QUESTION: Marriage in African traditional religion is a communal rather than an individual affair. Discuss the validity of this assertion.
The African continent is famous for its diversity in all spheres, therefore, the religions of Africa are very numerous too. Religion is a fundamental phenomenon among African people, it is the fulcrum of their life yet its essential principles are too often unknown to foreigners who thus make themselves constantly liable to misunderstanding the African worldview and beliefs.
Religion enters into every aspect of the African's life and it cannot be studied in isolation. When we speak of African Traditional Religion, we mean the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of Africans. The word traditional means indigenous, that which is aboriginal or foundational and it is handed down from generation to generation. Marriage can be defined as the intimate and complementing union between a man and a woman in which they become one physically in the whole life Oduyoye (1995).It is a contract between two or more people of the opposite sex. The ambit of this essay is however to show that marriage in African traditional religion is not an individual thing but a communal thing despite the fact that individuals are the main beneficiaries of the whole process of marriage.
Marriage in African traditional religion is a community activity that involves all the members of the society, meaning those who are physically living in the community, the ancestors and those yet to be born as purported by Mbiti (1969).This means that marriage is not an individual thing because it involves both the physical and the metaphysical world .By metaphysical world, we refer to the ancestral world. The entire community including the living and the deceased are involved in the marriage process. Although the African continent has quite a number of ethnic groups, they however share some basic principles like belief in the spiritual life. Bareness and failure to get married are equally attributed to the ancestors. This logically implies that marriage in African traditional religion is not an individual thing but a communal thing since ancestors do belong to the whole clan.
There are different forms of marriages in the African traditional religion which include monogamy, polygamy, levirate and polyandry just to mention but a few. In African traditional religion marriage is a cherished fecundity whose focus is procreation. This means that people get married in order for them to have children. The whole process of child-bearing involves a lot of people. In all the above forms of marriage, members of the community play an active role from proposal stage up to the time of formal marriage. By having children, one confirms his or her ability to participate in the expansion of the lineage or clan. By procreation marriage revitalises human society and assures it of immortality. This logically implies that marriage is a communal rather than individual affair.
Bourdillon (1987) postulates that people marry into families, hence marriages are a family affair rather than an individual affair. When two spouses get married they involve their family members. Marriage is a step by step process taken on by the entire community through ceremonies and rituals. It is during this process that the aunt (tete) is given the full responsibility of teaching the daughters cherished values that will prevent misbehavior in marriage. When a community seeks out for a daughter or son in law, they look for one that lives up to their cultural expectations. Recommendation of the right candidate during marriage is normally done through consultation from family members. There is also the involvement of the family messenger (Sadombo) who is the facilitator of payment of ‘lobola’ process. This is evidence enough to prove that marriage is not an individual affair.
Marriage is a rite of passage that confirms a transitional period from one social category to another. It involves a change of family, clan, village and even the country. Bahemuka (1983) posits that marriage promotes unity and interpersonal relationships between the families. It involves not only interpersonal relationships but also intercommunity relations. It creates very strong bonds between individuals belonging to different families and clans, especially when children are born. Therefore it is not an individual affair.
According to Gyekye, Hastings and Magesa, although marriage might seem to be between individuals, the marriage covenant is in fact between two families. Marriage is closely connected with the continuation of the lineage, an ideology that touches upon one of the very basic ideas of African family. The two married individuals have an obligation to accept the members of each other’s family as their own family. Traditional marriage rituals express an understanding of marriage not as a contract between individuals but as a joining of two lineages. The lineages are united in terms of naming and self-perpetuation extend to two clans, the husband’s and the wife’s (Magesa 1997, 110, 128: Gyekye 1996, 79 and Hastings 1973, 29). Kirwen (1974), in support of the above posited that levirate unions bring out clearly the nature of African marriage as a lasting union that transcends death. In this way, he makes a connection with the world of the living and the ancestors and highlights the important role of the community in the success and continuation of any marriage in Africa. This idea is prominent in Maasai marriages where widows remain part of the family of the dead husband. This proves quite clearly that marriage is not an individual affair.
Most African families are polygamous families that is to say they are composed of more than one wife. However, one thing to be taken note of is the fact that the main factor behind polygamy is not sexual incontinence, but the overriding desire and necessity to have children. Taking a second wife is so often a consequence of the barrenness of the first Odeyoye (1995). Traditionally, sex and marriage are sacred realities and the whole aspect of sexual immorality was derived from its sacredness as a procreative function. It was therefore the duty of the elderly to teach the young ones about proper ways of marriage through informal education at the men's court (dare) as propounded by J.M Gombe.This proves that marriage was a community affair rather than an individual affair.
Viginity is held in high esteem in African traditional marriage. The bride wealth (dowry) for a virgin is high. In some tribes, the mother is given a cow as tribute to her successful upbringing of the girl and the viginity status will be made public. Marriage is a process that involves a number of people rather than an individual affair. Blessings and fortunes in African traditional marriages were shared communally.
Conflict resolution in African traditional marriages is done communally. It involved the two sets of parents from the two families whereby the grey headed would intervene during conflict resolution. According to Penwill (1951), amongst the Akamba marriage, a man who engages in dubious marital relationships is called a Muany'a, a vagabond and is despised by everyone in the community and a woman without a proper husband is called a "mukoma nthi" meaning one who sleeps on the floor or a person of no fixed abode. This is proof enough to support the idea that marriage in African traditional religion is a society activity.
However despite the vast evidence supporting the idea that marriage is a communal thing, in some sense it is an individual affair. Sexual benefits in marriage are mainly for the two individuals who are in a relationship. It is an abomination for someone who is in marriage to have extra marital affairs. Sex in this case is a sacred fruit reserved for those in marriage hence the reason why some to say marriage is an individual affair.
In addition to the above, although procreation is overall a benefit for the community the act belongs to the individuals. There is self-satisfaction through having a sexual partner. In most African societies a person who fails to have children is regarded as a failure. A man without a child in the African society would consider himself dead and finished. The desire for children has always been the main motive inspiring the Africans to marry as well as having personal fulfillment.
Considering the above facts, one can logically infer that although there are some individual gains in the whole process of African marriage, marriage is a communal event. The theory of individualism has no space in African societies, they are socialists in nature. Africans live a communal way of life, therefore, marriage to a greater extent is a communal affair rather than an individual affair.
Compiled by Mhuri Muneni
Heis a teacher at Errymaple High School in Zvishavane
B.A Degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies.
Post Graduate Diploma in Education,
Shona and Religious Studies.