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Courtship in African Society

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  • Courtship in African Society

    Courtship and Marriage has been a complex affair with economic, social, political [and religious] aspects which often intertwined so firmly that they cannot be separated from one another. Courtship and Marriage form an integral part of any given society especially the African societies, for it constitute an essential part of their Culture. Hence Mbiti asserts that, “For the African peoples, marriage is the focus of existence... Failure to get married under normal circumstances means that the person concerned has rejected the society and the society rejects him in return.”[1] Marriage is a sacred rite in Africa and beyond, because it solidifies relationship that enriches communities and nations by bringing forth new life and new hope.
    Africans have ancient cultures passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years, in which courtship and marriage is one of them. And for the Africans, everyone is expected to marry and procreate and so Mbiti asserts that “marriage and procreation in African communities are a unity: without procreation, marriage is incomplete.”[2] However, we will come to know the historical African courtship cultures, traditions and rituals do not necessarily provide a window into the mindset and soul of the contemporary African. And so it is only the contemporary or ”modern” African societies mostly concentrated in urban centres and townships that have adopted the more Western concept of courting and dating.
    Marriage is both a religious and a societal activity and so spirituality and physicality are meant to go together. These two are inseparable. When spirituality is ignored, physicality is misused, and when physicality is denied, spirituality is corrupted. But when spirituality and physicality are nurtured as inseparable, we experience “heaven on earth.” And it is on this platform of spirituality which is the religious aspect of culture that we shall discuss this topic; courtship and marriage in African Traditional Society, under the subsequent subheadings.

    Courtship, or more serious dating, as we know it, is a Western tradition that is relatively new. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, marriages were primarily arranged by families. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, people became more mobile and families fragments and scattered. A new means of meeting the opposite sex and courtship began to emerge. Thus, out of this necessity, the modern Western dating ritual was born. As we look at other cultures around the world, the activities of ritual courtship is unlike anything Western Civilization has known, observed or experience.
    And so, according to the Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary, Courtship is the activities that occur when people are developing a romantic relationship that could lead to marriage or the period at which such activities occur.[3]

    Marriage is the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife, in a consensual and contracted relationship according to law or custom[4]. Courtship implies a deeper level of commitment than dating does. During courtship, the individuals specifically contemplate marriage, rather than merely enjoy one another’s company for the time being as dating implied. This implies that Courtship may be termed a ‘preamble’ of marriage since in most cases lead to engagement, also known as betrothal which is the formal agreement to marry. From the above definition of courtship, it therefore implies that courtship is not the same as a mere friendship or dating that exist among teenagers. And so, having known what courtship and marriage is all about, let us take a look at the courtship and marriage of the African people.

    Courtship and marriage among the African societies is always accompanied with a lot of rituals, and it is these rituals that initiate the couple into their new stage of life. It qualifies them as adults and those who have fulfilled their obligations in life. Hence Mbiti in his work asserts that “It [marriage] is a religious obligation by means of which individual contributes the seeds of life towards man’s struggle against the loss of original immortality”[5]
    Since marriage qualifies the individuals involved as adults, just like Jacques Maquet asserts that ‘‘to be an adult is above all to be married, to be a mother or a father’’[6]and that courtship is the practice that in most cases leads to a successful marriage. It is worthy of note that just as we have mentioned earlier, that what we experience in most of the African societies today as courtship and marriage were not practiced before the Industrial revolution within the ambience of the African people. Therefore, let us now take a deep look at the courtship of the African people in their original culture.

    Generally, there are no rites performed to mark the courtship occasion or period. There were a number of factors playing into the marriage before the courtship even began. The first was choosing the wife. This could be done in three ways. A marriage could be decided on by the parents before birth; however this was usually only done in highly successful families. Secondly, the relatives could also decide during childhood who children would marry when they reach the age of marriage. The final way was for the man and woman to choose each other which is the one that is common in most African societies today. Before the actual courtship began, however, the male needed to show signs that he was ready to be married. Included in these were showing disgust in childhood chores such as cleaning and cooking, taking bigger risks and other tasks to prove himself a man, seeking companionship with his father and other important males in society, and exempting himself from childhood perks like eating grasshoppers and finishing the soup from the bottom of the bowl. Nwoye the son of Okonkwo in China Achebe’s Novel Things Fall Apart is a vivid example of this case. The father will also inquire about his maturity and if he has found a suitable woman to marry. If a woman has been found, the courtship then begins.

    Since marriage itself is a central event in the life of the African people, time and care is taken to prepare for it. Hence, the African people see this courtship period as the time one prepares oneself for the task ahead. Many of these traditions have faded and are disappearing except in some remote and rural areas such as Izzi in Ebonyi State however still observe the courtship traditions that were passed unto them.
    Courtship for them is the period when parents begin to educate their children on marital affairs. Dr. Mbiti’s observation is similar to what these people practice. He writes that “Girls are taught how to prepare food, how to behave towards men, how to care for their children, how to look after their husband and other domestic affairs. The boys are taught what most concerns men, like looking after cattle, behaving properly towards one’s in-laws, how to acquire wealth which one would give to the parents of the girl as part the engagement and marriage contract, and how to be responsible as the ‘head’ of the family.”[7]

    Among these people (the Izzi people), when a young man in search of a bride sees a girl of his choice, he goes home and tells his parents. His parents would make inquiries concerning the family background of this girl, first to know if she is not a close relative for it is an abomination for a marriage of this type to be approved. Secondly they also make inquiries to know if the family of the girl is not a family of certain abominations such as premature death, the family reputation in the village, kleptomania, viral diseases etc. When all these investigations have been fully made, and the parents of the boy approve the girl in question to be a worthy daughter-in-law, then they proceed for the necessary marriage negotiations and rituals.
    [1]John S. Mbiti, African Religious and Philosophy, Heinemann, London 1969, p. 133.
    [2] John S. Mbiti, op. Cit., p.133
    [3] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, 1989, Gramercy Books, New York, p. 523
    [4] Op. Cit., p. 1385 (in bold, as emphasis)
    [5] John S. Mbiti, op. Cit., p.133
    [6] Jacques Maquet, Africanity; The Cultural Unity of the Black Africa Oxford University Press, London, Oxford New York, 1972, p 69.

    [7] John S. Mbiti, op. Cit., p.135