Nigeria's Bride Price app: Cause of controversy, but is it just a sly social commentary on the past?

The concept of bride price is a window to our past, a past which is not always glorious or edifying when viewed through a modern lens, says Bim Adewunmi

Bim Adewunmi
Friday 30 May 2014 17:23 BST
Pay day: a wedding in Benin City, Nigeria. The groom
will have been told how much his bride is ‘worth’
Pay day: a wedding in Benin City, Nigeria. The groom will have been told how much his bride is ‘worth’

Honey, so your life will be sweet. Palm oil, to lubricate life's aches. Salt, to preserve and keep you. Kola nut, I can't remember exactly, but is it not enough that it is the most symbolically Nigerian thing, across all ethnic lines?

What are these? Collectively, they form part of a "bride price" – money and gifts given by a man's family to a woman's upon their marriage. At school in Nigeria, during Yoruba history class, we were told about women who attracted incredibly high bride prices, dependent on their attributes. Inversely, there were women whose bride prices were so paltry, it was an embarrassment. I don't remember the specific gifts and what they signify any more, but I do remember that these lessons in which we were taught about our history were, for modern budding feminists, a hard pill to swallow.

I am thinking about bride price again this week, though, because of a new app that's been doing the rounds in the African corners of my internet life. Initially, I was reluctant to write about this app at all. The narrative of Africa and Africans in the UK and other Western, largely white spaces is so old, so outdated and false, so wearying, that I save African stories for my safer spaces, places where there is no empathy gap. I enjoy talking about Nigeria without some internet stranger telling me to "Just get over it!" Talking about Africa – its good and its bad – on the internet wears me out. And when we third-culture kids get together, occupying that middle space in the Venn diagram that overlaps our parents' cultures with the West's, we can laugh about it. That's what this app is about.

The Bride Price app calculated that I was worth the "Premium Babe"-ly sum of 494,500 Nigerian naira (NGN) –about £1,816. How did it arrive at this figure? Via a series of questions, and they are the real star of this app. You have the option to check "for yourself" or "for your friend/enemy" – because as Nigerians, one thing we are always aware of, even when we cannot see or hear them, is our enemy.

So, even before I clicked, I was smiling. Then came the real questions: my height; my weight (options included the very standard "medium", and the harder-to-decipher "Mama Ronke" – what does that even mean?); my leg shape ("straight", "sexy bow leg (Beyoncé)" etc); my facial beauty (from "intimidating" to "complete no try") and so on. Each answer has a monetary value – no kola nuts here – sometimes a "discount", 60 per cent if you're unfortunate enough to be the indecipherable "Mama Ronke". At the end of the quiz, the app takes time to calculate the bride price and delivers a jaunty message with a blinking green shekere (a West African musical instrument): "Please wait – the elders are consulting."

The phrase "if you don't laugh, you'll cry" seems, more than ever, to be made especially for Nigerians. The accepted narrative is one of woe, a nation lurching from pillar (of calamity) to post (of catastrophe) despite a resource wealth that could easily be the answer to our problems. The concept of bride price is a window to our past, a past which is not always glorious or edifying when viewed through a modern lens.

But this app is sly – the nuance may not be visible to all eyes, but it's there. Under skin colour – which may or may not have had an impact on bride price in the olden days and certainly matters in the hierarchy of beauty today – comes five categories. "Half caste"; "Light skin"; "Dark"; "Whitenicious"; and "Lupita" (as in Nyong'o). The value for each declines as you go down the list, starting with +NGN50,000. The question – and answer options simultaneously acknowledge the colour-struck manner characteristic of a swathe of Nigerians, as well as noting without fuss the range of colours we come in naturally. There is an elevation of the Lupita complexion, which is a small thing, but not.

There are other markers. On teeth, a "white with gap" has the highest value (my mother has expressed dismay that none of her children inherited our grandmother's "beautiful" diastema), while "Ronaldinho" comes with a -NGN40,000 tag. The location and citizenship questions are fine "don't cry – laugh" examples (America comes out tops in both), and a Masters is desirable, but a PhD has a penalty of -NGN100,000. Employment sees oil and gas come up trumps (+NGN100,000); my journalism career has a value of only +NGN20,000. Thankfully, I am "redeemed" by my English accent – the highest – valued at +NGN45,000.

If you can't see the social commentary in this app, then maybe it's not for you.

Anyway. The app suggested my prospective in-laws deliver 100 yards of cord lace to my ancestral family homestead as befitting my "Premium Babe" status. Finally, an app that gets me…

Bim Adewunmi is the creator of the blog

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