African wedding rituals run the gamut of all celebrations. They can be colorful and vibrant, they can also be somber and understated. No matter how the wedding union ceremony is performed however, they are always filled with lots of symbolism and deep with meaning.
Depending on what part of the continent you’re on, no two African wedding rituals are exactly identical… just another beauty of the continent. African marriage rituals can have some similarities from region to region. Cultures in Eastern African as well as the southern parts of the continent that share similar languages will sometimes have some marriage rituals in common.
Following is a quick run-down of some wedding rituals that are practiced across the continent.
Some African Wedding Rituals From Around The Continent
Over a seven day period in late August to early September, during the Umhlanga ceremony also known as the Reed Dance, young unmarried girls between the ages of 10 and 18 years come out and parade themselves before the king. Understandably in western culture that would be a big no-no I suppose, but actually, among the Swazi, it is believed that it is part of the reigning king’s duties to take on and support as many wives as possible. Naturally, these wives will likely have children and it is also the king’s duty to raise as many of them as his wives can produce for him.
This ceremony takes place in Swaziland’s royal capital Lobamba, where, prior to the ceremony, the girls take a ceremonial ritual bath in the river before they proceed to carry reeds they have collected to the Queen Mother’s palace. The queen mother’s courtesans will use the reeds to reinforce the fence that surrounds her compound. There is symbolism behind this act as well – it is the affirmation and strengthening of womanhood throughout the Swazi kingdom.
While the girls are dancing, the king will drop his shield in front of the ones whose dancing he likes or whose beauty catches his eye. The official of which ones will become his wives will be made later on in the year… very diplomatic.
Western African Wedding Rituals
(Yes, this is very generalized but a lot of the African wedding rituals in this region follow this tradition)
The groom-to-be first declares his intentions to his father, grandfather, or uncle who then, if he is in agreement, meets with the father of the “intended” bride-to-be. The elders will then collectively decide if the wedding is to be or not to be. Kola nuts are offered and exchanged to seal the deal as well as to celebrate when the official wedding announcement is made. Other gifts are also exchanged such as drinks like palm wine and tobacco.
Among the African wedding rituals in some cultures in this area, brides-to-be are kept in fattening rooms where they “plumped up” before they are sent off to their husbands’ homes. Before the bride goes to her new husband’s home, she will receive some going-away presents from her family that will help her set up her new home. Gifts include clothes, jewelry, a calabash, and more. The day of her wedding the bride is bathed by the older women in her family as they “cleanse her of her childhood”.
The actual wedding ceremony i.e. the joining of the couple is performed by a village elder who gives them advice and offers prayers on their behalf… among other things.
Berber African wedding rituals make concessions for women to ensure that they are well taken care of.
Once a year during the Berber brides’ fair, all single women – never-married virgins, widows and divorcees – all come to find their future mates. The wedding rituals are somewhat different though depending on the woman’s situation. While the never-married virgins must be courted for a year following the fair, but widows and divorcees are permitted to start their new married lives the day they meet a man that “suits their fancy”.
The groom’s father gives gifts as payment for the girl’s hand in marriage and later the groom sends even more gifts which include jewelry and clothing to bride’s family. On the third day of the day the new couple consummate their union either alone or with other newly-married couples in a communal wedding chamber. In this community of other young couples they learn to make love and get used to more accustomed and used to each other… they usually stay in this environment for five days. On the last night, all the newlyweds are presented to everyone in the village; the brides, who have been veiled for the wedding ceremony now have their veils lifted by their grooms to display their beauty and the couples’ matrimonial bedsheets are displayed before the guests as proof of virginity.
African Wedding Rituals Among The Surma
The Surma people of Ethiopia certainly do things their own way as well. During their marriage and courtship celebrations the young men and women spend a lot of time painting and adorning their bodies in a bid to attract members of the opposite sex.
The Surma have two options when it comes to their own wedding rituals. Either a man selects a bride and pays her father a bride price or… a woman gets to choose the man she wants to be her husband. The men however have to prove their worth by engaging in a competition with each other known as a Donga stick fight. This is a somewhat violent stick fight where the only rule is not to kill your opponent… doing so will result in banishment of his entire family from the village. The winner becomes the prime choice for the “belle of the ball” i.e. the girl deemed by her peers to be the most desirable of them all.
It doesn’t end there though… the winner will still need to pay the girl’s family a bride price for her.
Northern African Wedding Rituals
(Yes, again very generalized but this particular African wedding ritual tends to be seen in parts of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Mali)
The marriage rituals practiced here begin with the Guedra… the traditional dance of love. This is a dance done by women for the men… picture an African-style ballet if you will…
Wodaabe Nomads of the Sahel Savannah
Talk about elaborate African wedding rituals… check out what the Wodaabe nomads do all in the name of marriage.
For seven days men take part in a dance competition that is judged by the women. Even though a Wodaabe man can have up to four wives, the first being a cousin to which he is betrothed by his parents at his birth, the women still do get a choice… somewhat. During this dance celebration known as the Geerewol, the women will pick out the men that they find most desirable to be their husbands. If a woman finds two men desirable she may pick only one but if the two men are cousins she can have them both. The African wedding rituals among male cousins in this region emphasize sharing and generosity.
The Ruume circle dance is a two-part dance – the welcome dance is done during the day and the dance of seduction is done at night. The personality and charm dance portion is called the Yaake and the Geerewol dance is the beauty portion of the competition… this is the part where the men get judged to find who the most beautiful is.
African Wedding Rituals of the Rashaida Bedouins of Eritrea and Sudan
Arranged marriages are the norm in this group and it is usually the older wealthier men who can afford the bride price that get the young brides. Dowries typically consist of cloth, camels, jewelry and cash. A system is in place for women such that if by chance they are unhappy in their marriage, they may leave after seven years… their family must however return the dowry that was paid for her. Men are allowed to have up to four wives but may not marry more than once a year.
The wedding rituals of the Rashaida happen over a seven day period. The bride decorates the wedding tent where the festivities will be held and the groom kills a camel. In addition to eating and dancing, the festivities also include camel racing. At the beginning of the festivities the men celebrate alone and the bride remains secluded, accessible only to her mother, her father’s other wives, and her sisters. For the first six days of the celebration she can only go to her husband after dark to spend the night with him but she must return to her tent before dawn; only on the seventh day can they come out publicly as husband and wife.
The Himba of Namibia
Arranged marriages are the norm among the Himba. Their marriage rituals include slaughtering of a goat by the father of the bride on the first morning of the wedding. The goat meat is shared among the village members while his daughter and other women of child-bearing age get the stomach of the goat to wear on their heads. Wearing this on their heads is a sign of respect to the bride’s father. In this tribe the groom stays secluded from everyone else, while in seclusion he gets to clean and tan the goat’s hide. He will then give the treated goat hide to his future mother-in-law and bride to use to make skirts.
Upon leaving her father’s house, the bride will receive a special headgear form her mother which she is required to wear during the entire first month of her marriage. She is rubbed with a reddish pigment which she wears to her new home. Once this is removed from her skin she will officially formally be welcomed into her husband’s home, family and community.
In the Swahili culture, families usually arrange marriages. An appropriate groom is selected based on his integrity, financial standing and clan status. A dowry is required before marriage and a gift must be given after marriage.
Prior to the wedding ceremony the bride is sequestered and trained how to be a good wife by an older female relative. On the day of the wedding she receives special beauty treatments including a coconut oil massage and special perfume and henna applications. Meanwhile the groom undergoes the traditional African wedding rituals known as Kupeka Begi… in this ritual the female relatives of the groom take gifts to his bride on his behalf. The bride’s female relatives then perform a ritual known as Kupeka Msuaki where they in turn take a gift of toiletries to the groom on the bride’s behalf. It all culminates in the traditional chakacha dance right before the actual wedding ceremony begins.
Typically the bride and groom may not see each other until the night of their wedding. In times past, the bride’s “marriage mentor” would sleep under the matrimonial bed and assist the new groom if the girl was resistant to “consummating the marriage”… She would also serve as a witness to the “de-flowering of the bride” so to speak, taking a piece of cloth out to the other women to show them the virgin blood. The couple will then remain in isolation for seven days.
Zulu Wedding Rituals
For a Zulu bride, marriage means disconnecting from her ancestral line of birth and joining her husbands ancestral lineage. This forms the basis of the ceremonial wedding dance competition wherein a ritual antagonism between the family of the bride and the family of the groom is displayed. This dance is actually the highlight of every Zulu wedding ceremony. At some point during the during the ceremony the bride does a dance of her own during which she kicks her leg high in order to show her mother that she is a virgin.
The dowry negotiations are fierce mainly fueled by the father-of-the-bride demanding top payment for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Eventually, the bride leaves her father’s house with gifts in tow for her new husband’s family… gifts will include such things as cows, mats, beads, baskets, etc. Over time family relations between her family of origin and her new family do improve. After much feasting and being welcomed into her new home, the bride’s mother-in-law rubs butter fat on the skin of her new daughter-in-law at the end of the ceremony.
Ndzundza Ndebele of South Africa
The Ndebele South African wedding rituals are divided into three segments. Stage one consists of a bride price payment of livestock after which the bride leaves her family home. Their system of bride price payments are different in that they have a sort of “installment plan”… they make a first payment then the wedding takes place then after the first child is born the final payment is made. And yes, if she doesn’t give birth to any children within a “reasonable period of time” the groom’s father is entitled to a full or partial refund of the dowry.
Two weeks prior to the wedding the bride is secluded and only accessible by female relatives.
Stage two takes place when the first child is born. After giving birth the bride can now wear a special beaded apron known as “ijogolo”; it has a design that represents a mother being surrounded by children.
Finally, in stage three the husband performs a ceremony in honor of his wife giving her credit for all she has done in their time together.
More African Wedding Rituals?
Above is just a small sampling of the many African marriage rituals that are practiced all across the continent. I am more than sure that I have missed a lot other African wedding traditions so I invite you to share any other African wedding rituals that I may have missed using the form below. It’s super easy to do and it’s always nice to spread the knowledge wealth!
A husband always prefers his wife’s mother-in-law
to his own.