African marriage was not a union where the man was superior and where the woman was inferior. No.
The African traditional marriage was an equal partnership between the cattle-keeping male and the grain-planting female. Both of these people needed each other. The woman needed the milk of the man’s cows for her children, and the man needed grain that the woman would plant.
In the language of the Zulu people and other Nguni-speaking people, marriage was called UmNendo. The word UmNendo means ‘a journey without end’
In South Africa, a young husband-to-be, pays nine head of cattle to his in-laws-to-be. Some tribes paid in nine animals skins. Some, especially amongst the Tswana people a blacksmith would pay nine iron hoes to his mother and father-in-law to be.
Why nine? If you realize that symbolism was a very important part of African culture and existence, you will understand this. The cattle that the young man paid were not the price for the woman, but a sharing of wealth, a pledge and bond between the man’s family and the wife’s family and proof that the man was capable of supporting his future wife.
Proof of his sincerity in wanting to forge a lasting bond between the two families, but most importantly of all, the nine head of cattle were, a salutation to his future mother-in-law, in which she was thanked and praised for every one of the months she carried the girl, who was now to be married, as a baby, in her womb.
The lobola was not an exchange it was not a sale. Please understand that. It was something much deeper, holier and much, much more beautiful.
A man knew that throughout out his existence, he was walking a tight-rope and that the chance of his being killed, either in battle or while out hunting, were very, very great and so he had to rely on the woman, upon her love and continuing loyalty to preserve his family when he was gone.
For this reason, Zulu husbands, Basuto husbands, Tswana husbands and the husbands in other tribes throughout our country, used to treat their women with the uttermost respect.
This is why you found the woman sitting alone in her home, in her kraal, bringing up her children, while her husband was away working in the diamond fields and the goldfields, which had now appeared in our history. Sometimes, the man was gone for several years and when he did return, if he returned, he knew his family was intact.
It was not force or intimidation that kept the woman in her home; it was her love for the man who was her husband.
Our people believed that marriage should be accompanied by friendship. Our people believed that a marriage is not an end of a story, but rather a beginning of one and that marriage should not be stiff and unbending, like this stick I am holding, but that it should be as supple as that tree over there and that it should grow, be nourished and allowed to flourish and flower.
In African tradition, a man was not allowed to crush and dominate the woman. Never!
In African tradition a man was not allowed to act unilaterally in the family. Everything he did, he had to do after having obtained his wife’s fullest blessing and permission.
In our tradition you were not allowed to take a second wife, without the permission of your first wife and very often your wife herself went out of her way to find you your second wife.
In African tradition you were not allowed to punish a child, without having first talked with your wife and told her what your child had done and what you thought you would do to the child. The woman had the power to oppose you, if she thought punishing the child would be unjust.
In African tradition, you were not allowed to make love to your wife without her consent. You were not allowed to impregnate your wife, unless she was
willing to receive your seed. In fact there are love letters made out of beads in many museums in South Africa, love letters written by women to their faraway men folk, telling them: ‘I am now ready to conceive our next baby’.
In African tradition you were not allowed to make love to your wife, until you had made her ready for an hour and before that, she had to give her consent, because if you made love to your wife when she was unwilling, the gods and ancestral spirits, hers as well as yours, would put a curse upon the child you had conceived.
According to our people’s tradition a man had to be aware that his wife is his superior, although publicly he might not acknowledge this, privately, in his home this was acknowledged.
When you were courting a girl in old Africa, in the days of my youth, you were not allowed to demand that this girl should accept you quickly. In fact you had to court her for a full two years, before she accepted you. And in this courtship, you were assisted by some of your relatives, as well as some of her relatives, each one of them putting in a good word for you, in her ear and each one of them putting in a good word for her, in your ear.
Even when the girl had finally accepted you and given you the bead necklace of acceptance, the job was far from over. There now came a new stage in your courtship.
You had to know about each other, as much as possible, and here, again, your relatives played a part and her relatives also played a part. The purpose of the whole thing was this. Before you lay together, side by side on the marriage mat, you had to know as much about each other as possible. It was really amazing, the way it was done.
You, the man, had to know everything that your future partner liked and disliked, you had to know even what kind of food she preferred and whether she had a quick temper or a mild temper. You had to know even what dreams she often had, and you had to know what phobias she had, or what traumas, if any, she had had in her life.
If your wife to be had suffered a serious trauma in her childhood, you her future husband had to know about it, so as to know what makes her tick, so to speak. No father-in-law was allowed to accept a son in laws cattle in lobola until he was sure total understanding existed between the future married couple.
Your father-in-law used to ask you: ‘Do you know the girl you are getting married to? Do you know what she likes or does not like? Do you know what her weaknesses as well as her strengths are? Do you know what her vices and her virtues are?’ This was important if the marriage was to be a stable one.
Now comes the time when you are man and wife, you are married and perhaps two or three children have been born. There will come a time in the tenth year of marriage, when you are called upon by your father or your mother, to take a further step in your marriage, a step now when you will marry each other now, no longer as male and female, but rather as intellectual entities with a common interest.
The Zulus insisted that after every tenth year of marriage, one must get to take an important step and transform the marriage, from a mostly sexual union which is driven by lust into something nobler. After I had been married to my present wife for ten years, a brother of my late mother advised me to take the second step in my marriage. People used to try and still try, to eliminate boredom, which is the greatest destroyer of marriages.
In the great second step that the two married people take, they must extend the relationship by discovering each other anew, and furthermore they must try to share the same interest and also perhaps even the same profession.
After I had been married for ten years a brother of my mother, advised me to take the second step, because my marriage was beginning to show signs of disintegrating.
I wondered what I should do and then I asked my wife to undergo training as a traditional healer. At first my wife, a Christian, bitterly opposed my intention, but at long last she, of her own free will, agreed. I had her trained as a sangoma.
This opened a new gateway in our relationship, where, we no longer met as man and wife, as sexual entities.
We then met as intellects, sharing similar interests as sangomas. So she was a sangoma, I was another one and so a new excitement was brought into our lives, which did much to revitalize our flagging relationship. Another ten years went by and we took another step, in which one of my daughters was initiated by her own mother into the mysteries of being a sangoma. This again, added a new dimension to our marriage.
I don’t wish to dwell on the subject, but it serves to illustrate that in African culture you had to work at preserving your marriage. You just did not allow it to stagnate, like old porridge, which soon fermented and became sour.
The reason why modern marriages fall apart, is because people don’t realize, what our forefathers and great grandmothers realized centuries ago, that a marriage is like clay and that you must keep on shaping it, otherwise it shall crack and disintegrate.
In an African marriage divorce was unknown; it was very, very, very rare, because an African marriage was not simply an affair of two people. An African marriage was part and parcel of the extended family. It had support from both sides, the young man’s side and the young girl’s side.
If any problems arose in an African marriage, they were quickly sorted out by the relatives of either the man or the woman. There was a special relative whose duty it was, to sort out any problems that may arise between the man and the wife and also between the man and the woman and any children that they may bear. This was the Malume, the brother of the wife.
Many people misunderstand many things the Africans did and when some people talk, it is as if things like family planning were unknown to our people.
They were in fact.
An African woman was forced by law, to breastfeed her child for a full eighteen months and she was not to conceive until a space of a full two years existed, between one child and the next. And the same laws bound the men.
Many Africans take many wives and Christians, in their ignorance, frown upon this. In fact polygamy was the first thing that Christians crushed in African society.
African polygamy should never be equated with European or Middle-Eastern polygamy. In African polygamy, a number of women were tied down to one man, who could not, no matter how virile he might be, impregnate them all, considering that he was restrained by the many taboos that governed African married life.
There were two types of polygamy. There was the type known as isigotlo and there was the type known as isitembu
The isigotlo was a harem, pure and simple, where many women lived in one place with one husband, but the isitembu was different and this was the thing that our people favoured over the isigotlo.
In the isitembu, each woman has her own hut, her own mealie fields, her own cattle her own goats, so that, should the man die, the woman remained independent.
With the Zulu kings who favoured the isitembu polygamy, each woman had their own battle regiments. Warriors who were sworn to obey her and whom she could use to attack the other wives if she saw fit. So the isitembu type of polygamy made each woman an independent entity whose survival was ensured even if her husband died.
I have said that an African husband was not allowed to fertilize his wives without their consent. An African husband was not allowed to impregnate his wife, until a space of two years had expired between the birth of one child and the conception of the next.
So, surrounded by all these rather draconic laws and taboos, what was the poor stiff going to do, in order to get rid of the great amount of living fuel that built up during this enforced celibacy? The answer is very simple.
If you had five wives, only two of your wives had to be childbearing wives. The rest had to be sterile. Why? It was to these wives that you crawled, cap in hand so to speak, if you wanted a little to-ing and fro-ing which would not result in anything being conceived. These were isinyumba, a term which means more than sterile or childless woman.
If I had childbearing wives, whom I was forced to impregnate only under very strict laws, I could not just go outside my home and commit adultery. I would end up as food for the crocodiles, because the law was very strict on transgressors of married law. So in my home there were one or two women whom I knew were incapable of bearing children.
The fact that they were sterile did not mean a lack of respect – far from it. They were my honoured wives whom I treated with all the respect with which I treated my fertile wives.
Sometimes my fertile wives would give children to infertile wives, so that nobody knew who was fertile and who was sterile in my home. This custom of a mother giving her child to be brought up by a foster mother, usually her husband’s other wife, is still carried on today in many tribes in South Africa.
Honourable ones, our people in Africa tried to create the ideal marriage, a marriage in which adultery and jealousy were unknown, a marriage where people were welded together by something organic and alive and not something stiff and monolithic.
In the African marriage if have said again and again the man and woman were equals, she seeing to the grains and he seeing to the livestock. Marriage was a wonderful partnership between the shepherd and the gardener, between the cowherd and the plougher of the earth.
Our people practiced the laws of love, the laws of doing to others, what they wished to be done unto them. Our people believed that love, understanding and respect are the three legs upon which the stool of the nation rested.