African Connections: Infusing Maasai Ceremonial Traditions into Western Weddings

With summer afoot, there is one unavoidable truth: it’s wedding season. For millennials, we are either getting married or know someone who is taking the plunge. As with any grand occasion, there is a strong desire to make your occasion unique. If you are thinking of adding an ancestral flair, consider an African wedding tradition.

African wedding ceremonies are deeply rooted in tradition, and the weddings of the Maasai tribe of Eastern Africa are no exception. While some traditions may differ greatly from Western society, others are surprisingly familiar and can be easily adapted to add an African pizzazz to your wedding. Let’s take a closer look at some Maasai traditions.

A Community with Standards

Unlike in Western society, the elders arrange marriages in the Maasai community. The ball begins rolling with the future groom. At a typical tribal gathering, a man may spot a girl that he is attracted to. But before making any moves, this man must do covert reconnaissance to find out if his future bride has any close relation--essentially, it is taboo to marry one’s clan member. Think of it as a barrier to genetic bottlenecking, an obvious concern shared by most people in Western society. So you are most likely safe in this regard.

Next, the man must find out her father’s age. In Maasai culture, a woman cannot marry a man her father’s age because men that are the same age are also considered her father--a more decorous approach to marriage than that which is observed in Western society. If the age results are in his favor, the man then consults with the elders and his family to begin the engagement proceedings.

A Sweet Engagement

Western society’s standard for wedding engagements tend to be overdone. This includes extravagant proposals at concerts, theme parks, and helicopter rides to name a few. The Maasai, however, keep it simple and sweet. After the groom-to-be spots his future bride and notifies his parents, the mother begins her duties. His mother seeks out the unsuspecting bride-to-be and adorns her with a necklace. Alternatively, she might smatter her with butter or cow dung across her abdomen. This ritual is referred to as Esirata, or the making of a mark, signifying the choice of a bride. This might be analogous to the donning of an engagement ring in Western society, minus the butter and cow dung of course.

The initial engagement proceedings are followed soon after by an announcement to the entire clan of the bride-to-be. The impending marriage is discussed among the bride’s clan, to determine if the groom-to-be is suitable. These discussions are of course accompanied by the Serengeti’s finest homebrew--a fermented alcoholic concoction containing considerable amounts of cane sugar (alternatively honey). Once the groom-to-be has undergone the vetting process, he is approved to marry the bride-to-be. Keeping libations on hand to maintain light-hearted and sweet conversations is never a bad idea.

Wedding Countdown

As in Western society, the Maasai have a choice between an informal or formal wedding. The casual wedding is referred to as Errotianarroto, and is similar to what you might expect at a courthouse civil ceremony. However, in this case, a bride is forbidden to carry out ceremonial roles with her children, such as circumcision. The formal wedding is referred to as Erikoroto too nkishu and is the more traditional of the two.

Erikoroto too nkishu begins with the giving of gifts. A groom is expected to provide gifts to the brides’ family--two rams for food and more honey for the homebrew. Prior to the wedding, both rams are slaughtered. The rams are eaten and their hides preserved to be used as wedding regalia. The slaughtering of one ram represents the shaving of the brides’ head, a rite of passage that illustrates the beginning of a new chapter in Maasai culture. The other represents the ram that will guide the bride to her ceremony on the day of the wedding.

As in Western society, on the day before the wedding, the bride and groom celebrate with their friends and family--the bride with the women and the groom with the men. The women sing songs into the night as they prepare the bride for the wedding day. The men celebrate with the groom with some of the homebrew--as men usually do.

Something Old, Something New

The day of the wedding is filled with mixed emotions. On one hand, the bride is leaving her family behind to begin a new life with a stranger. On the other hand, she is allowed to have children, which is the ultimate purpose of weddings in Maasai culture. As the bride leaves her home on the morning of the wedding, she must not look back. The Maasai believe that a bride will turn to stone if she does. In addition, she must cry. It is not to say that she must be sad, but if she does not cry, it is perceived she enjoys getting married--like one might enjoy a routine activity. This practice contrasts with Western society weddings, which are often joyous occasions. Perhaps the only bittersweet moment in Western society is when the father of the bride passes along his daughter to the groom.

Lastly, what is unmatched by Western society, is the beautiful colors associated with the Maasai's beaded ceremonial jewelry. On the day of the wedding, women wear bracelets, necklaces, and an oversized breastplate to set them apart from other distinguished wedding guests. The bead colors have significance in Maasai culture. For example, green symbolizes the health of the land, while red stands for bravery and unity. Jewelry is a challenging but worthwhile way to incorporate Maasai tradition into Western society weddings.

Whether you’re looking to honor your ancestors or add some unique flair to your wedding ceremony, the Maasai culture is rife with ideas. From making a simple honey homebrew, roasting a sheep, or adorning the bride with intricate beaded attire, the choice is yours. And if you don’t want to take on the Maasai jewelry making challenge for your wedding, Etsy has you covered.