African understanding of courtship
Courtship and marriage among the African societies is always accompanied with a lot of rituals, and it is these rituals that initiate the couple into their new stage of life.
African courtship and engagement begin with complex pre-wedding rituals. Family harmony is central to the indigenous tribal villages scattered throughout the land. Therefore, many of these African courtship customs involve both families. Though each region observes unique rituals, there are a number of courting and wedding traditions that can be observed across the continent.
Generally, there are no rites performed to mark the courtship occasion or period. There were a number of factors playing into the marriage before the courtship even began. The first was choosing the wife. This could be done in three ways. A marriage could be decided on by the parents before birth; however this was usually only done in highly successful families. Secondly, the relatives could also decide during childhood who children would marry when they reach the age of marriage. The final way was for the man and woman to choose each other which is the one that is common in most African societies today. Before the actual courtship began, however, the male needed to show signs that he was ready to be married. Included in these were showing disgust in childhood chores such as cleaning and cooking, taking bigger risks and other tasks to prove himself a man, seeking companionship with his father and other important males in society, and exempting himself from childhood perks like eating grasshoppers and finishing the soup from the bottom of the bowl. Nwoye the son of Okonkwo in China Achebe’s Novel Things Fall Apart is a vivid example of this case. The father will also inquire about his maturity and if he has found a suitable woman to marry. If a woman has been found, the courtship then begins.
Since marriage itself is a central event in the life of the African people, time and care is taken to prepare for it. Hence, the African people see this courtship period as the time one prepares oneself for the task ahead. Many of these traditions have faded and are disappearing except in some remote and rural areas such as Izzi in Ebonyi State however still observe the courtship traditions that were passed unto them.
Courtship for them is the period when parents begin to educate their children on marital affairs. Dr. Mbiti’s observation is similar to what these people practice. He writes that “Girls are taught how to prepare food, how to behave towards men, how to care for their children, how to look after their husband and other domestic affairs. The boys are taught what most concerns men, like looking after cattle, behaving properly towards one’s in-laws, how to acquire wealth which one would give to the parents of the girl as part the engagement and marriage contract, and how to be responsible as the ‘head’ of the family.”
Among these people (the Izzi people), when a young man in search of a bride sees a girl of his choice, he goes home and tells his parents. His parents would make inquiries concerning the family background of this girl, first to know if she is not a close relative for it is an abomination for a marriage of this type to be approved. Secondly they also make inquiries to know if the family of the girl is not a family of certain abominations such as premature death, the family reputation in the village, kleptomania, viral diseases etc. When all these investigations have been fully made, and the parents of the boy approve the girl in question to be a worthy daughter-in-law, then they proceed for the necessary marriage negotiations and rituals.
AFRICAN COURTSHIP CUSTOMS
To show his interest in a potential life partner, an African man brings gifts of gold, jewelry, bead necklaces, or clothing to his intended bride. His courtship might also include gifts of beer, palm wine, or even livestock, for the whole family to enjoy. He might offer his services to the family. Perhaps he will lend a hand in the fields, or help out with household chores. All of these gifts demonstrate that he is a good provider who is interested in joining their family. As a sign of their acceptance of his courtship, the woman’s family offers him gifts in return.
Once a couple is engaged, the two families come together for a week of visits and gift exchanges. This is an opportunity to begin the important bonding rituals that unite the families.
EXAMPLES PRE-WEDDING TRADITIONS
Inviting the guests to an African wedding is a personalized affair. Traditionally, both families invited their entire villages to join in the festivities. They asked a close friend or relative to walk from house to house rattling a gourd. Today, families might invite guests personally over the phone or hand-deliver printed scrolls bound with raffia.
The couple announces their intent to marry from their respective church pulpits for three Sundays in a row. Banns is an old English custom, which colonial Africans adopted as an opportunity for the congregation to show its support. It also affords anyone who might object to the union an opportunity to speak up before the ceremony takes place.
Yoruba Spiritual Ritual
For those of the Yoruban religion, a special ritual takes place one month prior to the ceremony. During this ritual, the high priest (babalawo) delivers a spiritual reading and then offers the couple counsel on the the keys to happiness in a marriage. The couple gives an offering to Osun, the spirit of love, fertility, and money. Then the priest tosses a kola nut into the air, and the way it lands is interpreted as to whether the family ancestors approve of the union or not. If not, the couple is advised as to the appeasement rituals they must perform in the coming weeks in order to earn the favor of their ancestors.
Loading the Bride
Led by a group of mature women from the bride’s village, this ceremony is much like an American bridal shower. The bride receives gifts for her home and trousseau. In addition, she hears practical and spiritual counsel from more experienced women on getting along with a man, having and raising children, managing a home, and other advice about marriage.
Bride wealth in the African Traditional Society
In parts of Africa, a traditional marriage ceremony depends on payment of a bride price to be valid. In Sub-Saharan Africa, bride price must be paid first in order for the couple to get permission to marry in church or in other civil ceremonies, or the marriage is not considered valid by the bride’s family. The amount can vary from a token to a great sum, real estate and other values. Lobolo (or Lobola, sometimes also known as Roora) is the same tradition in most cultures in Southern Africa Xhosa, Shona, Venda, Zulu, Ndebele etc. The amount includes a few to several herd of cattle, goats and a sum of money depending on the family. The cattle and goats constitute an integral part of the traditional marriage for ceremonial purposes during and after the original marriage ceremony.
The animals and money are not always paid all at once. Depending on the wealth of the groom he and his family can enter into a non written contract with the bride’s family similar to the Jewish Ketubah, in which he promises to pay what he owes within a specified period of time. This is done to allow young men who do not have much to marry while they work towards paying off the bride price as well as raising a family or wait for their own sisters and aunts to get married so they in turn can use the amounts received to offset their debts to their in-laws. This amount must be paid by his family in the event he is incapacitated or dies. It is considered a family debt of honor.
The bride price tradition can have destructive effects when young men don’t have the means to marry. In strife-torn South Sudan, for instance, many young men steal cattle for this reason, often risking their lives. In mid twentieth century Gabon a person’s whole life can be governed by the money affairs connected with marriage; to secure a wife for their son, parents begin to pay installments for a girl of only a few years; from the side of the wife’s family there begins a process of squeezing which goes on for years.