My senior colleague attended a church ceremony recently, where a baby was being christened. This colleague’s place of worship isn’t in a church, but for the fact that it was an event to name a child and from the background that he was influenced by, he definitely had a fair idea how everything was going to turn out; or so he thought.
In traditional African societies, for most of the West African region especially, the ceremony would usually include whoever is in charge of leading the charge, introducing the taste buds of the baby to such items as water and alcohol. But of course, those introductions are mere drops but truly significant.
The significance here is a simple equation of helping that child grow up to the appreciation and understanding that there are mostly two sides to things; if they are not right, they must definitely be wrong or bitter. It’s that simple!
And this has persisted over many centuries – a tradition that our ancestors passed down to those before us with the hope that we can also pass them on to those after us. The tradition must go on is the agenda.
So that was the expectation of this colleague until he was pleasantly surprised, when, during the ceremony, of a few of the things he knew would be introduced to the child before a name was given him or her, there was no such thing as alcohol. It was a church setting and so that must have calmed his troubled thoughts a little because of what he has heard of the church not endorsing the use of alcohol.
But he could not let this go away just like that especially when during the communion in church, what was served to symbolize the Blood of Jesus, was red alcoholic wine. Surely, he wondered what made it right for alcohol to be used for communion, yet not pass for a significant tradition that has had one important emphasis for as long as his people have existed – to teach the child to differentiate good from evil?
Today, in African traditional settings for instance, traditional marriages do not quite pass for a ‘full’ marriage any longer, largely due to the fact that Christianity has a different set of requirements for the ceremony of marriage. The laws of the land will award couples certificates of marriage even right after the traditional marriage, but the church has been so positioned today to be the one to actually present it to you. It requires that you have your union blessed in church then.
In fact, whether it is a court marriage or not, there is the need for a legally-recognized priest to be present to hand over this certificate of marriage to the couple, reinforcing the notion that you must be wedded in church to feel married.
Yet, the fact is that traditional wedding is actually marriage. Of course, it is a ceremony performed at home but among our people, it is marriage and passes all the tests for it.
But we ask, is Christianity waging a war on traditions that have defined our people for so long, merely under the umbrella that it is not-Christian? And, how is it that the church wedding, also called the white wedding, has to become the yardstick for confidently saying that a person is married the ‘proper’ way or not?
In South Africa, ceremonies such as the male puberty rites called the Thomba, which applied equally to boys and girl, was the practice where during the initiation process, boys and girls of the same age went into separate seclusion (mostly in forests), where they were taught by instructors on the requirements and duties of adulthood. After the male thomba ceremony, the young boy was called an insizwa ‘young man’ and he was free to court girls of his age and in his group, but he was not free to marry.
Puberty rites, for instance in some parts of Ghana are today ranked in the same place of nudity or extreme sexual exposures but what have been the essence of such rites in our communities? Has it served the purpose(s) for which our ancestors instituted them? Have their relevance(s) changed today?
Let’s talk fairness now: there are many obsolete as well as a few very good practices that should not be completely thrown under the bus en meme merely because they come with a ‘traditional’ tag around their necks.
With all these established, with many more traditions and customs around the continent unmentioned in this article but which persist, the question for Christianity today is, why are we fighting some of the practices that are still relevant in today’s world?
There is no doubt that there are many practices, traditionally, across the continent of Africa, that are globally frowned upon and regarded inhumane and primitive and must, therefore, be abolished.
A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) titled ‘Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children’ states “Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a specific group, such as women.
“These harmful traditional practices include female genital mutilation (FGM); forced feeding of women; early marriage; the various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility; nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices; son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child; female infanticide; early pregnancy; and dowry price. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned and take on an aura of morality in the eyes of those practicing them.”
In other parts of Africa, there are practices such as the Barabaig culture of East Africa, where boys get their faces scarred after they have had their heads clean shaven as a sign of true manhood – and they are supposed to live with it for life and with pride.
Our traditional weddings were marriages that were instituted long before the church marriage came to be accepted. Speaking in the true and honest sense, the process of getting married traditionally from the olden days seemed a more effective one because of the extensive background checks that families conducted on each other before they approved for people to get married. It was a long, well-dug-out process of unveiling truths and falsehoods about people’s lives and families, as a measure of curbing future challenges that would be too late to deal with should people marry without having such checks conducted.
Unfortunately, today, Christianity has made church weddings appear to be a more legal process of marrying, much more effective than the traditional one, so much that it has now been shrouded in so much extravagance, scaring many-would-be couples from actually daring to get married. Many young people, unable to meet the demands of the church wedding, are living outside the institution of marriage and in sin because even if they are only able to meet the requirements of a traditional wedding, there is the added expenses of planning for a church wedding.
To many, that feels like getting married twice.
The church is rightly placed to help level society as much as many other customs, traditions and norms do but it should not always be seen to be fighting off anything that doesn’t seem embedded in its ideals and practices. And if for nothing at all, the church, like many of these traditions or practices, resides in the society and what makes up the society are its people – even those in the church.