Marriage is an important ceremony which is always ticked as top of ones ‘’bucket list’’ in The Gambian society. People who attained marriage status in Gambian societies are considered comfortable and fulfilling.
However, The Gambia has both Muslims and Christians and some traditional believers, who all take marriage as a fundamental building block of life and also as a gift from God, and one that should not be taken for granted. Since bloodlines are important, marriage is the vehicle that sanctifies them. Marriage, therefore, assures the continuity of the lineage. Thus, most families prefer to marry within their own kinsmen. Emphasis is placed on marriage within one's own group, known as Lasilo in Mandinka or Xet in Wollof.
Some advantages of being married include being able to attend and take decisions in social functions like family, ward and community meetings and in settling domestic disputes.
Marriages are contracted (Nikkah) between a man and a woman to live together as husband and wife as directed by the Muslim’s book of law called Shariah. On the day of the marriage, male family members and friends of both bride and the bridegroom will gather at the mosque or family house of the bride. This is done with the recitation of some verses, paying of dowry and sharing of cola nuts to declare them husband and wife.
The Christians, on the other hand, believe that getting married in a church, in front of God, is very important as it is a public declaration of love and commitment for them. In the church, a priest or minister who represents the presence of God will lead the couple in expressing their commitment to each other through taking vows, and he blesses their union. Items like money, gifts, clothes and some beverages will be presented to them.
Muslims traditions in The Gambia
Traditionally, Muslim parents will identify husband or wife for their children even when they are very young, but they will be given to their husbands when they grow old and legalised marriage status between them.
A letter from the suitor's parents will be sent to the girl’s family to know of their intentions, or a rope has been tied to her hand since her childhood days to betroth them together. Traditionally bridegroom will frequently do works like fetching firewood, weeding the farms and herding animals for the girls’ family as the future husband. The relatives of the suitor brings gifts of traditional value to the family of the future bride too. His friends would accompany the husband-to-be on such visits, and they take along kola-nuts, money or chicken.
Christian traditions in The Gambia
Traditionally, Christians will bring an engagement ring, a Bible, and jewellery. These gifts include a decorative Shuku basket of kola nuts, buttons, needles, thread, thimble, different denominations of local currency, rice and coos. Each of these items carries a symbolic meaning relating to life and marriage. After a series of advisory jokes from both sides, the future bride is identified among her friends. Then the marriage date is announced, and animals like pigs, goats or cows will be killed for the occasion. Palm wine is on the official gift list but is still done by practising traditional religious believers.
Courtship in the Gambia
In the olden days, courtship and formalities mainly were arranged by parents for their children, which are called Wolarallo in Mandinka, Ngoro in Wollof and Asiragal in Fula and engagement in the Aku and Christian communities. Nowadays, boys and girls will date and choose spouses for themselves and inform parents to lead in seeking for hand in marriage of the girl. Traditionally the family head (Alpha male) will acknowledge that a male family member is mature enough to be married.
Nevertheless, intending couple use this time to get to know each other better and gives for the man opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to marry the girl. Most importantly, it is during these times that the two will decide whether they are suited to each other.
The Christians (notably the Akus or Krios) practice the traditions and customs of courtship and marriage. Once the two partners have fallen in love, they are free to court each other by paying frequent visits to one another. Once their parents are aware of their relationship, efforts are made to inquire about the parents principally in terms of their lineage, but this has now changed as children are mostly free to choose their preferred spouses through their own methods of courtships.
Traditionally, on the day of marriage, the bride and groom will dress in specific clothes in colours traditional to their tribes. RED for Fulas, Black for Mandinkas, and white for wollofs. The marriage processions and celebrations might differ a bit from tribe to tribe.
Mandikas will present their brides on a mat, cover her with special cloth and dresses with beads, give them decorated calabash with beads and will be led around to greet everyone and finally be presented to her husband and his family. Music and dance are special parts of these ceremonies. Mind and fun games between the families of the bride and bridegroom are played too on days like this. For example, the bride’s family might hide her and ask for certain things, money and customs to allow the groom to see her only when they pay or do what they asked for.
Wollofs will dress up their bride and groom in beautiful matching clothes and brought to a colourful traditional wedding ritual meant to free the marriage of evil and make it fruitful and successful. This is accompanied by drumming and dancing to Sabar and jewels(griots) singing.
The Fula bridegroom will carry their bride on their shoulders up to the bride’s mother’s house through the neighbourhood covered in red and white clothes. This procession will be accompanied by drumming and dancing with musical instruments like riti, flutes and djembe etc.
NB: Other ethnic groups might have different ways too.
Food is a big part of wedding ceremonies. In the morning, women will cook porridge served with milk or laahk (juice made out of Boabab and peanut). Lunch is normally rice with meat and vegetables cooked in big cooking pots big enough to feed 25 to 50 people, usually benachin. In the evening, dinner will be served to those present, which could be chicken and snacks served with some wonjo or baobab juices and canned drinks.
Generally, most people will also opt for western-style marriage ceremonies after the traditional ceremonies. Most people will be dressed in Ashobe (similar cloth patterns), sitting under decorated tents and settings, listening and dancing to music played by a DJ. Here friends and families will present the new couple with gifts and presents as they come in turn to do this