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The kaiya-kaiya of kayan lefe: The bane of bachelors

It is tough to be a bachelor these days in Arewa. The economic downtown aside, the lack of opportunities and the rising inflation have meant…

It is tough to be a bachelor these days in Arewa. The economic downtown aside, the lack of opportunities and the rising inflation have meant that everything else has gone up, including an essential requirement for marriage—kayan lefe. 

There has been some significant chatter about kayan lefe—which in essence is the bridal gifts (we are using gift here very liberally since it is a cultural requirement) that the groom must present to the bride to secure a marriage. 

These gifts are often of expensive clothes—laces, fabrics, underwear, cosmetics and jewellery—stacked in an impressive range of a full set of suitcases, sometimes twice that, and delivered with pomp to the bride’s family. It has always been a tradition for the bride’s family to display the wares in these suitcases and invite friends and neighbours to admire the gifts that the potential bride had fetched. Of course, these displays are often ostentatious but also serve a social function. 

Since, according to the norms, a child is raised by the community, each member of that community, especially relatives and neighbours, is invited to the viewing in acknowledgement of the roles they played in raising the girl into a woman and to offer prayers for her. 

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Inevitably, this also presents cynics a chance to criticise the quality or quantity of the gift, or to compare it with what another bride got. No matter the length the groom goes to, there will always be that person or persons who have made it their business to find fault. So often, the groom goes out of the way to impress not only his bride but all of her relatives and friends. There is also always that person who would want to pilfer a bra, a pantie or a bale of cloth if they get the chance. The practices around this viewing are rather fascinating. 

Over the years, these practices have changed as much as the concept of kayan lefe itself has evolved from the modest beginning from which it derived its name when a few bale of clothes and some trinkets were collected in a special basket (lefe) and delivered to the bride’s family, to the generation when it became the norm to put them in kwalla (a cylindrical metal containers) to the days of pantimoti and finally now, the age of the set(s) of suitcases.  

The cost of putting these things together has gone up so much that it has prompted questions about why it is necessary for a wedding and critiques about how ambitious potential brides and their families have become to make such exorbitant demands and what should be the average cost. 

In a trending video online, a woman categorically declared that for an average wedding today, the kayan lefe should be assembled for between four and six million naira. “Ba yabo, ba fallasa,” she had said as if talking about the price of bread. 

My God was I shocked! Has it come to this? It made me think of the many bachelors who are in love but are afraid to propose marriage because the fear of kayan lefe is the beginning of the ‘head over heart’ philosophy. 

The reality is that marriage, like everything else, is becoming expensive and the cost of kayan lefe is both a reflection of contemporary reality and inflation. 

While earnings have shrunken for a good number of people, they have increased for others. The one thing that has impacted every class of Nigerian is the fall in the value of the naira, which has affected the prices of even tomatoes in the market, not to talk of the abayas that go into the suitcase. 

But where did this practice come from and why are these expensive set of gifts necessary in the first place especially when one considers that this demand is often made of young people who are trying to start a family? 

For some, the cost is not an issue. But not many people can afford to spend four to six million naira  on lefe alone if they have ever had that much money in the entirety of their lives. Of course, some spend far less but you won’t see their kayan lefe showcased on Instagram or Tik Tok for sure and that is just fine. Each according to his means. 

The origins of lefe may derive from the Islamic tradition that asks, not demands or imposes, that the man should present a gift of fine things according to his means to his bride. It is not one of the cardinal requirements of marriage from a religious perspective, it is a cultural one. 

While thinking about this, there is another consideration. In the typical northern tradition, while kayan lefe is required of the groom, the requirement on the bride or her family tends to be a lot. The groom is expected to provide an apartment and the bride and her family are expected to provide the furnishing down to broom and packer. In addition, there is the kayan gara, or food stock to last the newlyweds a good few months.  

Some years back, while walking down the street with a friend, we met Dan Kurma, who had gotten married the weekend before. Yet, there he was walking with a storm on his face. With little prompting, in a flurry of mumbled words and furious hand gestures, he expressed his disappointment in the quality and cost of what his bride had brought into the marriage. The furniture was cheap, he said. The kayan gara was deplorable and he had paid a premium bride price for an average joe. “Wallahi I will not take it,” he raved. 

Shocked as he was, he persuaded him to calm down and go build his home to his liking. 

The conversation around lefe has often ignored the demands placed on the bride. As much as it has often ignored the fact that when marriages unfortunately end in the North, often with the man proclaiming talaq on the wife, she leaves with no support. It doesn’t matter if she put in 20 or 30 years into the marriage raising children, doing chores and keeping house while the husband made the money. 

A few years ago, then Emir Sanusi II raised the conversation for marriage reforms in the North to mandate husbands to provide financial support or some sort of alimony for their divorced wives. He was heckled rather wildly. 

The concept of alimony however is not entirely strange to Islam. The Qur’an for instance says: “Divorced women shall also have such maintenance as is considered fair: this is a duty for those who are mindful of God.” [Al-Baqarah, 241] 

The interpretation of this verse according to the various schools of jurisprudence varies as to the length of this support and to what kind of divorcee is entitled to it but the generality agrees that a divorcee is entitled to some kind of support for at least some time, depending on the nature and circumstances of the divorce. 

However, the social structures of the North have rather loose provisions to protect women in divorces. So, while we consider the demands for exorbitant lefe and condemn it for its exuberance, we should also consider it paradoxically with what the woman is expected to bring to the marriage and what she leaves with when it ends.  

I don’t necessarily think it is ideal to impose excessive demands on both the bride and the groom, especially where the means are in short supply. Young people starting out together should be able to grow together. Marital unions should be built on love and understanding, not material demands. 

Perhaps, something in the marriage culture needs to change because a society that makes it impossible for young people to cohabit the right way opens the door for its own perversion. 


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