflation is. David Gressly, acting principal deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general for South Sudan, says he is aware of “no evidence” that young men commit crimes because they want to get married. The link between the high bride price and cattle theft varies and can only be made in some areas, such as the Dinka tribal lands, according to Peter Biar Ajak, an economist at the World Bank in Washington.
The death knell for the bride price will likely be urbanization, says Siwan Anderson, a development economist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the practice. As more nomads settle in cities, roles will be reversed and the financial value will shift from the woman to the man, she says. In time a father might find that instead of receiving payment in cows, he will offer a dowry to get his daughter wed.
The bottom line: In South Sudan, the bride price has risen 44 percent since 2005, forcing many bachelors to go into debt or steal cattle to get married.