A Fair PriceA few years ago, as a college student, I journeyed to Kenya on a mission team with a social service organization. The goal for the ten of us was to construct a school classroom for a Masai village and to share crafts, games, and skits with the local Masai children.
None of us had ever traveled to Africa before, and the deep colors and vibrancy of the landscape and people made a profound impression. We visited Lake Nakuru, which blazed pink from thousands of teeming flamingos, gazed at the infinite abyss of the Great Rift Valley, felt the dust rise up from stampeding game through the plains of Masai Mara, and jangled out teeth and bones loose riding in the back of our van across the cratered, red dirt roads.
Our driver, Frances, was a black-skinned Masai man with a brilliant smile and tumbling laugh. Often he would stop to show us a puff adder or flame tree, and his knowledge of wildlife and tribal politics created a window for us into local culture.
On a typical day Frances would deliver us safely to the Masai compound where we worked. Each morning, hundreds of blue-and-red-sweatered children lined the road, clapping and singing as our van rumbled up the hill. In the afternoon, our team swung hammers and hauled sheet metal up rickety scaffolding. Slowly, our classroom began to take shape.
One evening, Frances needed to deliver a Masai chief to the local hospital clinic and asked if anyone wanted to accompany him. I volunteered, and once our errand was completed, we began the fifty-minute journey back into town. I knew Frances was married and asked him how he had first met his wife.
“I was fifteen years old when I first met Mary,” he told me. “She was collecting water at the town well with the other women. I was with my friends and showed off in front of her as boys do, but we never spoke. The first time I saw her I thought she was an angel. She was so beautiful, and her smile lit up everything and everyone around her.”
He paused to hide a smile of his own before he went on.
“The problem was that Mary is a Kikuyu, and I am a Masai. The two tribes have a history of hatred and bloodshed. They do not inter-marry or trust each other. They do not even speak.”
He explained that two years went by before he saw Mary again. He was then seventeen years old and about to leave for Nairobi to attend the schoolteachers’ college. They spoke for a long time. He wanted to ask where she stayed so that he would not lose her again, but he admitted that his ego got in the way. Instead, Frances decided to give her his address in Nairobi feeling that if she really liked him she would write.
After two years of correspondence, they loved each other deeply and wanted to get married, but both of them worried that their families and tribes would shun them for their relationship. Nevertheless, with great humbleness and anxiety, Frances approached her parents to ask how much of a bride-price they wanted for her.
In Kenya a bride-price, or dowry, is often the only means a family has to gain wealth. A healthy, hard-working female might bring many cows. Status is very important.
Frances was nervous and said, “I am just a poor schoolteacher, and I haven’t much money. But I love your daughter and want to marry her. I will pay anything you ask.”
Mary’s parents looked at him and replied, “There is much to do to plan a wedding. This is a celebration! We will discuss the bride-price when the two of you are settled.”
Frances smiled at me as we rounded a bend and braked for a herd of skinny cattle. His eyes shone in remembrance as he continued. “That was unheard of. A marriage NEVER occurs without payment first. And between Kikuyus and Masais… it was an exceptional situation…”
A year went by before they had their first child. He returned to Mary’s parents and again inquired of the bride-price. As he and Mary were so busy with a new baby, they told him that he should wait until things calmed down a bit.
Several more years passed, and they had another child. He returned again to Mary’s parents and insisted that he needed to settle his debt. Once again, he said that he was a poor schoolteacher without much money, but that he was so happy and in love that he would pay anything.
Mary’s mother asked him, “What do you think is a fair price?”
Frances laughed, and replied as a joke, “A lifetime of love and devotion from your loyal son-in-law!”
Mary’s mother smiled softly and whispered, “It is enough. The bride-price has been paid.”
Frances was silent for a time, and tears spilled over his cheeks as he drove.
“Have you ever told your wife exactly how you feel?” I asked suddenly. “Have you ever said, “The first time I saw you I thought you were an angel. You were so beautiful…”
Frances snorted. “Of course not! Masai men don’t talk like that. All women know if they’re beautiful. They just need to look in a mirror. Besides, we’ve been married now for fifteen years. It would be silly to bring all that up now.”
“Frances!” I exclaimed. “You have to tell her. Especially if you’ve been married so long. Can you imagine the look on her face if you walked in one day and said, ‘Listen, Mary…’
Frances shook his head. While he had been so open, perhaps I had overstepped the boundaries. Suddenly my ideals and youthful romanticism collided sharply with the ways of east Africa. We rode the rest of the trip in strained silence.
For the last days of my stay, Frances was cool and didn’t have much to say to me. I wanted to break the ice but thought that perhaps I had already said enough.
As our mission team waited to clear customs in the Nairobi airport, a commotion broke out as a man ran toward us. “Kristie!” he called out. “It there someone here named Kristie?”
I turned around and faced the stranger with surprise.
“I have a message to you from Frances,” he panted. “He says to tell you that he talked with his wife…”
Copyright 2002, Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul,
Reprinted, Leader Magazine 2003