Arranged marriages are still a phenomenon in many parts of Africa. In these times when one would ordinarily think the choice of a lifelong partner is the responsibility of an individual, families intervene, with their preference taking precedence.
One harmful side-effect of this cultural trait is the problem of child marriages. This issue has seen decades of attention by African activists and governments.
However, another murky phenomenon in African marriages which does not come under discussion as often is consanguineous (same-blood) marriages.
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Same-blood marriages in Africa have persisted for centuries in Africa as recorded history shows. The famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra, married her brother Ptolemy XIII over 500 years Before Common Era (BCE).
For the sake of farms, landed properties and kingdoms, many Africans have sought to keep things in the family by procreating with people from within a very narrow unit of kinship.
The most notable kind of same-blood marriages is between first cousins but consanguineous marriages also involve other family members. It would seem the line is drawn at brother and sister relationships.
From the north down to the south of the continent, it is common to see such marriages. This seeming regularity could have been supported by more recent data but there has been none in a while.
According to a 1994 study by Alan Bittle for Population and Development Review, some 1 in 3 African groups of people either accept or prefer same-blood marriages to external unions.
Among the Hausa, Nigeria’s biggest ethnic group, same-blood marriages are popular. Being a largely Muslim population, the men tend to marry multiple wives, with some of these wives being related.
The situation is not too dissimilar among the Yoruba, another huge ethnic group in Africa’s most populous country. In Yoruba culture, not only are cousin marriages accepted but unions between uncles and nieces too.
The Fulani of West Africa, the Akan of Ghana, the Sotho-Tswana of southern Africa and the Berber tribes of North Africa, all entertain one or another form of same-blood marriages.
But a proper understanding of what goes on among these peoples would require us to understand what purposes marriage serves within the ethnic groups.
Apart from the assumption that marriage is a union between probably two individuals and their families, sometimes, marriages are contracted to secure material and/or political goods.
For instance, the Hausa people permit cousin marriages so as to ensure that lands and livestock are kept among kinfolks.
However, much has changed in the last three decades since Bittle’s research. It is even fair to say that the ratio of 1 in 3 African groups might have dwindled.
We should also be careful to say that this reduction is not uniform. In North Africa, consanguineous marriages are still quite popular.
Apart from metaphysical reasons proposed by cultures, modern scientific knowledge has also upended the prevalence of same-blood marriages in Africa.
The malformed children out of inbreeding have served as deterrents to many people.
But all of this begs a question: Is incest wrong? It would seem the answer depends on who you are asking and how they define incest.
The reality of the matter must be acknowledged that consanguineous relationships exist in Africa. How this would inform the sentiments we have about our people and cultures is up to us.