Why Don't We Modernise the Dinka (Jieng) Marriage System

"Little wonder then that so many Jieng are appalled to read headlines like “girl auctioned”, “bride-sale” and “slave market” in relation to their marriage system."

 Asks Mawan Muortat

The case of Nylong has drawn unprecedented attention to this ancient institution. Much of this has been naive and misguided. We can excuse outsiders. They simply have no clue. We can also excuse some of our young, who because of the upheavals of the last few decades, were raised or were even born far away from home. And so, they too have no clue.

These attacks have angered many who feel that a good solid institution that has served the people very well down the ages is being unfairly tarnished by misinformed outsiders and brainwashed members of the community. But is this stance justifiable especially as the debate has divided the community, setting women against men and the young against the old.

The critics have posed a very sound question: Should we defend a practice simply because it can be termed "traditional"? Is something a good thing just because it has been around for a long time?
These questions need to be answered convincingly.

The Current System
Marriage exists because Jieng like all people must procreate while keeping the peace. But procreating for the Jieng has an additional religious worth. It is a second gate into immortality. People know their genealogies by heart. Often, up to two dozen generations back. The worse tragedy that can befall a family is for their member to die childless. Such people must be immortalised through the Jieng equivalent of the ancient Hebrew "Levit marriage" system. Here the family entrusts a male member to father children for the deceased (besides his own), by entering a union with the deceased widow, if present, or by marrying a new wife in his name. In this way, the deceased is immortalised just like everyone else in society. Genealogies become clans and clans become villages and villages become Jieng sections and the sections become the people.

From strangers to relatives
Marriage in the Jieng language is "Ruääi". This in English could be translated as "becoming related" or "becoming relatives". It is a union between (not only two people but) two extended families. It involves the exchange of wealth (dowry) that moves from the groom's family to the bride's family.

The bride’s family lose their daughter physically. She essentially goes away to live with her husband’s family. It is usually a great loss for the family. That is why the bride, her sisters, little brothers and other members in the family's homestead grieve on the wedding day. The bride’s family also lose a member of their clan. The children their daughter will have will belong to her husband's clan, not hers. This is a great loss. Her talents, energy and productivity will be lost to the groom's family. This is why they are compensated with cows - the dowry. The bride's family will not spend the dowry, as if it were money, on luxuries, entertainment and the like, but invariably on finding brides for their own sons.

In acquiring the agreed dowry, relatives from the groom's paternal clan and his close maternal relatives join hands. When the dowry is received at the other end by the bride’s family, it is shared out among relatives according to the same rules. This strongly regulated reciprocity binds Jieng extended families together and by extension binds the whole society together.

When I visit Rumbek and meet my cousins, I am always struck by how closely-knit they still are. They all know each other. They know where in their genealogies they are connected. They are usually in each other company and, where not possible, always knowledgeable of each other whereabouts.
Tamper with the marriage system and risk destabilizing the whole society! Little wonder then that so many Jieng are appalled to read headlines like “girl auctioned”, “bride-sale” and “slave market” in relation to their marriage system.

Clash with Modernity
Independent Women
Education and other modern opportunities have empowered many girls. After marriage, many of them can end up as the breadwinners in their homes and sometimes be wealthy enough to support both her husband’s family as well as her own. This change is challenging the old reciprocity order.

Money Spoils
The exposure of the Jieng to money and its incorporation into the marriage system has distorted the marriage system. Add to this the displacements of peoples and their impoverishment as a result of the wars. All these are helping to commercialise the marriage system. With families being tempted and pushed into profiteering through the marriage system.

Women Liberation
Women liberation ideas have not only influenced educated Jieng women but have been heard throughout the hinterland. The concept of romantic love has swept the land and is threatening the old order that valued consensus over individual choice. Some women want to be immortalised too. Why should Jieng genealogies be composed of men only, they argue.

Nothing is Sacred
These and more other modern challenges are too significant to repel by evoking the sanctity of tradition and culture.

Give the Brides a Slice of the Cake
One win-win solution I would suggest is to split the dowry and give one slice (a third or half) to the bride to help towards the financial foundation of her home. It could be in the form of a house (property) or a fund for her children. This would alleviate the hardship many young families are exposed to and aid the long-term viability of the new family itself – which has been rocked of late by modernity and instability. It could ensure the continuity of Jieng marriage institution and all the advantages it gives.

Posted in: Opinions
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