Feature Article of Monday, 28 September 2009

Columnist: Twum-Baah, N. Amma

Explaining Our Entangled Two-Part Marriage System

By: N. Amma Twum-Baah

My cousin is getting married in two weeks. By that I mean having the wedding. You know the Christian wedding. Or is it the western ceremony? The one some call the “white” wedding. Yes, that one. That marriage. The real marriage. He is having the traditional wedding this Saturday. By that I mean the Ghana customary wedding. You know the one you do before the real wedding? The one some call the “engagement.” Yes, that one. That marriage. You think you’re confused? Imagine my frustration trying to explain to my American friend why Ghanaians have two weddings, and you’ll understand where I’m going with this.

Karen is a friend of mine – an American, a white/Caucasian American. I find myself explaining a lot of what I do to her. She is easily fascinated and awed by Africans and blacks in general – the way we live and think. The questions are endless and my patience is hanging on a very thin thread. “What’s the difference between African Americans and Africans?” “What is that you’re eating? Can I taste it?” “Are you really going to eat that with your fingers? Won’t the food get caught in your nails?” “Ohhh, why did you cut your hair?” This, after I take out my braids from the previous month. “That’s a beautiful fabric. I love that outfit but how are you going to walk in it?” To which I usually respond: “you just watch me,” as I gather my slit at the waist and saunter down the stairs to her amazement.

I thought I was used to her curiosity and fascination with Ghanaian/African culture, but the barrage of questions that followed when I told her of my cousin’s two weddings caught me completely off-guard. I found myself caught in the middle of a question storm I couldn’t seem to stop because each explanation I gave was followed by a “but why?” I began to wish I hadn’t said anything to her because I found myself in a tangled web of confusion, frustration and irritation. At the end of the day, I had to call my mother for clarification for I had failed miserably, and shamefully to explain our marital system. I had very few sensible answers to give, because the whole thing makes very little sense to me too.

Okay, so here’s the thing: my cousin is finally getting married to his girlfriend of several years and the family is ecstatic. We have pressed our outfits and polished our shoes in anticipation of the big days. Travel arrangements have been made and the excitement is building with each passing day. The traditional marriage takes place the Saturday before the American wedding the following Saturday. I told Karen I would not be free to hang out the next two weekends with her as a result. I would invite her to come see things for herself, but it’s by invitation only and I’m going to be too busy to answer all her questions - like why the older people enthusiastically shout “don doooo” every time the bride walks past. Or why people are wiping the bride’s face with their dirty handkerchiefs even though the bride is not sweating.

Of course at the mention of two weddings, her face registered questions, and naturally, I felt the need to explain to her that the traditional marriage is the Ghanaian marriage, and the western wedding follows the traditional marriage. Here is the conversation that followed (pay close attention or you might get lost in all the claptrap):

Karen: So, they’re getting married twice?

Me: Technically yes. Its more like they’re getting engaged this Saturday and then having the wedding next Saturday.

Karen: But you said this Saturday is the traditional wedding. How is it then an engagement?

Me: It’s not an engagement per se. It’s a marriage ceremony. A traditional marriage ceremony. Kinda like our traditional version of what you guys call a wedding! Except that we call it the engagement because most Ghanaians don’t think they’re married until they have walked down the aisle and danced to Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love.”

Karen: Oh, so it’s like the engagement party that we have here in the United States? If that’s the case, why not just call it the engagement?

Me: Because, like I said, it’s not an engagement! It’s a wedding! A traditional wedding! No. It’s more than that. It’s actually a marriage. I mean after the ceremony, they’re basically husband and wife – unlike the American engagement.

Karen: I’m confused! If that’s the case, then why are they getting married again the following Saturday. Why not just end it there? Do they exchange rings at the “traditional wedding?”

Me: Yes, Karen (a little agitated) they do exchange rings at the “traditional wedding. Oh actually, I think the man gives the woman a ring and a bible. The man does not get a ring. At least, I don’t think he does. I will have to double check on that. But, yes the woman gets a ring.

Karen: What kind of ring, an engagement ring or a wedding ring?

Me: What difference does it make? She gets a ring. I think it usually has diamonds on top.

Karen: So then it’s an engagement and not a wedding!

Me: Ughhh! You need to pay attention!!! It is not an engagement! It’s a marriage. They become husband and wife and are recognized as such after the traditional marriage.

Karen: So it’s…

Me: Well let me finish! You want to ask all these questions and you won’t allow me to explain to you! If that’s how you’re going to act then I’m just going to stop explaining! (Simply irritated by now because my coat is getting tight around my neck.)

Karen: I’m sorry. Please finish. You were saying?

Me: I was saying…tsk tsk. Okay, here’s the thing…You know what, why don’t you grab a drink and sit down. This may take a while. (She grabs a drink. I grab a drink. I feel like calling my mother and putting her on speaker phone because she can explain it better. We sit down. I sigh and continue) See in Ghana we have different customs and traditions. Almost all tribes have a traditional form of marriage…

Karen: By “traditional,” what do you mean?

Me: Our cultural or customary marriage. You know a ceremony that is unique to each ethnic/tribal group (she nods in understanding). Anyway, the one I know is the Akan customary marriage because my parents are both Akans.

Karen: What’s Akan?

Me: That’s not important right now! I’ll explain that later! Sigh! Like I was saying before I was rudely interrupted (Karen laughs but I’m not), the Akan customary marriage takes place with the man’s family coming to see the woman’s family on an agreed upon date – which for my cousin is this Saturday. The ceremony usually takes place at the woman’s parent’s home. The two families get together and several items are presented to the woman’s family by the man’s family, including a ring and a bible for the woman if the couple is Christian. I don’t know what other religions give, but we give bibles. Anyhow, the man’s family also presents the woman’s family with drinks – don’t ask me why – I just know they give drinks... something to do with the gods being thirsty or something crazy like that. Ah ah, (shaking my head) don’t ask me what gods?!!! These are usually alcoholic drinks like schnapps and gin.

Karen: You all must have some very alcoholic gods. (Laughing)

Me: Who you telling? (laughing). Anyway, if the woman’s family accepts the drinks, then it means they have given their approval to give their daughter away in marriage. The man then presents gifts to his bride, to the bride’s brothers and sisters – if she has any - and gifts to the father and mother, mostly in the form of cash.

Karen: Wow! That sounds like a lot! So how much does this cost on the average?

Me: Well, according to what the woman’s family demands, it could cost a lot. Maybe no less than $10,000 in the States. See, the woman’s family takes several factors into consideration – like her education, her upbringing, the fact that she will one day bear children for this man etc.

Karen: So what if she doesn’t have children, does her family give the things back?

Me: (Looking at her like she’s crazy). Oh hell no, they don’t! How is her family supposed to know she won’t be able to give him children? Maybe I have to ask my mum about that. She’s an expert on these matters. My generation just lives in the shadows. I think my mother’s generation will take all these customs and cultures with them to their graves anyway. Ask anyone my age and they probably couldn’t answer all these your chao chao questions.

Karen: What?! What’s chao chao?

Me: Never mind.

Karen: Back to the money issue. And then you guys have a wedding on top of that?! You guys must have a lot of money! Wow! What if the man’s family can’t afford these things?

Me: Well, then you go and borrow or you don’t get married at all. It’s not by force!

Karen: Wow, that’s just cruel to the men. What do they get in return for all this?

Me: Are you serious? What do you mean what do they get in return? They get a well-brought up, well-trained, educated wife who was raised right. What do you mean what does he get in return?

Karen: I’m guessing there’s not much female rights going on in these African marriages then.

Me: (Very offended by the insinuation) Oh hell yes there is. What are you trying to say? Ghanaian women believe in equal opportunity and stand up for their rights in the home.

Karen: You mean a man must spend that much money on one wedding – we haven’t even estimated the cost of the second wedding - and still have to cook and clean and bathe the kids?

Me: Damn right! Wait a minute. Now that I think about it…Oh well, damn right! It doesn’t seem fair when you put it like that but hey…that’s the way it’s done. How is it any different from what you Americans do with the one wedding you have – with the fancy dresses and diamonds and receptions and stuff?

Karen: At least we only have one! You all have two! That just seems unfair!

Me: Well, don’t blame me. Its tradition! Anyway, I haven’t finished. So after the two families have agreed to the marriage, the woman who all this while has been in hiding is allowed to come out and meet her new husband. Once she also agrees that this is the man she wants to marry, then the partying begins.

Karen: So that’s the Ghanaian marriage? Basically, they’re married right?

Me: Not “basically.” They are married, period!

Karen: So why the need for a wedding then? Why not just go to the court registry to make things official? I mean, they do go to the court to register the marriage right? To make it legal? I would hope so.

Me: Psstt…I would hope so too. (Laughing) To tell you the truth, I’m not so sure why the wedding is necessary either. The Christians say it’s to bless the marriage. Some say it’s to make them legally Mr. and Mrs. with the attached legal rights. But like you said, they can just go to the courthouse to legalize things. I guess Ghanaians just love all things foreign to a fault. It so happens that nothing completely African is good enough for us unless it has been dipped in westernized sauce for proper taste!

The concept of a “white” wedding and white gown is so enticing to my people – even though many of them should be wearing black if you ask me – hehehe. I’m sorry. I’m laughing at my own people but it’s serious. I don’t get it! Anyway, let’s finish this conversation later. I need to sleep early so I can get up refreshed for a meeting in the morning. To be continued…

(N. Amma Twum-Baah is the founder and editor of Afrikan Goddess (AG) Online. She can be reached at afrikangoddess.ag@gmail.com)