A Beninese Wedding
Certain events are significant in all cutlures. Among these, of course, are weddings. I had the privilege and honor of attending one last month. Let me tell you how the Beninese Christians marry! Two things make weddings in Benin quite different from those in North America. The first is that the boy and his family are supposed to pay for all of it! The second is that the wedding is not the union of a man and woman, but one family with another family!
In Benin weddings require several ceremonies before we can truly consider the couple married. First of all there is the “meeting of the families” where the girl’s family and the boy’s family meet. This is the first step in making public the fact that the boy and the girl are interested in each other. After this meeting, the boy’s family will contact the girl’s family to negociate how much should be paid as a dowery (also known as the bride price).
The Traditional Wedding
Once the dowry has been assembled, the boy’s family comes to the girl’s family home to pay it. The boy does not come but will be represented by his relatives. Among the relatives, an older aunt will take the lead and speak on behalf of the family. The girl’s parents are present, along with her extended family (aunts, uncles, older siblings), but the parents do not take the lead either. This is a contract between the two extended families and the “elder sister” of “elder brother” speak on behalf of the entire family.
The girl is not present either. During this time there is quite a lot of bantering back and forth and the spokesperson for the boyhas to be quite verbally adept. Gifts are made to the aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, mother and father, but the biggest part of the dowery is meant to ensure the future of the bride. So she will receive a suitcase filled with cloth (to make clothing), shoes and purses. She will also receive cookware and other household items. The idea behind the dowry is that the family has raised their daughter and invested in her. Now they will be losing her to the other family who must compensate them for their loss and for what they have invested in her. The dowry also shows that the boy’s family is able to provide for the girl and that she will be well taken care of in their home.
After the gift giving has ended, the girl is brought out and presented to the boy’s family who must state whether this is the girl they have come for. The girl is brought out veiled and you have to know that the first two girls that come out are decoys. The boy’s family must hold out for the third and last candidate who will be the right one. The girl is then unveiled and the family spokesperson explains what is happening. Then they ask her if she is willing to marry this boy. It may be sybolic, but she does have the final say.
The Civil Ceremony
After the dowry is paid, in traditional Beninese society, the girl and the boy are married. The girl can go with the boy’s family and begin living with her husband. However, the state does not recognize the dowry alone as a basis for marriage. So in order to be legally married, the couple must now perform a civil ceremony. (The state will not recognize the dowry, but nor will they marry a couple who has not previously paid the dowry, the “customary marriage” ceremony.) This is usually a smaller affair with only a few guests. The representative of the state officiates, briefly presenting some of the laws governing marriage. Once the marriage licence is signed, the ceremony is over and a light refreshment will be served. As of 2005, the husband cannot legally marry another wife. The church does not yet consider the couple married so there is still one ceremony left: the church wedding.
The Church Wedding
The church wedding is usually held on Saturday. After there has been some singing and prayering, the bride and groom arrive. The bride and her attendant dance down the long church aisle to the front. In some cases the groom and the groomsman also dance in, but at this particular wedding, only the bride danced down the aisle. Usually the attendants are a married couple who will have a role after the marriage as counselors to the couple.
The bride’s family is asked if they have given their agreement to the marriage. One person representing the family is asked to place the hand of the bride into the hand of the groom. This symbolizes the family’s acceptance of the marriage. Again, it is not only the mother and the father who agree to the marriage, but the extended family must also agree.
The wedding service proceeds much like weddings in North America: the vows are said, rings exchanged, prayers of blessings, a sermon preached, etc. The service also usually includes lots of music and a chance to dance. When the musicisns please the crowed, people will dance forward and place money on their foreheads. If the married couple dance, they may also be rewarded with a bill plastered across their foreheads.
Benin has developed its own traditions that are not old, but a twist on what we do in North America. I find one these “new traditions” amusing. In the past, the bride and groom would choose traditional cloth and have matching outfits made. More and more brides are choosing to wear white wedding gowns, veils and gloves while the husband wears a suit. This new attire has promted a new practice: after the exchange of vows and rings, the groom makes a big deal of slowly rolling up the veil to uncover his bride. He is invited to take a good look at her and decided if she is the woman he planned to marry. Then he may kiss her.
The register is signed and then the presenting of the wedding gifts begins. Everyone who has brought a gift forms a line to the front of the church to greet the bride and groom and give their gits. Like the recieving line back in North America, this is quite a lengthy process. After that pictures must be taken with the guests and then everyone moves on to the reception. This particular couple held the reception at a local school. The different classrooms were designated for different people who might attend the wedding. One classroom was for pastors and representatives from BBI. While the guests are served several courses, the parents of the groom go around ensuring that everyone is greeted and duly servied. After you have eaten you are free to go.
Prayer and Praise Items
Praise God for safe travels for Bruce in February. Pray for his upcoming trips to Ghana and Nigeria in March.
Thank God for the good health of Jeremiah and Deborah and their on-going success at school.
Pray for Nancy’s upcoming visit to Ontario in April. Pray for time to adequately prepare and pray for a fruitful time of sharing about ministry in Benin. Nancy will be accompanied by the administrator of the Benin Bible Institute.
Pray for the Lord’s blessing on the new couple, Jeremy and Somel Akowanou.