Traditional courtship and marriage among Bukusu people of Western Kenya.
Written by Timothy Makokha
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Those were the days when marriages were real marriages. Marriages were sacred and respected with utmost respect; cases of separation, infidelity or divorce were unheard of. Parents played a key role when it came to selecting spouses for their children.
Currently, people talk of beauty and freedom of choosing a spouse of his/her own choice. Character was of more value than beauty as people believed that all women are beautiful and the same. Elders believed in a proverb which states; ‘kunaka nikwo kunaka bora kwa pumula’ which means women are good provided they are producing children.
When a young man or lady comes of age, his/her parents will move around to select the most suitable spouse for their child. The mother of the boy will move to negotiate with parents of the girl and say, ‘I have a jembe (embako) without a handle and I have seen a handle in this homestead, can you give it to me?’ The mother will then hide a jembe ‘embako’ in a corner in the house and leave. When the parents of the girl later discover the jembe in a basket ‘endubi’ and they will know the visitor wants them to relate by marriage.
The parents of the girl will discuss the issue and if they agree, the father of the girl will then prepare a handle and fix on the jembe that was brought. Then the mother of the girl will select her fellow women and take the jembe with a handle to the boy’s parents. They are received well and served with the local brew ‘busaa’. The purpose of the local liquor is to make them discuss the marital issue at hand in depth.
Then gifts are sent to the girl’s home regularly to create good relation between them. For example, whenever they slaughter a cow, meat is taken there. Other commodities like honey, milk and groundnuts were also given to the girl and her parents.
History of both parties is investigated to ensure no negative traits. If traits such as witch craft, sorcery, epilepsy, or night running are discovered in the family, marriage arrangements are cancelled.
A team of spies is sent by the girl’s parents to check the wealth of the boy’s home if they are capable. This was to ensure safety of their daughter, as a man with enough wealth is likely to take care of a wife apart from paying dowry.
It reaches a time when a boy is sent early in the morning to go to the girl’s home and assist the girl to slash and dig their farm. The boy would slash as the girl dug the slashed land. This exercise was repeated several times to ensure the girl get used to the boy for them to start a love relationship.
The girl’s parents will then ask for dowry. ‘Ne onula omwana engeso omuwa lusala’ literary it means that if you snatch a sharp object from a child you give her a stick to stop the child from crying. This statement means if you marry a girl you must pay dowry in return.
When both parties are satisfied with the set conditions for marriage, a date is set for paying dowry. A team of young men is sent from the girl’s home to go and collect 13 cows and two goats from the boy’s home. When they reach there, a feast is organized. They are served with meals and then busaa is served.
A boy with bad character could not get a girl from the neighboring villages to marry; he will marry from far land where people do not know his bad behavior. The same applies to the girl with bad character.
For a girl who had given birth at home before marriage, her case was treated separately. If she has a baby boy, her parents will receive dowry less by two cows. But for the one with a baby girl, her parents would be given dowry less by three cows.
When they take off with the animals, they are normally escorted by boys from the man’s home up to their home. On returning the boys who escorted them are given a hen to show the dowry was delivered and accepted.
The cattle given as dowry had meaning in the sense that the first cow is called ‘ekhafu ye khusera’ (a cow for proposing to the girl). The second cow is called ‘ye situru’(meaning a cow for making the breasts of a girl droop/floppy/flat). The third cow is called ‘yembako’ (for the work she is coming to do in her matrimonial home). Fourth is ‘ya khocha’ (for the brother to her mother). The fifth is for ‘lukosi’ (for ones love for his wife). The rest of the animals are for general wealth to the in-laws.
The girl will then select best maids (bakesia) to escort her to her matrimonial home. Only well behaved girls were selected for this purpose. Wedding songs are sung, as people dance, eat and drink busaa. The girl begins her marital life as those who escorted her return to their homes.
Alternatively, if the boy cannot afford the wedding cost he would liaise with parents of the girl and just take her by force. Parents will send the girl for firewood and then sermon the boy to take her from there by force and carry her to his house. He was to be assisted by fellow energetic men, who will then offer security for some days to ensure the girl does not run away.
There were a few cases where a boy would take a girl by force without the consent of her parents. When parents of a girl learn that their daughter is missing, they would look for her and when they find the home where she is staying, they would take cattle by force from the home as pride wealth.
After marriage, the newly married woman is tested by her mother-in-law in the following way. She will be given simsim to fry and grind it on the grinding stone. If she tastes a little of the simsim paste without permission from the mother-in-law, she will be seen as an insincere woman who is likely to eat cooked vegetables in the cooking pot.
After she had finished preparing the simsim paste her-in-law will pretend as if something has fallen in her eye and request her to blow it out, if her breath has traces of simsim smell it will be discovered she ate part of it without permission from her mother-in-law.
After marriage a cultural practice called ‘khutisa’ is carried out. This practice is meant to teach a newly married couple marital affairs. The newly married wife is sent to her parents with a goat, to spend there a night in the company of sisters-in-law.
She is welcomed by her parents who will then instruct one of her aunts to guide her on how to manage her home as a wife and a mother. Virtues of respect, obedience and hard work are passed on to her at this time. A cow or goat is then slaughtered, and part of the meat is given to her to take home. She is also given bananas, maize flour, and cassava flour to take home.
All the food that she returns with is first put in her father –in-law’s house who will then share it out with other relatives. ‘khutisa’ is cultural practice that involves the clan elders of the husband to teach the newly married wife about taboos and other key clan issues. For example a woman is warned not to cook food for her father-in-law when she is in her monthly periods.
In some clans, a piece of goat’s skin called ‘sikhabala’ is put on the wrist of the newly married woman for some time and then it is removed. After removing ‘sikhabala’ from her wrist they will keep it and scare the woman that if she runs away, they will use ‘sikhabala’ to bewitch her. This scares the woman not to escape from her husband’s house and stick to her marriage.
After ‘khutisa’, there is another cultural practice called ‘sitekho’ that a newly married must undergo. This involves the father-in-law inviting his daughter-in-law to have food in his house. After this practice, the father-in-law will be free to eat food from his son’s house.
After ‘sitekho’ the final cultural practice that a wife has to go through is ‘khubowa chinyinja’. The married woman goes to her parent’s home. A cow is slaughtered and part of the meat is taken to her home. One of her aunts is called to give final advice to her. A woman with no negative traits is selected to dress her with new clothes (including inner ones) in her parents’ house; she is again taught how to behave as a mature woman who should also be ready to give advice to the younger generation.
She is then set to return to her home with meat, maize flour, firewood and a cooking stick. All this food is to be put in her house where one of her sister-in-law is invited to cook for them. That food is to be eaten by the two (husband and wife) and nobody else is to taste it. The couple is to eat and finish the food completely. While eating they are supposed to call each other by their sir names while promising an everlasting love for each other. After the meal they are supposed to go intimate and renew their love again in a kind of a honeymoon. Their children are not supposed to witness any of these events.
After undergoing all the three stages, she is said to have been fully married. For instance a woman who has not undergone ‘khubowa chinyinja’ cannot cook for her circumcised children. She is also not to advise her girls when they get married because she has to finish her part before her children go through these practices.
After a man had done all these to his wife, he will have all rights to own her as a wife. Otherwise a man who had not done all the cultural practices concerning marriage cannot take another man to court if the other man had snatched her from him.