I'm often asked by American friends, and even my American- raised daughters, how to incorporate African customs into a wedding day. I think back to the culturally rich marriage celebrations of my childhood.
I can still remember even as a little six year old girl how my father's last, of five, young bride was brought to our compound. The bride's face was fully covered with a lappa cloth, her special escort was an entourage of people singing happy and light hearted songs. The bridal train stopped at the gate leading into our compound to receive the customary tip before continuing their slow march to my father's first wife's house. Several other sudden stops were made along the way and tips given.
Finally the new bride was taken into the inner chambers of my step-mother's house. A line quickly formed. Anyone who wanted to see the new bride's face had to offer a tip. As kids we rushed out of the room giggling and trying to describe the new wife's face to those still in line. After the "unveiling of the bride" my step- mother's doors closed. The rest of the cerebration and feasting took place in the courtyard and in my father's parlor/living room. Lots of people came to our compound and they ate, drank and danced till late in the night.
Though most African marriage ceremonies of today are performed in the Western Christian or Muslim traditions, it is relatively easy to bring African elements to modern unions. For the wedding, it's as simple as inclusion of African clothing- traditional attire for the couple and 'uniforms' for family members and African spirituals during the ceremony.
At the reception African music, dance, food, bridal escort party or "showering" can be done.
Music: Dance tunes provided by African CD or tapes or an Afro-centric live band.
Gift Giving: I witnessed a great reception where the bride and her family came in and were seated, then drumming commenced followed by dancers and young men carrying basins of wrapped gifts on their heads. These gifts were lined up in front of the bride's family. After which a well dressed groom adorned in rich African garb accompanied by his grooms men entered the room. They all headed towards the bride's family. Down went the groom, "prostrating" before his future in-laws with great humility and respect. This was really a sight to see! After a few minutes, the bride's father got the groom up and offered the groom his daughter's hand. The two took their seats at the center of the "special table" and the ceremony/feasting began.
Bridal Escort: The women in the bride's retinue came into the room enveloping the bride, amid songs and light dance. In the meantime, the women on the groom's side waited at the end of the room. The bride's train presented her to the groom's people. The groom's women danced along and led the bride to the center of the room. (While all the while the bride's escorts train danced backwards to the door and then forward to join the dance at the center of the room). The groom was then brought to join in and then "showering" (with money bills) began. The new couple was showered with money throughout the rest of the night. They danced and danced while bridal maids gathered and picked up the money underfoot to be given as a token of abundance for the couple to start their new life.
With these pointers, you don't have to go home to Africa for your traditional marriage if you are overseas.
THE RING WITH NO REMORSE:
Importing a Spouse from back home
Dear Auntie Chambu,
I'm a thirty year old systems analyst who has been living in the California for the past five years. I've been dating for most of that time and have found it hard to find a life partner. My parents still live back home and have been talking about finding a wife for me. I never thought I would say yes to such a thing but after internet match ups and blind dates, I'm ready to take a chance. Should I take that chance?
In many traditional African village settings, marriage is arranged by the bride and groom's family members. A groom's family searches high and low, locates, then courts a wife for their son taking in to consideration the prospective bride's behavior, social standing, and even family wealth. The groom's family usually has a general idea about the particular family before they begin their investigation. If and when the groom's family is satisfied, his family lets their intentions be known to their potential in-laws. If the girl's family accepts the proposal, a verbal agreement is entered into between the two families and a wedding date is set. The girl may or may not have actually spoken to her future husband but she might know him from village gatherings.
In today's modern world, we are scattered all over. People live outside their village: in towns, cities, and overseas. The closeness and familiarity that once existed has faded to a threadbare recognition of family names. The support network that held relationships together including marriages is weakened.
It is therefore no surprise that the groom's family does not quite know the girl they are sending over to their "son " as well as they should. In most cases the two families barely know each other and the bride- to- be may have been off schooling far from the village for many years. And so under the best of circumstances, the girl is sent off into marriage overseas to meet a husband-to-be she has only known through pictures. No telephone calls, no e-mails. She arrives in let's say, America with her own grandiose ideas about freedom and the good-life. The groom of course has his own ideas about what his straight from Africa wife should be like, submissive and all. He forgets that that was then and now marriage is different. And so the dance begins. When the husband says right, the wife says left. The result is friction and continuous bickering over nothing. After some time children are born into this chaos. The couple hangs in there and the family goes on because after all, they are from the same village.
Don't let this be the story of your union. It is true that we live in an ever changing world today. We all move around for work, education, to personal reasons. But the advantages of the modern life are many. We live in an age when telecommunications and travel is easy. May I suggest that if at all possible that you as a man choose your own wife. I mean, allow your families and friends to introduce you to many young ladies. Make calls or take trips back home to meet and get to know women there. Though e-mails and telephone contact helps, there is nothing better than a face to face visit. Make sure you find someone who's not looking for a meal ticket- a Yankee boy to come home for the holidays and be her 'Fada Christmas.'
You have an advantage here that you are both coming from the same cultural background which should ease understanding. But find out more. Communicate. What are her values? Is she a go-getter, church going, education-minded, and family-oriented? Pay attention to her relationships with her family and friends. I assure you that if you take the time to ask these and other questions, you will understand the young ladies who have been introduced to you. And I can guarantee that you will choose wisely. It is better to lie on a bed you make yourself. At the least you will have developed a lot of understanding, patience, but most of all, the necessary communication skills along the way. I wish you peace and bliss in your time together. Good luck!
WHAT TO ASK YOUR HUSBAND TO-BE
Do you want kids?
Maybe you don't know how many children you want right now but make sure that the man of your dreams wants at least one. If family is important to you, like it is for many Africans, let him know. Which leads us to. . .
What is his definition of family?
African families tend to extend beyond the nuclear "Dad, Mom, & 2.2 kids" formula. Avoid future fights about those money transfers to kin back home by making sure he understands your communal culture background.
Where do you want to live?
Choosing between New York or New Mexico, the town or the country, can be hard enough but now you compound that with choices between continents. If you always wanted to reverse the brain drain and settle in the motherland your prospective partner needs to share your vision.
How will finances be managed?
Does he have long term financial goals? Who will budget and balance the checkbook/s. Will you open up joint bank accounts or maintain separate accounts? Since money issues are a leading relationship stressor make sure this won't be a deal breaker way down the line
Is he religious and/or spiritual?
If he wants to go to church every week and you like to sleep in on Sundays this strikes a dissonant chord. Matters of faith become particularly important when children are involved.
How will you divide family duties?
Will he help in the kitchen or gripe at even taking out the trash. Traditional gender roles have changed rapidly. Depending on his cultural upbringing or the dynamics he saw in his own parents' relationship your man may adapt or rebel- to your dismay or delight (depending on how traditional you are).
And last but not least. . .
What's your level of intimacy?
Male and female libidos are different. Be up front about your sexual needs so the bedroom is a place of pleasure not pain.
Go forth with your internal checklist in mind but remember that no body is perfect. If you find a man with most of the above qualities, I suggest you give him a serious thought and closer look. May cupid guide your path. Good luck.
Auntie Chambu, 52, was born and raised in the grasslands of Cameroon. This sheltered nineteen year old, boarding school girl came to a rebellious 60's United States to pursue a college degree and her dreams. She garnered degrees in social work and counseling, got married, and had four kids who constantly put her education and home spun wisdom to the test. After over twenty years of living on the two continents, her advice has a great mixture of traditional African insights with a spirited American independent thinker streak.