Igbo Ideas of Marriage

Inu nwunye (marriage) states Dr. Basden, "has a foremost place in Igbo social economy. It looms upon the horizon of every maid and youth as an indispensable function to be fulfilled with as little delay as possible after reaching the age of puberty". Since the Igbo are a patriarchal people, marriage is deemed an indispensable factor for the continuation of the family line of descent Children occupy the central point in Igbo marriage. The first and foremost
consideration is the fertility of the couple. Parents long for this and the father of the family requests this every morning in his kolanut prayer. The mother begs for it while giving cult to her chi during annual festival. In other words, if you ask the ordinary Igbo man or woman why he desires to marry, the spontaneous answer will be: "I want to marry in order to beget my own children, to get a family like my parents".

This love for having children is manifested in Igbo names. Let us take a few typical names. One of these is Nwabu-uwa - a child is all the world to me. This name exposes the Igbo man's sentiment and the high-water mark of his ambitions. Other things in life rank second to this desire. Then there are names equally very expressive Nwakasi, a child is priceless, most precious; Nwaka-aku or Nwakego, a child out-values all money, all wealth; Nwadi-aguu, a child is desirable, man is literally famished with the hunger for children. Basden further supports this view with this remark: men and women are mocked if they remained unmarried. A childless woman is regarded as a monstrosity....". This idea is still present in. the Igbo society today. A childless marriage is universally recognised as chi ojoo. On this Basden again comments: "A childless marriage is a source of serious disappointment and sooner or later, leads to serious trouble between man and wife".

The position of a wife in her husband's family remains shaky and unpredictable until she begets a child. She becomes really secure after the birth of a male child. At this stage she is specially welcome as a responsible housewife in her husbands extended family and Umunna. In fact the birth of the child gives her the title of wife, before this time she may be said to be a wife only in anticipation. The fate of a sterile woman is very hard one indeed. Not uncommonly she is made the object of conversation and ridicule by some of her female neighbours. If an occasion for a quarrel arises, she gets the most painful telling off. Her women rivals would call her Mgbaliga, Nwanyi-iga (lit. the sterile woman, the barren one) sterile monster who has her maternal organs for mere decoration.

Women in this category of childlessness, never get tired of going to the Dibias - native doctors who sometimes can only give a psychological help. They dispose the woman well to take her 'accursed fate' with resignation. She is condemned to a diet of medicinal roots and herbs. In the far distant past childlessness was considered an irrevocable scourge and caused much despair. This is understandable since the fundamental causes were not and could not have been known by the Dibias, ill-equipped as they were with scientific medical instruments. Today, however the cases are better handled in hospitals and maternity clinics spread all over villages in Igbo land.

Not infrequently, a child is born to a woman after much anguish and long years of waiting. In her joy and gratitude she may name the child Chukwuemeka (God has been very generous towards me). On the other hand, she is now a proud mother. Her reproach among men has been-removed.

The child is a practical vindication of her womanhood. As an answer to her critics, this child may be called Ekwutosi (ekwutozina Chukwu) cease your criticising God; or Beatokwu (Benata-okwu) (cut-short-word) meaning, "lessen now your loud-mouthed criticism".

We are not here concerned with the learned definitions by law students. Rather our problem is: How would two local people getting married define the step they are about to take? What does Igbo custom or tradition call marriage? The present author put the question to several people of different walks of life. Surprisingly enough, some did not consider it necessary to answer the question. An old farmer called it a union of a man and a woman leading to that of the two extended families. Another informant said it is a lasting union between a man and a woman.

Dr. Obi defines it as: "... the union between a man and a woman for the duration of the woman's life, being normally the gist of a wider association between two families or sets of families" (8). This learned definition repeated what my informants who are simple people, have said and added more specification, with regards to the length of time and its social import for the woman.

For the ordinary Igbo, marriage is the lawful living together of man and woman of different families for the purpose of begetting children after some rites have been performed. It is regarded as a mite-stone in the life of a man and a woman, which will enable them to immortalise their remembrance through their children. They regard consent as the most important element.


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