The Nuer or Naath, roughly translated to ‘original’ people or ‘human beings’, make their home in the savannah regions of South Sudan and western Ethiopia. Cattle ownership plays a central role socially and politically in their pastoral lifestyles. It indicates wealth and prestige, therefore in the traditional wedding ceremony cattle play an important role too. When a man is ready for a wife, he must choose one from another clan. His gift of twenty to forty cattle to his future bride’s clan is seen as a gift to her whole community.
The wedding ceremony begins with the arrival of the groom. He is followed by a group of singing ladies who carry candles and is welcomed by the bride’s mother who presents him with flowers and a secret message of encouragement. When the bride arrives, the couple is seated outside their future home under a veil in the shade of an umbrella, protecting them from the searing African heat. The umbrella is also used as a symbol of respect, appreciation and the coming together of two people.
The couple then kisses the knees of their future parents-in-law to ask for their blessing and show continued dedication and support. The parents dedicate a song, sung by a specially selected man and woman, as a message of eternal paternal love.
The couple stands facing each other at the entrance to their new home. The groom stands just outside the door and the bride in the doorway. This part of the ceremony involves the burning of seven broomsticks to show that the couple is ridding themselves of bad habits that could weaken their relationship. The groom is appointed head of the house as an egg is broken. The bride washes her groom’s feet with water from a clay pot to show obedience. She breaks the pot and enters the house. Here she enjoys her last meal from her parents, which consists of spicy chicken and turmeric rice.
After a ceremony of singing, the groom requests entry into the home. The couple is given a large barbecued chicken to tear apart which shows how they will work together as a family. The person, bride or groom, who tears the largest piece of chicken will be the ‘bread-winner’ and will bring prosperity to the family.
In the final part of the celebration the couple is showered with yellow rice (the rice is a sign of prosperity and yellow represents everlasting love), money (to be shared with those less fortunate) and candy (to ensure the marriage remains sweet).
It is important to start a family right away as the marriage is only confirmed when the wife bears the third child. It is vital to have at least six children to ensure a male is born to continue the family line. It is the birth of the third child that calls for the greatest of celebrations as this is when the wife is fully accepted into the husband’s clan. If the wife only produces one child, the husband has the right to a divorce and he can claim the cattle or the first child as part of the divorce ‘settlement’. This can make divorce complicated and of course very difficult.
The male lineage is so important to the Nuer people that if a husband dies it is his family’s responsibility to provide a brother to ‘step into his shoes’. Any future children in this new relationship will always be considered the children of the previous husband. If a man dies unmarried his family arranges a ‘ghost marriage’. A chosen member of the clan marries in the name of the deceased man and has children for him. This will ensure a high chance of producing a male heir and an opportunity to bring more cattle into the community, increasing wealth, status and happiness.
When a man first selects a bride, he starts a chain of events that will ensure the survival of his family and his clan. This is why marriage, as in so many cultures, is considered to be such a very important aspect of life in the Nuer community.