Intriguing Wolof People’s Custom about Marriage, Divorce and Polygamy

Marriage in Senegal has greatly changed in recent times due to western influences. But in rural areas the differences are not much. Traditional marriage in Wolof culture is such a unique one where the maternal influence play a major role.

The Wolof people are found in North-Eastern part of Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia.

The Wolof people are the largest ethnic grouping in Senegal (35% of the Senegalese populace) and in Gambia they are about 12% of the Gambian populace. The Wolof as a people are largely Muslim and they practice Islam as religion.

The institution of marriage is an essential part of the Wolof culture. This statement indicates that a family is an important unit, to the Wolof people, the family forms a building block for other social units into which the Wolof society is organized.

To form a stronger and stable family unit, the Wolof people believed that cross-cousin marriage (young man marrying a maternal uncle’s daughter) was the best form of marriage – they are matrilineal in nature.

This favors the idea that such measures provided the best and most stable marriages. Although it allowed for a young man to marry a paternal aunt’s daughter.

The Wolof attaches more importance to the stability and success of the family unit. Therefore, priority is first given to marriage to a maternal uncle’s daughter.

Marriage age in Wolof Culture

In rural areas, where the Wolof culture has its strong hold the marriage age for boys is early twenties and late teens for girls. This trend is not the same in Urban areas where young people residing in towns marry at later ages. These adjustments can be credited to western influence to Wolof cultures.

Wolof People and Polygamy

Polygamy is a normal occurrence among the Wolof people because they are largely Muslim.

Marring more than one wife is allowed in Islam. In addition, the traditional Wolof culture considered many wives as a sign of wealth and prosperity, to them it’s also a source of pride and prestige.

Wolof women are hard workers, they take care of their personal farms as well as assisting their husbands in the family farms.

In a typical Wolof home with many wives, the man takes the credit for the wealth that belongs to all his wives – accumulated wealth through hard work from their farms or trade.

Marriage Traditions of Wolof People

Traditionally, parents often arrange marriages for their children. They go into some sort of agreement with the parent of whom they want their children to marry (mutual agreements between the parents of the groom and the bride).

Those days, when a man wants to marry, his father decides for him, they choose a suitable bride for in accordance with their standards. Although the situation has slightly changed with time, this practice is still experienced in rural areas though with some minor changes.

Today, when a young man finds a girl he will like to marry, he has to seek the approval of his parents, the father initiates talks to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. 

He appoints a third party, A go-between. The duty of A go-between was to investigate the girl’s family background and find out the position of the girl’s family regarding the interest in their daughter.

If the finding was satisfactory, the go-between carries kola nuts from the groom’s father to the girl’s family. If the girl’s family accepts the kola nuts, that is an indicator that they have approved the boy and granted him permission to court their daughter.

At this point, the boy can shower the girl and her mother with gifts to win their affection.

The young man is required to assist his future father-in-law in the farm such as weeding, harvesting and herding goat, etc., among other manly endeavors. These activities will enable the girl’s family to assess the character of their future in-law.

Once the girl’s family has ascertained that his character is of good quality, the boy’s father will present more gifts to the girl’s family to seal an agreement that puts the young man as the sole suitor.

Marriage Ceremony

A short marriage ceremony is performed by an Imam (Wolof people are Muslim) at the mosque, in the presence of representatives from both families and witnesses.

During the ceremony, the boy’s mother’s brother is sent on behalf of the groom to ask for the bride’s hand. He carries kola nuts, money and other items as bride price, thus making the marriage legally binding.

Gifts and money are also given to the bride’s mother, father, brothers, and her age-group. Once these obligations are met, at this time the bride can move to the groom’s compound formally.

Before the bride moves, a colorful traditional wedding ritual needs to be carried out, this is done to free the marriage of evil and make it fruitful and successful.

The bride moves to the groom’s house with great joy. The bridal party would then make its way to the groom’s compound where relatives and friends participate in the ceremony.

Items Required for Marriage by Wolof People
Items presented for wolof marriage traditions
1. For the Bride’s Mother
  1. Set of plates
  2. Shoes, bags and jewelry
  3. 2 big bowl
  4. Wrappers
  5. Fashionable clothes
  6. Soaps
  7. Bag of Salt
  8. Cooking Oil
  9. Perfumes
  10. Some amount of money
2. For the Bride’s Father 
  1. Television set
  2. Money
  3. Fashionable clothes
  4. A sewing machine,
  5. jewelry
  6. Box fill with wrapper
  7. cooking utensils
  8. Shoes, bags and jewelry
  9. Makeup kits
  10. And many others,
3. Bride’s Siblings and Age Groups
  1. Give money for their merriment
4. For the Bride
  1. Money
  2. Television set,
  3. A sewing machine,
  4. Jewelry,
  5. box fill with wrapper
  6. cooking utensils
  7. Shoes, bags and jewelry
  8. Makeup kits
  9. Fashionable clothes

And many others,

Divorce in Wolof Culture

Once a woman gets married, it is expected of her or rather it is her primary duty to make her husband happy at all times. She may be forced to go to an extra depth to ensure that she meets the happiness of the husband and thus the stability of her marriage and family.

However, if in any case there is divorce, the children remain with their mother until they are of age before they can go back to their father. It be should noted that divorce could be subject to many factors among them are the social class system.

In conclusion, Wolof people’s marriage traditions show a strong picture of how the Wolof people regard family relationships and their anticipated input to the good of the society.

It expresses their own side of how the world should be populated. Obviously in Wolof culture, the family unit is an essential unit that defines their existence, and apart from being a building block for society, it states the economic status of a man.

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