Courtship, Betrothal in Oshiwambo culture (Part 2)

By Alfred Angula Mbenzi
November 2012
In the past, it took a long time before a man got a positive response for his proposal to a woman because during those days it was not the practice for a girl to give a positive response too soon.

A girl who responded positively to the first proposal ke shi gwolela (she was not a responsible person). It was also believed that such a girl ke shi kwiinekelwa (she was not a faithful one).

In fact, the girls delayed the process, because they wanted to see how serious the boys were.

The serious boy would press for a response and would repeat his intention to the girl earnestly to demonstrate his seriousness in the matter.

Before the girl gave a positive response, she would consult with his parents. The response the boy would receive from the girl depended on her parents’ approval.

When the girl or boy was introduced to their future in-laws, they would be subjected to cross-examinations.

They would be asked the following questions by their fathers-in-law: “Do you know what this man is looking for?” The girl would respond in the affirmative.

The father of the girl would then turn to the boy and say, “You have travelled all the way from your home. Are there no other girls in your neighborhood?”

The boy would respond that there were but he was more interested in –this particular girl.

The father would continue, “I think you do not know our daughter so well. She is a difficult person. She is also lazy. We have problems with her and are unable to discipline her. Will you really be able to cope with her? Is this the girl you want as your future wife?”

To all these questions, the boy would reply, “Eeno, Tatekulu.” (Yes, grandfather. Grandfather here is the title bestowed upon one’s grandfather, one’s maternal uncle, one’s father-in-law, a male senior rank or any elderly man).

When the girl visited the family of her fiancé, she would also be subjected to the same test.

After the father narrated the bad qualities of the girl, the boy would frankly state that the girl was his type and assure the parents that he was prepared to take her despite her weaknesses.

Oral examination was not the only type of evaluation used. The parents and their neighbours had to examine the physical qualities of a suitor as well as his social behaviour. They examined the following: The way he answered questions, his physical appearance, the way he sat and his behaviour towards them.

For example, did he maintain eye contact with them or glance and look down? If a boy avoided eye contact with them all the same, then it was believed that he had to be a cunning person.

If he looked them straight in the eyes, then it was perceived as a sign of disrespect too. If he had the habit of looking around quite often, then it meant he was also very cunning.

When the father and his entourage realised that this boy was serious and determined to go ahead with the affair, he would then give him a nod of approval. The parents would then leave the guests and reside somewhere else where they would be served food.

While the boy ate, one woman would watch him to see how he ate, because people did not like in-laws who ate hurriedly.

Traditionally while the future son or daughter-in-law ate, some people would peep to observe their eating habits. The boy could not make any mistakes, because he would have been instructed by his parents on how to go about this exercise.

There were types of food a future in-law could not eat, such as goat meat. It was believed that if they ate goat meat, they would be soon wiped out. Chicken could also not be eaten by the future in-laws. A chicken scratches for food and if one ate it, he would become a spendthrift. Fish was not eaten as well.

Fish is slippery, so if one ate it, it was believed he would abandon his fiancé.

The fish was deliberately provided to the boy, especially if he had not been welcomed by his future in-laws. Eating fish also meant that the in-law would become a talkative person. The only suitable food for the future son-in-law was ekaka (dried wild spinach).

The ekaka was believed to be a symbol of unity and fortune. To the boy, all these things were easy as he would have been orientated prior to this rigorous exercise.

The parents and some neighbours or acquaintances would hold a special meeting to make the final decision as to whether to accept the future in-law or not.

Each set of parents would then give either positive or negative comments on what they would have observed. After each parent had expressed their views on matter, they would reach a consensus.

The decision would then be conveyed to the guests and then to the boy by the parents who would have at last come to bid the guests good bye. Today, parents play a minimal role in choosing a fiancée or fiancé for their sons or daughters. But parents still advise their children to look for partners with good qualities.

There are still women from certain clans who are considered not eligible for marriage due to certain reasons such as laziness, talkativeness and so forth.

The physical qualities used as criteria for selecting a marriageable man or woman in the ancient times, no longer play a major role in today’s selection process.

The fiancée or fiancé is still subjected to oral test to find out whether she/he is suitable or not. Those who conduct the interview also observe the social behaviours and physical qualities of an interviewee.

When the parents are not satisfied with the qualities of a man or woman, they advise their son or daughter to abandon a man or woman. The food such ekaka and oshithima are still suitable for a fiancée or fiancé as they symbolize unity and good luck.

A number of parents still advise their sons or daughter to avoid eating fish, chicken and goat meat on the day of their interview. Such foods, however, may be eaten by the people who have accompanied the fiancée or fiancé. PF