Love and Marriage: Ghanaian Style
There is a saying in Ghana to warm the heart of every voluptuous woman, to help her learn to love her wobbly bottom and encourage her to have that extra slice of cake with her cup of coffee: ‘the heavier a woman, the more attractive, more marriageable and more fertile she is’.
In West Africa, having a luscious body is a blessing. Brides-to-be are encouraged to feed up on starchy fufu (mashed yam, plantain or cassava), to ensure they have a suitably plump figure on their big day. Meanwhile, slim females are ridiculed for their boniness and warned to gain weight before they find themselves ‘on the shelf’.
Ghanaians are quite conservative in many respects, with a woman’s body considered sacred: flirtation crosses the line when suitors start pulling or playing with her nose or ear, or tickling the palm of her hand. Married women who encourage this horseplay can be suspected of adultery. Of course, times are changing and many modern single women won’t be insulted by such antics, rather seeing them as signs of interest from a man who lacks the courage to express himself more directly because ‘he has a mouth that is sewn’.
Although Ghanaians share some of our romantic ideas about love, they primarily see marriage as a practical arrangement, with duties undertaken on both sides. The bride’s family promise to ‘deliver’ a daughter willing and able to bear children; the groom’s swear that he’ll meet his responsibilities in providing for his wife and children financially. If a man’s fancy starts to wander, his family will step in to guide him back on track.
Amusingly, brides are advised ‘marriage prospers only upon the hard labour of the wife’ while grooms are told ‘marriage only succeeds when the husband makes it so’.
Engagements are taken very seriously. Commonly, when a Ghanaian man decides to wed, he informs his parents, so that they can investigate the family of their prospective daughter-in-law for any history of disease, criminality, witchcraft or violence, along with her employment status, religious background and standard of living. One proverb states ‘a crab does not beget a bird’. The woman’s family embark on similar investigations before accepting the proposal.
Godswilling, who owns her own beauty salon, recalls: ‘I met my husband through a friend when I was 21. Now, you know, we always like to pretend we aren’t interested but at the same time we’re checking things out! When we started going out together, I didn’t let on how much I liked him and he kept pursuing me. A year later, he had to ask permission from my family for my hand in marriage but they said no. They thought that we hadn’t known each other long enough. However, I used all my persuasive skills, and they finally agreed.’
Adwoa, a teacher, explains: ‘When my fiancé wanted to ask permission from my parents for my hand in marriage, he came for the knocking ceremony (before you enter the house, you knock on the door and await an invitation to enter, which is a sign of friendship). He expressed his formal intentions and presented gifts of goodwill – some cloth and a headscarf for my mother – as is customary – and sandals for my father. The dowry included a ring, a Bible (as my family are Christian) and some wine and schnapps. He gave me a sewing machine and gold jewellery, which are traditional gifts for the bride-to-be. The sewing machine allows you to bring in extra income if you need it. On the morning of my marriage, I wore my finest cloth and jewellery and was led by my mother to my groom’s house for the ceremony. Afterwards, we had a huge reception, with 400 guests.’
Arakua, a secretary, explains: ‘We think that if you are taking something valuable from the house you have to show that you recognise its worth – this is why the groom gives gifts to the parents of his bride.’
However, Thomas’ story is an example of how formalities can be circumnavigated: ‘Matilda was from a wealthy family in Takoradi – quite different from my poor upbringing in a rural village; however, although we came from different backgrounds, there were some things that made me think we were destined to be together. We were both born on a Friday, our fathers were both born on a Wednesday and our mothers were both born on a Monday. Also, our mothers are both the eighth child born in their families. When Matilda’s mother first met me, she said that I resembled her son who had died and that she would treat me as her son in his place. I travelled from Koforidua to Sunyani (five hours on public transport) to visit Matilda’s father and he was so impressed that I had made the journey that he said I did not have to follow the usual etiquette of an engagement – I could marry Matilda as I was, a simple teacher, with his blessing.’
Marriage is a contract of friendship however, not a blood bond – so can be broken. If a wife fails to fall pregnant quickly enough, she may well be replaced. Although a man can only register one marriage legally (at a registrar’s office), he can customarily marry as many women as he is able to support – or simply keep mistresses. According to the Ghana Demographic and Health Survey of 2003, 23 percent of women had experienced polygamous relationships. Beatrice is a typical case: ‘I’ve discovered that my husband is married to someone else but I’ve had to take it in my stride. He is a typical African man. I know of many Ghanaian men who have two families – it’s normal.’
In fact, most couples don’t bother to officially register their marriages, which can present difficulties if the man dies or the couple part, as his wife is obliged to rely on the goodwill of his family (rather than the law) to provide for her and the children. Joseph’s story can’t help but make you smile: ‘I didn’t want to be buying girlfriends chocolates and flowers and ice-creams forever and having to spend time on the niceties of courtship – taking them out for meals and dancing and so on. I wanted a real woman who would be able to look after me. My wife and I have a five year old daughter now but haven’t yet registered the marriage legally.’
Both husbands and wives can divorce each other under suspicion of witchcraft or for drunkenness, abuse or neglect of marital duties (a man’s failure to provide money for family upkeep or a woman’s to provide children and look after the home). A woman’s adultery is also grounds for divorce, but a wife cannot enforce divorce on the grounds of her husband’s adultery or his taking more wives. Those who remain faithful to their wives are often teased by their peers with the words ‘a man who owns a farm, should also own a garden’. A long-suffering spouse tends to put up with her husband’s philandering until it leads to financial hardship, at which point she can ask her husband’s family to restrain him. Commonly, before an additional wife is taken, the first is informed by her husband and pacified with money or gifts.
Ghanaian ideas of marriage may differ from those of America or Europe but some common notions remain. Most would agree that a man seeks a wife who is ‘a good cook, who won’t give me any trouble – a God-fearing woman!’ Thomas tells us: ‘My wife likes me because I’m not afraid of anything – I don’t fear a mad dog, a mad cow, a mad snake or any such thing. My wife is timid and likes me to look after her. If I go away for a while, she grows nervous in the house and wants me to return.’ Meanwhile, Joseph’s philosophy is: ‘Husband and wife should be like two dogs playing. They might fight and roll over together but always get back up and play again.’