It is an understatement to say that marriage is of utmost importance in African religion. In effect, marriage is widely acknowledged throughout the African continent as one of the most critical moments in a person's life, along with birth, puberty, and death. Marriage is a sacred rite of passage. This is the case because marriage is intimately linked with procreation. In fact, the main, if not only, purpose of marriage is procreation. In most African societies, marriage is not deemed complete until a child has been born. Likewise, a man is not a full man or a woman a full woman until they have given birth to a child. Marriage is an important institution in Africa because the survival and thriving of the whole community depends on it. It is sacred, cosmic drama in which all normal members of the community are expected to participate. This entry looks at the link between marriage and procreation, examines the role of the family, and follows the course of the institution from preparation and negotiation through ceremonies and separation.

Link to Childbearing

Thus, to thoroughly grasp the significance of marriage in African religion and life, one must fully understand the meaning of childbearing for African people. Many scholars have noted that the preservation and transmission of life may well be the highest African cultural value. Within the context of the African worldview, the birth of many children is consequently seen as an imperative and a blessing because those children will ensure the continuation and strengthening of the family lineage and the community at large. Also, the children will be responsible for ensuring that their parents receive proper burial rites and for performing commemorative rituals that, in turn, will maintain the deceased in a state of immortality through their continued connection with the world of the living.
Marriage creates the context within which children are conceived and born, hence its critical significance. Getting married and having children is a social, moral, and, ultimately, spiritual obligation and privilege. Likewise, one's refusal or failure to get married and have children is largely incomprehensible, and certainly quite reprehensible, as far as African religion is concerned. It signifies that one is rejecting God, whose original creative and continuous power manifests itself, among other things, through the uninterrupted birth of human beings; it is as well a rejection of humanity because the latter depends on human fertility for its perpetuation.

The Family's Role

Marriage, from the standpoint of African religion, is never simply an affair between a man and a woman, but an event that involves at least two families. African families are normally quite large because they include several subunits. In a matri-lineal context, for example, a family will include at the minimum a woman, her husband, their daughters, their daughters' husbands, and their children. In addition, there may be other relatives sent to live with them, servants and their children, who become an intricate part of the household.
Furthermore, families also include not only the living, but also the ancestors of the lineage, as well as the children yet to be born. Some scholars have rightly pointed out that marriage provides a unique and dramatic opportunity for all the members of a particular community to meet: the deceased, the living, and the unborn. All have a stake in marriage. In the case of an exogamous marriage system, that is, when the wife must come from another lineage or clan, marriage involves not only two families, but also two clans as well.
Also, in patrilineal societies, men may marry more than one woman, provided that they have the financial means to support them and their children, and marriage then becomes a multiple marriage, involving an even larger number of individuals, families, and clans.

Preparation and Negotiation

Marriage being a most serious affair, young men and women are thoroughly prepared for married life. Indeed, in most African societies, one can get married only after having been initiated. When no initiation rites are followed, young people nonetheless receive instruction regarding marriage, sex, family life, and procreation. Among the Mende people, for example, there exist two societies, the Poro Society (for young men) and the Bondo or Sande Society (for young women), whose main raison d'être is educational: Their primary goal is indeed to socialize the males and the females according to Mende norms. Thus, whereas the Poro society initiates young boys into Mende manhood, the Sande society introduces girls into Mende womanhood. The initiation covers a 7-year period and usually begins at the time of puberty. Only at the end of the initiation process are the initiates deemed ready for marriage.
Similarly, among the Lamba people, a mother will always start looking for a wife for her son among initiated girls from neighboring villages and would never consider any uninitiated girl because such a person would not be qualified for marriage. Initiation indeed breaks one's bonds with childhood and prepares one for integration into the adult community. Among the Wolof, where no such initiation rites exist, the elders meet with the bride to give her advice and gifts.
Although there is not one single pattern to initiate marriage, it is common for the parents and other close relatives of a young man to contact the parents of a young woman and start discussing the possibility of their getting married. If the girl's parents should agree, after consulting their daughter, then marriage negotiations will start. Of course, quite often, the young man and woman already know each other and may have expressed interest in one another.
For example, among the Namwanga people, a young man in search of a wife will offer an engagement token (called Insalamu), such as beads or money, to a woman of his liking. If the woman accepts the Insalamu, this means that she has accepted his proposition. The matter is then brought to the attention of the man's parents, who, if they agree with their son's choice, will approach the girl's parents. Good character, an excellent reputation, an industrious nature, and a respectful stance toward the elders, rather than physical appearance and attractiveness, are the qualities sought after and valued by the parents while selecting a mate for their son or daughter. In addition, marriage between close relatives is not permitted. When endogamous marriage is the norm, the man and woman are carefully scrutinized to make sure that they are not closely related. It is feared that if two closely related people should marry, their children would die.
One of the most important issues to be addressed and resolved during the negotiations period is the payment that the man's family will make to the woman's family. Payment is not made to purchase the woman, but simply as a token of appreciation for the good care given to the woman by her parents. While negotiations go on, the future husband and wife are encouraged to spend time together, although they are not expected to engage in sex prior to their wedding. Payment would often be made in the form of cattle, chickens, and other animals. Once payment has been made, the wedding may take place. Some African communities, such as the Yoruba and the Krio, organize a prewedding ceremony: When her fiancé comes to visit her, the bride is kept hidden by her family. Instead, the man is presented with several women, usually old. As he recognizes the trickery, he keeps asking for his fiancée until the latter appears in the midst of great excitement and joy.

Ceremony and Separation

Wedding ceremonies may be simple or complex affairs, lasting several days. A wedding, when the cost of the payment made to the bride's family is added, may therefore turn out to be a quite expensive proposition to which all the family members contribute. In general, many rites and rituals are performed as part of the wedding ceremony. Prayers, offerings, and sacrifices are made to the ancestors on behalf of the groom and the bride to ensure that their union be blessed with many pregnancies and safe deliveries.
Among the Yoruba people, for instance, the oldest woman in attendance will spray gin (which is closely associated with the ancestors) on the couple and other relatives to bless the new marriage. Among the Bemba people of Central Africa, a woman about to get married is given a clay pot by her father's sister. Because the main purpose of marriage is procreation, the clay pot stands for the womb that is expected to be filled and blessed with many pregnancies. A similar ritual can be observed among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, when the paternal aunt hands a clay pot full of water to a bride to bless her with a fertile marriage. Water is intimately associated with fertility in Africa. Among the Hutu, on the day of her wedding, a woman's body is smeared with milk and herbs to cleanse her from her previous life and make her pure and ready for her new life as a married woman.
Marriage is a binding contract, not to be broken lightly. One of the most common causes of divorce is sterility on the part of women and men. This is easy to understand given that the only non-negotiable requirement for marriage is fertility. Thus, among the Luo people, for instance, a woman may divorce her husband if he is sexually impotent, and therefore incapable of getting her pregnant, and also if he suffers from gluttony. However, special arrangements, such as sexual and reproductive duties being performed by a close relative or another woman, may prevent divorce.
In some communities, in the case of death of one of the spouses, it is the responsibility of the family of the deceased to provide a replacement. This has often been referred to as wife inheritance and is grossly misunderstood. The brother of a man who just died does not inherit his sister-in-law per se as much as he lives up to his obligation to provide for his brother's widow and their children, thus sparing them a life of misery. Likewise, when a woman dies, her family must provide a replacement for her in the form of another woman who will be responsible for the children and husband of the deceased wife. This is because, in the African tradition, marriage is often a levirate union.
The death of one's spouse is nonetheless always followed by a period of mourning, which may last for a while. Thus, among the Luo people again, a man who has lost his wife must wait until he can sleep in their conjugal room or be around other women. It is not until he has dreamed of making love with his wife, which may take quite a long time (sometimes several years), that he is allowed to use the conjugal bedroom again and live a normal life. Until then, he must sleep in another room and sometimes even outside on the veranda.



  • marriage
  • African religions
  • weddings
  • initiation
  • wives
  • payment
  • initiation rites


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Binet, J. (1959). Le mariage en Afrique noire. Paris: Editions du Cerf.
  • Kimathi, G. (1983). Courting in Marriage. Nairobi, Kenya: Uzima.
  • Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.
  • Phillips, A. (1953). Survey of African Marriage and Family Life. London & New York: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press.
  • Turtoe-Sanders, P. (1998). African Tradition in Marriage: An Insider's Perspective. Brooklyn Park, MN: Turtoe-Sanders Communications.