When considering or defining the concept of marriage, people in the West would tend to think of it as a union between two people who love each other and have decided to spend the rest of their lives together. It is a relationship that implies a choice, dedication and compromise. The wedding itself is focused mainly on the bride and groom, it is perceived as a personal ceremony, in which the two people exchange vows. Another definition of marriage is given in Notes and Queries: “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognised legitimate offspring of both partners” (page 110).
Although this is probably true in most societies, in many parts of the world, there is more to marriage than a social or emotional union between two people, or the legitimisation of the couple’s children. In this essay, I will first introduce and discuss marriage and its economic importance (or otherwise) for the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. I will then compare and contrast this to the same aspects of marriage for the Nuer of Southern Sudan. Having done this, I will draw from different points of the essay to come to a conclusion on the topic.
A very important part of the Trobrianders’ lives is yams. They work very hard to grow and harvest them, and they represent not only food, but also a very valuable asset. It is important to look at yams as more than food, because as Annette Weiner states in The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, “Taken together, the piles of yams standing in the gardens reveal all the important matrilineal kin and affinal connections that dominate each harvest. [… ] the yam piles are indicators not only of economic power but of political importance as well” (page 84).
The yams reveal so much about matrilineal relationships, because in Trobriand tradition, when a girl is married, her family – usually her father and her maternal uncle – bring raw yams to the new couple’s house – it is traditional for men to make yam gardens for their daughters, as well as for their sisters. At the same time as he is giving yams, he will be receiving them from his wife’s side of the family, creating a wide exchange of yams and forming connections between families. 1.
Marriage, and the eating of cooked yams – which is done for the first year while the couple wait for the first harvest of yams from the bride’s father – symbolises the beginning of a couple’s life together as well as “the beginning of the way their future married life will be organised around yam production” (Weiner, A. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, page 86). This is significant, as yams are considered extremely valuable. This can be seen through the fact that in return for giving yams, the bride’s family receives “valuables” (Weiner, A.The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, page 86).
These, as their name indicates, are of great importance to both sides of the family. They have historical meaning to the givers, and will obtain historical significance for the family receiving, as they are objects that will keep on being passed on – a man will receive a valuable either from his mother’s brother or from his father. 2 Another example of the importance of yams is illustrated in the ceremony in which they are brought to the bride and put into the husband’s yam house (though they still belong to the bride3).
This is extremely meaningful and is greatly celebrated. Yams are worth a great deal and can be used in exchange for several goods. 4 “A yam house, then, is like a bank account” (Weiner, A. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, page 86). Marriage is important for creating links and relationships between different families, and therefore to build wealth in yams and valuables from these relationships, as it is at marriage and with the newly related family that the exchanges take place.
The traditions and beliefs of the Nuer are rather different to those of the Trobrianders when it comes to marriage and it’s economic importance. When a girl is to be married, it is customary for the groom’s family and kin to pay ‘bridewealth’ to the bride’s family and kin. 5 This is in the form of cattle, and it is given and distributed in very specific ways. Both the bride and the groom’s families discuss this issue before the ‘transaction’ happens. Both know what the other has to offer or is likely to offer, so they prepare themselves for when the time of the wedding comes.