African Wedding Customs and Traditions

Africa is an entire continent that includes a multiplicity of religions, tribes and ethnicities. Thus wedding customs are bound to differ from one region and community to another. And yet there are certain wedding traditions that are popularly recognized as part of African traditions and which are practiced by African-origin people elsewhere in the world as a link to their ancestral culture.

Decking up of the bride

African weddings typically incorporate entire families and are not just about the bride and the groom. One of the instances of this is the picking out of an elder female relative on the bride’s side who will not only help her get ready for the wedding but also impart useful knowledge about the bridal night. This persona is variously known as ‘Sumo’ as in Tanzania or as ‘Somo’ as among the Swahili tribes of Kenya. She applies henna tattoos on the bride’s hands and feet and helps put on the bridal makeup. The female relative is then rewarded for her services with a gift from the groom’s side.

Fixing the bride price

In many African tribes the groom or his family is required to pay a dowry in terms of money, gifts or animals to the bride’s family in exchange of her hand. Among the Shona people in Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique, this dowry is known as “roora" and is a regular part of their weddings. In Kenya, the semi-nomadic Samburu tribes have a custom whereby the groom prepares presents like two goatskins, two copper earrings, a milk container, a sheep to give to the bride’s family. In the Sudanese Neur tribe the groom when getting married pays for 20-40 herds of cattle to the bride’s side.

Tasting the Four Elements

One of the earliest African traditions to be observed in weddings is the Tasting the Four Elements. The bride and groom taste foods that represent sour, bitter, hot, and sweet flavors; this is done to represent the different times that a marriage is bound to pass through in life. Usually, lemon, vinegar, cayenne pepper, and honey are used to represent these flavors. The tradition is a literal way of demonstrating the pledge to love for better or worse, for richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health.

Tying the knot

Even though variations of this custom can be found in weddings from different parts of the world, tying the knot is one of the most commonly practiced customs in contemporary African weddings. In this the wrists of the bride and groom are tied together as a symbol of the bond of marriage. Today’s couples sometimes choose to have the priest or a wedding official tie the wrists together using a strand of rope, kente cloth, or a strand of cowrie shells as part of the wedding ceremony.

Sharing of kola nuts

This wedding custom is especially practiced in Nigeria where the bride and groom share a kola nut during the wedding ceremony as a symbol of the couple’s willingness to care for each other throughout the marriage. They even keep a Kola nut displayed in their home after the wedding as a symbol of their promise to work out any problems that may occur. A speech is first given by an elder male member of family of either the bride or the groom, the Kola nut is cut by the youngest man in the family and then served to the men first, starting from the oldest to the youngest, and then to the women starting from the
oldest to the youngest.

Jumping the broom

The wedding ritual most widely associated with African culture in contemporary times is perhaps the jumping over a broom by the newlywed couple. Full of symbolism, this ceremony has its roots in some West African tribal traditions. On one level, the act is a symbol of the new couple leaping forward into their new adult life and household. At another level it can be taken to symbolize the sweeping away of all the bad fortune and negative experiences of the past and starting life on a fresh and positive note. Accordingly, after the ceremonial words are exchanged and just before the bride and groom are publicly proclaimed man and wife, they join hands and jump over the broom together. In earlier times, the broom was a plain and functional item, symbolizing care of the home the couple would create together. Today however, the broom used in a wedding ceremony may be more decorative than functional, featuring ribbons and other African wedding-themed decorations, such as Kente cloth. The Celts and Druids also have their versions of jumping the broom but today it is most popularly practiced by urban African and African-origin people settle elsewhere who are keen to incorporate traditional African elements in their weddings.

Pouring of the sand

This is one of the most beautiful customs associated with African weddings and deeply touching in its symbolism. According to this, the bride and groom separately pour sand into a bigger receptacle which signifies the merging of two lives into one. In order to make the custom even more striking, modern wedding planners encourage the bride and groom to pour differently-colored sand into a transparent unity receptacle so that the coming together of two separate streams of sand is even more visually striking. If the couple are keen to include the larger family in this wedding custom – which is how an African wedding usually is – they can ask each of their parents to pour sand into their individual vases with a blessing and which in turn can be used for the wedding sand ceremony. The unity receptacle is often kept in the new couple’s home as a symbol of their love and togetherness.

Finally no joyous occasion in Africa can be complete without a lot of music and dance. Bright festive colors, song and dances are vital elements of most African wedding ceremonies, whether performed by a professional known as Alaga Iduro or the "Standing Chairperson” as in Yoruba wedding or put up by entire families and tribes.