Aspects of Marriage

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Aspects of Marriage


The Role of Marriage. During the period 500-1590, West Africans practiced many forms of cohabitation. The institution of marriage was probably the most important means of cementing social relations between clans, preserving tradition and culture, and codifying social customs. As John S. Mbiti has observed,

For African peoples, marriage is the focus of existence. It is the point where all members of a given community meet: the departed, the living and those yet to be born. All the dimensions of time meet here, and the whole drama of history is repeated, renewed and revitalized …. marriage is a duty, a requirement from the corporate society, and a rhythm of life in which everyone must participate …. Failure to get married under normal circumstances means that the person concerned has rejected society and society rejects him in return.

Many variations of marriage existed in ancient West Africa, and within different ethnic groups there were often several forms of multiple conjugality. Though there were instances of monogamous arrangements within the context of the extended family, polygamy was generally the norm, and it had two distinct forms: polygyny (in which a husband had more than one wife) and polyandry (in which a wife had more than one husband).

Polygyny. In ancient West Africa polygyny was common among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. One factor contributing to the prevalence of polygynous marriage in the region was a demographic distribution in which there were more women than men. Other factors that favored polygyny included common pregnancy and child-rearing practices. In general, West African women were expected to abstain from sex during pregnancy and the three-year period in which they nursed each child. While a nursing wife was unavailable for sex, a man was likely to take another wife to satisfy his sexual needs. In some instances, as a way of guarding against infidelity, nursing wives themselves brought other women into their homes to provide sexual favors for their husbands. Junior wives in polygynous family units were assigned to older wives, who served as mentors and assigned them tasks within the family unit. Each wife usually had her own living quarters; the most senior wife supervised sexual or sleeping arrangements with the husband. Children in polygynous units were raised in a communal atmosphere, with older wives having overall authority over their upbringing. In matrilineal polygynous families, the oldest female exerted even greater authority, making decisions about property rights and rules of consanguinity.

Polyandry. In some regions, it was also acceptable for a woman to take more than one husband or at least to have sexual relationships with more than one man. Polyandry was often practiced in matrilineal cultures. First daughters of chief’s in southeastern Nigeria were particularly encouraged to engage in polyandrous relationships. Because it was customary that these women should remain at home to look after their mothers in old age, these young women were encouraged to bring home men for copulation and sexual pleasure. Children born to these sexual partners belonged to the matriarch. If an eldest chief’s daughter decided to marry and leave the family unit, she was required by tradition to bring into the household another woman to care for her mother. Polyandrous arrangements also took other forms. For example, a woman in a polygynous family unit might have a sexual affair with a man outside the family if she confided in and received permission from the most senior wife. To some extent polyandry was influenced by economic considerations. For example, many well-to-do chief’s or other socially powerful individuals encouraged their daughters to engage in polyandrous relationships as a means of increasing the size of the labor force

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available to work their farms. In such cases, the children usually belonged to the woman’s father, not their biological father. Among the Okrika people of southeastern Nigeria, Igwe (small dowry) marriage also ensured this sort of family arrangement. Among the Vai people of the Gambian region, women routinely moved from village to village without their husbands’ permission for temporary sojourns in lovers’ compounds. Even when a women in exogamous marriages visited their maternal villages, they were known to carry on sexual relations with men there during the duration of their sojourns. Examples of this practice were found among the Idoo tribe of western Ivory Coast.

Monogamy. The practice of having one wife or one husband was rare in West Africa. The choice between polygamy and monogamy was usually determined by the economic status of the man. A poor man who could not afford to support more than one wife usually remained in a monogamous union, but if his economic situation improved, he would often take additional wives. Property relations also influenced the choice of monogamy, especially when it came to the rights of property inheritance. Yet, in ancient West Africa, where the concept of private property was different from that of modern Western cultures, there was little social basis for monogamy.


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.

John S. Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (New York & Washington, D.C.: Praeger, 1969).

Peter J. Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Searchfor a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

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.