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Marriage in African Traditional Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2435 words Published: 10th Jul 2017

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Marriage is an important step in the life of every human on earth. Different cultures have different rituals and beliefs about marriage. Love, economic status, religious beliefs, and social acceptance are just a few reasons individuals marry across differing cultures.

To understand various form of marriages among the Kenyan societies and specifically the Akamba, we shall look at length the systems of marriages that existed.

Kenyan culture is very diverse and full of tradition based on social norms that have been around for generations. Social life is patterned around a strong clan and extended family ties. This plays a vital role in the marriage process. Kenyans attempt to maximize rewards and minimize costs. This is done by comparing what one gives up compared to what they receive in marriage. A husband may receive social status, sexual enhancement, increased labor, and the knowledge that his blood-line will continue, while giving up some sort of economic compensation to the family of the wife. The wife may receive resources, adult status as a wife, and protection in return for her labor and obedience to her husband.

Marriage is a recognized union of a man and a woman as husband and wife, a union that is intended to last their joint lives. Mutisya(2004) cites a case of Rex vs Amkeyo, the then Chief Justice, Sir Robert Hamilton, that stated:

“In my opinion, the use of the word ‘marriage’ to describe the relationship entered into by an African native with a woman of his tribe according to tribal custom is a misnomer that has led in the past to a considerable confusion of ideas the element of a so-called marriage by native custom differs so materially from the ordinary accepted idea of what constitutes a civilized form of marriage that it is difficult to compare the two.”

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However, in the African mind, it is considered as a serious affair and one that demands high commitment. There are no half-measures in Akamba marriages. A man who engages in dubious marital relationships is a mutuany’a, a vagabond despised by everyone in the community. Likewise, a woman without a proper husband is referred to as a mukoma nthi, one who sleeps on the floor, a person of no fixed abode.

Among the Akamba, a virgin bride brought shame to her family; her virginity was an indication of ill preparation before marriage, therefore young women were ritually deflowered by elder men from whom they received sexual teachings. In the same vein, pre-marital sex was permitted for both boys and girls to prepare them adequately for their conjugal responsibilities in marriage. Among the Akamba, marriage had the specific purpose of perpetuating one’s lineage and in the process, bestowing social status on the man and his wife.

When a boy and girl came to a secret agreement that they were in love and wanted to marry, upon agreement, the young man’s father would approach the girl’s parents on the matter. This was followed by the first sign of sealing an in-law relationship ‘uthoni’ with two goats ‘mbui sya ntheo’. The young suitor then prepared the best beer ‘uki’, which was taken to the girl’s father, followed by a negotiation on the bride-wealth.

The Akamba married woman was more or less the head of the family in the long run, since the husband had little control over her in the day to day management. If such a freedom to manage the home was absent, the husband had the danger of his wife becoming exasperated and running away. At all costs, the husband had to avoid such situations of a wife running back to her parents, because he would definitely not recover the dowry he gave to her parents, which could only happen if his former wife re-married. In the case of re-marriage, the new husband was obliged to refund the entire dowry paid to the former husband. In the final analysis what this system did was to reduce exceedingly the number of divorce cases.

The Akamba men were socialized to worship physical power – fighting, cattle raiding, and so on. The women maintained a closely guarded culture of oppression in which men were excluded from all intellectual activities. The men’s only tasks were to raid cattle and guard the community. When they were not doing that, they were allowed to spend their time drinking beer or socializing.

They were excluded from all creative activities where thought and tact would have been necessary. In deed, even in worshiping Mulungu – the Akamba God, the men were excluded. The women had their own well organized religion called Kathambi. Their goddess, Kathambi, is the goddess of rain and fertility. The women associated rain and fertility with womanhood. And since men don’t give birth or menstruate, they were deemed incapable of communicating with Mulungu. The congregation of Kathambi worshiping women was called Ngolano and the congregation was led by woman priestesses (who had stopped menstruating and giving birth) in shrines called mathembo, composed of thick forests or huge trees.

Ghost Wives (Mulewa)

“Mulewa Muthiani goes about her business just like any other widowed woman in her village in Ukambani. But there is one difference between her and “normal” widows – Mulewa never met her husband. In fact, she was married to him after he died, about 30 years ago.

Mulewa is what is referred to in Ukambani as a ghost wife. And while she never set eyes on Muthiani, her husband, she knows for a fact that he once lived, and even if now long dead, he continues to live as a spirit. This she knows because when she was being married, her mother in-law, Muthoni – who died in 1992 – told her that she was being married to bear children for Muthoni’s son, Muthiani, who died in early childhood. Yes, she has children – five in fact – who were fathered by different men and who bear her dead husband’s name.” Stanely Kimanga.

It was considered highly important for every Akamba man to be married because it was his wife and children that would guarantee keeping his memory beyond his death. If an Akamba man died before marriage, the father arranged to obtain a wife (Mulewa) for the dead son. Such a girl was married to the name of the “dead unmarried man” and bore him children, usually by his brother (cf. Middleton, p. 90).

In 1967 C. W .Hobley wrote in “Bantu Beliefs and Magic”:

There is a curious custom in Ukambani… If a young unmarried man is killed away from his village, his Imu or spirit will return there and speak to the people through the medium of an old woman in a dance and say: “I am so-and- so speaking, and I want a wife.” The youth’s father will then make arrangements to buy a girl from another village and bring her to his, and she will be mentioned as the wife of the deceased, speaking of him by name…”

Among the Akamba, a woman could be married to a man who was long dead and such a woman was called ‘Mulewa’ – ‘ghost wife.” Athough the ‘ghost wife’ never met her ‘husband’, she knew he once lived and continued to live as a spirit. Mulewa was therefore expected to bear children for her dead husband by sleeping with other men.

The ‘ghost wife’ cultural practice also catered for male children who died in infancy. The bereaved mother counted the years until the dead baby would have reached marriageable age, then she would find him a bride.

Before a girl was identified to be a ‘ghost wife’, there had to be evidence that she had already produced a son. The continuation of the dead man’s lineage and that of his father was of prime importance. Even if daughters remained at home and produced children, they were not perceived as continuing the lineage of their maternal grandfather because kinship in the Akamba community was patrilineal and the children of daughters would not belong to the same clan as their grandfather.

A ghost wife was accorded the privileges of a normal wife and her right of inheritance was protected and she received what her dead husband would have received from his parents.

Woman-to-Woman Marriage (Iweto)

The practice of women marrying women is somewhat common in certain societies in West Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, and the Sudan. Yet, besides a total lack of discussion in the popular media, what is typically called woman-woman marriage is the subject of a very small body of academic literature.

Cross-culturally, women take wives under three circumstances, all of which increase the status of the female husband: 1) barren women and widows take wives to obtain rights over children produced; 2) rich women accumulate wives to gain prestige and wealth in the same way men do through polygyny; and 3) in some societies where women have the right to have a daughter-in-law, women without sons can exercise their right to a daughter-in-law by marrying a woman and giving her to a non-existent son.

In each of these situations, African women are able to manipulate the existing system through woman-to-woman marriage in order to achieve higher social and economic status.

Woman-to-woman marriage can also be beneficial to persons other than the female husband. Woman-to-woman marriage involves the following persons: 1) the female husband herself; 2) if the female husband is already married, her own husband (the female husband’s husband); 3) the woman who is married by the female husband – the wife; and 4) the lover(s) of the wife who may father her children. To obtain a full understanding of the topic, it is important to examine the motivations not only of the wife, but also those of the wife’s lover(s) and the husband (if any) of the female husband.

The Akamba practiced woman-to-woman marriage (Gynegamy) known as ‘Iweto’ All ceremonial aspects of this marriage were observed, bride-wealth was paid to the girl’s father, and all rules of divorce applicable in the Akamba community were adhered to. This marriage involved one woman marrying another woman, thus assuming control over her and her offspring.

The Akamba female husbands resorted to this form of marriage to further their social and economic positions in society. Barren women and widows took wives to obtain rights over children produced. Rich Akamba women accumulated wives to gain prestige and wealth in the same way men do through polygamy. The Akamba women who had no sons exercised their right to a daughter-in-law by marrying a woman and giving her to a non-existent son.

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The Akamba allowed a woman who had no sons to ‘marry’ another woman. This was usually after widowhood, but could also be during the husband’s lifetime. The ‘bride’ worked for and looked after the elderly woman she had ‘married’ but was free to choose male partners as she pleased, since the purpose for her union with the elderly woman was to have sons. Any children born belonged to the family group, and the sons would inherit the property.

Among the Akamba it was and still is the wife’s duty to provide food for the family from the family cultivated land. The wife could ask for divorce if the plot of land was too small and the husband refused to negotiate a larger piece of land (cf. Penwill, pp. 15-18).

Christian view of both types of Marriages

In traditional thinking, ancestors are an essential link in a hierarchical chain of powers stretching from this world to the spirit world. Insofar as African traditional religion can be defined by specific “religious” actions, the cult of the ancestors is its most common and essential activity.

In order to understand the importance of ancestors one must realize that in the African view, death is not thought to end human relationships. Rather, those who die enter the spirit world in which they are invisible.

Deceased ancestors are integral to the traditional African social structure. In a culture where tribe, clan and family are of utmost importance, ancestors are the most respected members of the family. To be cut off from relationships with one’s ancestors is to cease to be a whole person. Moreover, the ancestors sanction society’s customs, norms and ethics. Without them, Africans are left without moral guidelines or motivation, and society is powerless to enforce ethics.

However, the bible is clear on when should a union between a woman and a man end, in case of the ghost marriages. A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.( 1st Corithians 7:39).

This outlaws the connection in matrimony between the dead and the alive. It also cautions against tokenism where one worships a dead person. It is through Christ that all that have died will rise again.

However, woman to woman marriages of Ukambbani are not same with lesbianism. It was a place to take care of each other and involved no or little sexual intimacy.

Christian teachings prohibit marriage and sexual activities between same genders but encourage people to take good care of each other. ( 1st John 3:16). It was love that guided these relationships.

References Cited

Cadigan, R. Jean (1998), Woman-to-woman marriage: practices and benefits in Sub-Saharan Africa. Comparative Perspectives on Black Family Life. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol 1

Dundas, C. (1913), History of Kitui, Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 43 pp480-549.

Kimanga, S. (6 October 2004), The ghost wives of Ukambani, All Africa News, http://allafrica.com/stories/200410060072.html, Accessed 18th July 2010

Lindblom, G., (1969.) The Akamba in British East Africa, 2nd Edition, New York: Negro University Press.

Middleton, J. (1953), The Central Tribes of the North-Eastern Bantu, London: International African Institute.

New International Version, Holy Bible

Penwill, D.J., (1951), Kamba Customary Law, London: Macmillan and Company.

Roy M,M. (2004), Akamba Marriage Customs. Nairobi: Roma Publishers Limited.

Mueni, E. (2010) Personal interview (0726 43-0331)

Terry, M. (2010) Personal Interview (0721- 738524)


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