Marriage for Women, Jobs for Men
The nuclear family, with or without one or two additional relatives, is the household unit for most Swahili. The beginning of these families, marriage, is considered the key event in the individual's entrance into adulthood. There are virtually no women who fail to marry at least once, and only very few men remain single. Such unmarried men are viewed as, at best, impotent and, quite likely, the passive partner in homosexuality (mshoga or hanithi ).
Women who have never married are considered extremely unfortunate and, until the last few decades, denied the company of married women other than their mothers and sisters lest they hear talk of marital sex and be stimulated to improper behavior. In fact, the young women I have been able to interview are unanimous in saying they want to marry. Without exception, the single girls and young woman I talked to told me that the most important thing that would happen to her, and the thing she looked forward to most, is getting married. The reason given for this was invariably that in getting married, she would begin her own life, have her own home, and become independent.
Every boy and young man I asked told me that the most important thing that would happen to him in the foreseeable future was to get a job. Just as marriage is said by women to bring them independence, employment is cited by men as the source of their independence. The men say this comes through escape from the father's financial control and with this, as many note, the ability to marry and found a family.
Arranged First Marriages
Informants of both sexes say that their first marriage was or will be in large part determined by the wishes of their families. Repeatedly, this was characterized as a community "custom" (mila or desturi ), or, sometimes, a Muslim custom, that has been followed by many previous generations. The mother and father are identified as the main actors in marriage arrangements, but older siblings, especially brothers, were sometimes said to be extremely influential. I know of two cases in which wedding plans agreed to by parents were affected by objections to the groom by the prospective bride's older brother.
There is no disagreement among informants about the desirability of arranged marriages, and many of them talk as though all marriages, at least first marriages, are, in fact, arranged. This, however, proves to be one of those statements (a "token" in the sense explained in chap. 6) that reflect something other than observable reality. When specifically asked, informants all agree that there are, in fact, children who want to marry someone not chosen by their parents. When the child is very insistent, informants say, it
is better to accept his or her choice than to be shamed by the child running off and marrying without parental approval.
Some informants say that marriage on the basis of the choice of those being married is much more common now than it was even as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, and this may well be so. However, having encountered a few middle-aged and even elderly men and women long married to non-Swahili, I discovered that although a few external marriages are, in fact, arranged, these are mainly with outside men who are either rich or prestigious. Such cases involved Arabs or European men converted to Islam and local women whose parents accepted the proposal of the outsider man.
Such marriages to prestigious outsiders, although not common by any means, seem to have been occurring for several generations at least. Obviously, the families that claim Omani forebears and who claim ties with well-established Swahili mbari (the now mainly forgotten collections of families) through their mothers must have involved extracommunity marriages that took place many generations ago. It seems very likely that these are of the same sort as those now involving rich Arabs and European Muslims.
Occasionally, a marriage is arranged between Muslims of ordinary prestige from outside the community and community women. In all the instances of such marriages involving a woman from a family of waungwana (i.e., a family without known slave forebears) I could find (a total of 11), the woman's family was poor and the man was from another Muslim Mombasa group. In most of these cases (7), the man was ethnically a Hadhrami Arab, but there were cases where the groom was Indian (3) or from another African group (1).
These marriages seem to be faut de mieux . If both families are poor and neither partner has prospects of a marriage that will provide much in the way of wealth or prestige, informants agree that any marriage, so long as it is to a Muslim, is better than no marriage, especially if the union does not involve someone believed to have one or more slave forebears.
All the first marriages involving more prosperous families that I could get information about were arranged and were either within the community or between a woman from the community and a man who was a Persian Gulf Arab, an Islamicized European or American, or from another Swahili group elsewhere on the East African coast or offshore islands.
When the proposed marriage is between kin, the negotiations described below are truncated and more informal than when the proposal and its acceptance involves a nonrelative. If the parents of the couple are close kin (and occasionally they are siblings or the children of siblings), much formality and consultation can be dispensed with since everyone involved knows all the others quite well and since the interests of both parties are much more nearly identical. As the kin relationship between the parents is more and more distant, the marriage decision is more and more like that concerning a nonrelative.
The initiative in arranging a marriage is with the prospective groom's relatives. The decision about which woman should be proposed to (posa [v.] is "propose") is made jointly by the groom's family, with all adult members having a say. The decision is sometimes said to be that of the father and the groom's adult brothers, but all agree that the mother and adult sisters play a key role in providing information about the prospective bride and her family and that their views, especially the mother's, are extremely influential. There are, I have been told, marriages in which the father extended a proposal even though his wife, the groom's mother, disagreed, but such events are said to be rare. Hardly less rare are mothers who convince their husbands, the fathers, to extend proposals the latter strongly resists.
The prospective groom himself often plays an active role in the decisions concerning his prospective marriage even though he usually hardly knows the prospective bride before the wedding. Until the last decade or two, the groom had not normally seen his bride until the wedding night, but now he has often seen her at school and may, in these days of greater mobility and less supervision for young women, know her rather well from meetings at school and in the neighborhood.
Sometimes the young man instigates his family's discussions of his marriage proposal by telling his father and mother that he would like to marry and is particularly interested in the young woman he names who, normally, he has met at school or seen in the neighborhood. The young man's preference is taken very seriously and overridden only if there are compelling reasons for doing so (of the sort indicated below). It is widely understood that young people "these days" (siku hizi , a phrase one hears a good deal when discussing marriage and young people in general) cannot be made to do things they do not want to do, and if the attempt is made, painful consequences (even elopement, a very rare occurrence) may eventuate.
In addition to the prospective groom and his resident nuclear family, other household members (including nonnuclear family kin) are ideally and usually consulted in a serious way, and, in some families, so are senior kin (especially grandparents on both sides and parents' siblings) and parents' siblings who do not live in the household. When kin other than those in the groom's nuclear family are involved, unless one of his parents is missing (through death or divorce), their participation is generally more a matter of form than of substance, although sometimes they will be asked to accompany the father and brothers to the young woman's house when the proposal is actually made. As a friend told me about notifying his son's mother's (my friend's wife) parents of the decision to propose marriage to a particular young woman's family, "We ask them, but really it is only notifying them."
Even though it is almost entirely a matter of form, consulting kin about a marriage proposal is very important to continued peaceful relations between those involved. When people who consider themselves descended from a
common forebear on either side are not notified about a prospective proposal concerning someone they view as a kinsman (or kinswoman after the proposal has been made and is being considered), they may view themselves as having been offended. In one instance I know of, a man—who was generally viewed as rather quarrelsome—was enraged at not being told of a proposal involving someone whom he said was his kinsman until he heard the wedding was about to take place. "They throw me away," he said. "They don't want me because I am poor." He was, in fact, not particularly poor, and one suspects he made that statement to impute the basest motive he could to people whom he considered kin but did not, in his view, treat him accordingly.
Once a choice has been made, one or more men from the groom's family (sometimes including kin from beyond the nuclear family) call on the men of the bride's nuclear family to make the marriage proposal. When the proposal is made by several men from the groom's family, ideally and typically led by his father or, if he is dead or incapacitated, by the young man's adult oldest brother, it is viewed as more prestigious for the bride's family and more difficult for them to reject.
The proposal is made to the prospective bride's father or, again, if he is dead, to the young woman's oldest brother. The prospective bride, as well as the other women of the household, are never present when the proposal is made. The man with authority over the prospective bride has formal authority to accept or reject the proposal, but, in fact, he should and, informants say, always does consult other family members before making a decision. The consultation follows the same lines and concerns the same kin as are involved in the decision by the groom's family to extend the proposal.
Similarly, the young woman's own views are considered by her family much as the young man's are by his. I heard of no marriage initiated by the bride, but her wishes are taken seriously. She cannot get her family to initiate a proposal, but her preference in accepting or rejecting one is never lightly dismissed. At a first marriage, the Swahili believe that, in accord with Koranic law, the bride need not actively assent to the match proposed to her. However, should she explicitly refuse by telling her parents she will not accept the marriage, it will not take place. Although some men and women say that young women only rarely reject the decision of their parents, siblings, and other kin, I know of at least two cases (and suspect there are an unknown number I did not find out about) in which marriages did not take place because the prospective bride did not want to marry the man for whom the proposal was made.
Selecting the Families of Those Who are to Marry
A central factor in the extending or accepting of a marriage proposal is the view that the two families have of each other's standing as waungwana
(nobles). The suspicion of the existence of a slave forebear, which, as noted previously, bars the object of suspicion from the muungwana status, will almost invariably put the suspected family beyond consideration save by families who are themselves suspect.
The Swahili follow the Shafi canon of Sunni Islam, and that canon, informants tell me, requires that those to be married be kufu . This means that they must be of the same "tribe," the term used for this by English-speaking informants but probably referring in some part to prestige and economic standing. An informant told me that the founder of Shafi said that the child of a religious judge (kadhi) should not marry the child of a blacksmith.
Just all of what is involved in kufu is not entirely clear, since, as seen, Swahili do marry people from other ethnic groups, but community members agree that a proposed marriage can be rejected if the proposed partners are not kufu. At the same time it is also agreed that a rejection on such grounds is the most insulting possible. This suggests that objections based in kufu are at least sometimes used as a way of saying the proposer is not a muungwana, a person of undoubted free birth, or, at least, is of such low station as to be unworthy.
The economic situation of the two families is important to those involved, and although each generally prefers, pari pasu, the other to be equal or somewhat more financially secure, only extreme poverty is a likely source of serious objection to the marriage. The prestige of the occupations has significance in itself, with highly remunerative but low-prestige positions less desirable than less remunerative but more admired ones.
The significance of kufu, equality, is seen in some uses of kin terms for nonkin. Women, usually of different generations, who are fond of one another sometimes address one another as mavya, a reciprocal term for husband's mother and son's wife, even if the actual relationship does not exist. The term, it was explained to me, is a friendly one asserting the equality of the women and the propriety of a marriage that would unite them in the relationship it indicates. Similarly, women fondly call boys of their daughter's age Bamkwe (a contraction of "Bwana Mkwe," where "mkwe" is a reciprocal term for spouse's parents and child's spouse), even if the boys are young children.
Birth and economic status are by no means the only basis for evaluating marriage proposals. The suspicion of serious, unacceptable behavior or character traits on the part of either of the young people will bring the other family to oppose the marriage. If the young woman is thought to have a quarrelsome or difficult character or if her association with the other sex is thought to have been too free, the proposal is unlikely to be made by the groom's family.
Rejecting or Not Extending Proposals
The most common objections leading the woman's family to reject the proposal from an otherwise acceptable family are that the young man drinks
alcohol or smokes bhang (marijuana), has engaged in passive homosexual behavior, is a brawler and troublemaker (mhuni ), or has no economic prospects because of a poor school record or poor work history. Respectful behavior toward others, especially seniors, is considered important for both the bride and the groom, but it is mainly young men who are found deficient in this quality. Informants say that "these days" this proper respect from the young is so rare that even quite disrespectful young men must be accepted if one's daughter is to marry at all.
In one case I am familiar with, the prospective bride's older brother, although absent from Old Town (he had a job in Europe) and not the one seen as having authority over her, nearly succeeded in blocking the acceptance of a proposal because he suspected that the young man (who had an unusual manner) was a passive homosexual. The wedding only took place after the bride's grandmother (her father and mother were both dead), with the help of other relatives including the grandmother's brother, convinced the brother to withdraw his threat to stay away from the wedding and not to contribute to its very substantial cost.
Suspicious that young women have any association with unrelated males, other than the most transitory ones at school, or have excessive interest in sex are taken very seriously. An mkware (a woman with strong and active interest in sex) is considered a splendid mistress but a risky wife. Young women suspected of this quality are by no means favored by families as prospective wives for their sons or brothers. Laziness, however, seems to be the character trait that most often leads members of the groom's family to oppose extending a proposal.
I have been told that a bad reputation for any of the members of the family of the groom can lead to hesitance on the part of the bride's family in accepting a proposal and that, similarly, a groom's family may be reluctant to propose to the family of a prospective bride if there are suspicions about her sisters, brothers, or parents. This is, in part, I am told, because of the difficulties anticipated with the in-laws and, in part, because the prospective bride or groom may not be as desirable as she or he seems but, rather, to resemble the family member of doubtful reputation. I do not know of any cases of such considerations actually preventing a proposal or an acceptance, but such may exist.
The Basis for Successful Marriages
Young men tell me that some brides (I suspect that the number is still quite small) are not actually virgins, but the ideal that they be is very strongly held by the community in general and by both her family and that of the groom. These same young men say that the groom would mind less if his bride were not a virgin than would his father and the woman's father.
Until recently, the failure of the wedding night to result in evidence of the
bride's virginity (in the form of blood on the cloth that had been beneath her hips on the marital bed) could lead to serious difficulties. From the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, no quarreling of this sort came to my attention, as I am sure it would have had it been public. Nevertheless, informants say the groom's family would accuse the bride of promiscuity and the bride's family would insist she was a virgin but that the groom was impotent. In such cases, the marriage would be ended without delay. A few marriages, in fact, do end very quickly, and it may be that some of these are due to difficulties related to understandings about the bride's virginity and/or the groom's potency.
The successful marriage, a number of men and women have separately told me, is based on love (upendo). This despite the fact that marriages are often arranged and that, even in the later 1980s, marriages contracted because the prospective spouses are attracted to one another before the wedding are considered less likely to flourish than those based on family choices. The expressed understanding is that parents and adult family members have sounder and more mature judgment than the young prospective spouses do and that family judgment is likelier to bring together a couple who is truly suited.
When such a couple is brought together, the ideal view holds, they will develop a lasting love for one another. Even initial incompatibility will, informants say, be overcome as the couple gets to know one another. A proverb, sometimes used with regard to people getting used to things quite outside of marriage, holds, Walioana, wataambana (They were married, they will [learn to] speak to one another, i.e., as they stay together, they will learn to get along).
The bride wealth (mahari ) has been rising fairly steeply in recent years. In 1980, I recorded a bride wealth payment of KSh 15,000, or around $1,000 at the rate of exchange as it was then, and in 1985, I recorded another one, this time of KSh 32,000, or $2,000 at the exchange rate at that time. The mahari is used by the bride's family to buy furniture and household goods for the newly married couple. The bride's parents ideally keep none of it (I heard of no cases when they did keep even part) and are expected to (in the cases I could follow, actually did) add money of their own to it in order to buy more and better things for the couple's new household. I have been told that the groom can provide furniture rather than money, but I have not recorded an actual case of this happening.