Marriage customs in Africa vary from one tribe to another. Before colonization, marriages were strictly traditional and depends on the customs, traditions, and believes of the people. However, that changed with colonization and the intrusion of western religion. Sadly, Christian marriage (White wedding) is gradually replacing traditional marriage in some African tribes. Today, many tribes celebrate both traditional and white weddings—and it is straining the budget of young couples.
Arranged marriages are quite common, but the practice is slowly fading away mainly due to the infusion of western culture. A common feature of nearly all traditional marriage customs is the introduction, (“Knock Door” in some tribes). The small ceremony is when the groom and his family visit the bride’s family to officially declare their intentions. Bride price is another common feature of traditional marriages. This may come in the form of money or gift items. In this article, we will talk about 10 traditional marriage customs in Africa.
African Tribes and Their Marriage Customs
#1. The Efik Marriage Custom
The Efik people are famous for their colorful costumes and captivating tribal adornment during the traditional marriage. A typical Efik marriage begins with the proposal known as “Mbup Ndo”. Before the actual meeting, both families will carry out an investigation to make sure the in-laws have a good social reputation. The proposal is a family affair where the head of each family and other important members sit together. The groom’s family present gift to the bride’s family. In a typical African fashion, it is the groom and his family that bear the most marriage expenses.
The actual ceremony is a highlight of traditional theatrics and dance. It begins with the groom dancing into an arena that’s often crowded by well-wishers and family members. In his hand is a traditional staff, “Esang”, which signifies that he is now a man. Dressed in the traditional groom attire, he makes a grand entry in the company of his friends. The introduction of the bride-to-be by the mistress of the occasion who serves as a mediator between both families follows. The bride wears an elaborate adornment of beads on her head, neck, wrist, and ankles. She will then have to dance “Ekombi”, a traditional dance that is indigenous to the Efik people.
Next is the presentation of gifts, dance, and music. Among the gifts presented to the bride is the marriage box known as “Ekebe ndo”. This contains clothes, jewels, and items which the bride will wear in her matrimonial home. The marriage rite ends with merriment to appease the community.
#2. The Yoruba Marriage Custom
The unique culture and tradition of this tribe are equally as spectacular as that of the Efik. The marriage process begins with an informal visit to the family of the bride by the groom and his family. It is during this visit that the actual date for the ceremony is set. The traditional fabric for such celebrations is “Aso oke”. The bride and her family or friends often get the luxury of choosing the color of the day. Both families use the same color, making it easy to distinguish them from the guests. On the day of the ceremony, the bride wears Gele (traditional head tie), Buba (top), and IRO which is a long material tied around the waist. The groom mostly wears Agbada, a traditional attire common in the Yoruba tribe. An officiator known as the Alaga Ijoko will kick start the ceremony.
Her duty is to ensure that the traditional marriage customs of the Yoruba people are fully observed. This includes letter reading, prostrating before the bride’s family, presentation of gifts, etc. When it is time, the Alaga Ijoko calls for the groom who will then be officially presented to the bride’s family. After the groom has been accepted, the bride and her maids are ushered into the hall amidst dances and music. The bride goes through a similar protocol where she will be introduced to the groom’s family. However, she doesn’t have to present any gifts.
#3. The Akan Marriage Custom
In the Akan tribe, the aim of marriage is for continuity. It is common to see cross-sectional marriages among family members. This could be a matrilateral, patrilateral, or bilateral marriage. Whichever it is, there is usually a background check of both families. This is mainly the duty of the mothers of both bride and groom while the father’s duty is to arrange the marriage. The high point of the occasion is the exchange of gifts by both families.
In the Akan tribe, both the bride and groom exchange gifts. Popular gifts include clothes, perfumes, household utensils, and money. Unfortunately, in the case of a divorce, the bride’s family is to return the money but can keep other gifts. In many other tribes, traditional marriages are often not legally binding, except the couple opt for a civil marriage where they will both sign a marriage certificate. But in the Akan tribe, traditional marriage is recognized by law, therefore, legally binding.
#4. The Hausa Marriage Custom
The Hausa ethnic group is among the largest in Sub-saharan Africa. Though they are dispersed across most of the West African countries, they still maintain their cultures and traditions. The Hausa marriage is based on Islamic marriage rites. ‘Na gain ina’ is the first step. The groom-to-be and family visit the bride’s family to declare their intentions. If they are accepted by the bride’s father, the groom will be allowed to see the bride for a short time. This is to let each of them get to know each other. After that, the bride will give her final decision to the father who then informs the groom’s family. The Hausa word for this is “Gaisuwa”.
If she accepts the proposal, the two families will meet again to set up a date for the wedding. “Sa rana” precedes Fatihah which is the actual wedding day. It is during the Fatihah that the dowry or Sadaki is paid. While this goes on, the bride is to remain indoors with older women who will be performing a ceremony on her known as Kunshi. Kunshi is a rite of passage that prepares the bride for her role as a wife. During her time indoors, the bride is also adorned with intricately designed body arts known as Henna. The wedding ceremony “Walimah” follows shortly after. Finally, the bride is led to her husband’s house by family members.
#5. Zulu Tribe Marriage Custom
The wedding ceremony in the Zulu tribe is vibrant and dramatic. As with most African tribes, it begins with the payment of “lobola”. This is a kind of bride price paid by the man to the family of the woman he intends to marry. This is followed by gifts from the family of the man. Upon accepting the gifts, the bride reciprocates with her own gifts. This could come in the form of groceries or clothes. This act or stage in the marriage custom is called “Umbondo”. It is only after this that the actual marriage ceremony “Umabo” can take place. Umabo holds in the groom’s family home. The bride and a family member (usually the father) leave her home very early wrapped in a blanket.
On getting to the groom’s house, she will have to walk around the house before entering secretly (if possible). If she succeeds in doing so, then the groom’s family will have to pay a fine. During the ceremony, the bride shares the gift items she brought (Umbondo) with her inlaws. The items are actually given out by her bridesmaids. After this is done, there is singing and dancing before the bride and her maids put up a theatrical play. The Zulu people believe that this ceremony is important for a long-lasting marriage since it often involves the ancestors.
#6. Amhara Tribe Marriage Custom
The Amhara tribe is the dominant ethnic group in Ethiopia. They are found in the Northern and central highlands of the country. The Amhara people have 3 types of marriages and each of these differs from the other. The most common type is civil or kin-negotiated marriages. The marriage customs here permit girls as young as 14 years to be married. As the name suggests, this marriage is typically negotiated by the parents on behalf of the bride and groom. But before that, the groom’s parents will carry out an investigation to make sure that they are not related to the girl. This investigation can sometimes go as far back as 5 generations. At the conclusion of the negotiation, a civil ceremony is organized to confirm the marriage.
Unlike the Eucharist wedding, it is not compulsory for a priest to be present during the civil wedding ceremony. During the wedding, the bride and groom dress in traditional Habesha cloth. The occasion takes place in a large hall or auditorium to accommodate the guest. In the Amhara custom, it is necessary for the girl to be a virgin. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom return to the groom’s family house where they will spend their first honeymoon. After some time, they will then move to the bride’s family house and also spend some time together there.
#7. Hutu Tribe Marriage Custom
Marriage among the Hutu people of Rwanda begins with courtship. It is a period of time when the bride-to-be and her groom get to know each other. Gusaba or introduction ceremony follows afterwards. During the Gusaba, the bride will introduce her groom to her family and friends. It is during the introduction ceremony that the dowry is paid. This is often done by the groom and his family. The dowry can come in the form of money or a cow. It is an integral part of the marriage custom of the Hutu people.
The dowry can be returned in a situation of divorce. Also, it is a customary practice for each family present during the Gusaba to have a representative or spokesperson. The spokesperson is usually someone with a good knowledge of the marriage custom. The representative of the groom’s family will be asked questions. With his knowledge and experience of marriage customs, he will skillfully respond to the riddles and questions.
The traditional wedding ceremony holds in the home of the groom’s father. Here, the bride, dressed in traditional attire, will be officially introduced to the groom’s family. Subsequently, Gutwikurura or seclusion party will hold in the home of the new couple. The party which often takes place in the evening comes with a few peculiarities. For example, guests have to wait while the couple consummate to know if the bride is a virgin. Other practices include cutting the bride’s hair and offering the bride a damsel to help her out.
#8. Shona Tribe Marriage Custom
The Shona people are native to Southern Africa. Over the years, these tribe has modified some parts of their marriage customs. However, key aspects of the ceremony are preserved. One of these is the payment of bride price known as roora. Before that, the man must make his intentions known to the girl and her father. If the lady’s father gives his permission, the man will then ask for her hand in marriage. If she accepts, a date is set for both families to meet. Unlike many other traditions, the marriage custom of the Shona people in Zimbabwe has been likened to selling the lady. This is because the man and his family give a lot of money to the bride’s family.
On the day for both families to meet. The groom’s family is expected to feed everyone present. Food is an important part of the celebration. If it is not enough, the family of the groom could be shamed. Worst still, they may not be allowed into the house. If the food is enough, the groom and his family are led into the house to meet the bride’s family. The bride is not present during the negotiations. Both families only talk using a mediator. The dowry will be received by the bride’s father after the groom has fulfilled other financial requirements. The dowry now comes in the form of cash or a cow—most people now pay cash. The ceremony ends with a party after which the groom is welcomed as a son-in-law.
#9. Oromo Tribe Marriage Custom
The Oromo, one of the largest tribes in Ethiopia, has 6 different types of marriage customs. These are Naqataa (betrothal), Sabbat Marii, Hawwii, Butii, Aseennaa, and Dhaala. Among these, the only formally accepted marriage custom is betrothal. The rest are informal. To the Oromo tribe, marriage is important not just to the bride and groom but to the community as a whole. Betrothal or Naqataa is an arranged marriage between a lady and a man. The parents of both the bride and groom have a great influence over the marriage. This is mostly because the parents of the groom have to conduct in-depth research on the lady’s family background.
This is to ensure that they are not related in any way. Sometimes, this investigation goes back several generations. When they are satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, the groom’s parents will then make contact with the bride’s family through a mediator. The lady’s family is obliged to listen to what the mediator has to say. If they are satisfied with it, then a date is set for the two families to meet. It is the outcome of this discussion that determines if the man and the woman will end up as husbands and wives. If both families are able to come to a successful negotiation, then the wedding date will be fixed. Again, the parents are responsible for footing the bills of the wedding ceremony. The Naqataa is the most common type of marriage among the Oromo people of Ethiopia.
#10. Igbo Tribe Marriage Custom
Marriage among the Igbo tribes is an event that is meticulously planned. It starts with the man asking for the lady’s hand in marriage. If she accepts his proposal, the man and his family will then pay a visit to the lady’s family to introduce themselves and state their purpose. After welcoming the groom and his family into the house, the bride is asked if she knows the man (groom). If she says yes, a date will be set for the groom to come back and pay her bride price.
The bride price settlement is set on the evening of a convenient date. The groom’s family will present the requirements to the bride’s father. In addition to cash, the bride price can encompass several other items like goat, chicken wine, drinks, kola nut, wrappers, etc. After the payment of the bride price, a day is fixed for the traditional marriage. In most cases, much time is given for both families to make proper preparation.
The high point of the wedding ceremony is when the bride takes a cup of palm wine and walks around the compound looking for her husband. When she finds him among the guest, she will give him the drink. This moment is often filled with so much excitement as the bride is distracted by the guests. The ceremony is concluded with the couple performing the traditional nuptial dance of the Igbo tribe amidst invigorating music.
Marriage in the traditional African sense means building stronger family ties. It goes beyond the union of two people. In some tribes, arranged marriages are a common practice. However, this is becoming less common as western influence grows stronger on the continent. Another common marriage custom is the payment of bride price or dowry. Over the years, there is a growing debate on its relevance and legitimacy. This is one dominant tradition that cuts across diverse tribes.
The size of a dowry or bride price differs from one tribe to another. Also, some people believe payment of bride price is important to show the man’s commitment and as a sign of respect to the bride’s family. Others believe it is a tradition that has lost its relevance for impoverishing would-be couples. Others blame it for the inability of low-income earners to get married. We would like to hear your thoughts on the payment of bride price. Are you for or against it? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.