Ritual - The Cost of Plurality of Wives
The etiquette of marriage in this South African tribe differs in some extraordinary instances from the customs with which we are familiar in Europe. A third party arranges the union, and a great deal of bargaining is incidental to it. This is usually the case with savage tribes. But though the parents of the bride accept handsome presents on her marriage, it is etiquette to regard these as a pledge of good behaviour on the part of the husband. This is not the only tribe that draws this nice distinction between what might be called the sale of a girl and the equivalent given by the bridegroom for taking her from the parental home. At the same time, the impango, as it is called, is a necessary condition of marriage.
Nowhere in the world is there greater strictness in the bringing up of a girl child than in Awemba. The mother whose daughter is disobedient finds that she herself is held responsible. Consequently, she is severe with her girl children from their earliest childhood. Yet this severity is in contrast with the custom of allowing the young couple to live together for some time before the actual marriage takes place, platonic friendship subsisting during this preliminary period.
The time for the marriage settled, the girl leaves her bridegroom's hut, and returns to her mother. This is followed by festivities, which last for several weeks, including dancing, music, and some obscure religious rites. During all this time the unfortunate bride has to remain hidden away in her mother's hut, and go through a number of trials, which have, perhaps, the object of rendering her impatient for the end of this period of unhappiness, and anxious for the wedding-day.
Among the ordeals to which she is subject is the wearing of a crown of thorns. She has constantly to jump over stools, and at night is terrified by a man outside the hut imitating the roar of a lion. The actual object of these various tests of her fortitude and energy appears a little difficult to understand, but at least she learns to be frightened without screaming, and to acquire agility in jumping - though why this latter should be an essential of married happiness is known only to the tribe itself.
At the end of a month or five weeks the festivities are interrupted by the appearance of the bridegroom, with bow and arrow, at the door of the hut. He asks : "Where is my game ? " looks round, and finds a small target with a black dot in the centre. He shoots, and if his arrow reaches the mark, he dances with joy. If he misses, the women assembled all pinch him. One can imagine that he is very careful to practise diligently before the day arrives.
After this the bride enters on another period of seclusion, jumping over stools, and being frightened by the simulated roar of a lion. This lasts for a month, and then the couple bathe in the nearest stream. Then they return to the bridegroom's home, their friends and acquaintances bringing presents of beads to the bridegroom, and of flour to the bride. The first two days together are filled with ceremonial, some of it of a curious kind. The bride shuts herself into the hut while the bridegroom visits the surrounding villages, begging beads and arrow-heads, which he presents to the parents of the bride.
A curious little ceremonial marks the conclusion of his tour. Returning to his home, he puts a maize-cob at the end of his spear. The bride, previously warned of his approach, appears at the door. He rushes at her with the weapon in his hand. She backs into the hut, and closes the door. He bangs at it, and then goes off for more dancing and feasting. Next day the bridegroom is shaved, and most of his curls are cut away and brushed with a zebra's tail, the cut hair being placed in a basket, and put in some secret place. This ceremony of shaving and cutting the hair is repeated four times. At the end of each performance with the scissors, the groom turns to the bride, who then stands up (having left her hut for the first time), and places his foot on hers. He then takes a stick from his mother-in-law, and touches the bride with it.
The mother-in-law takes off his head-dress, and stretches a mat before him, on which the bride sits, supporting the bridegroom on her knees, the father-in-law making a long speech the while, and giving the bridegroom an arrow. This arrow is kept, and returned in the event of divorce.
As is the case with several other nations, the bride is condemned to silence for a whole day, and must not break it on any account until the bridegroom gives her a present.
These ceremonies are observed upon only the first two marriages of an Awemba husband. They appear to be entirely dispensed with in the case of the third, fourth, or fifth wife. But if the gentleman requires more than two ladies, he has to provide a separate hut for all but the first two. Should he become a widower, the sister of his dead wife, or her nearest female relative, takes her place. Should no near relative of the late wife be old enough, the father-in-law provides a substitute as housekeeper for the bereaved widower, and when the sister-in-law is old enough she takes this housekeeper's place.
The widower puts beer on his wife's grave, and then walks in the garden with his new wife. On entering his hut she sits down on a mat, taking the man on her knees, to show that she is henceforth his, and the people dance round them. This constitutes the new marriage.
Divorce is not frequent, but separation is easily arranged. There are few widows in Awemba, as a widow is theoretically the wife of the next heir.