Aspects of Courtship

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Aspects of Courtship


Attracting a Wife. Because young women generally sought out men for their physical attraction, men in some West African cultures spent much time decorating their bodies once they reached a certain age.Many wore earrings, bangles, false eyelashes, and other decorative ornaments that might be considered feminine in other cultures. When they started wearing such adornments, it was a sign they were ready to take on the role of husband. Generally, young men married when they were able to sustain a family or were eligible to be allocated to a plot of land, usually around age twenty-one or older. Depending on their physical maturity and onset of the menstrual cycle, women married earlier than men, on average around age sixteen. In Muslim and nomadic cultures, they sometimes married as early as twelve.

Negotiations. Marriage in ancient West Africa established social bonds between families. In most parts of the region, mate selection was out of the hands of the prospective spouse. Older members of the family, especially women, were given the responsibility of arranging the marriages of eligible bachelors. Throughout West Africa, social contacts between the sexes were restricted to formal occasions, at which young men and women developed attractions for one another. Ritual dances at marriage ceremonies and festivities during the new planting season often provided the opportunity for a young man to seek out an eligible bride. Once a young man set his sights on a prospective bride, he approached his mother, who set the process in motion. The groom’s mother’s best friend normally served as the go-between, approaching the mother of the prospective bride, who was, however, allowed to reject prospective husbands for whom she had no liking or affection. As the bargaining over the bride-price progressed, the father of the bride was normally kept out of the picture until agreement

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had been reached between the go-between woman and the mother of the bride. In fact, once the bride’s mother agreed to the proposal, the bride’s father could do nothing to stop the union. His permission was only a formality. The family of the bride would then demand to be paid bridewealth or a dowry (what Europeans might call a dower) before the marital union could be finalized.

Bridewealth and Dowries. The bridewealth symbolized the unity of the two families in a lifelong relationship. It could be material in nature, such as goats, cattle, cowrie shells, gold and gold dust, and in more-recent times money, but service, such as labor on the bride’s father’s farm, was not uncommon. Even today among the Yoruba, a prospective groom can hire himself out for several years to the future bride’s father, who decides when the young man has worked enough. Typically, the amount of the bridewealth was determined by the status of the bride’s father and was often the subject of elaborate negotiations. The dowry was property held in trust by the bride’s father, who was obligated to return it to his daughter’s husband’s family in cases of divorce. Payment of a dowry was far less common than bridewealth. Since they did not want their daughters to leave their households, most rich chief’s (such as those of the Okrika people) prevented such a loss by encouraging their daughters to remain in Igwe (small dowry) marriages, which kept the bride in her father’s household and gave him claim to all children born of the union (who usually ended up working on his farm). Contrary to erroneous assumptions by some European scholars, bridewealth and dowry were not considered bride purchases. As Jack Goody observed in 1973, bridewealth and dowry may have had “’symbolic’ aspects,” but they were mainly “ways of redistributing property.” For this reason, “they must always be seen in the context of the wider movement of property and its exploitation for productive and other social purposes.”

Arranged Marriages. Typically, prospective mates developed a sort of affection before marriage. Arranged marriages in which the prospective spouse had no say in choosing their mate were not usually the norm in West Africa, except in Muslim cultures where some forms of arranged marriage existed. However, even in non-Muslim societies some marriages could be considered arranged. For example, a father might offer his daughter to a chief or king in return for a favor and status.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

George Ellis, Negro Culture in West Africa: A Social Study of the Negro Group of Vai-speaking People (New York: Neale, 1914).

Jack Goody, “Bridewealth and Dowry in Africa and Eurasia,” in Bridewealth and Dowry, by Goody and S. J. Tambiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 1-58.

Goody and Esther Goody, “Cross-Cousin Marriage in Northern Ghana,” Man (London), new series 1 (September 1966): 343-355.

Victor C. Uchendu, “Concubinage among Ngwa-Ibo of Southern Nigeria,” Africa (London), 35 (April 1965): 187-197.

Kay Williamson, “Changes in the Marriage System of the Okrika People,” Africa (London), 32, no. 1 (1962): 53-60.