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Marriage Customs Of Equitorial Africa

( Originally Published 1897 )



AMONG the Ewe-speaking people of the Slave Coast of West Africa, a girl who is looking out for a husband pays visits to her relations and friends attired in her best garments, and adorned with the family jewelry. Should some suitor come forward, he declares his intentions by sending a man and woman to her father's house, who bring two large flasks of rum and deposit them on the floor, with the remark, " Our uncle wishes to marry one of the girls," and then retire as soon as they have informed the father of the name of the person whom they represent. Should the proposed union be regarded in a favourable light by the girl's parents they return the flasks, empty, to the suitor, which means to say that he is accepted. Soon after this he sends round two more flasks of rum, together with cowries and two pieces of cloth for the girl, and enters into negotiations with the parents with regard to purchase money.. When the fair one accepts his presents of cowries and cloth she is betrothed to him. If he be poor, and if the parents demand a high price for their daughter, it may be a long time before the wedding takes place. When at last the day of marriage comes, the parents appear to show, or rather, we should say, are compelled by custom to show, the greatest possible reluctance to part with their daughter, and so a curious little bit of comedy takes place. Soon after day-break the bridegroom sends a messenger with a present of rum to ask for the bride. At this her parents affect great reluctance, and delay the messenger with various excuses until about noon. A second messenger then arrives with the same request, but still the bride fails to appear ; and not until about sunset, when a third messenger arrives from the impatient bridegroom, do the parents consent to give their daughter away. The bride's family then escort her to the bridegroom's house, where a feast is held. Finally four matrons deliver the bride to her husband, saying, " Take her. If she pleases you and behaves well, treat her kindly. If she behaves ill, correct her." Next day, if all has gone well, the husband (as in India) sends presents to the parents ; after a week the bride returns to her old home—probably with the idea of showing that there is no ill-feeling between the two families. Seven days later she sends her husband food cooked by herself, and finally takes up her abode with him. It is interesting to note that the Turcomans, as well as Hindus and other peoples, have somewhat similar customs, doubt-less of ancient origin.

According to Miss Mary Kingsley,' marriage among the Igalwa and M'pongwe people is not brought about by direct purchase, but a certain present, of fixed amount, is made to the mother and uncle of the girl. In case there is a divorce, which is frequently the case, these presents must be returned.

Miss Kingsley also speaks of matrimonial quarrels.

The Igalwa ladies," she says, are spirited and devoted to personal adornment, and they are naggers at their husbands. Many times, when walking on Lembarene Island, have I seen a lady stand in the street and let her husband, who had taken shelter inside the house, know what she thought of him in a way that reminded me of some London slum scenes. When the husband loses his temper, as he surely does sooner or later, being a man, he whacks his wife, or wives, if they have been at him in a body. This crisis usually takes place at night ; and when staying on board the More, or Eclaireur, moored alongside the landing-place at Lembarene Island, I have heard yells and squalls of a most dismal character. He may whack with impunity so long as he does not draw blood ; if he does, be it never so little, his wife is off to her relations, the pre-sent he has given for her is returned, the marriage is annulled, and she can re-marry as soon as she is able to." But the parents retain certain propitiatory offerings, which are given by the husband independently of the other presents, and they are often glad to receive their daughter back again on account of the prospect of more presents from the next suitor, supposing that she is still young.

Older women, who appear to be more prudent, or else possess greater self-restraint, are not so much given to nagging, and usually they have children to support them. The fate of a childless woman in Africa is a very sad one. The custom of infant marriage appears to have been recently introduced among the Igalwa, who, according to Miss Kingsley, have a curious story accounting for it. They say that in the last generation a certain man, who is still remembered by some of the old people, was so ugly and deformed that he failed to get a wife, the women being great admirers of physical beauty and strength. The man was very cunning, and hit upon an original plan to attain his object, and this was to become betrothed to one before she could exercise her choice in the matter. And so, knowing a family where a birth was expected to take place, he made large presents in order to secure for himself the coming infant if it should be a girl. A girl it proved to be, and thus, they say, the custom of infant marriage arose among the Igalwa, although they do not themselves make their arrangements quite so early as this man did.

M. Paul B. du Chaillu assisted at the departure from home of a young woman at Mobana, in Western Equatorial Africa. She had been given in marriage to a man in a neighbouring village. Her father was about to take her there with all the marriage outfit, which was carried by several members of her family. It consisted of eight of the ordinary plates of the country, two large baskets for carrying plantains from the plantations, a number of calabashes (gourds), a large package of ground-nuts, a package of pumpkin seeds, two dried legs of antelope, her stool, and a few more items. The bride was gaily dressed, and her chignon had been elaborately prepared on the previous day. As she left the village people remarked to each other, Her husband will see that the Mobana people do not send away their daughters with nothing ! " The aged mother, who went as far as the end of the street, took a great pride in sending her daughter away with such an outfit !

The people who inhabit the island of Fernando Po (Bube tribe), immigrants from the opposite coast of Biafra in West Equatorial Africa, wear hardly any clothing, but on certain great occasions rub themselves with tola paste, i.e., palm oil mixed with the leaves of a herb called tola. It has a powerful odour. The men generally cover their heads with large flat hats of wickerwork, covered with monkey skin, chiefly as a protection against tree-snakes. Yellow ochre adorns their hair. Some years ago an Englishman residing in the island (Dr. Hutchinson) witnessed the wedding of the King's daughter. Great preparations went on in his Majesty's kitchen. The happy bridegroom was seen standing outside the hut of the bride's mother and undergoing his toilet at the hands of his future wife's sister. The current coin of this little realm consists of small pieces of a certain shell, which are called tshibbu ; strings of these were fastened round his body, legs, and arms. The lady, who smoked a short pipe during the operation, anointed the bridegroom with tola paste. Finally she pinned on his hat, made of plaited bamboo, after which he and a groomsman partook of a hearty meal of stewed flesh and palm oil. Then the bride was led forth by her own and the bridegroom's mother, each holding one of her hands, followed by professional singers and six bridesmaids. She presented a strange appearance, being heavily loaded with rings, wreaths of flowers, and a great deal of tola paste. But her toilet was as yet far from complete, so the women led her away to a place out of sight, where they plastered her whole body with tola paste, and covered her face and head with a large veil of tshibbu shells. A head-dress of cow-hide served for a hat. For more than an hour the patient bride stood in the broiling sun undergoing these operations, while the professional singers were employed in celebrating her praises. However, as the poor creature had been closely confined in a hut for the previous fifteen months, we may naturally suppose that standing in the sunlight would be by no means an unpleasant change. Bride and bridegroom now took up their positions side by side in front of the hut whence the two mothers had led out the bride after her long captivity. The bridesmaids, who were all of different ages, stood in a row, all wearing parrot's feathers in their hair.

And now the wedding ceremony began ; the professional singers chanted their songs, while the bride's mother stood behind the happy pair and folded an arm of each round the other's body, and, with words which could not be heard, pronounced them to be man and wife. Each was exhorted to be faithful to the other, a pledge which was confirmed by passing round a goblet of palm-wine. Each took a sip therefrom : first the mother of the bridegroom, then her son, then the bride, and lastly the bride's mother. After this there was much dancing and singing, and the scene became very animated. Finally the newly-married pair proceeded to their hut, the old wives walking before them. Arrived at the door, they embraced, presents were given to the bride, the bridegroom placed four rings on her fingers, and after further exhortations from the mother-in-law to the bride, they were left to themselves.

Among some of the central African tribes, the Banyai, for instance, women are treated with great respect and deference. They possess land, and their husbands always consult them in any important matter of business ; and not only so, but they frequently transact business on their own account, travelling for that purpose to distant towns. Here the girls are not bought with oxen or cows, as among the Kaffirs, but the young man comes and lives with his wife's parents, working for them and obeying them in all things. He must be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, and if he gets tired of the service is free to leave the house, but the wife and children remain.

Among the people of Masai Land marriages take place at the calving season, since an abundance of milk is considered desirable. As soon as preliminaries have been arranged, the girl allows her hair to grow longer than usual, and places round her head a band of cowries, from which hang a number of strings forming a kind of bridal veil, somewhat like that of a Chinese bride, except that in the latter case the strings hold beads. When the wedding-day arrives both the bride and bridegroom dispose of their chain earrings, substituting for them double discs of copper wire arranged in a spiral fashion. The lady also changes her costume, replacing her suit of clothes all of one colour by two skins, one of which hangs from her shoulder, the other from the waist. Probably these warlike people are somewhat averse to their young men getting married, fearing lest they should thereby become effeminate (compare the Spartan custom referred to on p. 132), for they have a rule whereby the bridegroom is compelled for a whole month to wear the cast-off garments of the bride ! This looks as if their object were to discourage matrimony. The author heard recently of another African tribe (at Lagos) who always shut up a bride and bridegroom together in a hut for a whole month, with the idea that the young man may by that time have repented of his folly.

The people of Uganda are divided into clans, each distinguished by its crest, or totem, the figure of some animal which is sacred to the members of the family, and may not be eaten by them. Two persons of the same clan may not marry (compare China, p. 48). Marriage is simply a matter of bargain. As soon as the young man has paid the price of his bride to her father he is at liberty to take her to his hut. But the rich and powerful do not pay anything. Peasants are only too glad to give their daughters in marriage to the chief, who can take them by force if he wills. For ordinary people the usual way of proceeding is to buy a slave girl, who becomes the absolute property of her master. Such wives give less trouble, for they cannot return to their own people if harshly treated.

The late Mr. Joseph Thomson, who led a famous expedition across Africa, describes a curious domestic quarrel illustrative of the thoughts, manners, and customs of the people in the region of the Central African Lakes. He had officiated, at a place called Kwa-Muinyi Mtwanna, at the wedding of a certain porter and a freed woman. For three days all went well, and the young wife was well treated, but this happy state of things soon ended. One morning Mr. Thomson was aroused early by screams proceeding from the hut where these two had put up, and on inquiry was informed that Mrs. Kombo had dreamed during the night of her late husband, which of course she interpreted as a sign that his spirit was much troubled ! After imparting the sad tidings to her present husband she implored him to use his best endeavours to give peace to the soul of his predecessor by making a great feast and sacrificing sheep and fowls. " Thereupon," in Mr. Thomson's words, " Mr. Kombo replied that ' if it had been her father, or her mother, or any of her relations, he would have cheerfully complied with her request that their souls might be comfortable ; but to do so for her late husband—he would be hanged first ! and the defunct spouse would remain long in purgatory before he would stir a finger to release him' " 1 At this the wife, not unnaturally, lost her temper, and became insulting. This being more than Kombo could endure, he forthwith proceeded to beat his wife so violently that the whole camp was aroused by her shrieks. Mr. Thomson, however, did not feel disposed to interfere in such a purely domestic concern.

According to Sir Harry H. Johnston, British Commissioner for Central Africa, marriage by capture " prevails among the Awa-nkonde, at the north end of Lake Nyassa. In fact this custom affords one of the chief inducements for indulging in war and slave-raiding. When the British authorities first began to wage war against the slave traders there, and were in want of native troops for the purpose, thousands came forward to volunteer for service on the under-standing that they should be permitted to carry off the enemy's women ! Needless to say the men could not be accepted on those terms ; but the porters, though unarmed, gave a good deal of trouble on the march by helping themselves to wives. The women, as a rule, made very little resistance ; perhaps they rather like a change. Such scenes have their comic aspect too. It is almost like playing a game," says our Commissioner. The man waits his opportunity, and takes the woman by surprise on her way to the stream to get water, or as she passes by from the plantation where she works. It is only necessary for the man to show that he is determined or that there is no way of escape, and the woman submits to what, no doubt, to her mind appears to be " Fate." However, if the new partner treats her badly, she can generally find some means of escaping to her first husband—we cannot say " first love," for the people do not marry for sentimental reasons. But, as a rule, the women cheerfully accept these sudden changes. Perhaps they add a variety which otherwise might be wanting in their matrimonial experience.



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