Valentine problems? Try these 'indigenous' love practices

Montsho and Nwasha Edu started a career together counseling couples through their toughest moments.

And then they had their own.

In a story that has become almost mythological, thanks to Oprah and Essence, they spent their Egyptian honeymoon apart because Montsho couldn’t straighten out his passport in time. Things were already tough between the two of them, and both were having second thoughts about the marriage, which led Nwasha to cheat on Montsho while she was in Egypt and begin a months-long affair. When Montsho confronted her about it, she found out that he, too, had cheated on her while she was away.

But the Edus, who live in Trenton, made it through. Nwasha, 40, and Montsho, 47, are expecting their fourth child soon.

And they’re still counseling couples through their business, the Akoma House Initiative, which offers what they call a cultural alternative to couples therapy, one inspired by practices indigenous to West Africa and other parts of the world.

“Almost every product we have has been honed and developed in our own relationship,” Montsho said.

They even came up with an alternative to Valentine’s Day — Akoma Day — which Nwasha says is celebrated in 14 countries, such as New Zealand and Brazil, largely by people of color who feel a connection to traditions that are rooted in non-Western cultures. (The akoma is the Ghanaian symbol for the heart, the same one used in popular Western culture.)

Intrigued? Here’s a look at the kinds of alternative practices that Nwasha and Montsho teach to couples.

Rituals

Most people already have rituals baked into their relationships, such as drinking coffee and reading the news together in the morning, said Nwasha, but “in our relationships, we’re not really nurturing those practices.” Rituals are a powerful way to systematize ways that you create intimacy or open up lines of communication, Montsho said.

While traditional couples therapy often focuses on unpacking problems, Montsho and Nwasha say they like to empower people to start doing things differently.

“Rituals work well because you’re actively creating a new experience,” Nwasha said, “instead of rehashing a problem for six months.”

A few rituals that the couple use include:

  • the sand timer ritual, where they use a two-minute hourglass to structure a conversation, taking turns speaking about a certain issue and responding, an especially helpful practice when it feels as if it’s difficult to create balance in a conversation.
  • unplugging on Sundays, where they shut off all technology and focus on being present with each other.
  • the eyegazing ritual, where they spend anywhere between three to 15 minutes in silence, looking at each other with their faces inches apart. (Then they use the sand timer to talk about it.)
  • the ash circle ritual, where they burn a circle of sage ash to create a “sacred space” to talk about tough stuff — frustrations or a recent time when the other person upset them. Then they wipe the ash clean and take a shower together as a cleansing practice. It’s a way, Nwasha said, “to get the frustration out in a controlled way” and if you schedule this ritual on a regular basis, you both know that there will be a time to address anger or hurt feelings.

Language use

“We encourage people to look at classical cultures and begin to incorporate different languages into their relationships,” said Montsho, referring to the “vibratory resonance” that the sounds of other languages have. “When you use words like love, hate, trust, and sex in different languages they register differently.” (Here’s one for you: the word lambing in Tagalog, pronounced “lahm-BING,” means to show affection and sweetness, usually from someone who’s not consistently in this mode. Kind of like the verb form of the heart eyes emoji.)

They also suggest a “word and phrase purge.” When couples fight they often revert to phrases like “you always do this” or “you never do this,” but Montsho says to think about if this is truly accurate. Often, these phrases aren’t helpful in arguments.

Altars

Set up a physical space to honor your relationship. Many people already have versions of this in their home, like a place where family photos are placed. They suggest that both partners put things on the altar that are important to them. Plants, or something else that you actively take care of, are also good for altars.

In their bedroom, the Edus have their altar on an end table in the middle of the room, in between their respective sides, and they have a photo of their wedding day, photos of their children, and candles, but it changes depending on the time of year and what’s important to them.

And hey, if your heart is broken …

It’s important to reflect, Nwasha said. Think about: “This is what I got and this is what I learned and here’s how I’m going to embody it for the next relationship.”

Some actions they suggest are writing a letter to the person who broke your heart and burning it with sage to “clear” the air, doing a red food fast to cleanse yourself, and picking up a new habit or hobby that represents the character trait that’s developed because of this experience.

“A lot of times, what happens after heartbreak is that it’s hard to get over it because we’re staying in an emotional space where there’s not an relationship anymore,” Montsho said. “But if you move in a new direction, it represents growth.”