MARRIAGE in Ghana
The Ghana Law Reform Commission established in 1968 was given the task of reviewing statutory and customary laws and suggesting reforms. Its first programme identified inheritance and marriage law as among the main areas requiring attention. Among the successes of the Commission are counted the Maintenance of Children Decree 1977 and Intestate Succession Law 1985. The Maintenance of Children Decree establishes Family Tribunals to hear complaints about maintenance of children during the subsistence of marriage and after divorce. The Intestate Succession Law provides protection for children in communities where they are not entitled to shares of their deceased parentsestates. The unification of family laws was identified in its 1996 report as a goal of the Commission. To that end, the Commission outlined a plan to assess the application and efficacy of existing legislation through questionnaires to be drafted in co-ordination with womens groups and NGOs.
In Ghana, marriage is constructed according to the custom of ethnic group of which the couple live. Usually this includes a religious ceremony and a civic registration ceremony commonly known as a wedding. Generally, marriage in Ghana is recognized as a union between a man and a woman with the knowledge of both families of the bride and the groom. In the Volta region of Ghana area, marriage is a union between a man and a woman who agree to live together as husband and wife and have gone through all procedures recognized in the society for such a purpose.
In Ghana, the purpose of marriage is to provide companionship for the couple, the means to offer support for each other, and a legitimate avenue for sexual satisfaction and reproduction. Marriage is usually a group affair which involves not only the immediate relatives of the couple but more distant kin folk.
However, in selecting and accepting a potential spouse, certain important conditions have to be met. Members of each family are screened for incurable or contagious diseases, criminal backgrounds, violent behavior, respectfulness, employment status or standard of living, and religious background. Generally, many Ghanaians prefer a spouse who is hardworking and respectful, peaceful (not violent or do not advocate violence), and of the same or compatible religious background. Christians and Muslims do not generally intermarry. However, conversions from one religion to another is preferable prior to marriage.
There are three-(3) primary criteria in classifying the marriage process in Ghana:
Customary marriageCivic RegistrationReligious marriage
The Islamic marriage ceremony conforms to the Islamic law and traditions. According to Muslim traditions, parents arrange a suitable partner. Compatibility is not considered important, the choice is entirely in the parents hand.
Religious marriage involves administration of the marital union by a Priest, religious minister or Imam. However, the customary marriage and the registration of the marriage in the court or district metropolitan assembly should occur before Christians marry.
Customary marriage forms the basis of all three-(3) types. Inquiries are made by both families to ensure the the family of the prospective son-in-law or daughter-in-law is respected. Usually violent behavior, immorality, witch craft, incurable or contagious diseases, and insanity in a family are not approved. The customary rites or marriage ceremony, as practiced by the woman’s ethnic group, are performed by the man’s head of family, by the father or uncle or any member of the family who is recognized by the community as honorable.
Presentation and acceptance of drinks and gifts known as dowry bride wealth signifies the consent of family members to the marriage. It is also a sign or a token of support for the marriage and is used to compensate the parent for the loss of the services of their daughter. The dowry or the bride wealth does not represent the prize at which the woman has been sold to the man.
Customary marriages differ among societies. Despite the differences, drinks and cash are widely used. Although cash is involved in the northern part of Ghana, drinks and cola are also used. One characteristic of customary marriage is that it allows polygamy thus it allows the man to marry more than one woman. However, Christians who complete a religious marriage usually abide by the biblical principle of “one man one wife”.
After initiation rites, a person is ready to marry. Marriage is a very important stage in the life of the Ghanaian. The main aims of getting married is to have children. This is why child-bearing is stressed throughout the initiation rites.
There are different ways of choosing partners. For example, in some communities, parents choose partners for their children. When a father feels that his son is ready for marriage, he finds a suitable wife for him.
In the past, most parents betrothed their daughters before thy were old enough to marry. Nowadays, parents who choose partners for their children seek the children’s consent first. In some cases too, the young people make their own choice and inform their parents. It is the customary practice for a man to seek the hands of a woman in marriage. In most communities it is a taboo for a woman to propose love and marriage to a man.
In our traditional set-up, marriage involves the man and the woman concerned as well as their families. Before the marriage, most families try to investigate each other’s family background. They do this to find out if there is anything that will prevent a successful marriage. They investigate to find out answers to questions such as these:
(a) Are there any communicable or hereditary diseases like tuberculosis (T.B.), leprosy, insanity, or
epilepsy in the family?
(b) Had there been any criminal record, e.g., murder or stealing?
(c) Is the family quarrelsome?
(d) Is the woman lazy?
(e) Can the man look after a wife?
It is only after both families are satisfied with their investigations that the marriage can be allowed.
In all communities in Ghana, there is the custom of giving gifts to the bride’s family, especially the mother. There is also a presentation of drinks and an amount of money, but the money involved differs from community to community. The gifts to the bride’s family by the bridegroom show his gratitude for allowing their daughter to be part of his (the bridegroom’s) family. The customary drink, the “ti-nsa” (head wine) of the Akan which is presented by the bridegroom seals the marriage. When there is a divorce, an arbitration decides whether a bride-wealth paid by the bridegroom should be returned to him or not.
Let us now look at how some communities perform their marriage rites.
Marriage among the Ewe:
Among the Ewe, when a man is ready to marry, a pot of palm wine is sent to the girl’s father. This is done by the man’s paternal and maternal aunts to inform the girl’s parents of their intentions. The first presentation of drink is known as “vofofo” (knocking ceremony). After the girl’s parents have been informed in this way, they ask the messengers to come after a week or two for the answer. The period allows them time to consider their request and to make enquiries about the man and his family. When the girl’s parents are satisfied with the man’s conduct and background, they allow them to perform the necessary marriage rites.
Among some Ewe communities, when the girl’s parents give their consent, the boy’s parents send a pot of palm wine to the family head to thank them. This is known as “akpedaha” (thanksgiving drink). In the past, after the “akpedaha,” the man helped his in-laws on their farms, mended their roofs, and cut firewood for them. This practice is also known as “sagolabla” (service to your in-laws).
Among the Anlo, when the girl’s parents agree to the marriage, the bridegroom pays a volanu (knocking fee). This consists of two bottles of local or imported gin. A date is then fixed for the marriage ceremony.
On the appointed day, they all assemble in the girl’s family head’s house. The man gives them a big pot of palm wine, two bottles of schnapps or local gin and a bundle of tobacco. In addition he provides a large trunk which contains items of clothing and other things for the wife. When the girl’s family inspects and accepts the items, “sronu tabianu,” the bride-wealth is paid to end the ceremony. The amount paid differs from community to community. After this, a date is fixed for the wife to join her husband.
Before the bride joins the husband, a short prayer is said to the ancestors asking for their blessings for the couple. After the prayer, she is taken away by the husband’s aunts accompanied by her own aunts.
On her arrival, she is warmly received by the bride-groom’s father. Here, the couple are advised again to live peacefully. After this, the family head pours libation asking for a successful marriage.
Marriage among some Communities in Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana:
Marriage ceremonies among most ethnic groups in the Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana seem to be the same. When a man wants a wife, he starts giving the girl gifts. The gifts are usually in the form of money, handkerchiefs, towels, etc. If she accepts the gifts, then they become lovers.
Occasionally, the man presents gifts to the girl’s family, especially the mother. The gifts usually differ from community to community. They can be yams, meat, cola, tobacco, drinks, and sometimes money. Sometimes, items like leather bags, calabashes, and combs are given. These gifts could be given out on behalf of the man by a relative. The presentation of the gifts is to make the girl’s family recognize the man as a would-be son-in-law. Among the Gonja, the man can provide the girl with yams from his farm and meat from his traps while they are still lovers.
When the man is ready to perform the marriage rites, he informs the girl’s parents and a day is fixed for the ceremony. On that day, the man’s father sends the bride price. In some communities, kola nuts and money would be sent to the girl’s parents. She is then called and asked three times whether she likes to marry the man. If she agrees, then, the kola nuts are distributed among those present. Each of them takes a bite to show their approval. The money is shared among members of the girl’s family. The sharing of the money indicates that they are all witnesses to the marriage ceremony.
Among some communities such as the Frafra, Mamprusi, Dagomba, and Kusasi, the bridegroom pays a bride price with cows. The number of cows is determined by the community. The man has to give that number before the girl becomes the “proper” wife.
A day is fixed for the bride to go to her husband’s house. In some communities like the Sisala, the bride is accompanied by a sister who stays with her for a few months. The Gonja make such fun of the taking away of the girl because on this day, a group of youth pretend to seize the girl. The girl should struggle and weep to show that she does not want to leave her people. When she is taken to the husband’s house, she is given to an elderly woman who takes care of her for seven days. She is, however, visited by her husband and his friends. During this period, she is shown the husband’s farm and all the things he owns. She is not given her own place such as a kitchen, until the husband’s parents are sure she can stay with them.
Marriage among the Akan:
A man who wishes to marry, first discusses the intentions with the girl concerned. He has to make sure the girl will agree to marry him before he informs his parents. Finding out through secret meetings if they will marry each other is known as “kasasie.” The man then tells his mother or an elderly person about his intentions. His mother or the elderly person will in turn inform his father. If the mother feels that the marriage will not be possible for some reason, she will discourage him. When the father agrees, an investigation will immediately start into the girl’s conduct and family background.
When the boy’s parents are satisfied the father, through a delegation, informs the girl’s parents about his son’s intention. This information is known as ‘abowmu bodze’ or ‘opon-akyi bo’ (knocking ceremony). The announcement is made with a pot of palm wine or a bottle of schnapps. Some amount of money is added to the drink. The amount paid differs from community to community. The man may add some extra money to whatever custom demands. This is usually to impress his in-laws that he can really look after their daughter. In some communities, this money is regarded as a “token gift” for the girl’s mother.
The girl’s parents ask them to go back and come later for an answer. This enables them to find out if their daughter agrees to the marriage. They also investigate the boy’s conduct and family background. When they are satisfied, word is sent to the man’s family to come forward. It is the custom for a father to pay for the marriage expenses of a son. But these days, most young men give the money to their fathers for the marriage rites.
The father sends a message to the girl’s parents to inform them of the date for the rites. Both parents inform their maternal relatives to send their representative to the ceremony. On the appointed date, the man’s father sends a delegation to perform the rites. The important part of the ceremony is the offering of drinks known as “tiri nsa” (head drinks). In the past, it used to be palm wine, but now it is schnapps. The “tiri nsa” traditionally seals the marriage. Some money is added to the drink. The amount of money given differs from community to community. There is also a customary fee charged to be given to the girl’s mother. Her brothers too are given some money known as “akontagye sekan.” Before the payment of the customary drinks and the fee, the girl is formally called before the gathering to give her final consent to the marriage.
After accepting everything, the girl’s family head pours libation asking for protection and blessings for the new couple. He also prays that the marriage should be blessed with children. The rest of the drink is shared among all the people present to signify that they are all witnesses to the marriage. Pieces of advice are then given to the couple. The man can then fix a day to take his wife home.
There is another important rite which can be performed on the same day or at any time in their married life. It is an amount of money which is known as ‘ti-aseda’ or ‘ti-ade’ paid to the girl’s family. This is what might be termed ‘bride wealth.’ Nowadays, ‘ti-aseda’ is usually to show the man’s appreciation to the girl’s family for giving their daughter away. In the past, the girl’s family used this amount to pay any debt in the family. They believed that using that money to pay such a family debt would give her the peace of mind to enjoy her married life. Where there was no such debt, it was used to buy some property, e.g., a land or a farm for her and her future children. If there was a divorce, the husband could claim the ‘ti-aseda’ or ‘ti-ade’ from the wife’s family.
A day is fixed for taking the bride away to her husband. The bridegroom sends a pot of palm wine or a bottle of schnapps to the bride’s father for permission to take away his wife. The head of family pours libation with it and blesses the couple again.
On reaching her husband’s home, the husband provides her with food items to prepare a special meal for relatives, friends, and himself. This special meal is known as ‘osenka’ or ‘aduane kese’ (wedding feast). It is a marriage feast which is followed by jubilation. Traditionally, the “osenka” was prepared in the bride’s home and sent to the bridegroom’s house where it was shared among relations and friends.
Changes in Traditional Marriages:
Nowadays, most of the customs connected with traditional marriages are disappearing. Formal education, Christianity, Islam, and other religions have influenced the marriage ceremony. For instance, most parents no longer wait for the husband to provide a trunk full of the wife’s clothing before they allow her to join her husband. Also in the Northern and Upper Regions where more than one cow is demanded, the number has now been reduced to enable more young men to marry.
Another change is that since most young people now work outside their hometowns and villages, the bride is not sent to the bridegroom’s house by her aunts or relatives. Instead, the man arranges for his wife to join him at his station. Some Christian and other religious groups as well as some educated people, after the customary rites, have weddings.
Nowadays, a Bible and a ring are added to the items presented to a Christian or educated woman at the “knocking” ceremony. The engagement ring is supposed to keep away other suitors. If for any reason the marriage does not take place, the engagement ring and the Bible are returned to him.