Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Social and Cultural Anthropologist and contributor Scherin Barlow-Massay

Yoruba Marriage (Igbeyawo)

In the Yoruba culture the literal meaning of Igbeyawo is “carrying a wife.”

The marriage traditions of the Yoruba people of Nigera were recorded in the 19th century by the Rev. Samuel Johnson, whose father was Yoruba. In his book: The History of the Yorubas, Johnson gives an account of Yoruba traditions and culture, both from his own observations, and from oral history. Concerning the marriage traditions he wrote:

The ceremony of betrothal is a very important one: it is generally performed at night when all the most important members of the family on both sides will be at leisure to be present, as well as their intimate friends…This event (the betrothal is also an occasion of rejoicing, feasting and offering sacrifice…The bride is conducted to her new home always in the night, attired in her best with a thin white cloth for a veil, and attended by her companions all well clothed, with drums, and singing and dancing. The bridal party is met at the entrance gate of the bridegroom’s compound by a female band of the house specially selected for the purpose, and by them the ceremony of washing the brides feet is performed, and then the bride is literally lifted and borne into the house. Hence the term for marriage “Gbe Iyawo” i.e. lifting or carrying the bride. P. 114: Marriage (Igbeyawo)

By tradition, kwe-kwe and other celebrations took place at night because enslaved people were forbidden from openly practicing their cultural traditions. However, they continued to assert those cultural practices in secrecy which in some cases were activities that were performed during the night-time in their own countries. Over time, those traditions evolved into a culture that is today, typically African-Guyanese, but with roots that lie in West African cultural traditions.

Kwe-kwe songs are sung in a ‘call and response’ manner. This is in keeping with African traditional singing. Another early influence in the make-up of kwe-kwe songs came from the coastal regions of West Africa where the music is spontaneous and influenced by daily events. Songs were sung for all occasions including: births, deaths, marriages, political commentaries, praise songs, and for passing on oral traditions and history.

Yoruba Marriage (Igbeyawo). Photo courtesy

Yoruba Marriage (Igbeyawo). Photo courtesy

Initiation songs played an important role in education and instructing. Songs that highlighted the virtue of the bride-to-be, showed that chastity was a desirable quality within West African society and those values did not change, despite rape and coerced sexual relations during enslavement.

The traditions of singing marital instruction songs were very much a part of 17th century West African life that enslaved people took to Guyana. This practice can still be seen today in Igbo traditional marriages.

Kwe-kwe songs are sung in Guyanese Creolese which is a combination of various West African languages, English, and Plat Nederlands. Today, many of the songs that derived from kwe-kwe have become traditional Guyanese folk songs.

Chastity in African societies was highly prized and it was customary once a couple had consummated their marriage, to display the sheet of the marital bed as proof of the wife’s virginity. The covering of the bride with a white sheet in the kwe-kwe corresponds with the Yoruba traditional wedding ceremony where the bride is covered with a white sheet, lifted and carried. White in many traditions symbolized chastity.

In the Guyanese kwe-kwe, both couples are carried. In Igbo tradition, it is the bride-to-be who goes in search of the groom, whereas both couples are sought out in the Guyanese traditional wedding.

Among traditional African cultures it was normal for the groom to pay a bride price to the wife’s family. Live stock, money, material, yams etc, were all part of the bride price. In the absence of the traditional family structure in the Caribbean, women became head of households and we see the enactment of this tradition in the kwe-kwe when the mother of the groom-to-be is offered a gift in return for his purchase. In present day West African societies, the formal asking permission to marry and subsequent negotiation of the bride price is normally a male dominated affair.

Dancing has always been part of the West African cultural system and this retention continued during enslavement. Although drums were forbidden, the people used their feet to beat out the rhythms as they danced in an anti-clock wise, circular formation. Some women tied a piece of material around their hips and waist to accentuate their movements as they danced from one foot, to the other, swinging their waists from side to side.

Nowadays, with the migration of thousands of African-Guyanese to the USA, Canada and Britain, people who would not normally have celebrated kwe-kwe in Guyana, are embracing it as part of their cultural heritage; something that identifies and unifies them as Guyanese abroad. Such celebrations help them to celebrate and maintain a sense of cultural identity as well as emotional and psychological links with their country. In those new communities, kwe-kwe is once again evolving as it is mixed with some of the customs of the host country. However, it remains a festivity celebrating the joining of two families’ legitimate sexual relations and new relationships.