Marriages across cultures: Part 1

July 19, 2013 

The past six weeks gave me the opportunity to attend four different weddings. It was at these marriages that I learned about the months of May-July being the “Wedding Season.” To paraphrase John. Beaudoin, that was “news to me.” You may be immersed in a culture/language for decades and still miss a few clues about it.

Last weekend, while the newly married couple were taking hundreds of pictures of themselves, conversations went on among invitees about why the rates of divorce was so high in the U.S. compared to other industrialized countries.

The lifelong probability of a marriage ending in divorce is 40 to 50 percent according to National Survey of Family Growth in 2012. At another wedding, someone was proudly sharing events of his fourth wedding but was still not in a marriage. I guess some people love weddings but hate marriages.

While I could not explain why the divorce rate was so high in the U.S., I shared with others how my wife and I got married in the Bamileke tribe culture in West Cameroon. No, not what you are thinking; our marriage was not prearranged.

We met while in college. To be husband and wife, we went through three marriages in a period of 10 months before we were fully married: the traditional marriage, the civil or official marriage and the religious marriage.

The Traditional Marriage – My father, a few uncles and friends of my parents took me to my wife’s village about 50 miles away. My family team of about a dozen people met with equal number of people from my wife’s side. By tradition, both our mothers did not attend.

The talks started around 7 p.m. that Friday night with the revealing of the results of the “background checks” previously conducted for months by both families on each others’ extended relatives. During their investigation, my future wife’s family had found out about a certain sin against the community that my great-great-grandfather had committed a couple hundred years ago. They wanted an explanation. I had no idea what that long-gone relative may have done.

One of my uncles knew about it and provided an explanation. He also detailed plans for me to avoid that situation to occur while I am married to my wife. It was found that there were no wife-beaters in my family. Our men were known for taking good care of children even those who were not theirs. That was a big plus on our behalf.

There was no witchcraft or sterility on the girl’s side. On the contrary, women in my future wife’s family had the unique reputation of being very fertile, including twins. That was a good thing. That fact alone made her a very expensive woman; fortunately we were able to afford her. In the long run it paid off; she ended up giving my family and me a set of twin girls.

Since everything was so wonderful on both sides, the talking points did not last too long and we were able to conclude the negotiations leading to the payment of the dowery around 4 a.m. the next day.

Prior to European colonization in Africa, the traditional marriage was the only marriage that our parents knew and went through. No paperwork was signed. Everything was done by oral agreement and based on trust. The key recommendation always given to future spouses is for both to come back and gather both families together again and ask for permission to separate in case they want to divorce. Failure to gather all these people will mean that you are still married in the eyes of the family.

Part II of this article will provide details on the process of the Civil or Official Marriage, and the Religious Marriage that occurred 10 months after our traditional marriage.

Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D. is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He consults and coaches on cultures, cultural diversity and languages. He can be reached at

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