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Feature Article of Saturday, 11 February 2012

Columnist: Asher, Bernard

In Defence of the August institution of the Ghanaian traditional Marriage

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This is the second in a series of memoires designed to explain the various marriage ceremonies in Ghana as well as clarify the many fallacies that surround them. In my last memoire I tried to shed some light on the various ceremonies available to Ghanaians while also trying to clarify some misconceptions about the august institution of the traditional wedding. This article singles out the traditional marriage and focuses on explaining and highlighting its immense beauty, symbolism, significance and desirability. The hope is that Ghanaians will, after reading this article, come to accord this beautiful institution the respect that it so deserves.

As explained in my previous article, most Ghanaians, out of choice or just plain ignorance, maintain the view that the western wedding trumps the Ghanaian traditional wedding- a view that is at once both fallacious and offensive! As earlier explained the traditional wedding and the western fancy dress wedding are, as it were, two sides of the same (marriage) coin. Both ceremonies celebrate the unifying of two people in matrimony and are only different in the conventions and methodology that go with them, given the relativity of the cultural settings in which they occur. In fact, if anything, the traditional wedding trumps its western equivalent given the richness of the conventions and practises that come with it! One only has to witness the beauty of the traditional wedding to acknowledge the dignity and deference that is bestowed on both the groom and the bride. From start to finish, the traditional wedding is carefully planned and crafted in line with age-old conventions and myriad customs that emphasize the importance of the ceremony. This beautiful ceremony (as a Fanti I will mostly speak from the Akan perspective albeit I must stress that differences in the various traditional weddings from the various tribes in Ghana are mostly cosmetic) officially begins with the knocking ceremony where the family of the man visits the parents of the woman. The intention here is to explain to the woman’s family that their son has expressed an interest in their daughter and that he wishes to make her his bride. According to Akan custom the man’s family has to present some drinks to the woman’s family. The family of the woman would then enquire from their daughter if she indeed wishes to marry the man. If she says yes, and assuming the woman’s family has no issues, the drinks are accepted and a date is set for the wedding. I must stress prior to the preceding steps being taken; the families would have known the relationship between the man and the woman during their courtship, which would most likely have gone on prior to the knocking. As such and in all likelihood the maiden’s family would be in the know about the impending visit. Subsequently a list of items or dowry is sent to the man’s family. Now the symbolism and significance of this cannot be, at all, overemphasized! I must stress that the dowry should not be intended to financially incapacitate the man but to emphasize the fact that the neither the maiden nor her family can be taken as granted! Contrary to conventional fallacy that the dowry is intended to, as it were, ‘milk the man dry’, its true meaning is to emphasize the strength, maturity and heroism of the man. As such a man who pays the dowry in full showcases his willingness and ability to work for what he wants as well as fend for his family. Indeed paying the dowry does wonders for the ego of the man- something that is as important as life itself to the Ghanaian man! By accepting the dowry, the Akan maiden and her family, essentially acknowledge the headship of the man over the woman- another imperative for the all-important ego of the Akan man! The dowry itself comprises of pieces of clothes, and myriad items intended to emphasize the groom’s ability to take fend for his bride in the matrimonial home. Key among the items of the dowry is the ring. This is intended to symbolize the never ending bond between the couple. As the reader may well be aware, the ring given today during most weddings is often mistakenly and ignorantly called the engagement ring! As explained in my previous article this is a misnomer given that this ceremony is a wedding and not an engagement! Thus the ring should rightfully be called a wedding ring! Another recent addition to the dowry is the bible which symbolises the acceptance of and adherence to the Christian principles that underlie marriage. This act in addition to the offering of Christian prayers at the ceremony essentially Christianises the traditional wedding and as such could, when rightly understood, pre-empt the church wedding given that the latter has already occurred during and in concert with the traditional wedding!
The wedding ceremony itself is such a joy to behold! The maiden is clad in rich traditional apparel and made up to kill! Family members from all walks of life are invited. The bride-to-be is usually tucked away out of sight of visitors. Soon enough the groom and his family arrive at the maiden’s home. And here again another key custom is observed! The ceremony has to necessarily take place in the home of the maiden with a view to emphasizing the fact that she is being officially taken away from her family. The man is usually also beautifully dressed in rich traditional clothes as he, flanked by his family and the Okyeame (specially appointed for this particular occasion), takes symbolic steps towards the maiden’s home. At this stage the virility of the man is seriously highlighted and can only be matched by the pride and joy of his family. As he shuffles towards the venue behind the column of individuals toting the dowry, the man’s mind is flooded by jets of testosterone! At this critical juncture, he is graduating from being a child to a man! “This is it”, his mind tells him! He glances at the dowry that he has managed to put together and feels like “yeah, I am a man”. The maiden’s family welcomes the man’s family and enquires of their mission. The man’s Okyeame explains the purpose of the visit and then the ceremony begins from there in earnest.
Eventually the bride is showcased but not before a few doubles are paraded in front of the groom to ensure that the man can actually tell the difference between the bride and any other woman. The symbolism of the preceding cannot be overemphasized!
After the various rites and customs are performed the ceremony becomes ever more relaxed and morphs into a bout of merry making and celebrations. The couple are paraded for all present to see; music and dance fill the air; food and drink abound; and the couple is congratulated and wished well. As the day ends, one by one the lights go off at the venue and everybody retires to their abodes with the sweet savour of what has been a truly special occasion in their mouths!
Compare the preceding with its western counterpart: man meets woman, they think they fall in love; the parties inform their parents about their intention to marry; the two parties fix a date and inform parents and friends; a wedding ceremony is held (often times by the couple on their own without anybody present) and the two parties are now married! Now the preceding is slightly oversimplified but not too tangential to the vulgarity of most contemporary western marriage ceremonies!
From the foregoing it is unfathomable why anybody would subordinate the august traditional marriage to its largely vulgar western coordinate!

Bernard Asher: Lecturer, Guildford College of Higher Education & Associate Tutor Reading University. Email basher@guildford.ac.uk

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