The foundations of marriage in Africa

According to our ancestors, within the perfect couple, the spouse, it is to say the woman, must fulfil 3 functions towards her husband. She has to be like a mother for her husband (taking care of him like a mother takes care of his child), she has to be like a sister to him (having brotherly bonds, sympathetic relationship with him like the kind of relationship between a brother and a sister) and finally, she has to be his lover (sharing intimacy).

The same goes for the man. Within the perfect couple, for our ancestors, the man has to fulfil 3 functions towards his wife: be a father, a brother and the husband – it is to say a lover – exactly like the woman has. So, for our ancestors, a man’s wife is at the same time his mother, his sister and his lover. And the husband has to be at the same time her father, her brother and her spouse.

This is why within the African couple, the wife can call her husband ‘papa’ and the man can call his wife ‘mama’.

What is the traditional African marriage?

God under his feminine form (Amenata) and masculine form (Imana/Amen), Ancient Egypt
Musée du Louvre

First of all, in order to understand the traditional African marriage, it’s necessary to know that for our ancestors the unique Creator possess in his-her divine nature the double male and female nature which meld, what enables to create all beings (humans, vegetables, animals, etc.) according to the male model and the female model.

The traditional African marriage is the fusion between the male principle and the female principle in order to make a unique body, to reproduce the nature of the Creator. By getting married, humans – man and woman – then reproduce physically and also spiritually this male and female unity of the Creator to form a unique body.

By realizing this unity of male and female principle, humans can ‘create’ like the Creator – it is to say give birth – to male beings (boy) and female (girl) exactly like the Creator does. All this explains why the African marriage is important, divine and sacred. As the couple becomes one like the Creator who is unique, it becomes indivisible just as the one and indivisible Creator. This is the reason why divorce is not a good option in the African vision of the couple. In case of problems, people do what it takes to reconcile the couple by mediation, etc.

However, in case of force majeure and if there is no other solution but divorcing, the couple can do so.

As based on community and non-individualistic, the group comes first in the African traditional society. And the individual cannot exist without their community, their family. This way, two people who get married, do not only unite both of them, because as each one of them is part of a community (family), by getting married they also unite their respective families. Once they are married, the man symbolically enters in his wife’s family and the same goes for the wife in the husband’s family.

What is the dowry?

The marriage is concluded after a certain number of ceremonies, the most important of which is the dowry.

What is the dowry? It is not the purchase of a woman by a man as some Westerners have thought or caricatured and for a long time have conveyed such a stereotype. The dowry is simply the pact or the token that concludes the union between the man and the woman – marriage – and between both families.

The fact that until now-a-days the dowry is given to the woman’s family represents the vestiges of Africa’s matriarchal tradition. It is also given to the woman’s family because of the important role played by the wife within the couple and within the African family.

Today still, the traditional marriage is and remains the most important ceremony for Africans. It is fundamental and it has not the same worth as the marriage in the city hall or in the church or in the mosque – what is completely normal.

This is why, even if you get married at the city hall, at the church or at the mosque, Africans will generally insist for the traditional marriage to be done properly for according to the tradition point of view this traditional part is not done, the marriage has no value.

All this enables to understand that the African tradition is not a tradition of polygamy, but a tradition of strict monogamy; since in the aim of the African marriage there must be a man and a woman in order to make a sole flesh and then reproduce the divine nature – female and male.

This here takes us to the point that touches the polygamist African myth and stereotype.

If the African tradition is monogamist, how did polygamy appear in Africa?

Couple égypte 2
Couple, ancient Egypt

Given that the African tradition is monogamist, polygamy is not a proper African behavior. But polygamy was attested in Africa since the antiquity in the Nile Valley. It was decided at first by the ruling elites in order to solve society issues related to the problems caused by the original African monogamist system.

Here are the examples of problems that the elites – notables, aristocrats, governors, etc. – have tried to solve by polygamy:

  • If within a society where everybody is monogamist, one can notice that there are unmarried women or women who experience difficulties in finding a husband; The elites would propose marriage to these single women so that they will not stay alone, without children, without posterity, etc. and so that they are not be laughed at by people, do not feel ashamed or be dishonored because of their situation.
  • The elites would also propose to marry these women in order to avoid the single women to cause trouble in other couple’s relationships – like taking other women’s husbands, etc.
  • There used to be also women who had lost their husbands for several reasons – warrior husband dead in war, dead by accident, etc. To avoid these lonesome women to carry alone all the responsibilities after losing their husbands, or if they were still young, the elites would propose to marry them.
  • In case of sterility, if it was the woman who was unable to give a child, and if treatments were not be efficient, she could permit her husband to take another wife – nevertheless without leaving her – to solve the problem.
  • There was also a sort of political form of polygamy where the king, besides having his great royal spouse, used to marry, as a symbol, for strategic and political reasons women from different regions of his empire or kingdom or simply in certain strategic regions in order to reinforce bonds or strategic alliances.
The legendary Behanzin, king of Danhomé (current Benin), with his wives
The legendary Behanzin, king of Danhomé (current Benin), with his wives

This type of polygamy used to be practical and destined to solve problems related to society. Generally to do so, the nobles, aristocrats as leaders would be those who would decide between them who could or could not marry another woman, according to their resources and possibilities. But as the men from the elites were already married in general, the fact to marry additional women created polygamy.

Even though this was a mean to solve society problems, this could also create other issues. That is why:

  • Those among the elites who accepted to practice polygamy had to have the material means to do so – house big enough to receive additional women or woman.
  • To practice polygamy, those who already had a wife had to necessarily ask their wife’s opinion first, to know if they would agree or not, so that the arrival of the other woman would not engender problems.
  • Also, to practice it, the woman to be had to agree.

This is how polygamy appeared in Africa. But this kind of polygamy was never spread to the entire society. As the African society is monogamist, polygamy has always been reserved to the elites since the beginning as a response to resolving society problems. These behaviors instituted very long times ago are sometimes still practiced in traditional elite circles today. In a manner that is how sometimes, in certain places of the continent, somebody whose ancestors were nobles in the ancient African kingdoms can be suggested to have several women, in order to keep the ancestral traditions alive.

But it was with the arrival of Islam in Africa that Islamized Africans started to marry several women anyhow – because Islamic rules allow to have several women – causing this way social and family disorders which gave birth to the myth of the polygamist African and stereotype invented by Westerners, myth in which Westerners show Africans as if they were naturally polygamists ever since.

PS: If it is indeed attested that Islam led to a spread of polygamy, it is certainly due to an abusive interpretation of Islamic texts by Africans, since Islam is actually trying also to restrict the practice of polygamy.


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

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