Marriage Systems

Marriage takes many forms in Africa. Throughout the continent, the diversity of systems reflects the traditions, religions, and economic circumstances of a wide variety of distinct cultures. Islamic laws and customs have shaped the institution of marriage in North Africa and in some nations of western and eastern Africa. In recent years, modern life, industry, and cities have brought changes to African marriages and to the roles of men and women.

African marriage systems do share several characteristics. They almost always involve the transfer of bridewealth—cash, goods, or services—from the groom or his family to the bride's family. This exchange is both real and symbolic, as it marks the woman's passage from one social group to the other. Thus, for Africans, marriage is a matter between families as much as between the bride and groom, and many families arrange the marriages of their members.

Africa : Marriage Systems

The Western attitude that marriage is the union of two people drawn together by love has had some influence in Africa, especially in the cities. But African cultures emphasize that the union of two individuals must fit into the larger picture of social networks known as KINSHIP groups. Each marriage creates an alliance between or within kinship groups, and the children of the union will inherit property, rights, and responsibilities from their kin.

Types of Marriage Systems

In Africa the institution of marriage varies as widely as the many thousands of ETHNIC GROUPS and cultures. Although some cultures forbid certain types of marriage, all the traditions are designed to promote kinship ties, to safeguard land and wealth through an orderly transfer, and to create a social order in which members of the community clearly understand their roles and relationships to others. Polygamy is common in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is the privilege of men, not of women. Polygamy enlarges a family and increases its ability to work and earn a living. It also demonstrates the power and status of the head of the household. In addition, polygamy gives men more freedom in selecting partners. If a man follows certain rules and traditions for his primary marriage, his others may be guided by personal choice or feeling.

Africans practice four other main types of marriage. Each is defined by whom a man or woman is allowed, expected, or encouraged to marry. One common type of marriage involves unions between close relatives. A man may marry his niece, his cousin, or even his half sister or granddaughter. A second type consists of marriages between in-laws, people already related from previous marriages. A man might marry his wife's brother's daughter, his niece-in-law. A third type, called the levirate, occurs when a man marries the widow of his older brother. Finally, a sororate union is a man's marriage to his wife's younger sister, either after his wife's death or while she is still alive.

Many societies in central and southern Africa favor marriage between cousins. Since cousins' parents are brothers and sisters, the marriage of two cousins means that bridewealth is transferred among siblings and their families. This system of marriage, with several variations, strengthens the bonds between brothers and sisters and ensures that the bridewealth stays within the extended family. Such arrangements are especially common among pastoralist peoples who offer cattle, vital assets for them, as bridewealth. However, some ethnic groups prefer bridewealth paid in service, not money or cattle. For instance, among the Bemba, farmers in a poor region of ZAMBIA, a man earns his bride by working for years for her family.

Some marriage systems circulate women instead of wealth. Among some peoples of central NIGERIA, women must marry many men from different kinship groups. They change their residence each time they go to a new husband or return to an earlier one. Young children follow their mother at first, but when they get older, they join a male member of the family—their father, their mother's brother, or one of their mother's other husbands. Other Nigerian groups expect a man who marries to give a sister in marriage to a male in his bride's family. In this way, the two families exchange women through marriage. If the man has no sister to offer, he must give his wife's family custody of his children instead.

African men rarely seek to divorce their wives because divorce means that they must give up the marriage's material goods as well as its social alliances. Women do sometimes seek a divorce. In some cases, they may wish to end a traditional first marriage and to make a second marriage based on personal choice. Generally, however, the courts do not allow women who divorce to keep their children.

Islamic Marriage and Divorce

Islam, the major religion of North Africa, encourages marriage as the proper way of regulating sexuality and organizing families. Many groups regard marriages between cousins as ideal because they strengthen family ties and keep property within the extended family. When families arrange marriages, the selection process may begin with the women, but the final decision comes from the elder men of the family. The groom or his relatives pays bridewealth to the bride's family, which in turn provides a dowry for the bride. The wedding ceremony usually takes place at the groom's family home. Islamic law—based on the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam—gives men and women different rights and privileges in marriage and divorce. A man can divorce his wife whenever he wishes to do so, whether she agrees to the divorce or not. A woman can only divorce her husband under certain conditions. The practice of polygamy is limited to men, who may have as many as four wives at the same time. Women are not permitted to have more than one husband. Polygamy has never been universal among North Africans, and the practice has dropped sharply in modern times.

Marriage in Modern Africa

Modern life in Africa's growing cities has distanced people from their traditional rural kinship groups. Men and women in urban areas are becoming more likely to insist on their personal wishes in arranging a marriage, though they may still seek approval from their families in the countryside. African women now have greater opportunities for jobs and education, and they have gained more power to make choices and be independent. They are generally marrying at a later age and having fewer children.

Modernization has brought other changes to marriage systems. Many families now accept money instead of the more traditional forms of bridewealth such as cattle. In urban areas this change has made it easier for employed young men to marry. In addition, media such as television and film in urban areas have exposed more people to Western models of relationships. Like other forms of social organization in Africa, marriage systems are changing as people combine the demands of modern life with those of tradition. (See also Family, Gender Roles and SexualityIslam in Africa.)