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Opinions of Saturday, 9 September 2017

Columnist: Kwaku Ba

Western marriages versus Ghanaian marriages

We are constantly reminded of the consequences of our upbringing in Ghana regarding marriage when we hear one sad or controversial story or the other involving Ghanaian married partners living in the diaspora. This article looks at some of the issues as well as the causes, and the cultural context fueling some these problems. It is Ghanaians who must ultimately sit down and dialogue to see how certain changes can be made to our systems and customs to enable us yield more positive outcomes in the future.

The general notion about marriage specifically among “Christian” Ghanaians is that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that such an arrangement was created by God and sanctioned by God forever and ever.

As Ghanaians we must face the fact that this definition of marriage was brought to our land by European colonialists. Before that time monogamy was in fact quite rare. Marriage was between one man and as many women as the man chose, with the blessing of the community. This resulted in the wife or wives often competing for the man’s attention and favors and therefore the willingness to provide for his every demand without question.

We must also acknowledge that our forefathers lived in a subsistence agricultural economy, where economic successes depended on brute strength and how many family members the man could commandeer to assist in the manual farm work to produce results and a bumper harvest. Even though this economy is by large in transition, the effects, notions, and attitudes originating from it have become deeply embedded in the psychology and culture of Ghanaians.

To this day, the economic power of the family unit is firmly in the hands of the husband and he provides an allowance often referred to as chop money for the wife to use to prepare the meals for the day and other household activities. Under the chop money system, the man eats first, and gets the biggest portions and the best meat, while the children get the scraps and are made to feel they should be very grateful to get some at all.

Growing up in Ghana it was clear who the boss of the house was, the father. The wife or wives and children were to make themselves available for any assignments required by the father. This included cooking, washing his clothees, ironing, fetching water for him to bath, serving him his food, removing the plates once done, as well as providing soap and water with towels for him to wash his hands once he finished eating.

It was even considered very strange for a married man to enter a kitchen and fix something to eat by himself while the wife and children were available. Most Ghanaians lived in communal housing where the families or individuals rented rooms in houses and therefore a married man doing such work would attract mockery from neighbours. Also, the wife would be viewed as lazy and may even be reported to the man’s relatives as not fit for the man.

At this juncture we must understand how family systems work particularly among “Christians” in Ghana. Unlike elsewhere, in Ghana one’s family or abusua, refers to the person’s siblings, parents, cousins and other relatives or simply put the extended family. Everyone belongs to abusua, and no one leaves their abusua or joins another abusua. Based on the matrilineal systems practiced in southern Ghana, a person belongs to the abusua of their mother side for the rest of their life.

Therefore as a man, your children do not belong to your abusua, neither does one’s spouse. The very act of marriage itself is based on some consultations and approval from the two extended families. But one never changes their abusua, and upon death or premature end of a marriage one goes back to your abusua.

The way it worked was that one inherited property only through your abusua, but not from your father due to the fact that he belongs to a different abusua. It was therefore common that upon death of a man his abusua members would repossess or retrieve his belongings and assets from his wife, to go back with him to his abusua.

Based on the circumstances this was done by default, or by collective plan of the abusua, or by the initiative of the deceased’s brothers or nephews and sometimes on the prompting of the female abusua members as some form of payback. These events were normally preceded by some attempts to stigmatize the widow and children, tarnish their image in the community, or accusations of witchcraft or wickedness that justified the abusua intervention.

In many cases if these strategies did not work intimidation and threats of personal violence were common. For example, widows were often given up to one year to vacate their homes or be forcibly removed by the abusua members before the nephews and brothers attempted to repossess it. This phenomenon and the abuse it caused in the past has been somewhat curtailed in modern times due to the increasing popularity of people preparing living wills, and also due to the intestate laws introduced in Ghana in the 1980s when Ghana was ruled by decree under the Jerry Rawlings PNDC administration. Although some may point to the Rawlings led intestate laws as a watershed in family relations in Ghana, some problems still persist. For example, high levels of illiteracy resulting in women not knowing their rights, as well as lack of availability and affordability of legal experts in this field. In fact, due to the fact that most people affected by these circumstances are poor, legal professionals are unwilling to choose this field of expertise as their career path.

Due to the highly polygamous nature of Ghanaian society, the competing wives, and concubines are simply unable and unprepared to pull together to protect their interest from a unified abusua on a clear mission to take back what they consider to be theirs. Another problem is the fact that many of these abuses are conducted over a period of time with the gradual tightening of psychological pressure on the bereaved victims. There is a lack of protection of vulnerable people in Ghana and legal instruments such as restraining order are not known or understood and therefore not leveraged to protect the vulnerable.

Another factor is that the culture emphasizes men dominating women, and that women must always be subservient and will never be good enough to manage anything and therefore male intervention be it by abusua is always warranted. Also the culture steers men to marry women who are not up to their level socially, economically or in terms of education. The culture seems to demand that men must always have some dominating advantages over their wives. Even until recently, marrying a strong, successful independent or well educated woman was looked at with some suspicion as it may prevent the man from being able to control the wife.

The concept of the so called nuclear family is now catching on in Ghana. This is where one man marries one wife and together with their children they build their lives and future together. Even though the strong and somewhat intrusive abusua or extended family ties still persist, the nuclear family is gaining more acceptance in Ghana. This is due to many factors, such as the modern market economy which makes investing resources in polygamy and abusua less viable and less attractive economically.

The trends of modernity particularly towards education and acquiring skills in high demand in the workforce resulting in many Ghanaians spending many years studying at tertiary education level and then marrying and having children later, and the fact that it is crystal clear to a third party observer that this path has clear and measurable benefits economically than otherwise.

The next factor is the growth of modern versions of Christianity commonly referred to as the evangelical or charismatic churches. The charismatic churches project a very westernized point of view and emphasize that through and following certain prescriptions handed down from the church leadership members can attain the good things in life as practiced in the western lifestyle such as economic success, income and employment, high-skilled careers, purchasing vehicles and mortgages and other values associated with the European and North American middle classes.

To this effect, the Western style of monogamy is the adopted model for marriage. These churches emphasize members to have elaborate western style marriage ceremonies in the presence of their large crowds and the church leadership upon which the women are bestowed accolades, titles, and special recognition among their congregations and in their communities. In some cases the union is also legally documented which makes it eligible to enjoy benefits under the intestate laws in Ghana, as well as for immigration and other purposes the married couple may be pursuing at some point in time.

Another factor for the growing recognition of the nuclear family and the marital relations associated with it is the influence of the Ghanaian diaspora. Ghanaians abroad often visit or resettle in Ghana bringing with them some elements of the cultures they have learned in their host countries, many of which are liberal western democracies where the nuclear family reigns supreme and unchallenged. For example, the idea of men cooperating with their wife and children in certain ways, and putting their welfare above the abusua.

In the western world the nuclear family reigns supreme and unchallenged among all other forms of marital relations. In this system, a man and a woman get married by an official legal instrument, and become Equal partners in the union. Contrary to popular beliefs, marriage in most countries in the western world is not based on religion, it is a purely legal transaction or a contract in which certain rights and government benefits are bestowed on the parties and the union is recognized by the government with the full force of the law.

Each party has the same and equal rights and responsibilities on all matters. Finance, assets, etc. belong to the union and not any particular member. Some common features include joint bank accounts, joint ownership of real estate, cars, credit cards, etc. Finances are considered joint and are not a strategic advantage of the man over the woman as we see in Ghana, in fact, in the western world, due the nature of the trends in the economies and the employment opportunities that are created, we often see women earning similar to and even more than their husbands. Joint liabilities such as income tax, property taxes, mortgages etc. are common and the norm. In North America for example, even one’s retirement benefits may require cosign from the spouse before being released. In fact it can be argued that the entire western economic system is based on the nuclear family. From the real estate industry, to consumer goods, auto insurance, to tax policy, healthcare insurance, financial markets, to planning and development of infrastructure, personal finance and banking regulations, education policy, retirement systems etc.

Marital and domestic relations resulting from this system are quite different from what we see in Ghana. The women and children are not servants of the man. It has been documented that under this system we see the highest participation of the husbands in domestic life, work chores and errands such as washing cars, cleaning bathrooms, ironing, cooking, washing clothes, bathing the children, removing garbage, washing dishes, grocery shopping, etc. We also see a significantly higher participation of the husbands in the lives of their children such as assisting with homework, accompanying them to after school programs and other extracurricular activities, as well as counselling children on various issues. Laws regarding domestic relations are also clear and strictly enforced, and those rules are specifically set up to protect the vulnerable party aka the women and children.

Therefore in the event of a dispute or domestic abuse the women can swiftly call for assistance from local law enforcement authorities resulting in the men being evicted, detained, or simply thrown out of the house. In many cases restraining orders are put on the men preventing them from going anywhere near the house until the case is resolved. A very distinct feature of the nuclear family in the western world is that extended family ties and influences have none to minimal impact on marriages. There are minimal obligations to extended family activities. Extended family members do not go and live with the married couple. Most importantly extended family members realize and acknowledge that the priority of their relative is now their marriage, spouse, and children, and they do not attempt to involve themselves in any business of the marriage or make requests of the relative.

In the western world a couple that may begin dating, or courtship, and after some time if a decision is made the couple officially engage each other. The engagement is often consummated by the exchange of simple gifts such as jewelry and other sentimental items. The couple then inform their family and friends of the engagement. In some cases based on the strength of the relationship and the financial position of the couple, the couple may also announce a wedding date as part of the engagement.

Otherwise couples may be engaged for some time as they prepare towards their wedding date at some foreseeable point in the future. This is the phase often referred to as living together, or live in partner, or domestic partner. In fact due to certain societal changes and cultural shifts recent studies show that there are almost equal numbers of such unmarried couples living together than there are married couples in many western countries.

The wedding ceremony itself is an elaborate choreographed event where the couple exchange vows and tokens of their commitment to love each other for the rest of their lives. Traditionally the wedding took place in a church, but due to the recent trends where less and less western people practice religion with each passing generation, wedding ceremonies are now increasingly held in assembly halls, hotels, shed barns, special events buildings, government buildings etc.

Another increasing trend is toward s holding the wedding in more exotic or unorthodox locations like on the beach, on a farm, on a ship or rented boat etc etc. Traditionally, the vows exchanged were prescribed from various texts adopted by the religious groups but in recent times couples write their own vows to be recited. A common misconception especially among Christians is that the famous vows for better for worse, till death do us part etc are from the Bible. This is incorrect. Not a single one of them is from any biblical text. They are from poetry, prose and other worldly writings that were adopted by various communities and then the churches over a long period of time.

In fact the gowns worn, the bridesmaids, and other features such as tossing the garter or flowers for the next person to get married, are all non-biblical. They are all customs dating back to the times Europeans practiced pagan religions. It is Africans and others who were colonized and adopted these customs that simply assume that it is all based on the Christian religion. A

fter the wedding the couple then go on a honeymoon where they travel to some undisclosed location to enjoy themselves by themselves and purportedly consummate the marriage. This is another tradition of pagan origins and has nothing to do with any biblical text. One part of any wedding ceremony is where the couple sign official marriage documents administered by a certified officer and observed by certified witnesses. In more recent times the couple often complete this official paperwork at court offices, state registries, government offices etc. long before the marriage ceremony date.

As western marriages have gradually moved out of the churches, the officiating has also transitioned from the clergy to any person of the couples’ choosing. The very essence of marriage in the western world is the legal contract entered into by the parties. The wedding ceremonies, and the dancing etc, are simply for celebratory purposes and nothing else. The wedding and the nature of it has no bearing on the status of the marriage. In fact it is now very common for younger modern couples to forgo the ceremony altogether and find alternative ways to enjoy themselves in private.

This is increasingly seen among celebrities for example. One common tradition in western marriage is that the wife change her name to match that of the husband. This is not required by any law, and is not biblical. It is a purely legal name change. It is a tradition from the British that spread to other European societies. In some European societies however no such tradition exists. In some countries such as Italy for example it is even prohibited by law for anybody to change their name due to marriage or any other reason not recognized by the government.

In the Spanish countries the married couple sit down and decide what names they will use. In some cases the men change to the woman’s last name and vice versa. A new trend is that they combine their names or hyphenate them. One common example used to explain this practice among the Spanish world is the former Mayor of Los Angeles. Antonia Villar who married Carina Raigosa. Their married name was Mr. and Mrs. Villaraigosa.

Although the intent is that the marriage union lasts for a lifetime, in the western world divorce and separation are common but they too are highly regulated by law. Many if not most western jurisdictions allow the so called No-Fault divorce, where either party can make a declaration that they no longer wish to be married, for any reason, and the legal process for dissolving the marriage is initiated.

The dissolution of marriages is implemented by the courts, and all assets as well as liabilities are shared equally by the divorcing parties. The welfare of the children is worked out and the divorcing parties are mandated by the courts to make certain monthly payments towards the up keep and welfare of the affected children. Spouses who did not work during the marriage are entitled to receive alimony due to the fact that had they not been kept at home due to the marriage they would have pursued their career and risen to some income level.

Some jurisdictions allow simplified divorce if the parties can mutually agree on their own how assets and liabilities will be shared, and sign a legally binding covenant or affidavit to that effect. In fact it is often said that in the western world, divorce is more expensive than marriage. There is simply too much at stake and too much to lose from the male perspective that keeps certain male tendencies and behaviors in check. Due to some of these complexities it is common to find western people of any gender who are not married and have no desire to do so at all. And in the western cultures nobody asks others why they are not married or why they don’t have children.

It is for them solely to decide and nobody else’s business. Nobody is required to have children and nobody has to have children. Nobody cares whether some other person has children or not. This is in sharp contrast to Ghana where we are all expected by default to be married and have children. When they grow old and they have no children the social welfare system will take care of them, and even if they have children, those children will be busy concentrating on their own nuclear families at any rate. It may seem odd from an African point of view, but western people don’t send monthly remittance to their parents. Because they have no reason to, and the parents are not expecting it. The westerners have children because they want to, not because their children will care for them in old age.

There are many Ghanaians who are stuck abroad due to marriage and divorce-related problems. It is alarming to see the rate at which these problems spring up day in day out. So let us look at some of the reasons for this.

Ghanaians travel and settle in many countries around the world, particularly the western countries due to the open culture and economic opportunities in these places. Once we arrive we quickly realize that if we are to stay here long enough to achieve our dreams we need to obtain legal documentation that gives us the right to stay in these countries. In the United States for example, one may pursue the permanent resident status commonly called the green card, and then after that they can apply for citizenship through naturalization.

One way to do that is to get married to a person that is a citizen. Others, for example those that already have papers get married because they may feel the burning desire to do so. From the perspective of a young man, there are often many potential candidates. It could be a local person of any ethnicity, it could be a local person of Ghanaian origin or immigrant just like yourself.

Young men soon find themselves analyzing whether they should marry someone in their host county or they should bring someone from Ghana. The general rule of thumb is that the women in abroad are not good enough because they are too exposed, they will challenge your authority, they won’t let you send money to Ghana, they won’t cook and clean, they will spend all the joint account money on designer clothes, they won’t serve your table like they do back in Ghana. And so the general wisdom is to bring someone from Ghana who does not know much about abroad so that you can enjoy abroad and also enjoy Ghana marriage advantages in abroad.

For example, putting both salaries in the joint account but the man send all the money to build his house in his hometown in Ghana, collecting social benefits in the name of the spouse who is too inexperienced or even illiterate to understand the system in abroad. In fact we have seen some men do such things while maintaining another wife or concubine in Ghana.

But as time progresses, the imported wives gradually learn the system, and begin to understand how things work. Some may have relatives, friends, ex boyfriends etc., who are also abroad and communicate often and discuss some of these issues. The imported wife soon starts giving instructions, stops doing certain things, starts asking questions, and demanding accountability of finances. After all, they want to send money to their hometown too. From serving your table, she tells you to just get something from the fridge and put in the microwave. From washing your clothes it’s now honey just put it in the washing machine for me please.

From preparing your hot fresh meal ready when you get home from work, now it is can you stop at the Chinese food place and get two fried rice and chickens. You are gradually asked to participate in the house work. Today help me remove the gabbage, tomorrow the fridge smells, next week I have to go to work please clean the bathroom, two weeks’ time, can you wash my car, next month I don’t want to do joint account anymore. And this is where the disputes and shouting start rising to a fever pitch. Because the man thinks he brought you here so he gets what he wants, and the woman has now found out that she can actually live a better life than she is currently enjoying. She realizes she has wasted her time during those years she was serving you like a domestic servant, but rather in the western system everybody is somebody and nobody is anybody. And the man realizes his reign is over and now the equal partnership marriage he was trying so hard to avoid has become his reality. The previous thought that marrying an abroad woman is hard is now an easy thing compared to the mess you are now in.

One problem is that when Ghanaian men go to Ghana to select these wives, it is difficult to assess what they are getting. We must take more time to study the prospective wives and select one who you can reason with on most levels. You must realize you are going to live with this person in abroad, not in Ghana. Today due to changing economy and opportunities in Ghana many Ghanaian young women are pursuing higher education in Ghana. But due to the economic challenges persisting in Ghana they may not have jobs and are struggling financially.

So when they see a proposal from a man living abroad they will jump on it without delay. Meanwhile the abroad man may be semi-literate and working menial jobs in the abroad country. What people in Ghana do not realize is that abroad people actually spend months or even years to prepare and gather items before they visit Ghana. Coming to Ghana and giving out T shirts and shoes and sharing money is not something that abroad people can do just like that every day.

We actually prepare for months or even years in advance of such trips. And then you bring this chick to abroad and she soon starts asking herself, if I stayed in Ghana by now with my qualifications I could be working at the bank or pursuing some respectable career, but here I am laboring in a grocery store or cleaning offices only to go home at night to cook and clean for an illiterate guy who works on the factory floor, or who does security type work.

She may think like my class mate Ama sent me a Facebook chat and she is now executive secretary and has 3 maid servants. It is no surprise to some of us when we see the imported wives now rebelling and causing trouble in the marriage.

A few suggestions can be made to prevent this increasing trend of imported wives rebelling once they become acclimated with system in the country abroad. Once the imported wife arrives and settles, the husband must brief her on how things work here. Even though she may not understand it at that stage, it should still be disclosed by the husband. For example you must tell her that over here certain things are not compulsory as done in Ghana. For example all the cooking, washing, serving etc., are all optional and shared responsibilities in the white man’s land. You must tell her that if she prefers to continue doing it that is fine but it is not a requirement. You must reveal that abroad men participating in house work is a normal thing. Alternately, the man must participate with the wife in the house works and gradually transition some of the work from her until it reaches a time when there is some balance in who does what. You must explain that in abroad the law is based on equal rights. All these must be revealed up front so that later when the imported wife comes to the realization she does not feel peeved, or cheated and will therefore not rebel or seek some form of revenge.

The husband must reveal the financial information. The work, the salaries, the benefits, the accounts, the debts, the credit cards, and the projects you may be doing in Ghana. You must reveal all so the imported wife can work with you truthfully to achieve success. If you are heavily burdened by supporting extended family members in Ghana, you must reveal it, before the wife starts telling people my husband always says he don’t have money, and at that point the friends will say oh no he is lying, maybe he has a wife in Ghana or somewhere he is sending money to and other claims and allegations.

Ghanaian men abroad also must move their mentality into the 21 century and stop expecting this slavish relationship as still practiced in Africa. We must all also move away from greed and exploiting others to our financial advantage. Don’t let your wife work ungodly hours and also do all the house work so you can relax, and even divert her money to your own selfish purposes just because she is not familiar with the system. Greed. One of Ghana’s biggest problems to the extent that it affects marital relationships. It must be quenched for peace and stability.

The fact that you bring someone from Ghana to the West does not make them your slave forever. Ghanaian laws do not apply abroad, therefore strict adherence to Ghanaians customs abroad will only work for as long as the imported wife will tolerate it. Please participate in house work. If you don’t know how to do it, learn it. Learn how to operate a washing machine, or dishwasher, or blender, or how to clean a bathroom. Participate in rearing your children, helping them with homework, etc.

Don’t leave all the hard work for the wife alone to do, you are not in Ghana. If you want to relax and let the woman do everything then maybe you may consider going to live in Ghana, not abroad. When the woman loses her patience and tolerance you will see the marriage deteriorate very quickly. Ghanaian men are not any more special than German men or British men, or Canadian men, etc. who are actively participating in these activities. We must learn humility and good judgement. We must shape up and stop the village behavior.

Ghanaian men must also participate in leisure activities with their wives when time and money allow. Take her with you to the Ghana events. Don’t create suspicion by insisting you want to go alone, because in abroad she does not have to obey your commands, she can choose not to and there will be zero consequences.

Take her on holiday or some excursion to see different things. Take your wife to the mall and buy her some expensive items, if you can afford it. The Luis Vuittons, Gucci bags and other accessories just to let her know that you care and appreciate, and if finances allow you are more than willing to help. She may even say no, let’s get something more economical so we can use the balance to send so so and so.

Your wife is as important as your family members in Ghana whom you are constantly sending money and they are squandering just because they know you will always send more.

Your wife should be trusted just as much as you trust your extended family members who are misusing, and even stealing your properties you are sending to Ghana. We must be adaptable to meet the challenges we face and not simply repeat the same old mistakes of our forefathers just because that is all we know.

Ghanaian men abroad must take all of these factors into consideration when bringing wives from the motherland. Let us enjoy marriage, because marriage is good, and if you know what you are doing and you have a clear mind a good marriage will be even better. Ghanaians need a new approach to marriage. Thank you.

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