Married Or Engaged? – By Empi Baryeh

Everyone has that one thing that just really annoys them. For me, it is when Ghanaians (whether due to ignorance or disregard) refer to our traditional marriage as an engagement. Why should this bother me so much? After all, a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, right?

Not always. There are consequences to calling our traditional marriage an engagement. Apart from the obvious – spending so much money to get married twice – an increasing number of couples are getting married but don’t feel married until they”ve had a church wedding.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English provides us with the following definitions:

“Engagement: An agreement to marry someone”

In western culture, this means the man asks the woman ‘Will you marry me?’ and the woman says ‘Yes’. That’s it! They are engaged. They may then decide to have a party to celebrate that engagement.

For we Ghanaians, an engagement is the “knocking-at-the-door” ceremony (aponoakyibo) and acceptance of proposal from the woman’s father/family. After a successful “knocking-at-the-door” the couple is engaged (and if Christians, they should not be having sex yet).

“Wedding: A marriage ceremony, especially one with a religious service”

Again in western culture this is usually a church wedding where couples say their vows – i.e. the “I do” ceremony.

One could also have a court wedding (which is on the increase abroad) where couples take their vows and sign the necessary documents in court in the presence of witnesses.

By the same token we have Muslim weddings, Jewish weddings, and Indian weddings according to each tradition, religion and culture.

The Ghanaian wedding is our traditional/customary marriage ceremony, which people wrongly call an “engagement”. This is where, among other things, the clans are officially verified (i.e. AsonaBretuo etc), the bride price is paid etc. After a man performs the customary marriage rites, the couple is married (and should begin to live and sleep together as husband and wife).

“Mrs: A title used before a married woman’s family name when you are speaking or writing to her and want to be polite.”

Thus, as long as a woman is married – whether by a church wedding, Ghanaian traditional wedding, Muslim wedding etc. – she is free to assume her husband’s family name, if she so wishes.

After all, if one can simply decide to change one’s name and obtain an affidavit making the new name legal (without any ceremony), what prevents you from assuming your husband’s name after the traditional marriage? (This is neither a requirement under our custom nor the law pertaining to marriage in Ghana).

Now, my attempt to explain the confusion.

When marriage was governed only by custom, there were other issues such as families taking over a man’s possession after he had died, thus leaving widows with several children to raise and no money. Couples getting married were encouraged to register their marriages under civil law and obtain certificates.

Church weddings became popular because of increasing Christianity and the fact that many churches were licensed to certify marriages under the Ordinance (i.e. provide a certificate for the couple to sign at the wedding ceremony declaring that the marriage is monogamous and making the marriage valid under the Marriage Ordinance).

So, after a church wedding (where the church is appropriately licensed), couples don’t have to go to court and sign anything more. People started seeing the benefit of having the marriage registered under the Ordinance.

Unfortunately, they associated those benefits with the church wedding and not with the Ordinance Marriage. All of this has caused Ghanaians to begin to put less value on our traditional marriage ceremony.

A few things we need to get straight while we are at it. If a couple gets married in church and (for whatever reason) does not sign the certificate, they are in no way protected under civil law (though this can be rectified). Also, if a couple does the traditional marriage ceremony, and they then go to the registry and sign the ordinance documents, they can make the marriage valid under the ordinance and a monogamous one – this achieves the same result as having a church wedding.

Other things which are perpetuating the misconception that the traditional marriage ceremony is not enough include the fact that many churches in Ghana are refusing to recognise marriages that are not held in church or couples who did not get married in church. For the above reason, couples are getting married traditionally and refusing to live/sleep together because they feel they have sinned unless they have had the church wedding.

Go back to the definition of wedding. Notice that it uses the word “religious” and not Christian. Marriage is not a Christian institution. God created it for allpeople. When Ghanaian Christians get married traditionally, their pastors are usually present and commit the union into the hands of God. So why is that not enough?

Take a look at the Bible. When Abraham wanted a wife for Isaac, his servant simply went and presented gifts to the girl’s father. The girl was asked if she was willing to go and she said she was. (Gen 24: 1-67). When Rebekah was brought to Isaac, he “brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife…” (v. 67). Isaac presented gifts to Rebekah’s father and sealed the deal by having sex with her.

This is very much like our traditional marriage, isn’t it? If God accepted that, why can’t He accept ours? Our traditional marriage ceremony is not dishonorable to God, in light of His word.

This article is not meant to discourage church weddings. Some people want to do it regardless. However, we should not feel forced to have church weddings if our only reason is to have an Ordinance or monogamous marriage or a marriage acceptable to God.

Call it a Traditional Marriage Ceremony or Customary Marriage Ceremony or Ghanaian Wedding but please DO NOT call it an “Engagement”.

*The writer has published two multicultural romance novels; Chancing Faith and Most Eligible Bachelor.

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