80-year-old Tabitha Kerubo Nyangweso
Recollections by elderly men and women about the traditional Gusii wedding would make today’s wedding procedure look mundane.
In an elaborate and structured system, scouts for a potential bachelor, usually in his late 20s, were sent out to look for a ‘good’ wife. The scout (esigani), would be tasked to pick out a girl with good attributes.
The scouts would avoid families with a history of witchcraft, mental illnesses and laziness, attributes that were frowned upon by the community.
Eloping (okobasa) was taboo and following the cultural wedding traditions was encouraged.
After the scout had located a suitable bride, the groom informed his parents that he had found a potential wife.
Elders then sent emissaries to the girl’s family and dowry negotiations began.
“Dowry at the time could be as high as 25 head of cattle. My family received 13 head of cattle including several calves that were not counted in the total,” recalls 80-year-old Tabitha Kerubo Nyangweso.
Tabitha narrates an unfortunate event that took place during her wedding day in 1944 when the groom’s party was conscripted by the colonial government to take part in the World War II.
“I fainted on learning the news. People cried out asking the government agents to respect the wedding party in vain. We had to bribe the chief to cheat that my husband had a lung problem. He returned from Mombasa a week later,” recalls Tabitha.
Once dowry had been paid, a special day called ekerorano was set-aside for the bride and groom to meet.
“Four men led by the scout esigani arrived at the bride’s home and stood outside. Introductions were usually done while standing. The groom could introduce himself and the bride would ask if he had left the door to his house open (that is whether he was already married),” says Tabitha.
The introduction was followed by a physical inspection where the groom and bride bared their upper bodies. Each checked the other to ensure there were incisions or marks on the body. This was a way of of checking for beauty and strength.
Satisfied, the bride and groom would shake hands and swear not to renege on the agreement to marry each other. Food would be served after this event.
The bride was allowed to visit the groom before the wedding and could sleep over but in the company of a young boy and girl who slept between them to avoid any sexual encounter.
A wedding date was then set when the bride would be escorted by a group of girls from her village to her matrimonial home. The groom’s party arrived a day earlier and a party was organised where young men danced throughout the night.
Gifts including a large pot and blankets for the mother-in-law and a goat for the father-in-law were exchanged for bearing a beautiful daughter.
Her parents gave the bride a table and chairs and other utensils. Dowry was paid in form of cattle usually 10-15 but sometimes higher.
Four goats were delivered alongside the dowry. One was slaughtered on that evening and the other in the morning. One other goat was also slaughtered to accompany the first meal. This practice has been retained to date.
“The bride carried a special gourd enkondo in her arms. The groom walked ahead followed by the bride and bridesmaids (abariakari) and then the rest of the party,” explains Jeriah Moriasi, 88, who served as a bridesmaid in a traditional wedding.
The bride wore red ochre and soot and trudged to her new home taking occasional rests depending on the distance. Villagers cheered and ululated as the wedding party passed by.
A dramatic exit
The departure from her home was however, not without drama. The bride was not expected to leave her ancestral home willingly.
“During my wedding day, I hid and took off to my elder sister’s home several kilometres away. They searched for me in vain and eventually had to pay a fine of a goat to my sister before getting me,” says Tabitha.
She says her husband even threatened to withdraw the dowry due to her antics as she yet again sneaked off to her father’s home prompting payment of another fine.
Young men sent to pick the bride could be forced to work in her father’s farm for days until the fine, a goat, was delivered.
Sometimes brothers to the bride engaged the groom’s party in a fierce battle on the first cock’s crow as they struggled to take off with the bride.
On arrival at her matrimonial home, the bride stopped outside the compound and refused to move prompting use of physical force.
“I was clawed and beaten senseless in order to accept to move into my home. It was no joking matter as I was bleeding profusely by the time I moved,” says Tabitha.
The wedding night
“At night, your age-mates stay outside your hut and listen to ensure all goes well. In case of resistance, they can step in and help ensure the marriage is consummated, but if they hear the woman cry, they laugh out loud as they disperse,” says Omoke Okemwa, an elder.
The bridal party returned home a day later. Two days later, the first brown ugali in a traditional hot pot (ekee) was delivered from the bride’s ancestral home, but the husband was not supposed to take it.
“The first delivery of ugali symbolised consummation of the marriage. It was taboo for the groom to take this ugali,” says Omoke.
A he-goat was slaughtered at the bride’s home and delivered raw with the ugali. No entrails were included in the package carried by three women except the liver and lungs.
Five pots of local brew accompanied the second ugali delivery.
Egetinge, a band worn on the ankle, was given to respected women in a ceremony. For a woman, the band implied she could not leave her matrimonial home or take another man even if the husband died.
“Today, divorce is common.
The traditional wedding had a lot of respect and people meant what they said. These days it is like a joke where people exchange vows they are not prepared to keep,” laments Tabitha.