Marriage in Africa

BRIHC Scholar Carmen Thompson reports on the Cadbury Conference 2017.

Marriage in Africa conference session

“Marriage in Africa was the means of ensuring reproduction, but things change”, explained Dr Lynne Brydon in the opening remarks of the 2017 Cadbury Conference, an annual event held by the University of Birmingham’s Department of African Studies and Anthropology (DASA). The theme of this year’s conference was convened in honour of Lynne and her contributions to the field of gender studies in Africa. The conference brought together a diverse programme of early career and established scholars from a broad range of disciplines and regions of the world.

Marriage on the African continent has historically been studied purely as an indicator of kinship systems and as a means of child bearing. However, the breadth of speakers showed that its relevance is now being realised not only in the field of anthropology, but also history, law, politics, literature and gender studies. The papers over the three days offered new ways of thinking about what “marriage” actually means within African societies and what can be uncovered by looking at its intersection with issues of gender, class and race, as well as how these factors vary across different regional, political/economic and historical contexts.

Whose marriage? Actors, stakeholders and decision makers.

The first day’s panellists presented different perspectives on the forms and structures of marriage and how they can be shaped and negotiated by external and internal actors. Visiting Cadbury Fellows Roseanne Nijiru (Catholic University of Eastern Africa) and Rosemary Obeng-Hinneh (University of Ghana, Legon), who had been involved in a number of events over the month leading up to the conference, gave papers on their research. Roseanne spoke about how the political and economic climate in Kenya has fostered a gendered marriage system amongst low-income, rural couples. Specifically, she stressed the importance of these dynamics, which have led to a proliferation of “accepted” extramarital sex amongst husbands migrating to the cities for work, in understanding strategies for HIV prevention in the area. Rosemary also showed how gender factors into the conceptualisation of “consensual unions” between couples in Ghana. Her fieldwork within Accra has suggested that for women, for whom being unmarried is stigmatic, these unions are viewed as an interim economic and social solution, with marriage still being the end goal. Men on the other hand, see the relationship as an alternative to marriage, which to them represents stress and responsibilities that they hope to avoid. As panel discussant Stephan Miescher summarised in the questions that followed the talks, every marriage (or union) can be thought of as “two marriages”, existing simultaneously, as both partners experience it in a different way. 

Other papers expanded on this idea, showing how marriages often involve unions between more than just two individuals. Panel speaker Karen Lauterbach (University of Copenhagen) discussed how, for charismatic pastors in Ghana, marriage is not a private institution but one with both spiritual and public dimensions. The appearance of a “good” marriage in this region, is an indicator of a pastor’s legitimacy and can be a means of achieving status, power and wealth within his community. The complexities of inter-racial marriages within the Sindhi diaspora in Ghana discussed by doctoral researcher Nimrita Rana (University of Birmingham), also reminded us that marriage can equally be a union between two families or two communities, perhaps with different ethnic, religious or class affiliations.

It is clear then that marriage is a fluid and complex concept, and this multiplexity was reflected in some of the themes that permeated through the discussions that followed. What are the historical trajectories of marriage in these different contexts? What are the gendered dimensions of marriages? How do we factor in issues of class and race? Whose perspective are we or should we be looking at? Do the women discussed have agency over their marriage choices? What are the broader societal pressures at play for women entering different forms of union?

Why marriage? Hegemony, subversion and choice.

Plurality, choice and agency were also themes in the second day of talks. Insa Nolte (University of Birmingham) discussed her research in South West Nigeria. Being a religious and ethnically diverse region means that it has no traditional system of matrimony, and Islamic and Christian marriage practices exist in tandem with legal tradition. Despite debates about different types of union, Insa found that there is a mutual understanding, across ethnic boundaries, that marriage is something which cannot be questioned. As she described, this social order is entrenched with gender biases and places marriage at the “centre of the personal search for meaning”. What then, for people who don’t marry? Are the experiences the same for unmarried men as they are for women?

A similar stigma attached to women being single or unmarried has led to a cycle of marriage and divorce within polygamic Senegalese society. Speaker Hélène Neveu Kringelbach (University College London) described how this has caused middle-class women to become disillusioned with this traditional marriage system of their upbringing, which often involves severe competition between co-wives. Instead, they have begun to seek marriages outside of the country with (often multiple) white, European men as an alternative. Despite their perceived autonomy however, the women feel compelled to “moralise” their societal transgression in other ways, through gifts and other tokens of “compensation” to their families.

Ellie Gore’s (University of Birmingham) paper also pointed to subversion from hegemony. Specifically, she spoke of Saso (local term in Ghana, referring to queer men and the community of which they are a part) men and their efforts and struggles to negotiate heteronormative expectations of marriage. During her extensive research in Accra she found a plurality of “subordinate” masculinities amongst working-class Saso men who, despite this fact, still internalise societal pressures of marriage as a demonstration of “phallic competence” through bearing children. This offered some interesting discussion points for the questions that followed the panel. For example, how can class structures limit options available to groups of people who already experience marginalisation in other ways? How much of the, albeit limited, agency of the Senegalese women in Hélène’s study for example, was made available because of their middle-class status? One audience member also offered to the room, whether it is perhaps “easier” for men (for example those in same-sex relationships) to carve out spaces for subversive discourses within societies that are ripe with the “fruits of patriarchy”, than for women?

Which marriage is legitimate? Custom, colonialism and historical trajectories.

Where previous speakers had looked socio-culturally at cases of marriage in Africa, the afternoon’s panels took more historical and political perspectives. In considering marriage today, it is important to consider the legacies of debates around both traditional customary unions and colonial practices. Doctoral researcher Sarah Delius (University of the Witwatersrand), for example, discussed marriage in the context of debates around the end of slavery in colonial Sierra Leone. Specifically, she highlighted the similarities and overlaps between the concepts of “slavery” and “marriage”, in terms of the identities, expectations and responsibilities of women. This led to ambiguous colonial emancipation policies, based on gendered legislation, which considered both wives and slaves to be legally inferior. 

Slave trade slide

This same fluidity in customary law in colonial Kenya also led to a legally ambiguous marriage system, which resulted in a proliferation of non-consensual and violent marriages. However, Rhian Keyse (University of Exeter) discussed how the fluidity of these laws also provided resourceful women with room for manoeuvre and articulation of contestations during marriage dispute cases, which they may not have had with more rigid rules. Specifically, her research focused on the eminent case of “wife” Zeruya Akach who brought before a court her forced marriage to a man whom she did not consider to be her husband. What was special about this case is the fact that the archives contain a personal testimony from Zeruya, shedding light on the real lived experiences of women, whose voices, like slaves, are usually missing from colonial records.

Final speaker Elizabeth Thornberry (Johns Hopkins) took a fascinating perspective on marriage in early 20th Century colonial South Africa. She argued that discourses about the “civilised” Christian marriages of British colonisers and what were considered “uncivilised” indigenous customary unions, were at the centre of struggles for state power in the country. She showed that there was a link between these “civilised” relationships and increased access to political rights amongst citizens of the colonial state. In fact, societal “custom” in general became synonymous with marriage practice. Elizabeth explained that it was through the critique of Christian marriages by black intellectuals in the 1920s, that attacks on western civilisation as a whole began to emerge. So much so, that she attests that it is politics of gender and marriage that lie at the very root of African nationalism. 

The panel offered some fascinating insight into what happens at the boundaries of different marriage systems and how people negotiate and navigate the conflicts and contradictions. What systems and laws are used, and for what purpose? What are the possible meanings and interpretations of different customary and statutory systems? It was clear, from the panellists’ answers to some of these questions, that it was down to the discretion of individual legislative officials who (perhaps) “made it up as they went along”, as an audience member suggested. For that reason, legal action often reflected and entrenched existing societal biases. This was, more often than not, to the detriment of women, but it did also provide spaces for small acts of autonomy and resistance in some cases.

When a “marriage” ends? Conflict, forced unions and post-war narratives.

The second panel of the afternoon, spoke of forced marriage in the context of war. Doctoral researcher Eleanor Seymour (University of Birmingham) discussed her research with so-called “bush wives” of the LRA (the “Lord’s Resistance Army”, a rebel group operating in Uganda who have been involved in a number of major civil wars in the region). Specifically, Eleanor spoke of the social stigma the women receive on their return home from war. They are considered “undesirable” for several reasons, including the absence of a bridewealth transaction at their time of (forced) marriage, their association with the “masculine” activities of fighting a war and the fact they have had children and are therefore considered “spoilt”.  Despite violating Ugandan law, this social marginalisation is essentially a “revictimization” of the women and their children on their return. The pluralism of a legal system that is not enforced, is again weighted against their gender.

Although he was not able to attend, Allen Kiconco’s paper, also discussing LRA ex-abductees, was presented on his behalf. Specifically, his research has looked at the experiences of women in their efforts to remarry. Interestingly, he found that time in captivity appeared not to diminish their desire to enter marriage. This is perhaps down to the fact that, as in Insa’s study of Nigeria discussed above, marriage is an expected reality in the Acholi region of Uganda; “marriage is life” for many women according to Allen. He also found similar perceptions of the “unmarriagbility” of the female returnees amongst potential suitors, who considered them to be “stained” and “polluted” by war. Although he found that many women did marry, few achieved bridewealth, the payment made by the groom or his family to the family of the bride, which is the indicator of a culturally “successful” marriage.

The complex dynamics of these situations were reflected in audience questions. Legal historian and discussant Benjamin Lawrance highlighted the importance of attention to terminology. He stressed that both subjects and interlocutors must “stop referring to things as ‘marriage’ that are anything but”. However, others offered that there is a danger of idealising a “real” (as opposed to forced) marriage, which is still in itself an inherently conservative and gendered institution. This led people to question why then do people want to get married, especially those who have experienced the traumas of forced marriages during conflict. For membership of a social, family or kinship group, for fear of marginality and for lack of a social/economic/cultural alternative, were just some of the suggestions from the speakers. What, also, of the role of NGOs and more contemporary autonomous political movements in providing alternative trajectories for women?

Benjamin Lawrance (Rochester Institute of Technology) also presented the final, keynote lecture of the day and discussed “Iniquity and Inequity” of marriage in an African context. As a legal historian, consulting on cases of asylum, he approached the subject of marriage from this context. He discussed how contemporary refugee laws and conventions have also failed to account for local gendered politics. Benjamin offered that kinship practices be seen as a protective nexus. He discussed a number of kin-ensconced and kin-bereft legal case studies of asylum claims that he has worked on, and broke down how he approached them.

How has “marriage” been envisioned? Fiction, imagination and pushing boundaries.

Under the Udala TreesThe final day and last panel of the conference was focused on how marriage has been imagined and reimagined in contemporary African literature. The fictional genre provides a space for African novelists to play with gender roles and normative ideas of marriage and to foster alternative discourses., Pernille Nailor (University of Birmingham) discussed shifts in the thematic and narrative trends of Nigerian fiction which are similar to trends in the scholarship of marriage in Africa. Where the first generations of writers tended to approach relationships in their texts through the lens of marriage and responsibility, more contemporary novels are now beginning to explore themes of love and sexuality. Pernille’s research has focused on female writers and their stories of supposedly “illegitimate” sexualities, for example the tackling of female homosexuality in Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. Pernille argued that these writers use the novel form not only to critique male writing of women and offer alternative experiences of female sexuality, but also to humanise the supposed “deviance” of their protagonists to evoke empathy and prompt discourse.

Paul Mason (Rhodes University) paper looked instead at the subject of masculinity, this time within the context of post-apartheid South African and Zimbabwean fiction. He discussed different authors’ exploration of masculinity, within the context of marriage in both South Africa’s isiXhosa and Zimbabwe’s Shona society. He explained that several of these novels, for example Siphiwo Mahala’s When a Man Cries, dismantle what it means to be a man and explore different ways of being a man in society. However, Mason argued that they often do so by furthering and naturalising ideas about the objectification of and violence against women. He also discussed K. Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which he believes investigates the fluidity of African masculinity, but in a way that allows for inclusiveness and which doesn’t rely on the subjection of women.

Discussant Carli Coetzee led the lively question session that followed, which threw up some interesting food for thought about the co-habitation of literature and anthropology. To what extent can fiction be said to reflect social reality? Speakers warned of the danger of using novels as a “mirror” of society. Attention must be paid to aesthetics (language, narrative techniques) as well as to the context within which they are written.

Given the intimate nature of the subject matter, should literary scholars also be asking themselves similar ethical questions to anthropologists? For example, what does it mean for us to be looking at these subjects, albeit through the novel form? Should we be reading them at all? It also prompted the audience to think about the relationship between literature and literary criticism, and about where our own ideas and genealogy about marriage and kinship come from. Is the boundary between literature and social sciences becoming more porous? An interesting analogy was made about how, as academics, our references and bibliography are an indicator of our own “kinship” structures. Our personal “libraries” reflect our theoretical allegiances and are an indicator of how our own hypotheses are formed.

A session in the Danford Room

What is the future of “marriage”? Themes, trends and reflections

The conference closed with a guest lecture from the iconic Marxist/feminist/activist/scholar Silvia Federici, organised in collaboration with BRIHC. The talk, entitled “Women, the Body and Capitalist Accumulation, Past and Present”, put many of the discussions that had taken place over the conference into the context of broader, global debates around capitalism and the exploitation of women. Federici argued that the oppression felt by many women in society is not, what some socialist traditions assume, a result of their exclusion from productive labour. She posed that it is instead rooted in their role as the reproducer of the labour work force (the very “pillar” of the capitalist model) through child bearing. Despite the fact that, as Lynne Brydon explained, marriage is no longer solely a means of bearing children, Federici warned that new feminist trends are too hastily dismissive of the importance of women’s struggle over the terrain of reproduction.

Institutional ambiguity was also a common thread. Federici prompted the audience to think about the contradictory discourses around female reproduction, fed by capitalism, which both urge women to produce children, whilst encouraging separation from them for work. She compared the organisation of these discourses to experiences of slavery, where women were encouraged to bear children who would then be sold as slaves to the global market. She also discussed intersectionality and specifically its relation to procreation policies, for example those related to abortion. She stressed that we cannot think of these in purely quantitative terms, but that “every decision is a political one”. The effects of these laws are often felt most by groups of women already marginalised in society, because of race and class for example.

One of the main discussion points was what the organisational implications are for this theoretical standpoint. Can productive/reproductive labour and exploitation of the body ever be separated? Is the carrying of and raising of a child not a form of labour? What is to be done about the fact the women are still largest provider of unpaid productive and reproductive work in most societies? Federici spoke in quite broad, analytical terms and it would be interesting to see how and if her theory could be applied to specific contexts. However, it does appear that a global preoccupation with women as being predominantly sites of reproduction is still a common reality.


That said, the program of talks across the three days made clear that scholarship of marriage, in the African context at least, is an evolving and interdisciplinary field of study, within which gender dynamics is just one dimension. As the papers presented showed, there is not a singular form of “marriage”. Although many societies exist that still consider it a cultural “norm”, it is an institution rife with multiplicity, both in its structure and interpretation. The cases studies discussed highlighted the differing understandings and expectations across religious, gender, race and class boundaries. This intersectionality and ambiguity can often lead to an entrenchment of marginalised societal roles, but at the same time an opening up of small spaces for subversion and contestation of hegemony. Even when people do marry, the reasons unpinning the union are no longer necessarily about reproduction and the placing of children in society.

What place does marriage have then, in the face of future generations?

Carmen Thompson is a BRIHC Scholar on the MA in African Studies programme, with a research interest in media and culture, particularly within the African diaspora.