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West Africa - Mariage Rites and Ages



  West Africans generally perceive marriage as an alliance between two kinship groups and only secondarily a union of individuals. (Akande 1979, Dunabar, 1983).  Some Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Serer in Senegal, or the Songhay in Mali, Niger, and Nigeria,   are exogamous, preferring to marry outside their lineages.  In Nigeria, Islamic law prohibits marriage between Muslim men and animist women, though Muslim men may marry Christian women. Muslim Nigerian women may only marry other Muslim men. In Senegal, Tukulor men adhere to the Quaranic injunction against marrying pagan women. Dyula men do marry pagan women, but Dyula women do not marry pagan men.

  Other groups have very specific rules against marrying outside of the ethnic group, rather than outside the Islamic religion.  Among the Malinke, a group of some four million Muslims in several coastal countries, men can marry women who are not Malinke, but women may only marry Malinke men.  Similarly the Jahanka allow their men to marry non-Jahanka women, but women may only marry Jahanka men (Weeks 1984). 

  The age of first marriage and betrothal customs vary widely in West Africa. Traditionally, most West African peoples regarded a girls as marriageable at the time of puberty.  In Senegal and Mauretania, the average age of a women at her first marriage is 23.  Women in Mali and Niger marry earlier, at an average age of 16.    Hausa girls are generally married between the ages of 10 and 12.  The girl's family arranges her first marriage.  If she has not yet reached puberty, she will stay in the home of her parents until her first menstruation and then go immediately to her husband's home. The girl's consent is not required, but she may repudiate the marriage after puberty. Men, on the other hand, do not marry until they are capable of supporting a wife, which means that many Hausa men are thirty before they wed.

   The payment of bridewealth is an essential part of marriage in most West African communities, Islamic or not.  The payment usually follows indigenous rules rather than the classical Islamic tradition of mahr.   In Niger, for example, the negotiations leading to marriage are marked by a series of gifts. In practice, the bride's family often spends as much as the groom's on these exchanges. Nevertheless, the marriage is not valid until the payment of bridewealth and the announcement of the amount.  Among most West Africans, the bride's family receives the payment rather than the bride herself.   

  The government of Niger encourages people to register marriages, but registration is not required for a marriage to be valid. A Nigerien husband is obliged to provide his wife with food, clothes, lodging and pocket money.  A wife has the right to acquire and administer property, as well as the right to respect, good treatment and conjugal relations.  She is obliged to obey her husband, including seeking his permission to leave the house, whether for visits or for work. If she does not, he has the right to send her from his bed or administer a light beating (Dunbar 1983).

   Malian husbands are legally required to support their wives and children. As a practical matter, however, women have difficulty enforcing the law (Hosken 1982).

  In Nigeria, married Muslim women have certain rights to property that other Nigerian women do not. Under statutory Nigerian law, a married man controls his wife's property and she may not enter contracts that would jeopardize his right to such property.  She cannot enter into loan or hiring agreements without her husband's consent, nor can she obtain a passport without it. However, under sharia law a married woman's property is her own (Akande 1979).

   Marriage practices among the Mbororo of Cameroon downplay the relations between husband and wife.  Once a woman becomes pregnant the first time, she returns to her parents' household and stays there until the child is weaned, about three years after she gives birth.  During that time she has no contact with her husband. 


   Divorce is extremely common in West Africa. Among the Hausa, divorce occurs almost as frequently as marriage. All forms of divorce sanctioned by sharia are allowed, but repudiation is the most common. In Niger and Senegal, however, divorce is not valid until registered with a court.  In the rest of West Africa, repudiation is sufficient, meaning that many women do not actually know their marital status.  Women who initiate divorce must return the bridewealth their husband paid at the time of the marriage. If a Muslim couple divorces, the woman is expected to observe idda, the forty-day waiting period proscribed in the Quran. During this period, the ex-husband is supposed to support her, though women have no way of enforcing this (Akande 1979). 

   Once a woman is divorced and her idda period has passed, she will generally remarry within a few months, as most West African Muslims consider it socially unacceptable for a woman of childbearing age to remain single.  Divorced women do not suffer any social stigma in Mauritania, unless their family or the family of their ex-husband blame them for the failure of the marriage. However, a few groups, such as the Daza in Chad and the Nupe in central Nigeria, allow divorced women to remain single and to serve as the head of their household.

   Among the Fulani, divorce is relatively easy for either partner to obtain, although men are more likely to initiate it.   Prior to the final divorce, the spouses must observe a period of conjugal separation in which the wife returns to her father or guardian.  The wife's idda period begins after this separation.  The Woodaabe also recognize a process of divorce in which the wife leaves her husband and establishes an informal remarriage prior to or without proper dissolution of the first marriage (Weeks 1984).   Among some West African groups, women keep their houses after divorce. Others expect women to return to their natal home.


   Polygyny predates Islam in West Africa and is practiced by most ethnic groups, regardless of religion. A man's wealth is determined by the number of wives and children he has (Akande 1979).  Many West African Muslims see polygamy as part of being devout, as well as a status symbol for men.  Affluence rather than any other factor, usually determines whether or not a man has more than one wife. In mostly Muslim Senegal, approximately one-quarter of urban marriages and one-third of rural marriages are polygamous. Although the law requires first marriages to be declared polygamous or monogamous at the time of the wedding, in practice this is rarely done and there are no sanctions against men who change their minds.  Frequently even men who start out wanting to be monogamous change their minds as they grow older. As they become more prosperous, they are better able to afford having multiple wives. Senegalese men who are literate, whether they have studied only through primary education, or all the way through university, are more likely to have several wives than are men with no education. On the other hand, Sengalese women who have higher education are less likely than others to be in polygamous marriages (Antoine and Nantilelamio 1996).

   Hausa men see polygamy as an obligation, if they can afford it.  Some Hausa subgroups, such as the Kanuri, also allow men to keep concubines.  When a Hausa man has more than one wife, the co-wives live in separate rooms within the same house, not in separate homes. 

  In Mali, many men, particularly of the merchant class, perceive having more than one wife as part of being a serious person (Warms 1994).  Similarly for the Sosa of Guinea and Sierre Leone, a predominately Muslim people of about a million, having multiple wives, sometimes more than four, conveys prestige.  One exception to the general rule is Mauritania.  There the Maures, who are the elites of the country, are basically monogamous, while the rest of the population is frequently polygamous.  At the time of the wedding, a woman can stipulate that the marriage is dissolved if the husband takes a second wife. Maure women use this provision regularly.

   In Niger, the first wife divides the goods and supplies from the husband among the other wives. Stress and strain between wives lead to frequent flights from urban marriage home. Some rural women, however, welcome other wives as additional workers (Dunbar 1983).

   In both Guninea and Ivory Coast, polygamy is illegal but widely practiced among the Muslim Dyula and the Jahanka. In Sierre Leone, Muslim Limba men sometimes have more than four wives.




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