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September 23, 2018

Planning to pay dowry? Some lessons from public health

Dowry events bring families together...
Dowry events bring families together...

Wedding ceremonies, especially those between different communities are often very interesting. The outcome is known, there are two people who want to get married. Unfortunately for them, they have to involve a whole bunch of people who all claim a stake in the ceremony of getting married.

Because there are many people involved the potential for mishaps to occur is great. Of the many involved, most are just passengers, happy to form a crowd as required, provided they are fed and not required to do too much else; pray several times, clap here and there, and listen to a few speeches, not too many or too long though.

There are a few people with a clear role, the masters of ceremonies from either party are critical and must be able to introduce various members of their group some of whom they are seeing for the very first and last time. A sense of humour and protocol are therefore critical.

Mostly the MC is male and the perfect combination is one who is a little roguish married to a church going woman with good food and ‘couple blessing’ prayer skills. Then there are two small groups, in Europe they would be listed as being to the far left and far right of the mainstream party. Having elements of the either in the dowry negotiating team on either side is recipe for a long day of tedium.

Because such persons self-select and wedding parties change depending on those getting married, it takes a while for any one extended family to recognise that uncle or auntie so-and-so must be managed at such functions. In any case there is still a problem because the other family might not control their auntie or uncle so-and-so and at that point you might wish you could unleash. The question then is how to recognise who is who in a wedding negotiation party where there are kinds milling around?

A similar problem occurs in medicine and public health. In clinical medicine, the problem is solved by the person presenting themselves to the doctor. A person who has a medical problem visits the health facility, registers and waits to be called in to the consultation room. Once seated the doctor can proceed to identify what type of person is before her, and hopefully detect the condition ailing the patient.

Public health, on the other hand, deals with populations. We are interested in knowing what characteristics people with a particular condition will have. So it might be that uncle who is most stubborn at negotiation is the one who has three daughters, all come-we-stay; and so he never had a chance to sit proudly, to one side, praised for having raised such a beautiful and intelligent girl now worth many, many goats. With that kind of information a little homework will ensure that such person is not one of the critical team members negotiating. In other words we need to understand the risk factors associated with certain behaviour in a particular context. To do so requires an understanding of the medical condition but just as critical the sociology within which the person lives. There is another way though of finding out who such people are, which while on the face of it sounds like a great thing can give a false sense of knowing things.

 In 1858 in colonial India, a British magistrate Sir William Herschel came up with the idea of using fingerprints as a signature on contracts. In his own words ". . . to frighten him out of all thought of repudiating his signature." The idea however was not new, thumbprints on clay seals were used for business transactions in ancient China and Babylon. What perhaps was new in that period was the development of a fingerprint classification system. Because no two persons have identical fingerprints, collecting and storing them allows us to identify and place a person at a particular place. Over time modern policing, like public health is moving away from first understanding the general public then the individual to a strategy of collecting vast information about each individual and trying to make sense of the general population. What is making this possible is cheap computing power, the ability to store and analyse vast bits of data. The problem that remains however is that the information must first be collected properly and just as importantly analysed sensibly.

 Many of us watch TV shows where a police detective picks a fingerprint, loads it onto a computer that flashes stuff on a screen and announces that it is person X with a previous record of Y. An arrest is then made after a car chase. The reality is perhaps a little different, to find and arrest malnutrition in children requires us to understand the risk factors associated and then intervene among those most vulnerable. In the same way knowing that Uncle so-and-so may ruin a wedding event and that he exists in every extended family should limit the surprises on such occasions. You do not need to take everyone’s fingerprints for that.

 

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