African wedding traditions have evolved over many centuries and despite some westernisation, a lot of traditional African weddings are still carried out today. If people do not go back to their villages to perform the traditional wedding rites and customs, they will still replicate elements of their tribe’s traditional African wedding whether they are in metropolitan Africa or in an entirely different country.
The variety of wedding traditions across the African continent is huge, so in this article I will focus mainly on the wedding customs found in South African weddings, particularly in the wedding receptions.
Karamu wedding feast
The wedding meal which follows the wedding ceremony is traditionally known as the Karamu. Before the reception begins, the oldest male present (usually a relative of the bride or groom) gives a blessing of the couple and the festivities about to be celebrated.
Table decorations using African customs and symbols
Four Elements – An old African tradition describes tasting the four elements – lemon, vinegar, pepper, and honey. Use this to create a sensory centrepiece, with four decorative pots containing each element included in a simple floral centrepiece. Give each guest a spoon, and a card that explains the tradition. Guests are invited to taste the four elements along with the newly married couple. This ritual dramatizes the “Traditional” promise to love “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
Kola Nuts – In Africa, the kola nut is a symbol of healing and used for many medical purposes. Exchanging kola nuts with friends and family symbolises that they will always be able to heal their differences, that no adversity would ever prove greater than the love they have for one another. Hang kola nuts from a decorative branch on each table, or fill a beautiful vase with them and invite your guests to share and swap them with each other to partake of this unique custom.
Twelve symbols of life – Twelve items represent a different aspect of the love and strength which unites two families. These are wine, wheat, pepper, salt, bitter herbs, water, a pot and spoon, a broom, honey, a spear, a shield, and a copy of the Bible or the Koran. These items are always present at an African wedding, and could easily be included in the table decorations at the reception.
Sharing and feeding others
It is the African belief that in marriage, a couple are joining not only their own lives but those of their families. This is demonstrated by each feeding the other’s family from baskets of unleavened bread, serving the older members of both families first and most ceremoniously to show respect.
Additionally, custom dictates that the bride must feed her new husband to show the wedding guests how well she will take care of him in the future. If she does not feed him or give him a drink properly, the senior women in her family and his are required to show her how to do so properly. Once he eats what she has given him, she will then take him and officially present him to her parents as her husband. Her parents will ask her in front of all the guests to confirm that she has made this choice herself and she will publicly agree.
In modern-day society, these rituals are performed ceremonially and more for show, but the roots remain as strong as they ever were.
In most African wedding cultures, there is often the famous money dance. The newly-married couple dance for as long as they possibly can as their wedding guests shower them with money. What happens to all the cash collected varies from culture to culture; some couples get to keep it all as a gift to themselves whereas in some areas the money goes to the mother of bride.
In South Africa, to mark the start of the newlyweds life together, the bride’s and groom’s parents would traditionally carry a fire from their hearths in their homes to the home of the new couple, where a new fire would be lit.