Academic journal article Ethnology

The Universality of African Marriage Reconsidered: Evidence from Turkana Males

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Universality of African Marriage Reconsidered: Evidence from Turkana Males

Article excerpt

Comparative research on marriage patterns in sub-Saharan Africa described marriage as both early and nearly universal (van de Walle 1968). Subsequent studies have partially disproved the first generalization by demonstrating the existence of substantial regional and ethnic variations in age at first marriage (Kaufmann et al. 1988; Lesthaeghe et al. 1989; United Nations 1990). The premise that marriage is universal, however, has generally not been questioned (United Nations 1990:75). In fact, some anthropological studies have emphasized the importance of marriage in African societies and note that everyone is expected to get married (Kuria 1987; Parkin and Nyamwaya 1987:3). In many African societies, men who fail to obtain a wife are sometimes considered less than a full person:

For African peoples, marriage is the focus of existence.... Marriage is a drama in which everyone becomes an actor or actress and not just a spectator. Therefore, marriage is a duty, a requirement from corporate society, a rhythm of life in which everyone must participate. Otherwise' he who does not participate in it is a curse to the community, he is a rebel and law breaker, he is not only abnormal but "under human." Failure to get married under normal circumstances means that the person has rejected society and society rejects him in return. (Mbit) 1969:133)

Thus it is commonly accepted that nearly all males marry eventually, as do females (Antoine and Nanitelamio 1988; United Nations 1990:75-76). For example, in a comparative study covering the period from 1960-1979, Rwabushaija (1991) estimated that less than 3 per cent of females and less than 5 per cent of males in Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal had never been married at age 50 (Table 1). At younger ages, however, the proportion of single males is generally high because African males frequently marry substantially later than females, in part because they need time to collect the necessary bridewealth. Bachelorhood is relatively common among African males under age 30. For example, Lesthaeghe et al. (1989:321-23) found that in the 1970s, between 25 and 40 per cent of males aged 25-29 in Angola, northern Cameroun, Congo, Ghana, mainland Tanzania and Zaire had never been married. In Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, Liberia, and Senegal, between 42 and 56 per cent of males in this age group had never been married.

Table 1: Estimated Percentage of Females and Males Married by Age
50, Selected African Countries

     Per Cent Married by Age 50

Country   Year    Females    Males
Ghana     1960    99.5      96.3
          1970    99.5      96.5
Kenya     1962    98.6      96.3
          1969    97.1      93.9
          1979    97.8      95.0
Senegal   1960    99.6      97.8
          1970    99.8      97.4
          1976    98.4      95.1
          1978    99.4      97.1

Source: Rwabushaija (1991: 175-79)

While such national estimates support the notion of the universality of African marriage at older ages, they obscure any ethnic variations. Since both age at first marriage and the proportion single at younger ages are known to vary considerably by ethnic group (Kaufmann et al. 1988; Lesthaeghe et al. 1989), it is reasonable to assume that similar ethnic variations may exist in the proportion who never marry.

This article examines marriage patterns among male Turkana pastoralists of northwestern Kenya(1) the timing of first marriage, the proportion of males who never marry, and the factors that may affect these two variables. The data are from a sample of over 10,000 South Turkana pastoralists collected by Rada Dyson-Hudson between 1988 and 1993. These data demonstrate that among Turkana marriage is not, in fact, universal: some Turkana men who remain pastoralists choose not to marry; bridewealth requirements force many males to postpone marriage until after age 35; some men cannot yet marry because Turkana norms require their older brothers to marry first; and some leave the pastoral sector before marriage, thereby precluding traditional marriage. …

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