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On African Island, women choose the spouses

Feb. 3, 2007
As­sociated Press

He was 14 when the girl en­tered his grass-covered hut and placed a pla­te in front of him con­tain­ing an an­cient rec­i­pe. 

Like all men on Orango Is­land, Car­vadju Jose Nananghe knew ex­act­ly what it meant. Re­fus­ing was not an op­tion. His heart pound­ing, he lifted the steam­ing fish to his lips, agree­ing in one bite to mar­ry the girl. 

“I had no feel­ings for her,” said Nananghe, now 65. “Then when I ate this meal, it was like light­ning. I wanted on­ly her.” 

In this ar­chi­pel­a­go of 50 is­lands of pale blue wa­ter off the west­ern rim of Af­ri­ca, it’s wom­en, not men, who choose. They make their pro­pos­als pub­lic by of­fer­ing their grooms-to-be a dish of dis­tinc­tive­ly pre­pared fish, marina­ted in red palm oil. It’s the equiv­a­lent of a man bend­ing on one knee and of­fer­ing a woman a dia­mond ring, ex­cept that in one of the world’s ma­tri­ar­chal cul­tures, it’s wom­en that do the ask­ing, and once they have, men are pow­er­less to say no. 

To have re­fused, ex­plained the old man re­mem­ber­ing the day half a cen­tu­ry ago, would have dis­hon­ored his fam­i­ly—and in any case, why would he want to choose his own wife? 

“Love comes first in­to the heart of the woma­n,” ex­plained Nananghe. “Once it’s in the woma­n, on­ly then can it jump in­to the ma­n.” 

But the treach­er­ous tides and nar­row chan­nels that have long kept out­siders out of these re­mote is­lands are no long­er hold­ing back the mod­ern world. Young men are in­creas­ing­ly leav­ing Orango, loca­ted 38 miles (60 kilo­me­ters) off the coast of Guin­ea-Bis­sau, a coun­try in West Af­ri­ca. They find jobs car­ry­ing lug­gage for tour­ist ho­tels on the ar­chi­pel­a­go’s more de­vel­oped is­lands; oth­ers col­lect oil from the is­land’s abun­dant palm trees and sell it on the Af­ri­can main­land. 

They re­turn bring­ing with them a new form of court­ship, one which their el­ders find deep­ly un­set­tling. 

“Now the world is up­side down,” com­plained 90-year-old Ce­sar Okrane, his eyes ob­scured by a cloud of cataracts. “Men are run­ning af­ter wom­en, in­stead of wait­ing for them to come to them.” 

Stand­ing in the shade of a grass roof, he holds him­self up­right with the help of a tall spear and ex­plains that when he was young he took ex­tra care to main­tain his phy­sique, learn­ed to dance and prac­ticed writ­ing po­et­ry—all ways in which men can try to at­tract wom­en, with­out overt­ly mak­ing the first move. 

In re­cent years, young men have be­come in­creas­ing­ly bold, go­ing so far as to openly pro­pose mar­riage—a dan­ger­ous turn, say tra­di­tion­al­ists. 

“The choice of a woman is much more sta­ble,” ex­plains Okrane. “Rarely were there di­vorces be­fore. Now, with men choos­ing, di­vorce has be­come com­mon.” 

With records not read­i­ly avail­a­ble, it’s un­clear how ma­ny di­vorces there were ear­li­er, but is­landers agree that there are sig­nif­i­cantly more now than in the years when men waited pa­tient­ly for a pro­pos­al on a pla­te. They waited some more, as their brides-to-be then set out for the eggshell-white beaches en­cir­cling the is­land, look­ing for the raw ma­terials with which to build their new house. 

Wom­en built all the grass-covered huts he­re, drag­ging drift­wood back from the ocean to use as poles, cut­ting blan­kets of blond grass to weave in­to roofs and shap­ing the pink mud un­der­foot in­to bricks. On­ly once the house is built, a pro­cess that takes at least four months, can the cou­ple move in and their mar­riage be con­sid­ered of­fi­cial. 

There are mat­ri­lin­eal cul­tures in nu­mer­ous pock­ets of the world, in­clud­ing in oth­er parts of Af­ri­ca, as well as in Chi­na’s Yun­nan prov­ince and in north­east­ern Thai­land, said an­thro­po­l­o­gist Chris­tine Hen­ry, a re­search­er at France’s elite Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Sci­en­tif­ic Re­search, or CNRS. But the un­ques­tioned au­thor­i­ty giv­en to wom­en in mat­ters of the heart on this is­land is unique—“I don’t know of it hap­pen­ing any­where else,” said Hen­ry, who has writ­ten a book on the cus­toms of the ar­chi­pel­a­go. 

That things are chang­ing is ev­i­dent in the ma­terial cho­sen for the is­land’s new­est house: con­crete. It was erected by paid la­bor­ers, not lo­cal wom­en. 

Al­though priestesses still con­trol the is­land’s re­la­tion­ship with the spir­it world, their clout is wan­ing, as churches sown by mis­sion­ar­ies have tak­en root. 

“When I get mar­ried it will be in a church, wear­ing a white dress and a veil,” said 19-year-old Marisa de Pina, who strikes a mod­ern pose un­der the blond grass of her fam­i­ly’s hut, wear­ing tight Ca­pri pants and se­quined san­dals. 

She said the Prot­es­tant church she at­tends has taught her that it is men, not wom­en, that should make the first move, and so she plans to wait for a man to ap­proach her. To make her point, the teen­ag­er pops in­to her hut and re­turns hold­ing a worn copy of the New Tes­ta­ment, its pages stuffed with post-it notes, let­ters and busi­ness cards. 

It’s a de­ci­sion that has caused strife in­side the mud walls of her fam­i­ly’s house. 

Like her niece, Edelia Noro wears store-bought clothes in­stead of the grass skirts still fa­vored by some old­er wom­en. She, too, at­tends church. But she said she does­n’t see why these trap­pings of mod­ern life should al­ter the sys­tem of court­ship. 

More than two dec­ades ago, she set off for the clos­est beach look­ing for the in­gre­di­ents with which to pro­pose to the man she loved. 

Noro waited for the tide to re­cede, then dug in the wet sand for clams, col­lecting them in a wo­ven bas­ket. She was em­bar­rassed, she said, that she was too poor to af­ford a prop­er meal of fish and could on­ly of­fer her groom-to-be what she could gath­er with her own hands. So af­ter pre­par­ing the dish, she placed it in front of him, then ran and hid be­hind a tree, peek­ing out to see his re­ac­tion. 

“He did not hesita­te and ate right away. I could see the love shin­ing in his eyes,” she said, a glow spread­ing across her cheeks. 

Al­though the is­land’s unique cus­toms may be fad­ing, there are still pock­ets of re­sist­ance. Of­ten, it’s wom­en that lure men back in­to the fold of an­cient ways. 

Now 23, Lau­rindo Car­valho first spot­ted the girl when he was 13. He worked in a tour­ist ho­tel, wore jeans, and owned a cell phone and thought of him­self as mod­ern and so he thought he could turn tra­di­tion on its head, ask­ing the girl to mar­ry him. With the wave of a hand, she re­jected him. 

Six years passed and one day, when both were 19, he heard a knock at his door. Out­side, his love stood hold­ing out a pla­te of fresh­ly caught fish, a coy smile on her face. 

Car­valho still wears sand­blasted jeans and flip-flops bear­ing the Adi­das log­o, but he now sees him­self as em­bed­ded in the vil­lage’s ma­tri­ar­chal fi­ber. 

“I learn­ed the hard way that he­re, a man nev­er ap­proaches a woma­n,” he said.


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He was 14 when the girl entered his grass-covered hut and placed a plate in front of him containing an ancient recipe. Like all men on Orango Island in Guinea-Bissau, Carvadju Jose Nananghe knew exactly what it meant. Refusing was not an option.