Marriage and Music

samfloy~23 February 2017 /East Africa/East Africa Culture

At the weekend I was invited to my friends’ wedding.

They’re getting married in her home village near the Ugandan border towards the end of the year and as we went into the details of how it was all being arranged I found myself asking question after question, so this post is about that.

It also explained the lyric in a Kenyan song I’ve been listening to recently which, up to now, hadn’t really made much sense.

How do people get married in England?

Whilst we were sat around having dinner and the topic of marriage came up, this is what Tracey asked me.

I said that on the whole, the traditions of an engagement/ marriage were (on the whole) something which people adhered to loosely, depending on their current relationship. Often a couple would be living together for years before he (it is still usually he) pops the question.

In some cases, I said, the guy would ask permission from the bride-to-be’s father, though it’s likely that the topic will have come between the couple before then.

There is (I think) some notion of the bride’s family paying for the wedding, though my feeling was that nowadays most people would choose to split it down the middle.

So yes, I said. In short, if a couple want to get married they go ahead and agree to get engaged and then start sending out invites.

The many steps to Kenyan marriage

There was a grin from Tracey and Sam (her fiancé) as I asked how this differed from the experience they had gone through.

It was quite a lengthy process which involved various degrees of acceptance from the families, negotiations, and then a series of ceremonies to go through.

Sam and Tracey are a pretty modern couple. He works as a data scientist in a large corporation, and she runs a start up providing videos of science experiments to rural schools without a laboratory.

Whilst it was a good thing to honour the past, even they expressed some mild exasperation at old-fashioned way in which marriage was still arranged in Kenya.

Ahem… no chicken

One such thing, or step in the process, is the man being accepted into the female’s household.

For some reason (which was beyond Sam and Tracey) a significant milestone is reached when the groom can eat chicken in the presence of the rest of the bride’s family. Coming over to dinner to meet the fam is A-OK, however note that only beef will be served.

Once the father-of-the-bride accepts the would-be-husband, then KFC is back on the cards.

Other hurdles to cross are degrees of family members to meet and attending church ceremonies together. Staying the night is a bit grey area.

Let’s get down to business

Assuming that all is good, and there have been many months happily eating chicken together there is then the question of organising the wedding.

The heads of families will meet and discuss what the price should be for the bride to get married to the groom

A literal exchange of goods occurs before the ceremony

I got the impression that it wasn’t a wholly cash transaction, but instead “assets” that the bride’s family would find valuable.

Getting into the bartering, Tracey said there would be phrases said about her such as:

“We’ve invested XXX into her education and so we deserve to be repaid at a higher price”

“Yes, but our son says she can’t cook very well* and so that should be considered”

All with Tracey and Sam sat awkwardly in the corner.

Depending on (typically) the tribes with which the families come from, the usual medium of exchange is livestock.

“I wanna bring cows to your mother”

Which brings us to the confusing lyric I heard in a song written by band Sauti Sol (apparently the next big thing in Kenya).

The basic premise is a love song, with a guy persuading a girl that she should go out with him, though the mention of giving her Mum some cattle always seemed a bit out of place.

In the context of the marriage negotiations I learned about from Sam and Tracey though, it all made sense.

You can listen to the song here:

and on the topic of Kenyan music, you can also listen to this podcast episode I did with the guy who founded “Spotify for Africa”. If you’re on Spotify and in the market for some (in my opinion) solid Kenyan music to listen to, check out Sauti Sol, Elani and Just A Band.

Thanks for reading.



These blog posts will continue to document the various business and cultural findings I get from being on the ground in Kenya looking at business opportunities. For when the next post comes out (plus the weekly email thingy I send out) you can add your email below


* Tracey’s an excellent cook. He’d never say that.