During our first small group discussion last weekend the topic of our conversation changed, rather imperceptibly , from examining the benefits of raising children in America to evaluating the importance of traditional marriage. I shouldn’t be that surprised, though, for the participants were mostly married people. I am not at liberty to disclose their names, of course, their occupations, their backgrounds, but there was a total of five: three men, all married, and two women, one married, and one at the threshold of being so (she just finished college and gentleman-callers, with serious intentions, are making themselves known!).
It wasn’t that unfortunate a turn, really, the topic change. Traditional marriage, we learn, entails more than patriarchy and polygamy. It presupposes expectations and imposes obligations to creating and maintaining the good family, the prerequisite for the good community. This is the argument that the male participants advanced. Although they were educated in the United States, their families in South Sudan arranged their marriages. They married the traditional way. They didn’t meet their wives, call on them, fall in love with them, and then propose—the way it is done in America usually and sometimes in South Sudan—no, not at all, they didn’t have to go through that ordeal. Nor did the wives. Everything was arranged.
All they knew about each other was learned from relatives and families and through long, very long, long-distance phone calls. The fact that they were all South Sudanese and knew each other’s families was sufficient to imagine a family together. This confidence, one of the male participants argued, springs from the understanding of the roles and expectations that the traditional marriage delineates and designates for each member of the family, the parents and the children. As long as everyone follows those guidelines, the family should do fine. This is the benefit of traditional marriage, the sense of direction, the clear expectations that it provides.
Which begs the question: does it all come down to the way the marriage comes about? No was the unanimous answer. It comes down to the couples themselves, their characters, their tempers, their natures, and the community they are part of. In fact, the married women emphasized, it largely comes down to the community. In South Sudan, the cultural and social norms support this vision of family and thus, directly and indirectly, hold everyone accountable. When women and men fail to do what they are supposed to do, as parents and as espouses, the community steps in, through confrontation, consultation, admonition, and, when necessary, punishment, fine, separation.
Which begs another question: is it then difficult to raise a family the South Sudanese way in the United States? Yes was everyone’s response. The United States doesn’t only have a different way of raising family; it also has a very exclusionary way of doing it. There is almost no community for support, apart, maybe, from your relatives and friends—the government intervenes sometimes when things reach the point of incorrigibility, which is something entirely different from community involvement. So, in conclusion, it seems that South Sudanese favor traditional marriage, even though they are deeply aware that its attendant vision of the good family might be difficult to realize away from home.