In recent years Swaziland has become increasingly more westernized in its marriage practices. The country has begun to veer away from polygamy because the practice is no longer financially beneficial in Swaziland’s increasingly industrialized economy. Although some marriage customs have been abandoned, the engagement process continues to reflect traditional practices from Swaziland’s pastoral past.
Muhle and I recently spoke about his aunt’s engagement. As is custom in Swazi culture, a man who wishes to propose travels to the woman’s house in the middle of the night with an entourage full of family members and livestock. Because extended families in Swaziland usually live together in gated compounds, the prospective groom must wait outside the gate and yell to the family that he is there to propose. The woman’s family, who has been warned of his arrival, sends the smallest child in the family to the gate to tell the man that they cannot hear him. This shouting game continues for 5-10 minutes until the man and his entourage are finally allowed in. Once inside the compound, the man and his entourage are shown where they will be staying for the night. In the morning, the man offers the woman’s family a goat or cow, which they kill and share as “a sort of peace offering” before the “negotiations” begin.
To begin the proposal process, the man meets with the woman’s father and brothers to discuss the bride price. The man brings a matchbox with corn kernels in it “representing however many cows they are proposing” for the daughter’s hand in marriage. The father of the bride-to-be will then add kernels to the matchbox and negotiations will continue until both parties are satisfied with the price.
Muhle’s aunt was an “expensive bride” and required a high bride price because she has never been married before, does not have children, is a devote Christian, has a degree, has a good reputation, and raised her nieces and nephews. These characteristics make her a “desirable wife” according to Swazi culture. The bride price, which is usually paid in livestock, is paid to the father of the bride or, in the case of his absence, the closest male in her lineage. When I asked Muhle why the gifts were not given to the females of the family he explained that Swaziland is a patrilineal society and that the gifts go to the males who “made her the person that is worth this many [cows].”
Following the proposal both families celebrate together with feasts and parties to kick off the engagement period which usually lasts anywhere between a month and a year. This traditional form of engagement is completely unlike proposals in the United States. While it is considered respectful for the male to ask the female’s father’s permission to marry his daughter, normally there is no bride price. While other cultures around the world have practices similar to those of Swaziland, the United States does not have an engagement ritual that is followed as strictly.