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A wedding – Beninese style


Jeremy and Somel Akowanou pose in church with their marriage certificate.

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March 26, 2008
-Deborah Froese

COTONOU, Benin — It takes more than a wedding dress and an afternoon in church to get married in Benin.  Nancy Frey discovered that Beninese weddings take place with three distinct ceremonies adhering to traditional, legal and religious requirements.  They celebrate not only the union of the bride and groom, but the merger of two families. 

Frey, who teaches at the Benin Bible Institute with the support of Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network,  attended the church wedding of Jeremy and Somel Akowanou on Feb. 2, 2008.  In a recent prayer letter she noted that the groom and his family pay for all wedding costs, beginning with a dowry or “bride price”  which is presented to the bride’s parents and her extended family in their home.  The bride is not present for dowry negotiations and an aunt or uncle rather than a parent will speak on her behalf.  “During this time, there is quite a lot of bantering back and forth.  The spokesperson for the groom has to be quite verbally adept,” Frey wrote. “The groom is back at home, praying for a good outcome.”
Gifts of money and beverages are made to members of the extended family, but because the dowry is also designed to ensure the future of the bride, she receives many of the gifts.  These include cookware and other household items, and a suitcase filled with fabric, shoes and purses.

Once the dowry has been accepted, a veiled woman appears before the groom’s family.  They  must determine whether or not this is the young woman the groom wishes to marry – without raising her veil.  Her height and demeanour are their only clues.  “ ...The first two girls who come out are decoys,” Frey wrote.  “The groom’s family must hold out for the third and last candidate who will be the right one.”

The traditional Beninese ceremony is not complete until the bride states that she is willing to marry the young man.  Then the couple are considered husband and wife by traditional standards and they can live together with the husband’s family.  However, they are not legally married until they have a civil ceremony and sign a marriage license.  Frey pointed out that although the state does not officially recognize the dowry, it will only marry a couple once a dowry has been given.

The final ceremony takes place in the church, usually on a Saturday.  It closely models North American tradition with the exchange of vows and rings, prayers of blessing and a sermon, but spontaneous, celebratory dancing give it a distinct West African flavour.  At the Akowanou wedding, the groom’s grandmother danced with such joy – and for such a prolonged period – that she had to be encouraged by one of her sons to  return to her seat so that the ceremony could continue. 

The increased popularity of white wedding gowns and veils in Benin has prompted a new practice.  After the exchange of vows and rings, the groom slowly rolls up his bride’s veil  - just as in Western tradition – but before he kisses her, he checks one last time to ensure she is indeed the woman he intended to marry.

The church ceremony is followed by a presentation of gifts, a photo session and a shared meal.   The next Sunday morning, the newly married couple leads their family down the aisle to the front of the church singing praises to God.

Nancy Frey and her husband Bruce Yoder teach at Benin Bible Institute and are on the Board of Directors. They live in Cotonou with their two children, Jeremiah and Deborah.