Bride capture time: total night in paths surrounded by high guinea-corn stalk
In August 1973, I observed an Abisi wedding ceremony when a girl is married to her three husbands.
The ceremony was a staged “wife capture” setting with the abduction of the woman by her Riner husband who came with his friends and relatives.
The events also involved the two other husbands Kiso and Tiyikirat and their brothers and friends.
The Riner was coming to fetch his wife while the two other husbands protested and affirmed their rights to the same woman.
The night before, around four in the morning, the uyikirat of the girl’s house brings her an empty calabash while she is with her Kiso lover in her room.
At her door, he calls he softly and ask to come in. He asks if the Uyirakiso is there and when he answers “yes” he gives him the empty calabash saying: “Here is a meal for both of you.”
This is a sign that he will lose his girl the next day his life will be empty like the calabash. Both obviously knew it and that last night passes without sleep.
The father’s gesture dramatized the situation and the girl brakes in tears. Early next morning, young men go around all the houses in the section where there is a girl is to be married and call their sisters.
“Come, come, your sister is going to marry, she will go with her ureriner. Come help her cry.”
When they are all together, they are served porridge cook by the girl’s father’s sister.
Together, they eat a little and cry, eat a little more and cry again until they burst laughing…underlining the ritual but stressing dimension of their behavior and expressing a real sense of a tested solidarity.
The girl’s parents send the /ud0ra/ messenger at the ureriner house to inform him to come to fetch his wife in the night. The boy’s father gives him 2-3 shillings.
The riner boy gathers his friends and brothers, he goes around every house to ask help to accompany him to the ukoriner house.
Both the kiso and the tiyikirat boy have the same invitation and gather their own brothers and friends to go to the first husband marriage ceremony.
The kiso lover is the first to be able to speak to the girl. He tells her:
“I know you are going away with your ureriner tonight and maybe you will not come back to me. I have heard he has prepared a very nice room for you with a new roof and painting and I think you will not want to leave it to come back to me.”
The girl exclaims, scandalized by this idea that she will go to him, the boy that she as personally chosen…
Satisfied, he lets the third boy, the /uyiktiyikirat/ talk with her. He repeats the same but adds that by the time she will be with the riner and after him the kiso, two years will have passed and that is an unsupportable long time.
The girls assure him that she will go to his house anyways, as soon as she is able.
Shaving the Sister In-law’s Head
Both men Kiso and Tiyikirat invite the girl’s sister’s to sit on benches. The Kiso declares that he has to shave his usakiso’s head which he does, using a small razor to design nice patterns.
The two other husbands also shave the sister’s hair, showing to all that they are husbands to be and that they could also have married these girls.
“Hard to Get” Wife
The bride and about twenty single young girls of her patriline gathered at their Elder’s house.
Mothers and other women were also preparing for the marriage ceremony that would take place in a large room and in the inside court.
When I arrived, the girls were coating their body with mahogany oil and discussing with the other women how to organize collective resistance to their departure.
It was a dark night, with no moon, no electricity, only lighted by large fires and a few people with kerosene lanterns.
As I was standing at the house door with other men, a woman came and grabbed my torch.
I did not let go, she pulled and pushed me into the room with all the girls.
So there I was, the only man among all these naked young women, glistening with oil, laughing and very, very edgy.
Sitting on the ground, each with her legs and arms folded around the waist and chest of the girl in front. They formed a large snake like a trap, tightly knit to conceal and retain the ones who would go away to marry that night.
At about eight in the evening, fifteen to twenty young men, dressed in short pants or goat skins, well-oiled bodies, got at the house where the women were gathered.
Each husband had recruited strong young men of their family and friends to come to help them. The Riner to bring her at his home , the others to oppose.
Sneaking near the entrance, they hid among the tall sorghum stalks, which in this time of the year are very high. Each husband’s group was waiting for his turn to go to the doorway and ask for their wife.
In time, the groups of the second and third husband enter the house.
They stood in a line in the central place of the house. They were armed with sticks carried high in a defensive attitude for fear of attacks from the women of the house who displayed a very aggressive behavior.
They threaten them with sticks, threw stones while shouting insults.
At the door, the Riner husband hid behind his friends in fear that if the women saw him, they would flock to beat him.
Suddenly, he comes out of hiding quickly and nervously tends two hens to the Elder and says: “This means that I have come for my wife.”
The Elder examines the hens and replies: “Yes, I’ll get her.”
When he arrives at the girl’s room, the other husbands, Kiso and Tiyikirat and their friends stand in front of the door blocking the entrance and refusing anyone to come in .
The Elder says: “I want to enter the room.”
They answer: “Yes enter” but nobody moves.
They even insist: “Come in, come in, we want no quarrel with you.”
But every attempt of the Elder to comply is pushed away.
Pretending to lose patience, he goes to the fireplace , grabs firebrands and throws it on the boys who avoid it.
The Elder changes his strategy and tries to play humility to convince them to let him go to the girl’s room:
“I beg you, let me in, it is an Abisi custom, I have to give my daughter to these people and you prevent me from doing my duty. Please, let me in.
He is told again: “Yes, enter” but he is stopped as soon as he tries.
In a final attempt, the Elder takes out a small knife and threatens to cut their thighs.
This time, they let him in, but his troubles are not over.
Searching the Wife to Give Away
The Elder enters the totally obscure room where the bride is hidden among the other girls who hold her firmly.
Once entered, a real stampede arises.
He gropes around the darkness, seeks the girl, trying to recognize her voice among all the shouting.
Taking out the girl is difficult, the other ones solidly retain their sister whose slippery oiled body does not facilitate the task. Every time he is about to grab her, the others jump to her help and get in front of her.
He grabs one by the arm and pulls until the other girls let go.
Getting out of the room thinking he had succeeded, he realized it was the wrong girl!
He has to return immediately inside the room to keep searching , while the assembly outside is getting more and more tense, impatient and troubled by the house women provocations.
Finally, the Elder manages to get the girl and pulls her out. But as soon as she falls down, all the women cling, jostle and hit him to stop him from taking the girl away.
Finally, he drags the weeping girl to Riner husband‘s group.
The Calabash Wife
Holding his daughter’s arm, the Elder transfers her to the bridegroom and says:
“Behold your calabash. I give it to you today. ”
If the girl is sick, he adds:
“But this calabash is broken, you’ve got to be very careful not to damage it anymore and take good care of it.”
If the girl is healthy, he will say:
“Behold your calabash, it is in perfect condition, and I warned you not to spoil it. Take your calabash. “
This gesture prompts hostilities again.
All the women trying to make their way among the other men to get to the fleeing husband.
As soon as the groom has grabbed the girl’s wrist, he quickly turns to two of his strong men who will carry her.
She cannot touch the ground before she gets to their house. One firmly holds both wrists from behind his shoulders and the other lifts her by the feet.
They run off to the husband’s father’s house, some bleeding from head wounds from the battle with the women.
Throughout the return home journey, the Riner group yells, shouting long “awiiii“, a cry that warns the husband’s household of the group’s approach
The arrival at the house is loudly acclaimed by laughter and joy:
“Come in, come, we have our new wife!”
First Night – New Room -New Role
Entering his house, the Riner takes his wife to her nuptial room.
Newly built in the dry season, it stands out with its whitewash front decorated with red spots and smelling good of new grass roof.
She is invited to enter the room but she has to refuse and continue her resistance as a good girl should. She has to be pushed in by the husband’s brothers.
As soon as she is inside, she jumps to a wall and grabs the roof post with her hands up resisting again and refusing to sit down. Every time she loses her grip when the men try to get her down, she jumps back to the wall and keeps on resisting.
After some time, the men get out of the room and leave her with her husband.
They sit on the bedside but she is shy and does not talk.
Some women come in the room and talk with her but she does not answer. The husband then takes her out to the /ukopok/ or “housewife” , a married women of the house, who will be her guardian.
She then behaves like she is totally ignorant, not knowing how to do anything. The women put a small pot on her head and take her to the river to fetch water. They fill it for her and take her back to the house and transfers the water in the ukopok water pot.
They give her grain to grind but she voluntarily spills some on the ground like if she had never learned to do this work.
For all her riner period, the new wife will work with the ukopok. She has to show her readiness: getting up earlier than others, preparing the fire, heating water for her husband’s bath, cooking food…
To show their mutual consent, the riner husband , according to Sapon :
” The next morning , the boy’s mother has to cook some special porridge for the ukoriner before she can talk to anybody. After she drank it , she can start talking to everybody including yourself. From then on for a few days, she shall be joking happily with everybody throwing water on them”
Sometimes, she may refuse to let him sleep in the room with her for three or four days until she is convinced of his good intentions toward her.
On some occasions, if she has no interest but her obligations, a young Riner wife may totally refuse to sleep with her husband. He may try to threats her of physical abuses or, in last resort, use a love potion to get the wife’s attention.
She can respond either by taking advantage of every opportunity to flee at night to hide outside the house and only come back in the morning.
Uyirakiso Affirms his Rights
The day after the first marriage, the young Kiso man goes to the Ureriner’s house where his wife now lives with her first husband.
After greeting everyone and paying special respect to his Riner rival, he gets out a few feet away from the house followed by the women.
They talk together about their future projects, himself insisting that he is her personal Kiso love choice and not that of her Riner husband’s father.
For a period of about 6 months, the Kiso is allowed to visit her periodically at her Riner husband’s house.
He worries that if she becomes pregnant, she won’t be interested in staying with him after she moves at his house the year after. She will go back to the child’s father after completing her three marriages. He even tries to convince her to disobey her parent and elope with him.
A Sophisticated Marriage Ceremony
Abisi marriage appears like a ritualized forced marriage by abduction.
It may even reenact ancient times when girls had to marry into foreign groups of sitting friends. The passage of a girl from her home to the husband’s home was more than a simple tie between a couple.
Mistrust between groups must have been high. Young girls certainly felt that what her father asked of her was a duty and not just a personal choice. It was a political action.
Politics is much more diffused than relations among chiefs, it also talks about power differences such as that which appear between men and women.
One aspect of which is sexual antagonism which is visible when men and women are confronted as if they were two opposed groups.
Not only does women’s resistance express the universal subject about sad parents who see their daughter or sister move away to live with an unknown family, it also shows women’solidarity against men.
This sexual antagonism may also be an implicit critic of the exchange of women by men in the context of marriages. The Riner marriage playing such an important political and economic role in Abisi society.
The rivalry between men is also evident, second and third husband do express their concerns by obstructing the direct exchange between the wife’s father and the son-in-law.
They assert their rights as the women’s husbands but by shaving the heads of her sisters, they also show that they, as a group, are “wife-takers” to this group of “wife-givers”.
Elopement with the second husband, the Kiso lover, does happen when both are willing to defy parental authority but the women will eventually return in time to marry her first husband as prescribed by her family because parental recognition is essential.
This shows that Abisi also recognizes that obligations to their society do not prevent individual love which is also important in their life.
It also proves that Abisi think differently the rights and duties between spouses.
They do not believe in monogamy (one man married to one woman) nor in simple polygyny ( a man with many wives).
For them, a man cannot claim to control all of his wife’s life.
He is not the sole beneficiary of all of her domestic work nor, of all her work in production, neither all her sociability and certainly not, all her fertility.
These must be shared just like any polygamous husband must be shared.
A man must accept that his wife has other husbands who will seek to assert themselves before her.
The competition does not stop at the door of the bedroom: the women can always go away and live with another husband if he rests on his laurels.