Sunday, September 2, 2007
Love on Another Level
ORANGO ISLAND, Guinea-Bissau - He was 14 when the girl entered his grass-covered hut and placed a plate of steaming fish in front of him. Like all men on this African isle, Carvadju Jose Nananghe knew exactly what it meant. Refusing was not an option. His heart pounding, he lifted the aromatic dish, prepared with an ancient recipe, 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 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. Once they have asked, men are powerless to say no.To have refused, explained Nananghe, 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," he explained. "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. The young men of Orango, 40 miles off the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, are finding 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 mainland.They return with 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."For a man to go so far as to openly propose marriage is dangerous, say traditionalists on this island of 2,000 people."The choice of a woman is much more stable," explains Okrane. "Rarely were there divorces before. Now, with men choosing, divorce has become common."Records are not readily available, but islanders agree that there are significantly more divorces 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 blond grass to weave into roofs and shaping the pink mud into bricks. Only once the house was built, a process that takes at least four months, could 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, says anthropologist Christine Henry, a researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research.But the unquestioned authority given to women in matters of the heart on Orango island is unique — "I don't know of it happening anywhere else," says 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 Christian missionaries have established churches here."When I get married it will be in a church, wearing a white dress and a veil," says 19-year-old Marisa de Pina, striking a modern pose outside her family's hut wearing tight Capri pants and sequined sandals. She says the Protestant church she attends has taught her that it is men, not women, who 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. Her decision 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 says she doesn't see why these trappings of modern life should alter the system of courtship. Although the island's unique customs may be fading, there are still pockets of resistance. Often, it's women who 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, owned a cell phone and thought of himself as a modern man, so he thought he could turn tradition on its head and ask 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 says.
Posted by Taneesha The Diva at 9:07 AM