Ndembu - Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy has been adopted by the Christians, whereas traditionalists practice polygyny. Marriage payments are made by the family of the bridegroom to that of the bride. The common pattern of virilocal postmarital residence creates difficulties in keeping a matrilineage together; therefore, divorce, a means to return to the matrilineage, was very common in the past. Because divorce is now discouraged by the churches, matrilineal residence is becoming less clearly defined. The age of marriage for women has risen to 17 or so, thus dissociating marriage from a girl's initiation, which still takes place at puberty. Other than Christian weddings, there are no traditional marriage customs distinct from initiation.

Domestic Unit. In the polygynous family, each wife has her own house, runs her own gardens, and controls her own budget. If her husband is a labor migrant, she usually resides with her matrilineage. Children often sleep separately from their parents, along with others of the same generation or with their grandparents.

Inheritance. At death, a close matrilineal senior relative is appointed as executor. He divides the property, first between uterine siblings of the elder generation, then sisters' children, and wives and children of the deceased, according to the executor's good will. Wives will return to their matrilineages once a payment has been made to the relatives of the dead man. Formerly, a ritual of name inheritance was sometimes performed in response to the call of the spirit of the dead.

Socialization. Children's growth is stunted because the land is not producing enough food. Small children are breastfed until 3 years of age and are not left to cry. Older children play at grown-ups' roles. They are assigned domestic duties, which they usually fulfill after a special word of authority from an elder. Laughter is the main sanction against faults, although theft is punished with beating. Older girls delight in caring for baby siblings, but boys play at hunting or at being soldiers. Conflict between mothers and daughters is common as the latter approach puberty. With the exception of fundamentalist Christians, most 12-year-old girls are initiated, one or two at a time, in a ritual involving seclusion for perhaps a week. Boys are circumcised in larger groups between the ages of 7 and 12 and are secluded in the bush until the wounds are healed. Formerly, complex initiations with much symbolism prevailed, with milk symbolism predominating for the girls, ending with a highly aesthetic "breast" dance, whereas masked spirit figures appeared at boys' circumcisions. Both rituals followed the form of a rite of passage. School authorities and missions now require the curtailment of initiation. Celebration rather than ritual has become the style.

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