The Male Fragility Exposed by Nyalong’s Marriage

A story has been going viral on social media (particularly on Facebook) about the extravagant marriage of Nyalong Ngong Deng from Yirol.

I wrote about it in more detail in my very first article for Kukosha Media. I highlighted the issues around high dowry demands or offers; how that drives child marriage, cattle raiding and communal conflicts. The Western media also jumped on the news bandwagon, but they inaccurately reported that Nyalong’s ‘auction’ was taking place on Facebook, when in reality, it was just widely shared and discussed on the social media platform.

Of course I had been making a bit of noise about the marriage of Nyalong on both Twitter and Facebook. But what was striking was the male tears pouring out on social media against mine, and other women’s disapproval of the marriage. Critics of the marriage were called Westernised, educated, bitter, jealous, unmarried, over 30, short, ugly, bleached, unnatural, and the mother of all insults, slay queens. Besides the hurling of insults and other types of cyber bullying, there was also the age-old ‘it is our culture’ argument.

Walls of texts and essays about why Nyalong is getting married for 500 cows, and educated women are not, and why her marriage is acceptable, despite her being underage, had furnished my Facebook wall since the news broke in late October. I was inundated with abuse both in my inbox and publicly on social media, either directly or indirectly through statuses disparaging educated women and activists, who apparently are activists for self-gratification, and not the fact that real lives are affected by practices such as child marriage and dowry inflation.

Then there were the male allies, the ‘pick me’s’ women who said that Nyalong must become their husband’s second wife and that they will support the fight for her.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion even if their opinion promotes archaic ideas. But no one is entitled to be abused for their opinion, which is something the critics of Nyalong’s marriage, particularly the women, have been subjected to.

This entire situation made me realise that even as a Dinka woman, some Dinka men genuinely believe that I should have no say over my culture. Some Dinka men also believe that any criticism I have towards some of our cultural practices, stems from my upbringing in Europe and my British education. The irony with this, is that there are men and women, who have not even been exposed to the West or Western education, who disagree with the concept of hundreds of cows being given as dowry, cars given as a form of dowry, and child marriage and lack of freedom of choice for the girl to choose her husband.

See also, the fallacy around the idea that I should be unable to say anything about a culture that I am from, and about a practice (dowry) that is required in order for me to get married. This practice, affects me and my husband to be.

Some Dinka men have really decided that they are the custodians of Dinka culture, therefore they must fight every kind opposition, even fellow Dinka women who continue to be disadvantaged by some of the cultural practices. There is a real sense of cultural ownership by the men, and I don’t even blame them for thinking so, because many practices that we carry out are quite patriarchal and usually in benefit of men.

There was also another layer of irony around the men who were fighting tooth and nail for Nyalong’s marriage, and that is the fact that they cannot afford the 350 or so cows that was ultimately paid for Nyalong.

The debate about Nyalong’s marriage is not just about women being treated as a commodity for her male relatives to sell for-profit, it’s the fact that many young men, who are earning an honest living, are struggling to get married due to this dowry inflation.

The criticism of the marriage of Nyalong, especially on my end, was not an attempt at building a campaign to discard a social practice that has benefited and strengthened ties between families for centuries, but that there are fundamental issues with Nyalong’s marriage, and many other similar marriages in South Sudan. These are issues of lack of freedom of choice in choosing a life partner, being married at an age at which you cannot consent (under 18), and the high dowry demands or offers (in a poverty-stricken country). I discuss these issues in more detail in my Kukosa Media article.

I suppose the hard line response of some men against the critics of the marriage, stems from the fact that they are either the products or beneficiaries of such marriages, i.e. they married a child or their mother was a child bride.

The self-appointed custodians of Dinka culture must realise, that the culture does not belong only to the men. They must also realise, that the abuse of existing cultural practices, is damaging. The impact of dowry and child marriage, and its effects on the socio-economical conditions of South Sudanese, are highly visible. The impact is a big pink elephant in the room, that just cannot be covered with a sheet called ‘it’s our culture.’

It is high time that we address the negative impact of some of our cultural practices, and not just constitutionally through the laws of the land, but also at the grassroots through our customary laws, elders and chiefs.

Nonetheless, the male tears that have poured since the news broke out, were plentiful to make a nice cup of tea with. And on that note, I want to close this topic (until next time).

The Girl and the 500 Cows: The Commodification of Girls in South Sudan

Originally published on Kukosha Media October 2018

The Girl and the 500 Cows: The commodification of girls in South Sudan
By Adhieu Majok

A story of a tall, beautiful girl from Yirol in the former Lakes State of South Sudan, has gone viral within the South Sudanese community on social media. The competition for 17-year-old Aluet Ngong Deng’s hand in marriage is fierce; the highest bid is currently standing at 500 heads of cattle and three motor vehicles. The competing bid stands at 350 cows.

Aluet is from the Dinka tribe, a tribe for whom cattle carry significant economic and cultural importance In Dinka culture, a man is required to pay dowry to a woman’s family before he can take her on as his wife. The man is expected to pay a certain number of cows to the woman’s family. It’s also completely normal for him to ‘compete’ for a woman against her other suitors. The determining criteria for the successful suitor is a combination of the man’s personal background, his ability to take care of his potential bride financially, and how many cows he has offered for the marriage.

Historically, dowry has been utilised in Dinka culture for social exchange; it is seen as a token of appreciation to the parents for raising a girl until womanhood. The dowry contributions don’t only come from the groom himself; his friends and relatives contribute their own share. As it stands in South Sudan, a cow may cost US $200 to $400 (depending on inflation), an expensive endeavour for men of marrying age.

But due to high inflation, poverty, and cyclical conflicts within South Sudan, dowry demands have soared. Girls and women are seen as a source of wealth for families. One or two generations ago, dowries were far more modest. But today, in the Bahr el Ghazal region where child marriage is rampant, standard dowry demands may reach up to 200 cows – between $40,000 and $80,000.

Though Aluet has been the talk amongst South Sudanese on Facebook, the news has been met with mixed views; some women have declared that they would support their husband in taking on Aluet as wife number two, while others have criticised the high dowry offers. Criticism of Aluet’s case has been met with justifications of cultural precedence, and warnings of Western influence.

Links between dowry and conflict

Aluet’s case presents a damaging continuity within South Sudan; high dowry demands. High dowry prices fuel communal conflicts and cattle raids are common in the very rural areas of the country. Despite the fact that cattle are central to the lives of so many within the country, it’s often the primary source of conflict. The dowry demands of today, prices out many South Sudanese men who are earning an honest living. Young Dinka women would traditionally be married off to other young men, not much older men, who already have several other wives. According to the World Bank’s publication, The Other Half of Gender: Men’s Issues in Development, “In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, brideprice is commonplace, and thus marriage and family formation are directly tied to having income or property.” Patriarchal societies place men as the head of their households, but if a man cannot marry, his masculinity is challenged, and he is seen as inferior to his married agemates.
Dowry, has been abused; it has commoditised women, and been utilised as a wealth generator for many South Sudanese families. high dowry demands are one of the driving forces behind girl-child marriage and inter-communal conflicts. Furthermore, the offering of such high dowries, reflects the scale of corruption taking place in South Sudan.

It is widely said (on social media) that Aluet is 17 years old. According to the South Sudan Child Act of 2008, anyone under the age of 18, is a child. The leading competitors for Aluet’s hand in marriage are all over age 40. It’s without surprise, that this case is classed as child marriage by some critics of the marriage.

The story of Aluet presents the myriad of issues gripping South Sudan; high dowry, child marriage, and corruption. Though Aluet’s story is making the headlines today, there are still many marriages taking place, placing the number of cows offered as the primary interest, and not the happiness or the wellbeing of the bride. As a South Sudanese woman, I want to reiterate that I am a being, and not an asset to be eagerly trade off as a commodity.

Sieta Adhieu Majok is a British-Dutch South Sudanese microbiologist, writer, campaigner and political analyst. Adhieu is passionate about peacebuilding and women.