Encouraged to Commit
by Major Grace M. Chepkurui, Rwanda Region
This article refers to Rwandan culture. The cultural practices presented in this article are consistent throughout Africa; however, the intensity of the practices varies from country to country.
Before an African marriage ceremony takes place, there is a great contribution from the community to promote the lifelong commitment of a couple. Long before a proposal of marriage is made, the community begins its investment. A close-knit community is the foundation of African culture. A child who grows up in an African community will without a doubt learn the importance of generosity, socialisation, discipline and commitment in relationships.
Major Grace M. Chepkurui
A child is born into a community where love dominates, even in the midst of problems. Whenever a problem arises, the community is ready to share. This generosity is woven into African culture. Traditionally, when a meal is prepared an additional plate is ready for the unexpected guest who may drop by.
This generosity is seen in the response of the community in raising its children. When a child is born, he or she becomes part of a community. The child belongs to this community. Child-raising responsibilities are shared among community members. A community shows its care for its children by preparing meals for them, or by taking care of a neighbour's child when the parents are away or even disciplining someone else's child when necessary. African heritage has allowed for discipline to be given by a community member to any child found doing wrong.
For years, grandparents and aunts have been entrusted in advising children. Children grow up surrounded by people who care and are willing to give loving discipline. Since this shared role in raising children is highly valued, most immediate family units live together with their extended family.
From top: the bride shares a traditional wedding dance with guests; the bride's father-in-law presents a gift to his new daughter-in-law; a family member escorts the groom
In an extended family unit, a girl who has found the one she wishes to marry will come home and tell her parents. Her fiancÚ does the same with his parents. News quickly spreads as the other members of the family are informed and become involved in preparations for the wedding. Then the families come together and get to know each other better; a strong relationship between both families begins. Eventually, the families discuss negotiations for a dowry and the wedding ceremony finalises the negotiations.
While parents take part in teaching their children about sex and the importance of abstinence, a woman's aunt or a man's uncle will further discuss what is expected in marriage. Girls are taught that 'true love waits' for the right person. HIV/Aids has given an additional motive for abstinence. This valuable teaching passed down through the family helps to keep African marriages strong.
Caring relatives often foresee marital problems and intervene before a broken marriage ends in divorce. Listening to the family's counsel, the couple truly understands that the wedding ceremony begins a commitment of life together, come what may. This African saying contains much truth: 'A good marriage continues a long time, while a bad marriage continues longer.'
Legalising divorce is a very long process. A couple who intend to divorce must first meet with the family and try to come to an agreement for the return of the dowry. Often the dowry is clothing, jewellery or food items that have already been consumed. The families find it extremely difficult to come to an agreement for repayment. As a result, the couple is told to go back home to try and mend the relationship.
Divorce is certainly not encouraged by family members. When a marriage does end in divorce, possibly bypassing an agreement between families, the community does not readily accept the divorced individuals.
Discipline has been a vital part of African community. However, Western culture as portrayed in the media has caused some tension in the African home. For this reason, copying loving discipline modelled by family members is even more important as newlyweds start their own families.
Keeping in touch with in-laws also helps to strengthen a marriage. In-laws who are welcomed into the couple's home find a comfortable and social atmosphere. In most communities a mother-in-law is free to offer advice to her daughter-in-law, who respectfully receives it. The same courtesy is extended in the paternal relationship between a wife's father and husband. Together, they learn to accept each other's temperaments and to give mutual respect. Likewise, brothers and sisters are taught to receive their in-laws with love.
From the time children are born and become part of an African community, they are taught to respect their elders' authority and wisdom. An extended family's guidance is essential for building healthy community life and plays an important part in preparing a couple for a lifelong, loving marriage.