LEONARD FONG ROKA
PANGUNA - Indigenous Bougainvillean wealth was different from what we practice in this era where Westernisation has so disrupted and polarised our societies.
In that context, the three ‘G’s colonisation presented us - God, Gold and Glory - need better alignment with the traditional culture of bride price we still practice.
Bride price, for those who don’t know, is a payment of cash and goods made by a husband to his wife’s parents and relatives for marrying their daughter.
In Bougainville, a marriage is only a marriage when the husband pays the price the wife’s family has requested in the form of cash, traditional shell money and a valued pig or two.
The highest amount of bride price on Bougainville was K150,000 paid for a second wife by a rich married man on the island of Buka.
This was a rich man taking a Buka girl, but what about the many low or zero income earning young men across Bougainville? Well, the reality is that even K1,000 is too much to earn from cocoa and copra.
Either the government needs to legislate or we bride price practicing societies need to rethink and be realistic.
In nearly all corners of Bougainville, the custom of bride price exists in Buka and the atolls and in the districts of south Bougainville.
In parts of north and north-west Bougainville, excluding Selau, there is a related practice but it’s not so focussed on western cash in favour of more traditional items and methods.
The only people without this practice involving heavy cash are the Nasioi people in Central Bougainville and their closely associated language groups of Koromira and Eivo.
The Post-Courier newspaper of 2 September 2019 carried a story entitled ‘Death used for profit irks leader’ that said: “Even your bride price is way too much. Those who have money are setting benchmarks for others, who cannot match, so you fuel jealousy and trouble in the villages”.
The reality of the bride price on Bougainville today is that there is no mutuality of creating harmonious coexistence between the families of spouses that there was in the past. It has delegitimised the meaning of marriage and impoverished families, especially as Bougainville is in economically desperate times.
Bougainvillean communities enforce bride price differently. As a Nasioi man married in the Buin district I have a few insights of the practices in Buin.
The Buin people are patrilineal. The enforcement of the bride price is a serious matter to them since the husband is taking a woman away from her parents to profit his clan and family.
I have experienced Buin families coming into my neighbourhood in Panguna to strip husbands of their Buin wives and children for non-payment of bride price.
I have also heard of a wife’s mother landing on the doorstep of the son-in-law demanding the payment then and there. This poor man ran from house to house of his relatives to collect the funds and hand them over to his mother-in-law.
The highest amount of the cash component of a bride price I have heard about in Buin is K7,000. This excludes related expenses of transport, food, a live pig and so on.
The ugliest part of the custom is that the people in Buin rely on their land for a living and not on the cash economy as in urban areas. And their main cash crop, cocoa, is seasonal. Thus cash is scarce compared to urban areas. There is so little money that entire villages still have the traditional sago thatched roofs.
For many men, this contemporary custom is a burden. So many Buin men marry outside Buin where the price tag is not so exorbitant. They say it’s time the government stepped in and made laws to force the people to be realistic.
There is also dishonesty and disrespect involved in this practice. A male son may have paid K500 for his wife but, for his sister, the family charges the husband K5,000. There should be uniformity.
Panguna, where I live now, is a Nasioi society. If the Panguna husband is to marry a Buin woman, he has to find the requested cash, say K4,000. Then he has to hire a truck (K2,000) to transport his friends and family to witness the occasion. He also has to feed the entourage and pay those who may assist him on tasks associated with the paying of bride price.
This all adds up and many Bougainvilleans find it financially paralysing.
Having observed developments in this custom for four years now, and having exchanged views with men and women subjects of this practice, I’ve gleaned some recommendations our societies that families should think about.
An educated Buin woman first captured my attention in 2015 when she told me that she was having a bad time with her parents over non-payment of bride price by her unemployed non-Bougainvillean husband. She said that whenever she went home her parents and relatives jumped on her about this.
She was the one who first pointed out to me that the virginity of the female should be the determining factor of the amount of cash in a bride price. She said the Bougainville government should legislate that a woman who is virgin fetch above K1,000 and those with previous sexual relations should get below K100.
Others sounded said that the cash part of bride price should be calculated on the amounts men can earn. This is because, if the husband decides to end the marriage and reclaim the bride price and associated expenses, the family should have the capacity to repay.
In this day and age, life needs money to run smoothly so it is bad practice to charge thousands of kina for a woman when her husband should be concentrating on earning cash to care for his wife and children.
The Bougainville family, community, and political leaders should step in to reshape this bride price custom that silently stings most of our male citizens. It should be made more lenient so as to promote harmony within families. That’s the most important thing.