YAOUNDE, CAMEROON —
The government of Cameroon has been organizing collective marriages to formally unite couples, some who have been together for as much as 50 years without legal documentation. Ninety percent of Cameroonians do not have legal marriage contracts - and so when a man dies family members seize the couple's joint property because the woman has no legal document to back her.
This choir sings to encourage 300 couples, some crumbling under the heavy weight of poor health as they collect marriage certificates from officials of the Yaounde City Council.
Among them is Theordore Mehamere, 85. He still vividly remembers how he met his now 77-year-old wife, Mino Colette.
"I was head of an agriculture control unit, so I could travel to many villages," he explained. "That is when I saw her, a young girl back then. I will not leave her.
Colette had wished to get married one day. And so when the government of Cameroon announced its mass wedding program, she subscribed to it. To her this day is a dream come true.
"I feel so happy getting married to my husband Theordore Mehamere," she said. "Even though he is old, I do love him. By the way I am also old and have finally gotten married. I thank God."
There was a huge crowd of relatives and onlookers who came out to witness the occasion, which the government of Cameroon organized to legalize unions.
The onlookers' reactions to the initiative were varied. Fritz Bayamak, 45, describes it as senseless.
"When you live as a married couple for such a long time, you do not need a paper to prove that you love each other," he noted. "But since people want to do what is done elsewhere they organize collective marriages that I say is useless. It is like imposing something on people who have been living happily for a long time."
However, 30-year-old Druscilla Mokosso said that by organizing mass marriages, the government of Cameroon is fighting to protect the rights of women.
"There are some rights that the woman can not benefit, but when this paper is signed, it gives her the right," she remarked, " it gives her the benefit, it gives her the advantage of becoming a legal wife with the rights that go with it."
There has always been some resistance to official marriages in Cameroon. Some staunch supporters of African traditional values and customs want marriages to be done the African way. Among them is Olemve Martin, chief of Omanjing village on the outskirts of Yaounde.
He said for an Africans, there are other marriage ceremonies like the engagement taken by the families and spouses during traditional weddings. "It is not a signed paper that indicates that one is married. Maybe people need them today for administrative reasons," he added.
It is estimated that 90 percent of Cameroonians do not get married officially. When the man dies, his family members often collect the couple's property and send the woman away.
Cameroon's Minister of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, Marie Theres Abena Ondoua, said that legalizing such marriages will bring stability to the home and the society.
"You know that the ministry of women’s empowerment and the family is out for stability in families," she said. "When we talk of stability you have to understand that it comes from such unions. It is an example for young couples who are not even thinking of getting married."
The collective marriages are also a sigh of relief for many couples who are unable to raise huge sums of money to organize big marriage feasts, as has always been the tradition in Cameroon.