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The population of the world is constituted by an array of cultural groupings and ethnicities. The cultures of the different ethnic groupings have been a subject of research for a long time. Scholars carry out these research studies in the quest to trace the historical development of the different cultures because it is believed that humankind descended from a single ancestry, and thus all people must have shared one culture at one time.
However, in the contemporary times, different parts of the world are littered with different cultural groupings. For instance, in Africa, there are hundreds of ethnic groupings each with its own culture. However, scholars and historians have increasingly raised concerns over the authenticity of today’s cultures, for as the world continues to open up due to phenomena such as globalization, many cultures have been waning and becoming a hybrid of several cultures.
Consequently, most cultures exhibit elements of different cultures from other parts of the world. Scholars have thus carried out studies to document the ways of almost all cultural groupings across the world for posterity. This paper seeks to explore the culture of the Wolof people with emphasis on their marriage traditions. The Wolof people are an ethnic grouping in North Eastern part of Senegal, parts of Mauritania, and Gambia.
Question for Investigation
The Wolof culture is one of most affected cultures by Western influence in comparison to other cultures in the region (Diop 101). This aspect causes one to want to know the kind of social environment in which this culture is practiced and why it would be subject to more Western influence than other cultures in the region. The Wolof people are the largest ethnic grouping in Senegal as they form about 35% of the Senegalese populace and about 12% of the Gambian populace (Diop 112).
Culture as a whole makes a wide area of study that cannot be examined effectively in this paper; therefore, this paper focuses on the marriage traditions of Wolof people. In a bid to explore the topic exhaustively, the paper poses three fundamental questions that it seeks to address. These include the role that marriage plays in the family formation in the Wolof society, what the economic background of the plural marriages is, and which traditions describe the marriage ceremony of the Wolof culture.
Marriage Traditions of Wolof People
The institution of marriage is an intrinsic part of the Wolof culture. This assertion implies that to the Wolof people, a family is an important unit, which forms a building block for other social units into which the Wolof society is organized. In order to form a strong and stable family among the Wolof, it was traditionally believed that cross-cousin marriage (young man marrying a maternal uncle’s daughter) was the best form of marriage (Gamble et al. 31).
This preference hinged on the idea that such arrangements provided the best and most stable marriages. Although it was traditionally permissible for a young man to marry a paternal aunt’s daughter, the importance attached to the stability and success of the family unit among the Wolof ensured that the first priority was given to marriage to a maternal uncle’s daughter.
Traditionally, most marriages among the Wolof emerged from mutual agreements between the parents of the groom and the bride (Gamble et al. 31). Although this scenario has slightly changed with time, this practice is still prevalent in rural areas albeit with some minor adjustments.
Today, a young man may identify a particular girl and after the approval of parents, the father initiates talks to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage (Gamble et al. 31). In some cases, the rigid traditional systems in which the parents make all the decisions concerning matters of marriage are still witnessed (Melching 68). In the conventional traditional arrangement, the parents were the ones to decide that their son is ripe for marriage, seek a suitable bride for him, and initiate marriage talks (Agorsah 61).
Under such marriage arrangements, the bride and the groom did not have much of an influence over what happens. This practice was founded on the idea that parents were more suited to choose what was best for their children due to the accumulated wisdom and experience (Mbaya 226). An intriguing aspect of these arrangements was that the intervention of diviners was sought to determine if the marriage was feasible before marriage actually took place (Gamble et al. 31).
After identifying the right girl, the father of a young would man would enlist the help of a third party to serve as a go-between. The go-between’s main duty was to find out the position of the girl’s family concerning the interest in their daughter (Gamble et al. 32).
The go-between carried kola nuts from the groom’s father during this important errand. If the girl’s family accepted the kola nuts, that was an indicator that they granted the groom permission to court their daughter. At such a point, the boy was expected to furnish the girl and her mother with gifts to win their affection (Gamble et al. 31).
For the girl’s father, the young man was expected to assist in chores such as weeding and harvesting among other masculine endeavors. These acts gave the girl’s family room to assess the character of their prospective in-law. Once it was decided that his character was good, further gifts would be presented to the girl’s family to seal a covenant that left the young man as the sole suitor.
A brief marriage ceremony was then performed by an Imam (the Wolof people are largely Islamic) after the routine Friday prayers at the mosque (Gamble et al. 32). This ceremony demanded the presence of representatives from both families and witnesses.
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During the ceremony, a small payment consisting of kola nuts and money was made to the bride’s family, thus making the marriage legally binding (Gamble et al. 32). Agreements would then be made on how much further payments (marriage money) needed to be made and when the time for its payment came, other gifts were also given to the bride’s mother, father and peers. Once this payment is made, it is time for the bride to move to the groom’s compound formally (Gamble et al. 32).
This would be accomplished after colorful traditional wedding rituals meant to free the marriage of evil and make it fruitful and successful. The bridal party would then make its way to the groom’s compound. Traditionally, on the morning following the bride’s first night, a blood stained cloth would be displayed to show that the bride was a virgin (Agorsah 80), which was a great source of pride that inspired praise-filled songs for the bride and her mother. Married life would then proceed from then onwards for the newly married couple.
The typical marriage age for the Wolof was the early twenties for boys and late teens for girls (Gamble et al. 32). This trend was the norm in the rural settings, but there have been adjustments where young people residing in towns marry at later ages.
Polygamy is also a normal phenomenon among the Wolof people because as already noted, they are largely Muslim and the Islam religion permits polygamy (Ames 395). In addition to religion as a causal factor for polygamy, the traditional Wolof culture considered many wives as a sign of wealth and consequently, a source of pride and prestige; consequently, about 45% of Wolof men are polygamous (Ames 396).
Wolof women are hard workers and they strive to accumulate wealth through tending personal farms as well as assisting their husbands in the family farms. This observation implies that in a home with many wives, the man takes the credit for the wealth that belongs to all his wives. As would be expected of any other woman anywhere in the world, Wolof women show jealousy towards their co-wives and rivalry among co-wives is a common sight.
Once a man and woman get married, it is the primary duty of the woman to make her husband happy. She may be forced to go to great depths to ensure that she ensures the happiness of the husband and consequently the stability of her marriage and family.
Married women exist in closely-knit friendship systems, which ensure that it is extremely difficult for a woman to engage in acts of infidelity (Gamble et al. 32). This system together with the teachings before and after the wedding ensures that women place their husbands first and obey them completely.
Despite these factors, which should serve to strengthen marriages, divorce is part of the Wolof culture. If a woman at some point feels that her marriage life is unbearable, she can go back to her kin and refuse to come back. Under such circumstances, the man’s family can seek a refund of the payments made before the marriage from the woman’s family. If the payment is made in full, the couple is considered legally divorced and may remarry without any problems (Gamble et al. 32).
Children remain with their mother until they are of age before they can go back to their father. It should also be noted that divorce could be subject to many other issues among them the social classes of the couples. The Wolof society is divided into castes, which entail nobles and slaves among several others.
Marriage between the two groups is generally not permissible. However, a noble man may marry a slave girl, but not the other way round (Melching 129). If a marriage takes place across this social system without the knowledge of those involved and the truth comes out later, a divorce is inevitable.
Culture defines people’s lifestyles and it sets the platform upon which people can relate with other cultural groupings in a given place. The marriage traditions of the Wolof people show a clear picture of how the Wolof people regard family relationships and their expected contribution to the wellbeing of society.
It defines their perception of how the world should be inhabited. Clearly, the family unit is a fundamental unit of the Wolof culture, and apart from being a building block for society, it defines the economic status of a man. This aspect makes family a very important dimension in the economic wellbeing of the Wolof people.
Agorsah, Koffi. Marry me in Africa: African Foundations, Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2012. Print.
Ames, David. “The Economic Base of Wolof Polygamy.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11.4 (1955): 391-403. Print.
Diop, Elhadji. Trainee Wolof manual, Dakar: Peace Corps, 2012. Print.
Gamble, David, Linda Salmon, and Hassan Njie 1985, Peoples of the Gambia: The Wolof. PDF file. Web.
Mbaya, Maweja. “Linguistic Taboo in African Marriage Context: A Study of the Oromo Laguu.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 11.2 (2002): 224-235. Print.
Melching, Molly. Ndànk-ndànk: An introduction to Wolof culture, Dakar: Peace Corps, 1981. Print.