Child marriages in Igboland? How is that possible? Well, it is. Whenever the issue of child marriage or paedophilia (one of the most horrible crimes against humanity) is discussed in Nigeria, some think it is a problem limited to the north alone (just as some erroneously think female genital mutilation is the problem of one religion alone). But the fact on ground is that child marriage/paedophilia is a massive national problem. It is not a northern or southern problem, it is a Nigerian problem.
Pre-pubescent girls around the country are forced into difficult marriages or sexual relationships with older men as a result of a dizzying mix of economic reasons (the level of poverty is alarming), ignorance/illiteracy, cultural values and societal expectations/norms. That is however, not to say that politics or religion do not play their own roles too in some cases.
Today, I am writing on a bizarre practice in Abakaliki, in what is now Ebonyi State (but then called East Central State of Nigeria). Ebonyi State will not be formed until 1996 during the despotic regime of the General Sani Abacha. This is a trip back in time, to February 1974 when girls were married at the age of 10.
Nigeria had just finished a civil war so the wounds were still healing but that did not mean traditions were going to die out anytime soon.
In Abakaliki, it was a taboo for young girls and boys to fall in love and that was because once the girls reached the age of ten, they were betrothed to older men, some of whom were old enough to be their grandfathers.
Actually, younger male rivals who dared this tradition may actually be beheaded with a cutlass by the man to whom the girl has been betrothed. But how was this cultural practice like? Read on.
|JUST MARRIED: 13-year-old Nwideyi and a friend of the family, Mr. Ede Edeali, aged 46, who already has two wives. In this ceremony, the couple drink palm wine from the same glass after sharing a meal.|
At this time, any man who visited Abakaliki and was attracted to little girls was only attracting his death as there was a tradition in place that ensured that the girls were already set for marriage once they marked their tenth birthday.
For them at that time, it was a grievous offence punishable by decapitation to date a smaller girl or even try to do so. This was so serious in Abakaliki that in areas like Ezza and Ikwo districts were the tradition was most deeply-rooted, merely asking a girl approaching the age of ten to be your friend as a man means you are tired of life. You will be killed. But why?
The people of Abakaliki held the belief that according to their custom, once a girl reaches the age of 10, she was to be engaged to the man who will be her husband. Now, how this usually worked then was that the future bridegroom in most of the cases was a best friend of the girl’s father. Never mind if the husband-to-be is old enough to be the ancestor of the child bride. The people of Abakaliki then insisted it was the culture and tradition (as if those things were not put in place by men, every inhumane tradition or practice should be ridiculed and dismantled) and had to be carried out.
So once a girl has been officially linked to the future husband via an engagement ceremony, any man who makes the mistake of wooing the girl is found guilty of adultery, and the penalty was death – in the hands of the groom of the child bride. You will soon understand why this extreme measure was in place. And make no mistake, men were actually killed for this form of ‘adultery’.
As a result of this cultural practice, it was quite common at that time (1974 is not that far back in time really) to see girls of 10 married to men in their fifties or even those who were more advanced in age.
HOW IT WAS DONE
If a man was interested in ‘wifing’ a girl, the first thing he would do was to approach the father of the girl to get his consent after informing him of his wish to become a son-in-law. But please pay close attention to the steps. His mere informing the prospective father-in-law was not free, the man interested in marrying the infant bride had to make a non-refundable deposit of one gallon of fresh palm wine. When the father of the girl receives the gallon of the foamy drink, he is not obliged to give a response immediately.
Whether the father of the girl says yes or no to the man’s proposal, the future groom still has to do a lot to win the heart of the man. So he goes over to the farm of the man to work for a while, he even joins in helping out in the domestic chores of those he is hoping to be his in-laws.
This includes sweeping the compound, washing plates or even cooking for the family. While the ‘love-stricken’ man is busy undergoing romance-induced slavery for the girl’s family, her father takes his time to assess how much of an asset the future groom is going to be.
As for the mother of the girl, the tradition then was that her mouth was to be shut on the matter (she was supposed to agree with everything the father decided). But that does not mean the future groom should neglect the prospective mother-in-law. The more the gifts he can shower on her, the better.
As a matter of fact, many of the hopeful grooms would make the initial inquiries from her. According to custom, she would then say she does not have any daughter bearing the name the Mr. Lover has mentioned. Then Mr. Lover approaches the girl’s father who will then give the same response. But the man who is in love with the 10-year-old girl is not expected to give up like that. He is expected to prove the extent of his ‘true love’ for their daughter.
Therefore, he will make such inquiries a total of SIX times, and each time he does this, he has to offer another extra gallon of fresh palm wine to the father of the girl. After collecting six or more gallons of fresh palm wine, that is when they will then tell the Mr. Romantic that the girl he mentioned is truly in existence so the proper hustle for the wife-to-be can then commence.
At that point, the little girl is called out to take a look at the suitor. Once she does this, she is to leave the meeting immediately. And that was it, the ‘engagement’ is done and she has been betrothed to the man.
From that moment on, the parents of the girl will start watching over the girl so that another man will not ‘tamper’ with her as she now technically belongs to another man, a proper suitor who had proved himself. The parents of the girl starts to teach, or rather bombard her tiny brain, with the virtues of marriage and give her constant education sessions on what she is expected to do as a wife.
Remember, the girl is just 10 or thereabouts. She is also free to live with her future husband from time to time and the man is free to do whatever he feels like with her. I leave that to your imagination.
But that is one way. There is another way to it. In this second style, it is the father himself who offers his daughter to a beloved friend for marriage. The first step in this is that the father will offer his friend a live goat. Then he waits for the response of his friend to his ‘noble gesture’, it is irrelevant if the friend is married to a dozen women already.
The usual thing is that the lucky son-in-law then responds with a keg of wine and a pack of tobacco. But the drama is just starting. This exchange will be marked with a party to also mark the taking of their friendship to the next level.
At that point, the father invites his wife to witness the new relationship between him and his friend and later the girl herself is introduced to her husband in a hail of rituals.
Typically, a week or two after this is done, the father will send a message to his son-in-law requesting him to present the family wine (called the Mmanya Umunna) which at that time was worth ten naira.
After that, he is expected to pay the actual bride price of forty naira and a cow. This was a communal affair and once it is done, all the members of the family of the bride will publicly express their approval of the bride price and members of the family of the bridegroom, including any wives he might be married to, will also publicly declare their acceptance of the new bride. But that is not all; the new husband will still ‘drop’ more.
After that ceremony, the father will then call on the freshly-minted son-in-law to bring the family kola (which is referred to Oli Umunna). The family kola included two grasscutters (considered to be a delicious and prized delicacy), eight gallons of fresh palm wine, one load of tobacco, eight kola nuts, dried fish and one bottle of native gin. That was not all. He will also add two types of cloth, one red cap, one long iron bar and two yams for the father of the bride.
But if you think that was all, then you don’t know nohun. After two weeks, the father will then call on the son-in-law to bring forward the family goat (Ewu Umunna) and what that meant was two fat goats, one load of tobacco and two bottles of native gin. I am assuming that is because they must have used their atenuje to finish the earlier supplies from the hapless groom.
And that is not all. Tradition was not done yet. Once in a year, at every edition of the native Aji traditional festival, the son-in-law must pay a formal visit to his parents-in-law and he must visit them with two gallons of fresh palm wine, eight tubers of yam, the biggest dried fish he can lay his hands on or grasscutters and then top it with two leaves of tobacco. This he will continue throughout the duration of the girl’s stay in the traditional fattening room where she is prepared and plumped up for marriage after a mild form of circumcision.
But wait, before the first circumcision will be done, the husband of the girl has to drop fourteen naira, five kegs of wine, two loads of tobacco and two bottles of native gin to his future parents-in-law. This is to notify them of the ‘circumcision engagement’. Virtually all the members of the girl’s family will take part in this ceremony.
When the girl’s stay in the fattening room comes to an end, the husband has to once again give the sum of eight naira, one keg of wine, twelve kolanuts, one load of coconut, tobacco and two bottles of native gin to his little wife’s family. At this point, he is also expected to offer even more help to his parents-in-law, and at that time, the man is already feeling like he is the most qualified man to go with the girl.
After the first stage of the circumcision with her parents, the child bride spends the first two weeks with them during which the new groom goes to visit her and he dares not go with empty hands, he has to go with coconuts and one gallon of wine for her parents.
At this point, the husband tells his parents-in-law to allow his young wife to come and spend a few days with him. She is allowed to follow her husband home for about two months after which she is then returned to her parents again. Do not ask me anything here abeg.
After one month, the husband will then go his parents-in-law with dry fish worth four naira and coconuts. This is the charge for his new request to allow the return of his wife to his compound. I repeat, do not ask me any questions of what she is going to be doing in his compound, abeg.
This time, the father of the girl slaughters a goat and treats his son-in-law (who is also usually his friend), his other friends and relatives to a big feast. As for the girl, she will also have her tiny friends and relatives around her. When they finish the goat-swallowing blast, the little bride is then led back to her husband’s home, like a lamb to the slaughter slab.
The biggest day of all is the bride price day. On this day, the girl and her adult husband are called upon to declare their ‘conjugal affection’ for each other. A big party is thrown and the couple dance to the melodies of local musicians. The belief of the people of Abakaliki is that the child bride system assists the man to mould his wife to his taste and also allows the bride to study and comprehend her husband, but how will a girl of 10 do that?
THE EXAMPLE THAT GRIPPED THE NATION
February 1974 was a time when one of such weddings was carried out in Abakaliki at the village of Ofenekpa. There, Ede Edeali, a man of forty six got married to his darling, a girl of thirteen, Nwideyi Mboyi, to the joy of the cheering father, who incidentally was long-term friends with Edeali. The groom, who was full of smiles, said the marriage to the girl was a testimony to the true friendship that existed between Nwideyi’s father and the girl. He said words could not describe his joy and excitement when his friend presented the memorable gift to him.
Well, the opinions of the elders of the land were sampled and Chief M. I. Onwe, a former president of the Agubia Customary Court in Ezzikwo, who was the guest speaker at the traditional wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Edeali boasted that the child bride system helped to reduce the rate of divorce in Abakaliki.
He also pointed out that if after the customary stay of the bride with her husband during the betrothal, if the girl was dissatisfied with the man’s way of life, she had the choice to opt out of the marriage. Chief Onwe also said that the age of child brides should not exceed thirteen saying that once a child begins to approach the age of puberty, they become sensitive to ‘earthly things’.
When it was suggested to him that the child bride system was going to disrupt or affect the education of the girls, he simply brushed the criticism aside saying that the system helped the girls to remain strong morally and spiritually.
The prevalence of this harmful tradition (it still persists till this moment in various ways and under slightly modified arrangements not only in Abakaliki but all over southern Nigeria (for instance, it is also a horrible problem among Ibibios in the southsouthern state of Akwa Ibom where the Pope John Paul II Family Life Centre and Maternal Birth Injury Hospital at Mbribit Itam is solely in place to handle these cases) despite legal and constitutional sanctions against marriage to minors, Nigeria is a signatory to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child) means that the reproductive systems of many young girls are damaged.
Early marriage and childbirth are some of the most important indirect causes of obstetric (vaginal) fistulae, a devastating condition for many girls and women around the world. It leaves them with urine or faeces dripping out uncontrollably so they are always stigmatized because of the heavy stench. This is not to mention the foul-smelling vaginal discharge, constant vaginal/urinary tract infections, vaginal pain or dyspareunia (pain during intercourse) and others, in short, it is living hell.
This problem is so severe in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State that the federal government decided to site the National Obstetric Fistula Centre (NOFICA) there. We are still trying to cope with the number of cases there.
Interestingly, few people have been able to connect the harmful traditional practices of early marriage (of course alongside equally horrible factors such as poverty and malnutrition) with the spiraling cases of vesicovaginal fistulae in the entire southeast region. Many of the VVF patients (across Nigeria) actually believe that their conditions are spiritual attacks from witches or a curse from the gods or even divine punishment while some others accepted their fate as God’s will.
The relevant authorities (and humane Nigerians) should look into this and put in more efforts to educate the people on the evils of early marriage and address core issues such as poverty, lack of qualitative maternal care and illiteracy. Nigerians (especially those fond of shouting ‘it is our koshor’ all the time) should put on their caps of reason and join hands with sane Nigerians in either phasing out or reforming aspects of traditional practices that have been demonstrated to be harmful to life and they should stop sounding as if culture is static and perfect. Traditions are formed by humans and must be changed by humans.
As a people, we must change our approach to life itself and that starts with the smallest of things. It starts with us, by us, I mean, all Nigerians. It is a national problem and should not in any way be trivialized with parochial or narrow-minded sentiments.
Thanks for your time.