When Eko Atuoma saw his friend’s daughter, Agbomma, he desired her. Then, Eko was single. He disclosed his intention to his friend, Agbomma’s father, who could not tell his daughter that someone wanted her hand in marriage – she might not understand.
Instead, he told his daughter that the man that visited would be generous enough to buy her Akara every day. One day, Agbomma’s father gave her a cup of palm wine to give to that man in public. The moment Eko took the cup of wine from Agbomma, Agbomma – who knew little of the rituals she performed – became his wife.
Agbomma’s father could not explain marriage to her because she was less than 6 years of age.
(Eko Atuoma (Late) and Agbomma are my biological grandparents)
I have listened to my grandmother over and over again narrating how she got married over the enticement of Akara, and how she stayed in her husband’s house without knowing she was married. Her case was not commonly practiced by Igbos of the old. Women arguably married at the age of say 15 to 20; however, there was the special case of children’s engagement.
To defend the 15 to 20 years case of the marriage of the old, I considered the present traditional way of contracting matrimonies in Igbo land – a custom that survived from time immemorial:
In the Igbo tribe, when a man, Obi, found a girl, Ada, he likes; Obi will tell his father – in the company of Obi’s kindred and the son – would visit the Ada’s house to ask for her hand in marriage. As required by the custom, they would go with a pot/bottle of wine and kola nut, and the oldest member of Obi’s family would say words like these to Ada’s father:
‘We saw a ripe udara fruit in your compound and we want to pluck it.’
‘There is an elegant shegoat or antelope we saw in your house and we want to borrow her.’
This tradition is called till this day, ‘iku aka na uzo’ – knocking at the door.
Ada’s father normally would tell them to return in 7 market weeks (28 days or one calendar month), for he would consult
1. his daughter, Ada,
2. his kindred and
3. would also make an inquiry about the family that asked for his daughter’s hand.
If any of the three were not satisfied, there would be no marriage.
IN IGBO LAND, MARRIAGE WAS NOT A UNION OF A MAN AND A WOMAN; MARRIAGE WAS A UNION OF TWO FAMILIES.
The beautiful thing about this custom of old was that every party might agree, but if the girl said no, there would be no marriage.
Girls, in those days, decided whom to marry. Her parents could only appeal to her, but her decision was final.
In Chinua Achebe’s classic, the great warrior, Okonkwo, knowing that a girl’s decision was final, appealed to his daughter Ezinma.
[Ezinma grew up in her father’s exile and became one of the most beautiful girls in Mbanta. She was called Crystal of Beauty… Many young and prosperous middle-aged men of Mbata came to marry her. But she refused them all because her father had called her one evening and said to her: ‘There are many good and prosperous people here, but I SHALL BE HAPPY if YOU marry from Umuofia when we return home.’
Things Fall Apart – pg 138.]
‘I shall be happy if… ‘ is a plea, not a command.
Ezimma – calculating from Achebe’s narration – would be 17 – 20 years. In theory, for a person to take personal decisions, they should be in the age bracket of 15 to 20.
As a folklorist, I have engaged a lot of old people and require from them some folklores of the old. I discovered that 70 percent of folklores in Igbo land tell stories of girls that rejected suitors and finally married a water spirit, or the wrong husband, or a snake that transformed into a human. These were stories women tell their daughters so to dissuade them from rejecting suitors – knowing that the right to accept or reject a man is in the girl’s hand.
To this day, the ritual of Wine Carrying is the most important part of the traditional marriage among the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. It is a decision time. If a girl refuses to give the prospective husband the wine there would be no marriage.
The case of children engagement – as reasonably expected – was not always the emotional burden of the bride alone; the groom likewise might grow up not liking the wife chosen by his parents. This was recounted in Elechi Amadi’s classic: The Concubine.
In the novel, Ahurole was engaged to Ekwueme when she was eight days old; Ekwueme was then about 5 years old. The initial ceremony was simple: Ekwueme’s father, Wigwe, merely put some kola nuts and shoots of young palm wine saplings into the vessel from which Ahurole drank. Thereafter, he kept an eye on her casually.
As both children grew, they were made to understand their position. Nothing was done beyond this until the children were of age.
It happened that when Ahurole was twenty and ripe to become legally the wife of Ekwueme, Ekwueme fell in love with a widow named Ihuoma and he was no longer comfortable with his engagement with Ahurole.
‘Please, tell Father I don’t want to marry Ahurole,’ he said to his mother.
‘Amadioha forbid!’ his mother screamed. ‘Don’t say it again. Whoever heard of this type of thing?’
His mother turned round and faced the wall; her tears flowed fast.
‘Mother, there is no need to cry,’ he managed to say.
‘No need to cry when you have made our family a laughing stock. Chei! Ekwe, my son, what has gone into your mind.’
At the end, Ekwueme married Ahurole but the marriage did not work – for Ekwueme could not get over Ihuoma. It was dissolved, and though as shameful as it was, the dissolution of marriage was not a sacrilegious act.
The ancient Igbos believed that marriage was difficult and encourage couples to stay together. But if there were irreconcilable differences, or compatibility challenges, they believed that the man and wife should dissolve the union. Life, even to them, was more important than an unhealthy matrimony.
Let me end with these lines from Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine:
‘Even love and sex were put in their proper place. If a woman could not marry one man she could always marry another.’
(The Concubine by Elechi Amadi – pg 127)
The deeper I study the Igbo tradition and customs, I discover that our ancestors were as lenient – will I say, as human – as we are. They had rules that governed them, they were not insensitive. Most of what you read about them are not true.
Our Ancestors Were Humans With Good Conscience. There was nothing wrong with Africa
Thanks for your time.
Author ~ Ozii Baba Anieto