While marriage is usually a straightjacket arrangement in most climes, in Ijaw land, intending couples could decide from a range of marriage kinds they want to engage in, there is room for upgrade.
David Owudaba met his fiancé in Abuja where he lives. While he is Kalabari by tribe, one of the eastern Ijaw clans, his heartthrob, Chinaza is Igbo from Anambra State. As they both decided to spend the rest of their lives together, he took her to his uncle, to begin the process of introducing her to his family and indeed his culture. His uncle, a high chief, immediately took a liking to the girl, and as such asked her, “Has he told you about the Iya marriage? Insist on that marriage because with that, you are protected for life. It protects you better than the church and court marriages….” The young lady was surprised that there could be marriage options within the same community or culture.
Traditional marriages in Ijaw land, especially in Kalabari, Okrika, Okoloba, and Nembe clans, occur in three major forms. They are the Iya, Igwa, and Waribiobesime. The Iya is however, the most lawful and highest form of marriages, where divorce is not permitted. Cohabitation between consenting adults is also permitted, but in that case, the children of the marriage belong to the woman, as the man cannot lay claim to them.
Although there is hardly any stigma attached to them, the woman in this kind of arrangement is usually not referred to as a wife (Tabo), but as Olobo or Waribebo, which literally means mistress or concubine.
In the Iya marriage, the offspring belong to the man’s house; while in Igwa, a small dowry marriage and a lesser form of marriage than the Iya, the children in this type of marriage, trace their line of inheritance through their mother to her family. This means that when they grow up the children can decide where they want to live, either with their father or mother’s people and still be accepted as bonafide members of the family even if it is the mother’s family.
Divorce is however permitted in the Igwa marriage, and while an Igwa marriage can be converted into Iya, the reverse is not permissible. Waribiobesime is the marriage between members of the same house who are not blood relations. With the Iya marriage, which is a large dowry marriage, the children belong to the father’s family.
According to Chief Anabs Sara-Igbe, “With the Iya marriage, the wife is automatically assimilated into the husband’s family. In her husband’s house, she is equal to his sisters, but in her father-in-law’s house, she has more powers than her husband’s sisters do. This is because she has become a member of the family, while they are expected to be married out.
“She automatically is entitled to anything every female member of that family are entitled to. Even in the case of death of her husband, she can continue to live in the compound and any child she may have in the case of her husband’s demise, such child is also seen as a member of the family.”
Much as men regard the chieftaincy title as the crowning glory of the man’s achievement, their female counterparts consider the Iya marriage the apex of a woman’s success, especially if she is an Iya-marriage wife of a chief.
Apart from child bearing and upbringing of the children, Iya women are practically idle and carry themselves with a great deal of pride, behaving like the aristocratic ladies of Victorian England. They exercise a lot of influence in their husbands’ houses, controlling servants, adopted children, and lesser wives of their husbands.
They occupy an acknowledged superior position in the society, conferred on them by their husbands’ wealth and their conspicuous idleness. In a society where everybody has to work, much distinction is gained by conspicuous idleness, which is evidence of leisure. This does not matter whether the wife is Ijaw or not.
One very important feature of the Iya marriage is not complete until the Bibife ceremony (meaning the buying of mouth) is undertaken. Bibife signifies three things. First, it signifies a stage in a lawful or full marriage, which gives the bride the right to eat in the husband’s house.
In the traditional Kalabari towns, a wife for whom the bibife has not been done can cook for her husband, but will have to take her meals and snacks to her parent’s house or a house other than her husband’s or his relatives to eat. Second, bibife signifies the man’s responsibility towards his wife and his capability and willingness to feed her for the rest of her life. Finally, it signifies and crowns the new communion between the two families.
The bibife ceremony involves serving the bride with innumerable courses of food. At the appointed time, usually in the evening, the bride is taken to the bridegroom’s home and presented with variety of food. She is given the choice to taste and even eat them, after a member of her family has examined the food and certified that they have all been well prepared and contain all the right ingredients.
To dramatise the fact that she has a choice to eat from all bowls of food placed before her, she will be given water to wash her mouth, next she is given water, soap and a hand towel to wash and clean her hands. Then a woman from her family takes items from each bowl and enticingly presents them to her to eat.
The bride turns her face away from the direction of the enticing food. This offer and refusal ritual is repeated several times. On each occasion, the bride refuses the offer because she knows that the entire array of food belongs to her and the man who ordered their preparation is her husband.
She equally knows that the choice to taste and eat is a counterfoil choice. She has the man, his wealth, and his promise to feed her for life, and she must bring off this success without any appearance of concern. She must carry herself with grace and style, self-control, restraint and dignity.
Part of the aristocratic idea is nonchalance in the face of a test and “knowing oneself” (bu’nimi). The aroma of the foods and the incessant prodding to eat must be distracting to the bride, but all through the ceremony she maintains her sense of balance, dignity and self-control in order not to fall for the food, not to grab what is already hers.
According to Alabo Gold Igoniwari, “just like all other traditional marriage processes, the Ijaw marriage process begins with the introduction called Wari Ogigo Gbolo which means “to knock on the gate”, although the suitor must have initially visited the parents of the bride to inform them of his intentions, upon which he would be given a date to come for the introduction along with the list of things he would come with.
He is expected to come with some quantity of local gin, alcohol and other beverages. If the groom is not from our place, he could be allowed to come with kola nuts as it is generally not the tradition of our people to break kola nut for prayers.
“Both families would have a spokesman and the date for the traditional marriage proper would be discussed, although the date is usually influenced by the bride and groom. Another list which is the main list proper for the traditional marriage is given to the groom’s family and necessary adjustment is made.
“But unlike other ethnic groups that usually have food items on the bridal list, the Ijaw list does not contain such, except for salt. What is usually found on the list is 20 litres of gin, a canoe and fishing nets, lantern, mortar and pestle, box of clothes, money for parents of the bride, tobacco, money for the maidens, attire for the parents, money for the bride’s waist and money for the brothers.”
With modernity setting in however, and for the fact that most people now live in the urban area, the canoe and fishing nets is usually monetised and handed over to the bride along-side money for her waist.
The bride price varies from family to family or clan to clan depending on the state and it is usually dependent on the bride’s father and the financial strength of the groom.
On the day of the traditional wedding proper, friends and well wishers are invited to witness the grand ceremony. The bride’s family would first ensure the requirements on the list have been fulfilled.
Like icing on the cake, the process of escorting the bride to her husband’s house is quite a spectacle. In Kalabari land for instance, in the early hours of the evening, she is gorgeously dressed and taken to her groom’s house with a gas lamp, as they sing and dance. There is also an open dance floor where people freely exhibit their dance skills.
Further, female supporters escorting her make jokes and do everything to make her laugh. Single men who are watching from the sides as she is being paraded, hurl insults and scoff at her. Some of them say they had slept with her and she is no good. They do not mean all that they say, the insults are all part of the fun of the evening designed to make her laugh or lose her temper. All through the evening, jeering, singing and praises, she keeps a tight upper lip. Although, she has the option to laugh or frown, it is not exercisable. Laughing, frowning, and verbal responses are only the counterfoil to the real choice of keeping a tight upper lip. Self-control, dignity, decorum and nonchalance are what are expected of a Kalabari woman in this counterfoil choice situation.
Little wonder that the Iya marriage leaves no room for divorce. “During the marriage ceremony, a piece of raffia clothing is presented to the couple. In the event that any one of them is fed up with the marriage, the other partner is asked if he or she wants to end the union too. The partner then calls for the raffia to be shredded and the strands counted, then she tells her husband how much he will pay for each strand, usually asking for so much that cannot be afforded. That way, the marriage is saved,” Alabo Gold explains.
It was not surprising therefore, that Chinaza quoted earlier, took to the advice of her fiancé’s uncle, and opted for the Iya marriage, because in Ijaw land, you can actually choose how to marry- small budget, or large budget.