Marriages across cultures: Part 2

July 30, 2013 

Part 1 of this article provided some understanding of how traditional marriage in some parts of Africa is a union between two families. That union is acceptable only after a lengthy background check over generations on both families.

As it is the custom, ours too ended with the sharing of the Kola nut which symbolizes the couple’s willingness to always heal and serve each other. The ceremony is not complete until a Kola nut is shared between the couple and their relatives. In the case of our wedding, the traditional marriage was only the first step of three that led to us being able to live together as married couple.

The second stage was the civil or administrative marriage. After verification that both families had blessed our traditional marriage, the city hall published our intention to get married in the City Official Civil Registry and publicized it through all the means available for 30 days. Publishing the marriage gives the opportunity to whoever may have paid an entire or part of a dowry to the parents of the bride to come forward with their claim and eventually being reimbursed. In our case, not one complaint was brought forth. The marriage went forward. The mayor officiated the wedding in about two hours during which he preached and warned us about separation and divorce. He echoed the recommendations of the families during the traditional gathering.

The most important and sensitive part of this ceremony comes when the mayor asks what status the couple wants for the rest of their life: Polygamy or monogamy. The agreed upon choice is written in caps and in red on the marriage certificate to avoid any misunderstanding in case one of the partners changes their mind down the road. The mayor will send the couple back to rethink their status if there is a disagreement, and the wedding will not be concluded. In most African cultures, polygamy is culturally, socially and legally accepted.

The civil marriage was introduced by European colonization of the continent. With a signed “marriage certificate” this marriage validates the union between a man and a woman. Among other advantages, it allows the woman to carry her husband’s name, the parents to enroll children in school and the couple to claim taxes.

Ten months after the civilian marriage, we approached the church to ask for God’s blessings of our union. A civil marriage certificate is required for the church to accept to conduct the wedding. The marriage again had to be publicized for three months to make sure that there was no disagreement from anyone in the community.

Because I grew up as a Catholic and my wife a Protestant, both a Catholic priest and a pastor officiated our religious wedding. The ceremony took about three hours. Each of the religious leaders repeated a lot of the same warnings that were preached during the traditional and official marriages: taking good care of each other, having a lot of children, taking good care of children, respect and obey all the in-laws on both sides and all the like advice.

Different to the tradition in Western cultures, our “rite of marriage” did not provide an option for the typical words of consent. We were not asked if we loved each other nor if we wanted to marry each other. This was a given. Therefore there was no need for us to declare, “I do.”

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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