previous sub-section
4 He Who Eats with You Kinship, Family, and Neighborhood
next sub-section

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.[15]

previous sub-section
4 He Who Eats with You Kinship, Family, and Neighborhood
next sub-section