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Beyond the Workshop: Mulinge's Dowry Ceremony

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Because of the income through online sales of their handiwork, many Soko artisans are not only able to make a living, but are now also able to use their wages to meet financial goals beyond their basic needs. It is here in Kibwezi, amidst a field of maize and beans, with the sound of women cooking for a village, and the shriek of joy of friends who are reunited that Soko artisan Mulinge has chosen to use his revenue to honor his family and his upbringing.

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Mulinge is the hands behind our beloved Raza Necklace and many other favorites in our Spring collection. Mulinge works alongside Soko staff at our Nairobi offices, doing much of the hands on jewelry making for the prototypes of our ’14 Fall/Winter collection (check out our new lookbook btw!)!!

I was floored, feeling truly honored when Mulinge invited me to come along with his family on a road trip to Kibwezi, Kenya to photograph and be part of a beautiful Kenyan tradition: the Dowry Ceremony.

Dowry is a foreign idea for those of us who have grown up in the West (like paying only 20 cents for an avocado. Really. I had so much guacamole in Kenya. Happy tummy.); even for many modern, urbanized Kenyans this tradition is becoming more distant. In traditional Kenyan culture, a dowry price is decided by the brides’s family. Previously it was in terms of livestock - cows, goats, etc. Today, especially for the city dwellers without the land to host such grazers, many families are paid in shillings of the market value of the livestock.

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And as in Mulinge’s case, dowries can be paid over time. He and his sweet wife Mary have been married already for 10 years and have a son named David (the good looking fellah pictured below who helped me keep an eye out for zebras and giraffes as we drove along the highway and who I also was able to give a few photography lessons to). When the dowry is paid, there is a large neighborhood celebration.

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And it starts with singing:imageAnd it is loud singing. Diana, our Social Impact Manager (and resident break-it-down-for-Praise-to-understand specialist), explained to me that for such a ceremony all the women of the village/neighborhood have to sing to greet the groom’s family. And if it isn’t heard from a kilometer away, it isn’t loud enough!!

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Following the song, there was a huge neighborhood dinner party that was part Meet the Parents, part Family Reunion, part Dance Party. I was asked to join Mulinge, his wife Mary, and their cousins at the head table. And they set a large plate of deliciousness before me. Goat and pilau (rice with Kenyan flavor) - necessities the tongue must experience while in East Africa.

Leaving the high traffic, metropolis of Nairobi to the small, farm town of Kibwezi is a bit allegorical to what the whole ceremony felt like. It was going back to a part of Kenya, to a piece of the country that hasn’t aged. It was quieter. It is something that has been maintained and cared for. 

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There is much beauty in tradition. Soko founder Ella (a fellow American living in Kenya) and I were talking about the ceremony and it’s much like a bride from our culture asking her father to walk her down the aisle or choosing to wear a white dress. The repetition of an act throughout the decades makes a tradition special and solemn.

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As we were dining Mulinge pointed at all his guests, pointed their full plates of food and said, “Praise, it’s because of Soko that I can afford to pay for all this.” 

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