Virgin Swahili brides were as common in Mombasa as the white sandy beaches in South Coast. The only time a man missed a virgin was when marrying a widow or a divorcée. Now, virgins are as scarce as night travel by bus from Mombasa.
The wedding ceremony of a virgin Swahili woman was also different. While the widow or divorcée was quietly married off at the Kadhi’s chambers with only two witnesses, the ‘pure girl ‘was married off with pomp and fanfare.
A white sheet with the bride’s blood was produced as proof that the man’s spear had brought her bride’s virginity to an end, which upheld the dignity of the bride while confirming the virility of the groom under the watchful eye of a kungwi (mentor).
Aisha Mwanamkuu, who played a kungwi told The Nairobian that the family “would pull all stops to ensure that a girl getting married for the first time is properly sent to her husband,” a part of the ceremony which has now lost its sheen as virgin brides continue losing value faster than the Zimbabwean dollar.
The ceremony involving the white sheet with blood has gradually been set aside.
Mwanamkuu blames the Internet for exposing Swahili girls to strangers who deflower them “making it hard for them to maintain their chastity.”
Mishi Abu Bakr, another kungwi, explained that what has remained today “is the white gown to signify purity with all other vestiges of a virgin bride totally done away with.”
Besides the Internet, Mishi blames the state of affairs on the gradual degeneration of morals among ‘spoilt’ girls who started shaming their families on their wedding night. “They would be married with lots of pomp, only for the groom to realise that his bride is not pure,” she says.
According to her, girls like this would be returned to their folk and their families ordered to refund the bride price.
“In some cases, they were even surcharged for the cost of the wedding and the entire family would bear the humiliation of failing to take care of their daughter,” says Mishi, adding that it was this steep cost of promiscuity that led to women faking virginity, a practice that turned out into a comedy of errors leading to doing away with virginity rituals in weddings.
Some went as far as displaying goat blood.
“Girls would conspire with boys to display fake blood, whereas others would undergo surgical procedures to restore raptured hymens. There was even a line of products not so long ago including virginity soaps and other products that boasted of restoring the passage to its original form,” explains Mishi.
Before Swahili girls were married, most of them underwent initiation (kuvunja ungo) into womanhood when their sexual maturity set in. They were sent to a somo who taught them everything that is required of a wife.
Mishi elaborates that the somo’s ‘curriculum’ comprised lessons on how “to receive the husband and appear attractive and unlike today’s wives, women then knew how to remain fresh and their matrimonial bed would be well made with roses (viluwa) and jasmine petals.”
These brides were taught how to be feminine without being feminist and thus “treated a man like a king and in so doing, controlled the relationship,” says Mishi, adding that they were also schooled in matters bedroom skills to keep their relationship alive and both partners happy.
But all these started with a befitting wedding for such a qualified girl who proved she was a virgin during the white sheet ceremony which went by different names depending on the region.
“In some, it was referred to as kiremborembo, while in others it simply went by the name kibafta or kizinda,” says Mishi, adding that as soon as the kiremborembohad been secured, sufficiently stained, a dance troupe would be assembled to parade it in the streets with song and dance.
However, the walima or reception was the climax of the ceremony followed by a seven-day mandatory honeymoon for newlyweds “to know each other and consummate their marriage.”
This was after a somo had done her bit; teaching the young bride how to behave on her matrimonial bed since most were nubile girls.
“Some brides had to be threatened that strong women would be summoned to hold her legs if she did not cooperate but besides threats, the couple were left alone,” says Mishi.
Mahfudh Sumbukeni, a resident of Likoni, recalls those as the days when women knew their place as “every young woman you wanted to marry was a virgin,” he says, lamenting that today’s Swahili girls “lack the basic skills of properly addressing their husbands.”
Leila Jameel, a resident who married in the old way, explains that the kizinda cloth is obsolete.
“I wouldn’t have my daughter be subjected to such humiliating practices like proving her virginity status to all and sundry on her wedding night. As long as they agree with her partner, the rest of the people should keep off her private affair.”
Source: The Nairobian