Philanthropic Nostalgia: African Giving revisited through an analysis of the Abagusii marriage ceremony
Love may be the universal language of philanthropy, but those of us born in an era of severe individualism may think of kindness only in monetary terms and fail to understand the depth of the African deposits of other philanthropic traditions such as marriage. Traditional African marriages embodied the spirit of philanthropy in many ways; the spirit of collaboration, the volunteerism, the gift giving in all manners, the celebration of union. And of course, at its core: a strong relationship underpinned by love that is said to transcend even death.
But we must not fall prey to the philanthropic nostalgia of it all. Even as it remains a cornerstone of African tradition, marriage still often lends itself to the unfair treatment and perception given to the women in the biases of patriarchy. The marital procedures for the Abagusii people of Kenya is a great illustration of this.
My late grandmother (Alexina Momanyi) once told me that when a young Omogusii man has reached marital age, the first step is that scouts (chisigani) are sent to comb through families in the community looking for a potential wife. The scouts that spy for the lady they consider a potential wife are always male. Once a lady is chosen, they have no voice, but rather have to be submissive to what the parents would decide. The parents of the young man are informed about the finding. Negotiation of dowry price would follow. The women are commodified as a product in the market, ready for purchase with the physical inspection of beauty that would ensue before confirmation was given. When both man and woman are content, they shake hands and swear to keep the promise of marrying each other. This part dimly brings the woman into the picture of choosing her lover, although it is just a formality because the parents generally have the final say.
Before the wedding day, the fiancée visits the fiance. She enjoys a sleepover but a young boy sleeps in between them to ensure no sexual intercourse. Sex is for married couples. This is said to be a philanthropy of good values. The willingness of being faithful is evident in this sleepover. Patience is conspicuous too. It is eminent as well that love is beyond sex since the two would sleep in the same bed without sex on that day.
On the wedding day, the fiancée is escorted to her matrimonial home by other women her age. On such a big day, many people are present and there is a chance that one of the finacée mates will be admired by a potential husband, so they are encouraged to come in droves. This act also portrays the idea that the married girl comes from a community of many like her, hence any injustice to her symbolizes an injustice to other women like her, and her whole community by extension. In the same vein, respect shown to her in her matrimonial home would mean respect to her family, friends and the whole community. This is philanthropy of mutual love and co-existence.
The young man’s party comes a day before. A large pot (embiru) and some blankets are handed to the fiancée’s mother. A fat goat is tied with a rope on one leg and handed to the fiancée’s dad, an appreciation for the good work done in the nurturing of the hardworking girl. The girl’s parents give her a wooden table, three chairs and some utensils. This element of giving support to the daughter is a plausible form of women empowerment, but it is telling that the supplies given to her already point to her responsibilities ending at homemaking duties.
A round metallic bracelet, egetinge, is given to the wife and fitted onto her ankle. Its purpose is similar to that of the wedding ring as seen in other communities. It symbolizes the commitment and willingness of the wife to remain in her matrimonial home even after the husband dies. Not even death sets the couple apart. This is philanthropy of eternity to love and marriage. It therefore inherently invokes patience, tolerance, understanding, commitment, and true love in marriage because of this eternal bond.
Through the lead up to as well as the marriage ceremony itself, it is evident that philanthropy is not just about giving money. The scouts helped in the spying for the best potential wife for their friend who had reached the age of marriage. The giving of the table, utensils and chairs to the new couple is philanthropic. The marriage ceremony fostered the spirit of sharing. The egetinge ankle bracelet symbolized a commitment in the marriage that transcended even death. But what is also evident are the negative aspects of male dominance and belittlement of the woman in an occasion that is just as important to her life as it is to her husband’s. There is still a clear sense of dehumanization of the woman.