The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Notes on the Folk-Lore and some Social Customs of the Western Somali Tribes

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NOTES ON THE FOLK-LORE AND SOME SOCIAL CUSTOMS OF THE WESTERN SOMALI TRIBES.

By Captain J. S. King.

(Continued from vol. v. page 323.)


II.—Marriage Customs at Zayla.

THE town of Zayla (or Audal, as it is more usually called locally) is inhabited by three classes: (1) The original inhabitants of the town, who are called "Rer Audal," (2) Eesa Somál, (3) Gadabtúsi Somál.

The Rer Audal are a community of half-castes, the offspring of Arab settlers who have intermarried with Somáli, Habshi, or Dankali women. They speak both Arabic and Somáli, but generally prefer the latter. Their marriage customs, which differ in many respects from those of the surrounding tribes, are worthy of notice.

Girls are usually married at the age of fifteen or sixteen, and are selected for their personal charms, such as they are.

When a man has fixed his choice on a girl he goes through the ceremony of asking her in marriage from her father or nearest male relative, to whom he presents $5 in cash and about five pounds of coffee-husks. The Kázi and a number of the male relatives and friends of both parties are present, and after a long and generally very animated discussion the amount of dafa or dowry to be paid to the girl's father is settled; it is seldom less than $100, and sometimes amounts to $700 or $800.

These arrangements being concluded, the proposer is entitled (on payment of $5 each time) to private interviews with his fiancée, to enable him by a closer inspection to judge better of her personal charms. But it frequently happens that the man squanders all his money on these "interviews" before paying the dafa agreed upon. The girl then (at her parents' instigation) breaks off the match, and her father, when expostulated with, replies that he will not force his daughter's inclinations.

Hence arise innumerable breach of promise of marriage suits, in which the man is invariably the plaintiff.

I have known instances of a girl being betrothed to three or four different men in about a year's time, the father receiving a certain amount of dafa from each suitor. But I am now supposing that the course of love has run smoothly, and the marriage takes place as originally arranged.

Before all things it is necessary for the bridegroom to provide a perfectly new 'árish, or hut, for the accommodation of his bride. If the bridegroom is a popular man the erection of the hut costs him little beyond the actual price of the materials used, as his friends volunteer their services in constructing it. The bridegroom regales them with coffee (or rather a concoction of coffee-husks) and tobacco prepared for chewing. They sing merrily over their work; and, as they place the thatch on the roof, compose impromptu verses containing witty and flattering allusions to the happy couple about to occupy the hut. The bride's relatives supply coloured mats for lining the inside of the hut, and also supply a few household utensils. The bride always makes with her own hands a handsome coloured sleeping-mat to cover the nuptial couch.

Dancing and singing, accompanied by hand-clapping in lieu of musical instruments, is kept up at the bridegroom's house for about a fortnight.

On the day fixed for the removal of the bride to her new home she is escorted to it from her father's house by a large party of young men and maidens, the latter dressed in their best clothes, and having their tightly-plaited and well-oiled hair tastefully decorated with cowries, coloured beads, and flowers (when procurable). As the procession moves slowly through the streets the young men and maidens dance in front of the bride, and make a deafening noise with their singing and hand-clapping, while the married women express their approval by a shrill, quavering noise from the back part of the throat.

On reaching the bridegroom's house a low-caste man sacrifices a goat or sheep on the threshold, and the bride steps over it as she enters.

On the same day, about 4 p.m., the bridegroom, clad in handsome silk garments, his head, clean shaved, bound up in a large silk turban, repairs to a masjid, where he is supposed to remain at his devotions till about 7·30 p.m., when he is escorted by a number of young men to his house, which the bride has previously entered. As the bridegroom enters another goat is sacrificed, and he steps over it in the same way as the bride.

The wedded couple now shut themselves up in the nuptial chamber, which is sometimes an upper room with a rude ladder leading to it, but more often a small dark room partitioned off from the rest of the house. An elderly woman of low caste is generally shut up with them for a short time. Dancing and singing continue in the "compound," while in the house itself assemble seven unmarried young men and the same number of maidens (called manheis), friends of the bride and bridegroom. When they hear any cries from the nuptial chamber they commence singing and clapping their hands as loudly as possible. Over the seven couples of manheis a man entitled "Sheikhu-l-Manheis," or "Sheikhu-sh-Shubán," is nominated. He portions off a girl to each young man, and performs a mock marriage between them. Each girl is bound to obey without murmur any order which her mock husband may give. He may say: "Give me a drink of water," and she immediately fetches a vessel of water; and if he be lying down she raises him up in her arms, as though he were an invalid, and puts the vessel to his lips. Another may order his bride to give him tobacco to chew, upon which she grinds up some tobacco-leaf with wood-ashes, and mixing it in the palm of her hand, places it in her lord's mouth. Then the Sheikhu-l-Manheis sings:

"'Aroso! Hobalé! Hobalé! Kaimahi zábi akha sá'at."

"Come! brides and bridegrooms this instant," and then gives various absurd orders to each couple, such as, "Fetch a live fish from the sea," or "Fetch a live lizard, a live flea," &c.

The couples start off in search of the articles which they have been ordered to produce. If they return to the house without obtaining the object of their search, they are put sitting on the ground, back to back, and their arms tied tightly together; they are then rolled over from side to side, and water sprinkled over them.

This sort of amusement continues for about seven days, with variations. Sometimes the males and females exchange dresses—each man becoming a woman, and each girl a man. The girls dress up their partners, using padding to make the disguise as complete as possible; and then, assuming all the airs of husbands, they flog their partners with horsewhips, and order them about in the same manner as they themselves had been treated by the young men.

On the morning after the marriage, the husband on rising gives his bride a present of from ten to twenty dollars, according to his means. During the space of a week he remains with his espoused, scarcely ever venturing out of the house, and rarely showing himself even at the dancing which goes on in the compound.

When the seven days have expired, the bridegroom presents to the "Sheikhu-l-Manheis" a dollar and a waist-cloth, and a dollar to each of the young men. The bride gives a dollar to each of the girls.


III.— Marriage Customs of the Eesa and Gadabúrsi Tribes of the Somal.

The marriage customs of the Eesa and Gadabúrsi differ in many respects from those just described.

Girls are usually married between the ages of fifteen and twenty: they are often chosen by men of a different tribe, in order to obtain immunity from the blood-feud, or for some other political reasons; and in such cases the bride is rarely consulted. Love matches, however, are by no means uncommon: drawing water from the well and tending cattle in the jungle afford opportunities for frequent tête-à-tete, often continued for some months without the knowledge of the girl's relatives. Having made his choice, the man makes a formal demand for the girl's hand in marriage from her father or nearest male relative. If the offer be accepted, the proposer gives his future father-in-law two spears, a shield, a water-bottle (weisu), a prayerskin (musalla), and a rosary (tasbíh). The amount of dafa to be given to the girl's father is then fixed: it varies from ten to a hundred she-camels giving milk. If the man does not possess the required number of camels or cattle, he proceeds to loot them from some subtribe inferior to his own, or perhaps steals them from some of his own relatives.

Three months in the year, viz. Jumádu-l-Awwal, Jumadu-l-Akhir, and Rajab (in Somali—Rajal Dehe, Rajal Dambe, and Saboh), being considered inauspicious, no marriage ever takes place then. This appears to be another remnant of Pagan superstition.

Before the marriage the bridegroom employs a fortune-teller to read his fál, or fortune, by means of the rosary—what particular day and hour will be auspicious for the marriage, and whether he will have good luck or the reverse in his married life.

The marriage formula is recited by a kádhi, a pilgrim (Hajji), or any man with a little education. If none such be procurable, the bridegroom simply cuts a branch from an acacia or any thorny tree, and hangs it up in the nuptial gúrí (hut) provided by the bride's relatives. He then fetches her from her father's hut, accompanied by a crowd of young men and maidens dancing and singing. On reaching the new hut, the bride holds a goat or sheep in the doorway, while the bridegroom cuts its throat in the orthodox manner with his jambia (long knife). The bride dips her finger in the blood, smears it on her forehead, and ties a strip of the goat's skin round one wrist; and then enters the gúrí, stepping over the blood. The bridegroom follows her, also stepping over the blood, and is accompanied by some of his nearest male relatives.

The first act of the bridegroom on entering the hut is to take a horsewhip (jédal) made entirely of leather, and with it inflict three severe blows upon the fair person of his bride, with the view of taming any lurking propensity to shrewishness.[1] His example is followed by his male relatives, who by this act obtain ever afterwards peculiar rights and power over the bride, which her husband dare not dispute. If she cries out in the least, or even flinches under the chastisement, she is ridiculed and despised by the village community.

All then leave the hut except the bride and bridegroom, and two of the male relatives of the latter, whose duty it is to hold the girl down while the husband performs the operation of defibulation with a knife, her cries being drowned by four girls who dance and sing immediately outside the hut.

The happy pair are then left to themselves, while dancing and singing are kept up in the kraal for the greater part of the night.

In the morning the bride's female relations bring presents of milk, and are accompanied by a young male child whose parents are living. The child drinks some of the milk before any one else tastes it; and after him the bridegroom, if his parents are living; but if one or both of his parents are dead, and those of the bride living, she drinks after the child. By doing this they believe that if the newly-married woman bears a child the father will be alive at the time.

After an irregular marriage ceremony of this kind, if the woman shows signs of approaching maternity, the husband takes a pearl or bead of some kind from his wife's necklace, and travels in search of a kádhí, to whom he presents the pearl, thus insuring the legitimacy of the offspring.

The mother-in-law is never allowed to interfere in the domestic affairs of her daughter; and she dare not—without risk of a broken head— enter the hut while her son-in-law is present.

If the wife dies, leaving unmarried sisters, the widower is bound to

  1. A similar custom seems to have prevailed among the ancient Muscovites. Barclay, an early English traveller in Russia, speaking of the women of the country says:—"They don't think their Husbands love them unless they give them now and then reall Proofs of it, by giving them a good Cudgelling."