On Tuesday May 12, 2020, on the floor of Nigerian Senate, a distinguished senator was reported in the media to have said that, “In Africa, people do not marry for love, but to have children.” The senator made the comment while contributing to a debate on a bill seeking to prevent, control and manage sickle cell anaemia in the country.
The question, which we wish to address in this article, is as follows:
‘Is it true Africans don’t marry for love but only for procreation of children?’ Put in another way: By taking away love from African marriage, is one not interpreting African marriage out of context, perhaps from the perspective of Western scholarship and prejudice on African marriage and culture, and from the modern Western understanding of marriage and love?
To answer these questions, we begin with a brief presentation of the bill at the senate where the senator made the unfortunate repudiation of African marriage and culture. The sponsor of the bill had hinged his point on the fact that, ‘It is painful to realise that an individual cannot marry his or her choice because of blood group.” Speaking further, he said:
“This bill is taking me down memory lane because I’m an AS carrier and when I was about getting married, several years ago, I moved into this orbit and I know what I went through because I was in love. I knew trauma. After that incident, for five years I didn’t come out of it, he said.”
Continuing, the distinguished senator, added:
“So I am speaking from experience and I know how it pains that you have made a choice and you discover that the choice can’t work. Because in Africa, we marry for children, we don’t marry for love.”
However, very consoling is that another senator interrupted at this point to remind his colleague that he should be speaking for himself. He admonished as follows:
“Nigerians should look at ways of addressing health needs … The time has come for us to look inwards to solve some of these health needs and also support institutions that are doing so. … We need to take serious blood testing for intending couples. We should not allow love take away the best part of our marriages.”(Emphasis mine).
This is the point: “We should not allow love take away the best part of our marriages.”
This last point is very important because African understanding of love goes beyond modern Western colouration of that word. My impression is that the senator who alleges that, “in Africa, people do not marry for love, but to have children”, perhaps was interpreting African marriage and sense of love from the Western perspective and context. Which could be very injurious to both African marriage itself and our collective sense of being, as Africans.
Just as it is injurious to use children as scapegoat for passing a bill of this kind in the senate. After all, children are blessings from God, not curse. Children are blessings from God and they are born out of marriage love and respect for the tradition of our ancestors on marriage itself. They are guarantees of the ever-presence of God and our ancestors in the lives of the married couples as well as the extended family and community they represent. It is not a crime to have children just as it is not crime not to have them. For instance, one may because of divine call or some other natural sublime goals in life, chose not to marry in order to dedicate her or his life fully to the service of God and humanity. Some may also, as a result of health reasons and such like, decide to remain single. That is understandable! It all depends on personal choice, the burden of which should not be blamed on African marriage and culture or whatever.
No doubt, the distinguished senator might have made the unfortunate statement without thorough reflection on the implications of his words. Since he did not stop there but went ahead to pass death-sentence on African marriage. However, thanks be to God, there were some relatively conscious senators who corrected him on the spot to uphold the dignity of African marriage and culture.
Very disheartening, however, is that a debate on a bill seeking to prevent, control and manage sickle cell anaemia in the country, became an occasion of denigrating African marriage and culture on the floor of the Nigerian Senate. Because that could have been the best occasion for the distinguished senators to discuss of how to empower our Nigerian scientists and doctors, provide them with more funding for indigenous scientific research in medical fields, towards finding cures for most of these diseases such as sickle cell anaemia, malaria, as well as epidemic diseases like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In developed countries, diseases such as sickle cell anaemia and malaria are already, a thing of the past. It is mainly only in African countries that they still exist, in the 21st century, as killer diseases and our African governments appeared not to bother about funding an indigenous scientific research to find a cure for them? Again, in developed countries, the primary causes of most of these diseases have been eradicated, thanks to the ingenuity of their own scientists and doctors as well as their home governments’ funded and sponsored research in medical fields. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, our governments and legislators, instead of toeing that line, are busy attacking and accusing African marriage and culture as the cause of sickle cell anaemia, and perhaps, malaria.
This is a painful situation. It is painful, because, it would seem that the senator who said that Africans marry only for procreation of children and not for love, might not have thought along that line of promoting scientific research in medical fields as the best way possible of finding a cure to such common diseases like sickle cell anaemia. That by denigrating African marriage on the floor of the senate, perhaps he privileges Western marriage and understanding of love over and above the African. That instead of defending African understanding of love and marriage, the senator betrays that best part of our African culture that the world admires most today.
Is it the modern Western sense of marriage and love that has resulted in many broken marriages, divorcees and separated couples, that the distinguished senator is recommending for Nigerians? God forbid! In other words, does this senator understand really, what African marriage means? That is, marriage in its African context and cultural colouring? Does he understand also what ‘love’ means in African marriage and culture? It is obvious the senator was using the Western concept of love and marriage to interpret the African marriage and love. This is very unfortunate!
What Love Is and Is Not vis-à-vis African Marriage
The Greek language from which the word “love” in modern Western European languages, including English, derived its meaning, has three words for love:
1) First, the Greek speaks of love in terms of “eros”. Plato used this word quite frequently in his dialogues. ‘Eros’ is a type of aesthetic love. Now in modern European languages and culture, it has come to mean a sort of romantic love. I guess Shakespeare was thinking in terms of ‘eros’ when he said:
“Love is not love, which alters when alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O no, it is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is a star to every wandering bark. ….” (Cited from Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have A Dream: Writings & Speeches That Changed the World” (edited by James M. Washington, Harper Publishers, San Francisco 1993, p. 22).
This is “eros”. Outside it, the Greek have another meaning of love. It is called ‘philia.”
2) “Philia” is a sort of intimate affectionateness between personal friends. It is a sort of reciprocal love. On this level, a person loves because he is loved.
3) Then the Greek language comes out with another word, which is the highest level of love. It speaks of love in terms of “agape”. “Agape” means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate. It means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves us. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. With this type of love and understanding good will be able to stand amid the radiant glow of the new age with dignity and discipline.” – (See Martin Luther King Jr, (ibid.).
There is no gain-saying the fact that the Nigerian senator who repudiated African marriage for lack of sense of love, is not speaking of love on this highest level of its meaning as agape, which is the original Greek language meaning of love. Neither is the senator speaking of love in its Biblical sense, as used especially by St. Paul in his Epistles, in particular, in Paul’s first and second Letters to the Corinthians (See specifically, 1Corinthians, chapters 12 & 13).
In each case, Paul uses the word love always in its highest level of “agape”. This is also the sense Jesus Christ used it when he asked Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” (Cf. John 21:15-18). Jesus Christ asked Peter that same question on “love”, in fact, three times. And as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen rightly says, our Lord Jesus Christ, in his first question to Simon Peter used the word ‘love’ in its first ordinary sense of sentimental love (eros); to lead Peter gradually to the test of the highest level of love (agape).
Thus, proceeding further, our Lord Jesus Christ applied the word love on the level of its second meaning in Greek as “philia love.” That is, in its sense of sort of intimacy of friendship between two persons. Peter passed that test too.
Finally, for the third time he asked Peter the same question on love, Jesus applied the word ‘love’ in its highest level of meaning as ‘agape’ love (in Greek language). Here, Jesus Christ used the word in its highest level of meaning. Jesus has to go this far in testing the love of Peter because he wanted to make sure that Peter and other disciples do not understand the word love on the superficial level of ‘eros’ (libido) and sentimentality of ‘philia’ (love). The love that Christ preached and lived is the “Agape love.” Nothing more nothing else!
Agape love is the type of love that the Church preaches and recommends for couples in marriage. It is the highest level of love, a self-giving of oneself for a higher goal. It is a self-giving love that is neither selfish nor erotic, personal or sentimentality. Rather it is love rooted in deep spirituality and faith in the Incarnate Son of God as Lord and Saviour of humankind and the world.
Therefore, the Biblical and Christian understanding of Agape love is spiritual as it is moral binding and challenging to everyone who loves God and humanity. In marriage (whether in Africa or elsewhere), such expression of love is spiritual as well, since it is a tradition that goes beyond the two individuals or couple in marriage. This is because, such tradition on love and marriage, is rooted in God’s and on the traditions and customs left in posterity by one’s ancestors in faith.
This is the basis of appreciating African marriage in its relation to Biblical and Christian teachings on marriage and love. It goes to show that it is absolutely, wrong to denigrate African marriage and culture or to accuse Africans of marrying for the sake of procreation and not love. Nothing can be far from the truth of African traditional concept of marriage than such a derogatory insinuation.
In the first place, African marriage must be interpreted in its cultural context and meaning. This is something the senator in his submission had failed to do. Perhaps, as some have alleged, he was more concerned with achieving the sinister agenda behind the obnoxious bill in the Senate. There is the fear that the new bill for the “sickle cell anaemia prevention”, was just a smokescreen some senators wanted to use to pass into law the controversial, iniquitous ‘compulsory COVID-19 vaccination bill’, which is still pending in the two arms of the federal legislative chambers at Abuja.
The controversial compulsory COVID-19 vaccination bill has returned into the Senator chamber, once more, under the guise of “sickle cell anaemia prevention bill.” Unfortunately, the senators pushing this bill on ‘compulsory COVID-19 vaccination’ or whatever, are doing so, as some have alleged, for their personal pecuniary interest, without minding the long-term consequences of such bills becoming a law in an African country such as Nigeria!
Moreover, with regard to the bill on “sickle cell anaemia prevention”, if this should be the case, does the way the senator who sponsored it, went to the extent of attacking African marriage and culture, thereby wounding African sensibility and self-esteem, the best way to approach it? Certainly, no! That is, by saying that ‘Africans marry only for procreation of children and not for love’, what does the senator wants to achieve? Methinks that no African with sense of self-worth will like to go such low in denigrating his race and culture before any audience, not to talk, of the floor of the Senate!
Because what the senator is saying in effect is that Africans have no sense of love in their culture and worldview. Nothing can be far from the truth than that assumption.
African Love is Encompassing, not Selfish
As in every African worldview, African sense of love is encompassing. African love is neither individualistic nor selfish. It is not egoistic either. Rather it is rooted in the African philosophy of “We are, therefore I am” (cognatus ergo sum). This is in contrast to the Western individualistic worldview and philosophy, which in the words of Descartes says, “I think, therefore, I am” (cogito ergo sum).
For Africans, however, humanity is first and foremost the community (not in the sense of communism or the Indian philosophy of communalism). But in the African sense of community and humanity. In the first place is the extended family based on blood kinship or on affinity through marriage, and then clan, the tribe, or the nation.
In Africa, kinship and affinity create a special kind of bonding within which mutual rights and duties are exercised unconditionally. Individuals acquire their basic identity through these relationships, and they enjoy a feeling of security in life as long as the exchange of these rights and duties is guaranteed. In African spirituality and worldview, the value of interdependence through relationships comes high above that of individualism and personal independence. By the same token, the practice of cooperation is more relied upon than competition.
In fact, there are positive consequences of this exigence for kinship and community solidarity that define marriage and love in an African context. Among them is solidarity and hospitality. Members of the two families or clans in marriage exchange solidarity and hospitality as a matter of course. But it is also extended to outsiders, though here it is first necessary to make sure that the stranger is not an adversary. Any stranger, therefore, is first required to become known as bona fide. Only then is she or he accepted, and becomes an honorary kinsperson.
This one of the main reasons for the family full involvement in making investigations before their children marry. They want to know very well the full background of the other person their son or daughter is about to marry, to make sure the person they are bringing into their family is of good character and best of family upbringing. This is to avoid embarrassment in the family, and unforeseen unpleasant circumstances in future when the couple marry eventually. Thus, the African family investigation before marriage extends also moral aspects of life and health conditions of the family from which their son or daughter intends to marry. For instance, where it is found out that there have been cases of chronic health condition or of questionable moral character in a particular family, people tend to prevent their son or daughter marrying from such a family. They want also to be sure that the two people marrying are not related in any way at all.
Community solidarity tends also to create requirements of sharing and redistribution of resources, so that no individual accumulates and hoards resources that become unavailable to others when they need it. Hence, the fear of anyone who surpasses others too obviously in wealth, power, or influence. The underlying fear is that such persons become a public danger and are likely to use their surplus for selfish purposes over against the others. Any breach of this requirement of basic egalitarianism creates jealousies and ill feelings.
There is also a great dread of those who renounce the duties and rights of solidarity: those who are notoriously cruel, quarrelsome, egotistical, unforgiving, or unkind. They attract the suspicion of being witches or eaters-of-human-flesh. The widespread fear of witchcraft, and consequently the frequency of beliefs and accusations about witchcraft and sorcery and practices to counter it, are signs of the central importance of kinship solidarity.
Indeed, some experts on African tradition and culture have demonstrated that witchcraft and sorcery are really about feelings of a breakdown in family and community solidarity. This is one of the major reasons marriage in Africa is seen as family affair, not left at the hands of the intending couple in marriage alone, but of their two families and communities as a whole. This is more so because, children that will come out of marriage do not belong to the couple alone but to the extended family, both living and death members (ancestors).
Therefore, in Africa, people marry, expressing their love for one another by respecting the marriage tradition of their people. They do so not out of blindness, lack of love, or primitivity, but because on it rests the guarantee for posterity and dignity of their marriage, love for one another, their families, humanity and the universe. It is their testament of life for their own welfare and that of their family, that is, as they begin their own nuclear family as husband and wife. On it rests their marriage fidelity and security. What African philosophers would call, ‘principles of life force’ or ‘vital union.’
The primacy of community and cooperation in African society and worldview may be related to one major fact. For the traditional African, the relationship between the human community and the rest of the universe was not conceived of as a project of struggle where human beings compete with one another for the survival of the fittest. Neither does the traditional African look at the world as an object or an adversary whose nature and working should be investigated and reduced to formulas so as to master and exploit it.
Rather, the universe is seen by the African as a common heritage, its diverse components as potential partners in the shared project of existence. The Igbo wisdom saying of ‘ife kwuru ife akwudebe ya’ (when one thing stands another stands beside it), explains it very well. There is, therefore, a feeling of mutual dependence among the different parts: human beings, the animal world, vegetation, the elements, the heavily bodies, the departed as well as the diffuse forces, visible and invisible, that circulate all around.
Success in living depends very much on how well these different parts interact, negotiating carefully and “respectfully” the common resources available to all. There is a certain awe, something like a religious attitude, in this interaction: it is as if the whole universe possessed personality, consciousness, sensitivity, and “soul.” Scholars coming from the Enlightenment scholastic tradition and industrialized Western world and others, are wont to call this attitude “superstition”, and they have coined derogatory words like “animism”, fetishism”, or even “idolatry” in reference to it. These words, which attempt to make sense of “strange” peoples’ religious attitudes but the point of view of another culture, are, in fact, more confusing than helpful. This is why methinks that the key to better understanding is to appreciate the significance of African marriage in its cultural context and meaning.
We say this because from all indications, the Nigerian senator was influenced in his repudiation of African marriage by his Western colonial education and mentality of denigrating anything African, including African marriage. Since colonial era, Western scholars, especially anthropologists and even some missionaries have written treatises saying exactly the same thing this senator said at the floor of the senate against African marriage.
It is painful to observe such a thing happening in an African Senate. which goes to show that some of our supposed African elites are still suffering from ‘colonial mentality’ of this sort in the 21st century? This is heart-breaking. If such a statement had come from an unlettered individual in one of our villages, that could be pardonable to some extent. But for a distinguished African senator in an African country and senate floor, to say such a thing is difficult to comprehend? That our politicians, indeed, African ruling class is still living with that kind of mentality about African marriage in this 21st century, makes mockery of all the intellectual awaking and self-consciousness, we claimed, Africa has achieved over the years. It is really a pity!
The originality of African marriage
Yes, it is true that marriage is a basic cultural norm of every human society. In Africa, this basic fact is a living reality. Thus, it is evident that marriage is not something peculiar to Africa, since it exists everywhere and many common elements are found, particularly in the traditional societies.
Where then lies the African originality of the marriage? In the words of the Tanzanian African theologian Charles Nyamiti, ‘the African originality of marriage goes beyond the ordinary accentuation of the term.’ In other words, it is only when marriage is considered in its cultural context that its African individuality or originality appears. This is why as we alluded earlier, for instance, in many non-African societies, such as in the Western world marriage is an affair left entirely at the discretion and erotica sentimental appeals of the intending two young couple (man and woman). It is as well seen as fount from which the young couple express their sentimental love for one another, freedom from the influence of their respective parents, to establish their own nuclear family as husband and wife.
However, the African marriage is more extensive, as Nyamiti puts it: “It includes all living members of those groups, besides being mystically connected to the ancestors and, through social pacts, to outsiders such as friends and others.” This is the African concept of the family (extended family), on which principle hinges African marriage as well as traditional rites of marriage itself. The African sense of family explains to us the essence of different stages that accompany the long courtship which proceeds any marriage and its solemnization in Africa.
It is also one of the reasons for the current attempt to harmonize traditional marriage with the celebration of Sacrament of matrimony in many African local churches. The Church sees the wisdom in the African marriage as well as family system. This is why in many African local churches everything possible is being done to encourage inculturation in that regard.
Another thing that needs be said is that African marriage, in spite of its shortcomings, guarantees the durability and stability of marriages. Unlike the Western marriage that does not last long before the couple go for divorce or get separated. The effect of which is often too heavy and devastating both for the children and couples themselves. Not so with African marriage that respected the customs and traditions of marriage and family as established and left for posterity by the ancestors, and which are today, being recommended by the Church. The point we tried to emphasis throughout this article.
This means that procreation of children is not the only thing in African marriage, neither is it what defines the essence of African marriage and family. No. African marriage is based on African sense of extended family, community life and respect for traditions. This is why in Africa, living extended family system is seen as cultural binding. This is seen as a fact of life. Each person is born into an extended family. Cardinal Francis Arinze explains this succinctly as follows:
“Africans are at home both in the nuclear and in the extended family. This sense of family belongingness is rather strong. Many African languages have the same words for brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, the same word for grandfathers and uncles, and sometimes even the same name for fathers and masters. The sense of family belongingness pervades all these scales on the genealogical ladder.” – (See Cardinal Arinze, “Reflecting On Church-as-Family” (Address at the Symposium organized by the Association of Nigerian Priests and Religious in Rome on “The Church as the Family of God” (Collegio San Paolo, Rome, 19 February 1995).
In other words, it is in the sense of genealogy that the system of African family and marriage is built. In fact, in the extended family all the members of the same generations are ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (what others may refer as distant cousins); in Africa, they can only marry outside the family (in its African sense of extended family) where there are no blood links with their family.
All these implies that marriage in its African cultural context and meaning, goes beyond the Western concept of love as “eros” or even as “philia”, the sense I believe the senator used it in speaking of African marriage on the floor of the senate the other day at Abuja. No. African marriage has a concept very close to the Greek’s highest level of meaning of love, which is “agape.”
Agape is the Greek word used in the Bible to convey the meaning of the type of love Jesus Christ lived and preached, and which the Church recommends for married couples, families, and indeed, for each and every one of us. It is agape level of love. This type of love challenges us as it challenges all married couples to rise above individualism, which is the bane of modern society.
It challenges us to rise above the modern man narrow understanding of love as “eros” and sentimentality. To see love as something that encompasses the whole universe and humanity. Agape love tells us something about the core and heartbeat of the cosmos and about the world in which we live. It tells us that money is not everything, neither is the beginning nor the end of life. That human beings matter and that people count.
By Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji
Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in this article is solely the responsibility of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. The image is taken from the internet and assumed to be in the public domain. If this breaches the copyrighted material, kindly note that the break of the copyright is not intentional and non-commercial. The copyrighted material in question will be removed upon request and presentation of proof in that case, please contact me via following emails: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com