Elizabeth Ohene on 'saying yes, I do, three times'

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Wed, 23 Sep 2015 Source: Elizabeth Ohene

Some young friends of mine want to get married and it strikes me that getting everything done in our country is far, far too difficult.

Getting married in Ghana used to be a straightforward affair. I am not quite sure when the blending started of the three different options that existed in this country of getting married.

It did not matter which part of the country a boy met a girl and wanted to take matters seriously, it was agreed that even though there were two people involved, marriage was the coming together of two families instead of two individuals.

Once upon a time you could opt for what is called customary marriage, in which the two families got together and performed the customary rites; or marriage under the ordinance, in which you went to the town or city offices and the official rites were performed; or a church wedding, in which you went into a church and a priest conducted the ceremony.

A famous case in which a man got his marriage annulled on the grounds that the church building in which he had got married was not licenced for the purpose, led to the churches taking steps to ensure that not only were the buildings licenced for the purpose, all the civic requirements were done before the church ceremony.

I am all for the regular updating of customary practices to ensure that we do not fall too far behind with modernity and put off our young people from our traditions. Gradually the churches started to insist not just on the civic legal requirements but the customary requirements as well.

The List

In other words, you did not only have to produce proof that you had gone through the legal hoops, you must satisfy the customary requirements as well. It is at this stage that the phenomenon of “The List” comes into play.

If the boy and girl came from the same village or the same ethnic group, both families knew what their marriage custom was and what was required of both sides. Once we started moving out of our local areas and became more adventurous in finding partners, the boy had to find out what he had to bring to satisfy custom.

It appears there is some unanimity among the different peoples of the country about the three main stages of getting married: the knocking, which is the discreet announcement by the family of the boy to the family of the girl that you have seen their daughter and you want permission for both families to make enquiries to determine if they would be suitable for each other.

Strong aunts would nose around to ensure that there hadn’t been any thieves or murderers in the family that wanted to join them and they would want to be sure that there was no evidence of mental illness or any disease that might be passed on to future children.

If nothing untoward emerges in the discreet investigations, then there would be an engagement which would be a public event to be followed by the marriage ceremony itself when the girl is escorted to the boy’s home.

What constitutes “The List” used to be a simple compilation of things that would help the couple in setting up a home and tokens to acknowledge those who had played significant roles in the upbringing of the new bride. It was easy to work out how the various items on the lists evolved; they were meant to show that the bride was a much treasured daughter and she would be sorely missed.

Now I discover “ The List” has become something to intimidate and set off a young couple on their marriage journey saddled with debts.

The Knocking

The churches demand evidence that the couple had embarked upon the customary process of the marriage ceremony before they would even schedule their counselling process. That means the initial approach to the girl’s family, called the “ Knocking “, has to be done. All that was required used to be two bottles of gin and a discreet visit to the family of the girl.

It was meant to be discreet and without much financial pressure because both sides needed to have room to be able to wriggle out without causing offence. If a nosy aunt discovers some secret in the family of the prospective in-laws that is deemed intolerable, the process could be quietly called off at this stage without causing anger or disrespect.

Now the Knocking is not only very public it is elaborate as well. This must mean the avenue to call off the process without offence has been shut. It is at this stage that the dreaded “List” is asked for and given to the boy’s family.

In the attempt to mix modern trends with customary and religious practices, the process of getting married has become unnecessarily cumbersome.

I saw a list recently that asked for handbags, shoes, wrist watches in addition to the wax prints and scarves and suitcases etc for the bride and the walking sticks and tobacco for the bride’s father. I am told that mobile phones have now found their way onto “The List” even though I don’t know if they insist on an S6 or an IPhone.

It cannot be a good idea to make the process of getting married so cumbersome and expensive that the couple are exhausted physically and financially before they start life.

Why do couples have to go through full customary marriage ceremonies that are described as engagement? Isn’t it time to take a look at what we describe as customary, which seems to have lost its essence? Do people really have to go through three or more different procedures to make marriages acceptable before the traditional authorities, the civil authorities and the religious authorities? Are marriages lasting longer as a result?

It is time surely to take the stress out of what should be a happy rite of passage.

Columnist: Elizabeth Ohene