/ 14 February 2024

The intangible heritage of love in Africa

United Hands And Wedding Rings
We should celebrate and build on affirming and creative forms of love in Africa.

Africans have interesting sayings about love that reveal how the people of the continent may value and practise love. In Mozambique there is a saying, “if you do not travel, you will marry your own sister”, in Tunisia, it is said that “if the full moon loves you, why worry about the stars?”, while South Africans are fond of saying “love, like rain, does not choose the grass on which it falls”.  

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher holds a different view. She focuses on the biochemical process of love, which she says has three distinct phases: lust, attraction and attachment. For Fisher, society has created a social and cultural context for the interpretation of biochemistry, but in Africa, a cultural heritage, and cultural legacy of love persists. My research in South Africa and the Indian Ocean islands of Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles reveals love sustained by communities. Shared beliefs and symbols (Islamic and indigenous African), communal values (bride-wealth), commensality (shared food) and the use of specialists (poets and singers) sustain both love and heritage. But the heritage of love in Africa is not uncomplicated or apolitical. 

In Africa, the requirement to pay bride-wealth can determine one’s access to love. Bride-wealth is the payment of dues from a prospective husband’s family to the bride’s family. The negotiations can be costly, involving multiple levels of the exchange of livestock or money. But lobola can be extremely expensive for families trying to emerge from poverty. A man who does not have the means to pay it may be unable to marry the person he loves. 

In Nosy Be, northern Madagascar, access to love is partly managed by women. Single women can wear their hair in the “braids of love” and thereby signal public intent that she is seeking a long-term relationship and, ultimately, marriage. By wearing these braids, women can reject men who only seek a temporary liaison. On Sakatia Island (also in northern Madagascar), prior to the wedding, a woman will have her hair braided by female in-laws. This is a public indication of the in-laws’ commitment to bonding with the daughter-in-law through marriage.  

In Zanzibar, women use scent and philosophy as part of the ritual of attraction and rejection. They can perfume their kanga fabric to entice potential lovers, or they can reject them, by wearing a kanga with a negative proverb. For example, a woman rejecting a cheating man, can wear a kanga with the following proverb, “Utamaliza mabucha nyama ni ile ile” — “You will exhaust the butcheries while all meat tastes the same”. Married women try to sustain love in marriage by using jasmine flowers, an emitter of a fragrant, compelling scent for the marital bedding and single women wear jasmine flowers in their hair to signal interest. Women can also use scented smoke infused with organic oudh (resin from the Aquilaria tree) in anticipation of a potential liaison. Oudh forms part of the culturally meaningful history of scent in Africa, India and the Middle East. It is a substance known for its curative and aphrodisiac properties. 

In the Seychelles Island of Mahé, love is supported by “the village” and extended family. Before the institution of Christianity (and monogamy), some Seychellois practised trial marriages, which lasted up to two weeks. Thereafter, the unconvinced partner could safely move on. But today, in Seychelles, love commits couples straight off to a monogamous marriage. In the traditional Creole marriage in the Seychelles, aunties, uncles and various representative family members publicly pledge their support for the success of the marriage. They sing songs to the newly wedded couple, educating them about the romantic, supportive, community nature of love. 

Troubled lovers in Africa can rely on family or a beautiful heritage of prose. In South Africa, a troubled couple can rely on wise uncles and aunts to counsel them. In Zanzibar, there are poetic terms of endearment in traditional Taarab songs, blending Arab and African forms of speech in love praises, to include symbolic images of perfection in roses, jasmine, pomegranates and stars. For example, by sharing or singing the song La Waridi (The Rose), a man can praise the unique attributes of his partner, saying, ‘Even if I get the narcissus, jasmine and kiluwa [a flower in Zanzibar], my thirst will not be quenched, and my heart will find no peace. The rose is the ultimate flower, it excels all other flowers to me.” 

Those abandoning all hope of reciprocal affections or who are looking for a different form of love and who live along the coast of South Africa can focus on love from nature and not humans. The latter prompted me to compose an anthology on human love of nature and a visual ethnography of human love of the sea. In coastal South Africa, women and men from a range of cultures express a deep, visceral love for the ocean and coast through surfing, swimming and icy morning dips. In summation, love in a globalised and nature-preserving Africa doesn’t always require having a readily available human being to reciprocate one’s feelings. 

And then there is also online love in Africa and everywhere else. Tik Tok shows how a single person has to bravely navigate date zeros (one-hour encounters during which to assess long-term compatibility), breadcrumbing, situationships, penny dating and delusionships

Confusing matters further is that Africans also have the cultural heritage of expensive lobola negotiations and cultural stereotypes regarding who one can marry. So, which is preferable, what to do? Life is changing for many, and not changing at all for others who are told who to marry. There are deep oppressions associated with the culture of love for many people but there are also many positive and poetic cultural inheritances of love on the continent. I think we should celebrate and build on affirming and creative forms of love in Africa. It is a rich heritage, worth celebrating and preserving.

Anthropologist Rosabelle Boswell is a DSI-NRF South African Research Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage. She leads a multi-country project on coastal cultural heritage in Southern and Eastern Africa. She is based at Nelson Mandela University.