In Gambia, unions among people of the Moslem faith, usually follow certain traditional Islamic traditions with an infusion of ethnic customs and practices. It is an elaborate ceremonial tradition with its own rules and forms of etiquette. Although men marry at a somewhat later age, most women marry between the ages of 14-20 (20-30 in urban areas). The wedding is mainly an arrangement between two families and not between individuals, especially when it is a case of a second or third wife, although today in most of the country the couple to be wed is consulted and their wishes respected. However, great importance is still placed on marrying within the social group.
The courtship begins with the offering of kola nuts to the parents of the bride-to-be by the suitor’s family. If the father accepts them, a bride price is established (“la dot”) and a date for the ceremony at the mosque is arranged. The origins of “la dot” probably signify imparting a guarantee of stability and also a compensation to the bride’s family for the loss of one of its members.
The day of the “tying of the marriage” the uncles and fathers of the betrothed (the couple to be wedded are not present) meet at the mosque. Three witnesses are present before the Marabout, and kola nuts brought by the bride’s father are distributed to the guests. The remainder of the dowry is now handed over to the bride’s father by the groom’s father or other male relative. The average dowry now is over D3,000 but among the urban bourgeoisie it may be a lot more. After the mosque formalities the groom delivers to the bride’s home all the gifts she asked for and which have previously been agreed upon: usually a wooden bed, a radio, a watch, shoes, etc. (Today this may also include a television or VCR.) Then a goat, a sheep, or a cow is killed and food prepared for the assembled guests (the bride and groom remain separately in their own homes.)
When all the dowry is paid and accounted for, a wedding date can then be set. Wedding ceremonies should be held on Thursday evening, but today because of work constraints the weddings are often held on Sunday. The bride prepares herself at home as close friends help wash, perfume and dress her in white clothes with a white veil or pagne (cloth) covering her face. Her hands are dyed with henna and her hair is braided with beads or coins. If she is Fulani or Tukulor she will wear 3 gris-gris around her neck to protect her against evil spirits.
After drumming and feasting all night at the bride’s home until about 5 o’clock in the morning, she may go to the home of her new husband. There a cow or sheep is killed and more food prepared and the celebration continues until evening. From this time on the bride stays with her husband. The next few days involve various rites and ritual feasting marking the bride’s official membership in the husband’s compound. One week later the “jour de linge” (laundry day) marks the end of the honeymoon. The wife and her friends gather up all the laundry from the week and go to the well. Clothing and linens may be deliberately soiled by the husband’s friends; dancing and celebrating highlighted by a special feast to mark the day.
Should the marriage turn to talk of divorce then it is up to the man to write to his wife’s parents or failing that her uncle or close elder relations and say in the letter that he is divorcing his wife giving an explanation of the reasons why. There then follows a period of talks when a family delegation from the man’s family would try to talk to the husband asking him to re-consider his decision. This is something that has to be done under Muslim tradition.