Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Marriage Customs Of South Africa

( Originally Published 1897 )



WHATEVER virtues may be ascribed to the dark races of Africa, it cannot be said that they possess a sense of chivalry to women ; the gentler sex seem to do all the hard work. An Englishman once looked into the hut of a Kaffir and saw a stalwart man sitting there smoking his pipe, while the women were hard at work in the broiling sun, building huts, carrying timber, or performing other equally severe tasks. The Englishman, feeling indignant, as he naturally would, told the Kaffir to get up and set to work like a man. Now the Kaffir is naturally very polite, and as a rule carefully avoids saying anything which might appear rude to a stranger, but this individual was so amused at the suggestion that he replied with a laugh, Women work, men sit in the house and smoke ! " But, if the men are hard on the women, the latter are often hard on each other. For example, a favourite young wife is liable to be badly treated by the others, especially if she be good-looking. Their jealousy prompts them to beat her and scratch her face in order to diminish her charms. They know they will receive a beating at the hands of their husband when he finds out, but revenge is sweet, and so the wives take their punishment quietly and with a good grace, having had their way with the obnoxious rival.

With the Kaffirs, among whom we must include the Zulus, a wife is bought, but this implies no degradation. It is the way with most Eastern nations. The bigger the price, the more she is pleased, for her husband evidently valued her highly. A marriage is not valid unless the bride is purchased from her parents. On inquiring into the state of the matrimonial market we shall find when it is " firm," as city people say, that a man must pay as much as twelve or fifteen cows for a wife, while in some particular case the father may demand no less than fifty cows. If, on the other hand, wives are "down," a girl may go for only ten cows. A purchaser naturally wishes to get good " value " for his money, and in this case the " value" depends, first, on the young woman's personal qualifications, good looks, &c., and, secondly, on the rank held by her father. Part of the purchase money must be paid at once, as a guarantee of good faith ; but if the bridegroom be not too well off, he may give a guarantee to pay the rest as time goes on. It is clear, then, that an impecunious man runs a considerable chance of remaining a bachelor, at least for some time. The word impecunious in this case is especially appropriate, for, as every schoolboy knows, the ancient Romans measured their wealth by cattle, as Kaffirs do now, and hence their word for money was pecus, from which the English word impecunious is derived. These preliminary matters having been settled, the young man must put in an appearance, in order to give his wife an opportunity of seeing him. In justice to the Kaffirs we ought to say that, although the bride is bought, yet she has a certain amount of liberty in choosing a husband. At all events, she has the power of veto, and that means a good deal. On this subject we will quote from Mr. Shooter, who has written on Kaffirland. He says, " When a husband has been selected for a girl, she may be delivered to him without any previous notice. But usually she is informed of her parents' intention a month, or sometimes longer, beforehand, in order, I imagine, that she may, if possible, be persuaded to think favourably of the man. Barbarians as they are, the Kaffirs are aware that it is better to reason with a woman than to beat her, and I am inclined to think that moral means are usually employed to induce a girl to adopt her parents' choice before physical arguments are resorted to. Sometimes very elaborate efforts are made to produce this result. The first step is to speak well of the man in her presence ; the kraal conspire to praise him—all the admirers of his cattle praise him—he never was so praised before. Unless she is very resolute the girl may now perhaps be prevailed on to see him, and a messenger is dispatched to communicate the hopeful fact and summon him to the kraal. Without loss of time he prepares to show himself to the best advantage ; he goes down to the river and, having carefully washed his dark person, comes up again dripping and shining like a dusky Triton ; but the sun soon dries his skin, and now he shines again with grease. His dancing attire is put on, a vessel of water serving for a mirror, and then, clothed in his best, and carrying shield and assegai, he sets forth with beating heart and gallant step to do battle with the scornful belle. Having reached the kraal, he is received with a hearty welcome, and, squatting down in the family circle (which is here something more than a figure of speech), he awaits the lady's appearance. Presently she comes, and, sitting near the door, stares at him in silence. Then, having surveyed him sufficiently in his present attitude, she desires him, through her brother (for she will not speak to him), to stand up and exhibit his proportions. The modest man is embarrassed ; but the mother encourages him, and, while the young ones laugh and jeer, he rises before the damsel. She now scrutinises him in this position, and, having balanced the merits and defects of a front view, desires him (through the same medium) to turn and favour her with a different aspect." After this " mutual seeing," to use the Japanese expression, the girl retires, pursued by her family, who are greatly excited, wishing to know her decision. But she is not going to be bought too easily. The suitor must call again " in the morning and show off his paces in the cattle-fold. His friends on that occasion praise him up to the skies, and, in the end, the girl usually gives her consent. Arrangements are then made for the betrothal. Perhaps in the majority of cases the girl accepts the suitor from fear of her parents, who may use both moral and physical arguments on behalf of the man ; but there are evidently exceptions, and it is not every Kaffir who can win the fair one. The suitor may have plenty of wealth in the form of cows (pecunia), and yet she may refuse him. If a youth, in spite of all his wealth and ornaments, is faint-hearted and fears rejection, he buys a charm " from some witch-doctor. If still she dislikes him, the maiden may seek refuge with another tribe, just as Arab girls flee to the mountains (p. 74). Great then is the excitement, all her relations setting out to try and discover her whereabouts.

Kaffir young women are not so submissive as their sisters in China or Japan, and sometimes make a brave fight for freedom, as the following story will show. A young Kaffir chief won the heart of a certain girl by his dancing. The two were total strangers to each other, but that was no obstacle to her, so she went to his kraal and threw herself at his feet. Unfortunately, the chief did not return her affection ; therefore the only course open to him was to send for her brother to take her away," which he did. Before long, however, she appeared again, which breach of Kaffir etiquette met with a severe beating, but to no purpose ; a third time she presented herself, and then, at last, her brother suggested that it might save a good deal of trouble if the fascinating chief would be so obliging as to marry her, which he accordingly did, the brother having offered to pay a certain number of cows.

On the wedding-day, a Kaffir bride, arrayed in beads and other finery, is led in procession to the bridegroom's kraal. Before starting, her head is shaved with an assegai, all except a little tuft at the top. Oxen are given to the bride's mother, for the feast, and others to her father. There is much dancing on these occasions, and very violent dancing it is, such as barbarous people indulge in. Bride and bridegroom also dance to each other in turn. Some sing to the dancers, while others are either criticising or praising the bride, and this is done with very great freedom (which reminds us of what takes place in China. See p. 44). The husband's women friends and relations do not hesitate to tell the poor bride that she is not nearly worth the price he paid for her, while her own women cannot sufficiently express their admiration of her. To them she appears to be the belle of the whole tribe, and her husband ought to be very proud of her, and she was worth many more oxen than he gave. But all this is only words, words, words," as Hamlet says, and means practically nothing ; custom demands these formalities. Then comes an address by the father of the girl, who gives the bridegroom a great deal of good advice. If this is his first wife, he is told not to beat her too often, for wives can be ruled without violence, a doctrine which suggests the well-known saying of the late John Bright that force is no remedy." When the bride dances before the bridegroom, she calls him names, and kicks dust in his face, just to let him know that he is not master yet. But it is her last and only opportunity of taking liberties with him, and so she delights in this open defiance. 'The ceremony is called " insulting the bridegroom."

Then " the ox of the girl " is presented by the bride-groom. The slaughter of this ox is an important ceremony, for it makes the contract binding. When the feasting is all over, the pair settle down to married life. A few days afterwards the bride's father sends round an ox, just by way of showing that he is satisfied with the alliance, and as a sort of pledge that when, after death, he joins the spirit-world, his ghost will not haunt his daughter's home, nor cause any evil to happen to it ; these simple people attribute all evils to the influence of bad or unhappy spirits.

Such practices as we have described appear to be common to the whole Zulu tribe, but on account of the influence of white men, are fast dying out, so that at the present day there is often very little ceremony at a wedding.

Like many other races, Kaffirs object to the presence of white men at their marriages, and are very reluctant to give information on the subject, hence there is some difficulty in getting true accounts of their proceedings.

These people have a very curious custom with regard to that most important person, the mother-in-law. After marriage the husband, if he wishes to converse with the mother of his wife, must do so at a considerable distance, and is obliged therefore to shout. He must not come near to her, or look upon her face. Should they be so unlucky as to meet, they pretend not to see each other. The woman generally takes advantage of any convenient shelter, such as a bush, while the man looks the other way, using his shield as a screen. More-over neither is allowed to mention the name of the other, which is often rather awkward. In that part of the world names of people are often those of some familiar object, such as lion, or house, or some common implement, and so there are times when much circumlocution is used to avoid mentioning the name which is " taboo " to the husband.

The Kaffirs of Delagoa Bay have some peculiar customs of their own. The marriage ceremony takes place in the bride's kraal ; here, on the appointed day, great preparations are made for the feast, towards which the bridegroom must contribute a black goat and the bride a white cock. Refreshments having been served, the bride is escorted by her maidens to a hut where they dress her up as gaily as possible for the occasion. The bridegroom also retires in order to attire himself in his best. During their absence a curious scene takes place, such as we have already described on p. 122. The bride's relations disparage the bridegroom as much as they can, while the other family make nasty and unkind remarks about the bride. She is not worth the money they paid for her. She is lazy, or not well-born, and so forth. However, there is a truce to these pretended quarrels when the bride comes forth from her kraal, covered with a long garment, reaching from head to foot. Her companions surround her so closely as to hide her from public view ; in this fashion they move along very slowly, singing and chanting all the way. The bride, on arriving at her own kraal, still closely veiled, sits down and begins to manifest great grief by crying. Then her future husband leaves his hut, and having entered the kraal, sits down somewhere near her, but not so that they can see each other. It is customary to separate the men and women ; so the girls take up their position by the side of the bride, and the men by the side of the bridegroom. When all are seated the black goat is led in, walking on his hind legs, and is slain by the master of the ceremonies, who plunges his assegai right into the victim's heart. With the same weapon he then beheads the white cock. The entrails of both creatures are immediately examined, in order to ascertain whether the fates are propitious, and little portions of the flesh are handed to both the bride and bridegroom, who are expected at least to taste them before they are cooked for the feast.

Much rum and native beer are consumed on these occasions. For two or three days, or more, according to the wealth of the bride's family, the feasting and jollity is kept up, with much singing and dancing.

Basuto betrothal and marriage customs are curious. If a man take a fancy to some native girl, he must not say a word to her on the subject of matrimony. Having found some old woman (or, it may be his mother), he confides to her his wishes to settle down and marry, and requests her to make all the arrangements. Accordingly his mother, or friend, arranges for an appointment with the mother or guardian of the girl, and the two ladies talk it over and discuss the important question or ways and means. Should no objections arise, everything is arranged between these two. Infant betrothal is common, especially in the higher ranks. The father of the prospective bridegroom sends an ox as a present to the father or the girl-child, and the family hold a feast. The child receives the skin of this ox as her marriage portion, and she keeps it for her use in after life. Her uncle provides a blanket, and sometimes a very handsome one. When the girl is old enough and her relations think that the right time has come to celebrate the marriage, they send a message to her betrothed to say that he has their leave to come and pay her a visit. The family receive him with every mark of attention, and all sit down (except the young ones) in a circle. At first silence reigns, and the betrothed couple only exchange glances. After some time the man stands up and says, " All hail" (Eh ! dumela), which is the Basuto form or respectful salutation to the girl. She responds in the same terms, and he then takes his departure, to return in about a fortnight. On re-turning, he comes to her father's kraal and looks to see whether the skin of the ox presented by his father is displayed or not. If it is spread out he claims her as his wife without further ceremony. A great feast is held before the wedding. After marriage every ox killed for feasting by the bride and bride-groom belongs partly to the bride's father, who also keeps some of the cattle wherewith his daughter was purchased. This custom never alters among the Basutos, even after they become Christians the chiefs still compelling the young men to pay cattle for their wives. A mother will say, "It is the very least a man can do to recompense me a little for all the troubles, fatigue, and anxiety which I have gone through in bringing up his wife for him. It makes no difference in that respect to what religion she belongs, the trouble is the same." There is much rejoicing when a girl is born (which is quite the reverse of Chinese, Indian or Arab ideas) ; but the reason is purely a mercenary one, for girls, when grown up, will always command so many head of cattle.

Civilization has had hardly any effect on those very primitive people, the Bushmen. There lingers among them a very ancient custom, which probably was once wide-spread, namely, that a man may not for a long time look his bride in the face, but must visit her after dark (see p. 132). He can divorce a wife at his pleasure ; and should she take a fancy to some other man, he can challenge her husband to battle. The woman meekly follows the conqueror.

Dr. Emil Holub, writing in an illustrated paper, which was kindly sent to the present writer (in answer' to inquiries) by Mr. H. M. Stanley, gives an account of the very cruel manner in which a princess, by name Mo-Rena Mo-Quai, forced a slave-girl to marry a certain man much against her own will. Dr. Holub had just arrived at a place called New Shesheke. About nine o'clock in the evening, having retired to rest earlier than usual, he heard a tumult, the sounds appearing to proceed from a lagoon about thirty paces distant. Narri, the servant, who had been sent to ascertain the cause of the disturbance, suddenly reappeared, almost out of breath after a sharp run, with the startling intelligence that the princess, who was really Queen of Ma-Bunda, had ordered her servant to be nearly drowned because, poor thing, she had been so bold as to refuse to take an ugly old slave for a husband in spite of the princess' command ! The girl's wishes, of course, were not consulted ; all she was expected to do, being only a slave, was to obey. When first the princess communicated her order, the slave crossed her hands over her breast in token of obedience, but burst into a violent fit of tears, on account of which she was immediately dismissed. The same day the princess summoned the girl to her presence again and repeated her command in a peremptory manner, when, to her astonishment, the slave firmly declined to do as she was told ! This was more than her haughty royal highness could endure, and orders were given for the disobedient slave-girl to be held under water until nearly dead, then drawn out and brought to the hut of her future husband, where, on her recovery, she would be compelled to make the best of it and remain with the man who was royally elected to be her husband ! Impelled by a natural desire to prevent this catastrophe if possible, Dr. Holub hastened at once to the lagoon. On the high bank of the river he found a frantic crowd, all gesticulating, some in low tones, others with loud and angry exclamations. But a little lower down was another group ; descending as quickly as the darkness and the nature of the ground would permit, he saw a weird sight. Several men and women were standing on the edge of the calmly flowing stream, while between them crouched a weeping girl. Two figures were bending over an object which they seemed to be holding between them. As soon as the would-be rescuer stepped into the water the two persons in the water arose and approached the bank, dragging some object between them. It was the motionless and insensible body of the slave-girl, whether alive or dead it was hard to say. The men went off with their burden in the direction of the princess' house, the gallant American following. Then they placed the body down near one of the huts. One of the men remained by the side of it, and also the weeping girl, sister to the one lying helpless before her. The man was actually the man selected to marry this victim of royal tyranny, and had been appointed to carry out the sentence, possibly with the idea that he would naturally endeavour to prevent a fatal result. Be that as it may, the girl was not actually drowned, and a few hours afterwards, in the early morning, the natives were celebrating her wedding ! The event was announced by sounds which disturbed the slumbers of Dr. Holub. " The friends and acquaintances, together with the heartless spectators, had gathered before the hut of the half-drowned bride to enjoy the wedding dance ! Dressed in a thariskin, their ankles adorned with shells, they whirled in a circle, and were accompanied in the dance by the beating of drums and by singing, which was now and again interrupted by shouts. This dance continued two full days and nights without cessation, other dancers taking the places of those who became exhausted. As I was returning home the following day from my elephant hunt, passing the huts of Mo-Quai's servants, I saw the Mosari (the newly-married woman) seated on the floor before the entrance to her hut with one elbow on her knee, sustaining with her hand the weight of her head, with a tired and broken-down expression, her gloomy eyes staring into the grass which grew around her hut. It was not like the look of a newly-married wife, but the appealing glance of one in despair."

In Madagascar, where not a few Jewish customs are to be traced, very great respect is shown to the old people, reminding one of the precept, " Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man" (Lev. xix. 32). Many a passage from the Malagasy public speeches (the Kabarys), which have been committed to writing, recalls to mind some passage in Holy Scripture, e.g.,

I am young, and ye are very old ; wherefore I was afraid, and durst not show you my opinion" (Job xxxii. 6). Considerable respect is also shown by the young to their seniors, even when not old. With these people betrothal is a formal and binding ceremony, reminding us again of Jewish customs. The law of the Levirate also obtains here : that is, a man on the death of his elder brother is bound to marry the widow, and so preserve his name and the family possessions. Each tribe and family wishes to retain its property. As in India and elsewhere we find the custom prevails of betrothing children. The parents, however poor, always give a dowry with their daughter ; and should there be a divorce this is returned.

In Madagascar the woman receives much honour and attention. She is always regarded as her husband's helpmeet ; her position is one of honour, and her influence often very considerable.

We have already alluded to the strange custom of Kaffirs and some others of avoiding the mother-in-law ; and a few examples, culled from diverse countries, of curious rules of etiquette and notions of modesty, very different from the ideas of Europeans, may conveniently be given here. To begin with the inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands ; these people, according to Dall, know nothing of what civilised nations call modesty, and yet a man blushes when he is obliged to speak to his wife, or to ask her for anything, in the presence of others. Etiquette demands that they shall assume the attitude of perfect strangers ! The Hottentot woman must never enter her husband's room in the hut ; and the husband, as among the Spartans of old, should never be seen anywhere near his wife. One can-not but wonder how such rules were ever invented. Among the Yoruba, an African tribe, a woman is forbidden to speak to her husband, and may not see him coram populo, if it can possibly be avoided. A similar notion appears to have prevailed among the early people who spoke Sanscrit, for, in the Story of Urvasi and Puranas, the wife says to her lord, "Never let me see thee without thy royal garments, for such is the manner of women." And when by accident this rule is broken, the husband must softly and suddenly vanish away.

A Circassian bridegroom must not live with his wife without the greatest secrecy. Fiji Islanders display the greatest distress of mind when adventurous missionaries suggest that there is really no harm in a man living under the same roof with his wife ! In Fiji, neither brothers and sisters, nor first cousins of opposite sex, may eat together—much less speak to each other. The young Kaneka (also of Polynesia) bolts with a wild scream into the bush if you mention the name of his sister !



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com