“Customary Marriage” in Ghana
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GHANA
MARRIAGE—hundreds of thousands enter this relationship each year throughout the world. They usually do so according to the marriage custom that prevails where they live.
In Ghana the most common form of marriage is what is called customary marriage. This involves payment of a bride-price by the bridegroom’s family to the bride’s family. Customary marriage is practiced by people in much of Africa and in such places as Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands as well as among the Goajiro Indians in northeastern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela, to mention a few.
Payment of the bride-price was a custom in Bible times. (Genesis 34:11, 12; 1 Samuel 18:25) The understanding in ancient times and today is that the bride-price is a compensation to the girl’s parents for the loss of her services and for the time, energy, and resources expended on her education and upkeep before marriage.
In the old days of Ghana, dating and courtship did not exist among young people. Parents contracted marriages for their grown children after painstakingly studying marriageable young men and women in the community. Some parents in Ghana still do this.
The boy’s parents consider such factors as the personality of the girl; her reputation and that of her family; hereditary disease that may run in the family; and in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, her spirituality. If satisfied, the parents formally approach the girl’s parents and make the marriage proposal.
The girl’s parents now investigate the background of the boy and his family. In addition to the factors mentioned above, they consider the boy’s ability to support a wife—is he working or unemployed? If the girl’s parents are satisfied, they so inform the boy’s parents, and the parents jointly work out details of the marriage, after both the boy and the girl have agreed to it.
Why do some parents still take it upon themselves to find mates for their grown children? One woman in India whose parents arranged her marriage stated: “How could a young person be qualified to make such a weighty decision? Far better to leave it to those whose age and experience qualify them to know what is the wisest choice.” Her comments also reflect the view of many Africans.
However, times are changing in Ghana. Dating and courtship are growing in popularity. At an appropriate point in courtship, the couple inform the parents of their intentions. After interaction between their parents and after the parents satisfy themselves that it is a good match, the families go ahead with the formal ceremony commonly known in various Ghanaian languages as knocking on the door, the marriage door.
The Door-Knocking Ceremony
Parents of the couple apprise family members of the date and the purpose of the meeting. The term “family members” refers to the extended African family that includes the couple’s uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. On the set day, representatives from both families gather for the ceremony. The bridegroom’s presence is optional. The following is a very brief version of what transpired at one such door-knocking ceremony.
Girl’s representative (GR): [Talking to the bridegroom’s representatives] We know your reason for coming, but custom demands that we still ask, What brings you here?
Boy’s representative (BR): Our son Kwasi was passing by your house and saw a pretty flower and wants your permission to pick it.
GR: [Feigning ignorance] There is no flower in this house. You can verify that for yourselves.
BR: Our son is not mistaken. We maintain that there is such a pretty flower in this house. The flower’s name is Afi.
GR: It is a human flower then. Well, Afi does live here.
BR: We want to knock on the door and request Afi’s hand in marriage to our son Kwasi.
The boy’s family now presents some items, such as various drinks and some money. Depending on the tribe, there are variations in the quantities and items presented. This ceremony is a rough equivalent of Western-style engagement, and in some cases an engagement ring is stipulated.
The bride’s representative now asks her before all onlookers whether the items brought should be accepted. By her affirmative answer, all present are eyewitnesses of her willingness to marry. A date convenient for both families is agreed upon for the celebration of the marriage. Refreshments conclude the ceremony.
The Marriage Ceremony
The number of people that gather at the girl’s house or at the house of a selected representative for the payment of the bride-price, which event constitutes the marriage, is usually larger than the number present for the door-knocking ceremony. This is because many friends are now present.
The atmosphere is joyful. Young unmarried men and women are anxious to see what has been brought for the bride. But the happy atmosphere tenses as the bride’s family complains that the bride-price items are incomplete. Some in the audience hold their breath when the bride’s family seems unyielding. The bridegroom’s spokesman skillfully argues his way into the sympathetic consideration of the bride’s family. The mood relaxes as the girl’s family relents. The atmosphere again changes. Now it is festive, and light refreshments are served.
To start the marriage ceremony, the bride’s spokesman calls the gathering to order and welcomes all. He asks the groom’s representatives about their mission. The groom’s spokesman states their reason for coming, reminding the gathering that the door has already been knocked on and that permission has been granted to enter.
Each family spokesman then introduces close members of the family to the gathering, including the one giving the girl’s hand in marriage as well as the one backing the boy in the marriage. The ceremony proceeds.
GR: [Talking to the bridegroom’s representatives] Please produce the marriage items we asked for.
The bride’s spokesman enumerates the bride-price items so all can verify that they are there. If the bridegroom’s representatives feel that the bride’s family has inflated the demands, they privately resolve the issue before the marriage day. However, the groom’s family comes to the ceremony prepared to bargain for the reduction of any extras if some of the bride’s family prove difficult. Wherever one lives, the basic bride-price—whether high or low—must be paid in full.
Some families stipulate such things as drinks, clothes, necklaces, earrings, and other ladies’ items. In northern Ghana, the bride-price may include salt, kola nuts, guinea fowl, sheep, and even cattle. There is invariably a cash component to the bride-price.
While negotiations proceed, the bride is not present but is close by, watching. The bridegroom’s presence is optional. Thus, a person living far away can authorize his parents to contract the marriage on his behalf. On the occasion described here, however, the bridegroom is present. It is now his family’s turn to make a demand.
BR: We have fulfilled all that is required of us, but we have not seen our daughter-in-law.
The marriage ceremony is not all serious business; it is also an occasion to have some fun. The girl’s family now responds to the demand of the boy’s family to see the bride.
GR: We wish the bride were here. Unfortunately, she has traveled abroad and we do not have passports or visas to make the trip to bring her back.
Everyone knows what that means. Instantly, the bridegroom’s family offers an amount of money—any amount the bridegroom can afford—and presto! the imaginary passports and visas are ready. And the bride has returned from her trip!
To add to the fun, some tribes arrange for some friends of the bride to impersonate her. Each impersonator is roundly rejected by the crowd until, amid great applause, the true bride is presented. She is then invited by her spokesman to take a look at the various items of her bride-price. She is asked whether what the bridegroom has brought should be accepted. There is a hush as everyone waits anxiously for the answer. Some girls are timid and others bold, but the answer is invariably yes, followed by thunderous applause.
If the bridegroom is present, the bride’s family demands to know him. The fun continues unabated if it has been arranged for one of his friends to impersonate him. With an air of importance, his friend stands up, but he is instantly shouted down.
The bride’s parents demand to see their son-in-law. The true bridegroom now stands up, radiating happy smiles. The bride’s family permits her to join her husband, who puts a ring on her finger if a ring is stipulated as part of the bride-price. The ring is an innovation from the West. She, in turn, puts a ring on his finger. Congratulations and joy fill the air. For convenience and economy, some now combine the door-knocking ceremony with the marriage on the same day.
Experienced members of both families and others now offer the newlyweds counsel on how they can make their marriage work until death separates them. To round off the day, refreshments are served.
The marriage ceremony is over! In Ghana, from that day on, the couple are considered by the community to be legally married. If for some reason any of the principal members of the girl’s family could not attend the ceremony, some of the drinks presented are sent to them to affirm the consummation of the marriage. If the bride and groom are Jehovah’s Witnesses, in some cases the Witnesses then arrange for a Bible talk to be delivered, with light refreshments after that.
In Ghana some couples have a Western-style marriage ceremony, here called a civil marriage, or marriage by the ordinance. This can be contracted with or without parental consent as long as the couple are of legal age. In customary marriage parental consent is a must.
In civil marriage the couple take marriage vows. But vows are nonexistent in customary marriages. The State requires that all customary marriages be registered, and Jehovah’s Witnesses comply. (Romans 13:1) A registration certificate is then issued.
From olden times until the Gold Coast, now Ghana, became a British colony, customary marriage was the only form of marriage in the country. The British then introduced Western-style marriage for their citizens living here. Natives of this land were also permitted to contract this type of marriage, and for many years now, Western-style marriage and customary marriage have existed together. In Ghana both are legally recognized, hence acceptable to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is up to the individuals to choose which form they desire.
In some African countries, customary marriages need to be registered before couples can be considered legally married. In Ghana, however, customary marriage as described above is legally valid without registration, the couples being considered legally married when the customary marriage is consummated. Later on, the customary marriage is registered for record purposes only.
Marriage is indeed God’s loving gift to mankind, a unique gift that not even the angels were given. (Luke 20:34-36) It is a precious relationship worth preserving to the glory of its Originator, Jehovah God.
[Picture on page 23]
Rings being exchanged