Marriage and Family in traditional Africa:
Etsako as an example
A Presentation at the 2016 Annual Convention of Afenmhai World Congress (AWC) Held August 12, to 14, in Atlanta, Georgia at Sheraton Hotel at the Atlanta Airport in the United State of America
Omoh T. Ojior, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science
Most marriages and family are based on the social structure of the people, and so is traditional marriage and family in Africa in which Nigeria and Etsako are an integral part.We have decided touse Etsako to illustrate our subject matter because Etsako in Apemhai or Afenmhai in the northern part of Edo State in Nigeria particularly and Africa in general, remains one of the rural communities one finds on the continent.First and foremost, what goes on in Etsako with regards to our subject matter, marriage and family in traditional Africa will allow us here as individuals and collective communities to appreciate what we have in our various individual domains. And more importantly, it is a known fact to keen observers and conscientious Nigerians that the differences in the culture, customs and traditions of the people of Nigeria where Etsako is located are in most cases very minute, in other words, the similarities are there which is an absolute natural demonstration that Nigeria is one and indivisible entity.
For the avoidance of doubt, currently,Etsako, politically, is composed of three local government areas; Etsako East, West, and Etsako Central local governments of Edo State in Nigeria. Historically, the whole of Apemhai or Afenmai today used to be known as Etsako until the Midwest Region was created out of what was known then as the “three legged Nigeria.” According to Chief G. B. L. Oyakhire, (a native of Onwan) he was the one who coined the name “Afenmai” to describe the entire three divisions which include Etsako, Onwan, and Akoko Edo when Authorities in Ibadan were searching for a true name to call the area upon the creation of Midwest Region. This was at Ibadan where he was serving as a District Officer (DO) in the Nigeria PoliceForce. Ibadan was the Capital and Headquarters of Western Region when the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun (NCNC), a political party, brought about the creation of Midwest, the first of such creation in the country. Geographically, Etsako areas lie in the northeastern part of Edo State of Nigeria, and covers approximately 2,703.30 square kilometers or 1,043.4738 square miles of hilly semi-savannah grassland. The population was estimated at 464,000 by the 2006 census figures. Etsako is bounded on the west by Onwan and Akoko-Edo local Government areas, and on the east, by the River Niger. Etsako East has its administrative headquarters at Agenegbode situated by the River Niger while the administrative center of Etsako West is at Auchi. Etsako Central is at the center of both East and West local governments and its administrative Headquarters is at Avhianwu (Fugar).
For the avoidance of doubt, the people of Etsako and the people of Akoko Edo, Onwan, and Inemeh are one and the same in Apemhai or Afenmhai. Consequently, the traditional behavious culturally, are similar, if not the same. There are minor differences in the languages and dialects in the entire sub-region in Edo North.
Historically speaking, Etsako people remain the original of the Edo people who are today known as the Binis in Nigeria. Edo remains the name of the land that is today known as Edo State, and Etsako people emigrated to where they are today, in the Northern part of Edo State. Historical oral tradition relates that Etsako people left Edo in protest after joining with other Binis in an unsuccessful bid to dethrone the Ogitso of Edo, Oba Ozenua, who was oppressive and cruel over his subjects. The war was known as Okhwu-Oba, but the year it took place is in doubt.British Intelligence Report states that the war took place in about 1500. This author strongly felt that this war and Etsako’s emigration from Edo were earlier than 1500 A.D. because the exact date of the war is beyond the scope of this exercise as the Intelligence Reports on Etsako only state that its people migrated from Benin in about 1500 A.D., although, it is doubtful if the migration had not taken place earlier. As a traditional mark of beauty, Etsako maidens used to file their teeth hence the name, Etsako and Etsakoland.
The population projection for Etsako by the National Population Commission of Nigeriaas at 2011 was 504,210. As is always the case, women are more than men. Historically, Etsako people are traditionalists in the sense that they respect their culture. In contemporary time, there are as many Moslems as there are Christians. In spite of this cultural dilution or intermingling, the traditions of the people seem to have continued to have an edge over other things in the area. .Etsako as an ethnic group in Nigeria, has one language with about eleven (11) dialects. Most of the people, with very few exceptions, understand each other without any problem. The minor differences in the dialects do not affect the cultural similarities, in other words, the culture of the people is the same in spite of the slight differences in the dialects. The two foreign religions, Christianity and Islam, are fighting for domination in the area, but the traditional culture still has its hold on the people. Christianity canvasses for monogamy while Islam mandates the marrying of up to four wives by its adherence. According to this author and the traditional history of the people,Etsako people are “polyoharmonious”, in other words, they marry as many as their ability allows. The Anglo Saxon words “polygamy and polygyny” are derogatory in their meaning and description of an African marriage system hence polyharmony. It is within this co-mingling that the society of Etsako exists. Etsako is a microcosm of Edo State just as the Edo State is a microcosm of the macrocosm which in this case is Nigeria. The politics in the area is a reflection of the politics of Nigeria at large. The difference, if any, may be found in the cultural behaviors that are fast vanishing within the urban metropolis of Nigeria; but in the interior, of which Etsako belongs, the cultural values are still upholding except for our languages that needed to be reinforced.
The family structure is based on Etsako people’s cultural tradition, and family ties are very strong. A family does not end up only with a couple; there is what others call extended family. A family include, parents, husband, wife or wives, brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, and nieces, which in African culture and traditions, they are all Apemhe or Ipemha, Ipemhe, and iyokpamhe, all meaning my parents, brothers, sisters, in other words, family members. All are a family in Etsako cultural setting.
As a result of the attachment to the culture and traditions, a husband/father is the head of the house irrespective of the religious affiliation of the man, Christians and Moslems alike. This is evidence that culture transcends religion in this respect in most of African traditional settings. Although, Christianity and Islam are struggling to affect the system, the two have failed in my own opinion, as some Christians are having more than one wife while some have one wife and many concubines outside, which to me appears as an embarrassment and hypocrisy of the adherents of the foreign religion. .However, the religion of the man in Etsako is the religion of the wife or wives and in most traditional African societies.
In most Etsako families, the woman is the mother of the home and she is in charge of its day-to-day management of whatever the man brings home,whilethe husband/father of the home, is the head of the family. The mother is the divine shield of the family. “Odo-ogho“, meaning, a wife is a shield; it is through her that the riches or poverty of the man becomes known to the public by her appearance and social predispositions. The man takes responsibility for everything and for whatever the family becomes. He ensures that no member of the family is an embarrassment either to the family or to the community. The misbehavior of a member of a family in Etsako rubs on the entire family either in good light or it’s opposite. It is traditional that women compliment the men in whatever they set out to do. Hence in Etsako, the aphorism is that in the life of every successful man is a woman; that is, there is a woman behind every successful man, and vise vasa.
There is no room for juvenile delinquency in Etsako because the cultural setting has no room for delinquency. For example, once a child is born the child belongs to all in the community. This is why a child is corrected at once by whoever is present when the child may have misbehaved, and the child is commended also by whoever is present when the child performs well in whatever it was that the child was doing. This is to say that an adult cannot stand by and watch in silence while a child misbehaves, whether he or she knows the child or not. This is why it is an African philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child. This philosophy is also guided by another philosophical axiom that “UmieUagwere, lo gboOkpishia, atakhuso, lo gboogomo“, meaning “if an elder sees danger looming before a child and fails to warn the child, the elder is guilty of death; but if the child is warned but fails to heed the warning of the elder, the child is guilty of whatever happens to the child”.
However, to the credit of Africa, the philosophy of a whole village raising a child which is known now all over the world, and is envied by many foreigners to Africa, is now being abused and defiled by some of this generation’s young African women who are outside Africa. Some of them are refusing to allow their close neighbors and even elder relatives to either correct, chastise, or teach their children anything. I know a mother who says that her daughters would have nothing to do with an Etsako man; that their daughter would rather marry a non Etsako person. They are claiming that the tutelage of Etsako children of the generation before theirs’ amount to nothing but suffering and child-abuse which their children of today must not go through. Many a time, many of the young mothers did not even know what they missed because of the foreign and modern so-called child upbringing methods, especially in America. The inappropriateness of the so-called scientific method of child rearing is what led Colin M. Turnbull in the Lonely African, to say of the Africans to the imperialists and colonizers: that yes,
“We have several wives, and we are faithful to them all, and we care for all until we die. You people cannot even be faithful to one wife, and your children are such a nuisance to you that you send them away from home almost as soon as they can walk.”
Yet still, the young African women tell their young children born overseas that they are not Nigerians but Americans, therefore should not learn the language of their Nigerian parents. I also know a grandmother who expresses her grief over the kind of experiences as being described. These young Nigerian mothers speak English to their children instead of the mother tongue which the children need to know, to enable the children become familiar with the culture of their nativity. The danger in this is that such children may be unable to return to their homeland in Africa in the near future. The behavior does not represent Etsako people or Nigerians therefore; the behavior needs to be checked. May God not allow us to become Ighwo ne yi ime ne da Ape. Ighwo is a type of ropes that are taken from home to the farm to file-up yams, but they never return home.
To non-African traditional societies, marriage means a socially approved sexual relationship between persons of the opposite sex. According to Clifford Kirkpatrick, there are four possibilities: men-women, women-men, man-women, and man-woman, (See The Family as Process and Institution, 1963, p.59).In my opinion, the men-women, and women-men should be regarded as polygyny or polygamy unacceptable in many African traditional societies, while the man-woman is monogamy which was imported into Africa by the Imperialists and their missionaries. Another informed opinion look at marriage as a complex affair with economic, social and religious aspects which often overlap so firmly that they cannot be separated from one another. In the words ofProfessor J. S. Mbiti to which I agree, is that Africans regard marriage as the focus of existence; the point where all members of a given community meet: the departed, the living and those yet to be born. “All the dimensions of time meet here, and the whole drama of history is repeated, renewed and revitalized”.
Although, this author agrees with Mbiti; in my opinion, a more simpler and proper definition or classification of an African marriage system is “polyharmony,” a system in which a man and his wife or wives with their children live together harmoniously under the leadership of the man in the same confine or home, (Ojior 1983). The marriage institution in Etsako is very strong and it is the base of its cultural hegemony. Further explanation is that marriage is also the joining together of two families; it is never a contract only between the couple. An aspect of the marriage contract that is only between the man and his wife or wives, is the sexual relationship that relates to further development of the family throughreproduction or procreation.It is important to mention that in Etsako, it is the man/husband that pays the dowry unlike in other societies where women pay the dowry to the man and foot the wedding bill. The payment of the dowry places the overall responsibility and control of the home including the wife or wives, in the hands of the man/husband in Etsako and some other traditional African societies. It is the reason polyharmony predominates, according to the strength of the man in Etsako, and it is the root or foundation for the lack of divorce, a check on broken homes and juvenile delinquency, which in many respects, are associated with children from broken homes common in modern and foreign societies outside Africa.
Under the culture a man should have not less than two wives. A man should have more if he has the ability, and he is expected to meet the requirement. The first wife, “Adegbe“, is the mother of the home regardless of the number of other wives. The second wife is Amhoghia or amhoya, and she has her special position with her children as she is not supposed to remarry outside the family in the event that the husband passes through transition, unless with the blessing of the husband’s family, can she remarry outside the family. In Etsako, it is a traditional custom and normal for a female to marry before she can become pregnant. In other words, a girl should not become pregnant while unmarried, because in the culture a girl is not a woman until she is wedded by a man. This has been the culture currently being threatened. The act of wedding is the “Rite of passage” from girlhood to womanhood which is “Urthuamhi” meaning Rite of passage, and symbolic circumcision is a part of the Rite.Chastity is a pride and honor to a girl and her parents, especially to the mother who is usually rewarded highly by her daughter’s suitor over her purity; the girl being undefiled before the wedding is usually made known to the community by the husband. The condition of being a maiden until she gotmarried is also a pride to the newly married young man.
Before now in traditional Africa which Etsako is a part, dressing up in an Obuniku and Afe which areSkirt and Blouse was a sign that a girl has been defiled. The marriage Rite “Urthuamhi” must take place seven days preceding before the girl goes to the husband’s home. There are traditional activities within these seven days that constitute the state of transition from girlhood to womanhood. It is an abomination for a family to have an unwed daughter to become a mother.
To become a man, a male child must be circumcised to go through the Rite of Initiation to Manhood or he is yet a boy and not a man. A man who fails to meet the needs of his wife and family opens himself up to the ridicule of the community. A young boy qualifies to contend marriage when he becomes an “Eghuogo“, a young man. A man of age who is not married, stands disrespected before the community and his age-group. Culturally, a man who is unable to have more than one wife is considered as one who has not fulfilled his obligation to the society. It is customary for the first wife to assist in getting a second wife, “Amhoghia” for her husband, if it appears the man is unable. A first wife is considered selfish if she is the only wife in the household; for this reason some first wives fish-out the “right” second wife that they would like for their mates. This is one reason why it was hard to find an adult female without a husband before now, and there are not many men of age who are bachelors. Divorce is uncommon in traditional marriages because there are avenues through which it is prevented.
There are challenges in every human endeavor therefore marriages in Etsako are not exempted from such challenges. Such challenges are not predetermined therefore they are dealt with as and when they occur. In Etsako, as a traditional society for example, there are occasional conflicts. Marriage conflicts are settled the traditional way in which friends, community elders are usually involved, but sometimes neighbours could be involved. At times, the couple will work-things-out themselves which is why some argue that even when some arguments turn physical, theywere called “African Romance.” In most traditional societies there are some wives who try-out their husbands to see how effective a man is their husbands. In other words, they want to see if their husband is a strong man who would be able to protect them if a situation demands protection.This is also to say that many wives like to know that their husband is a man and not a weakling. Sometimes, some wives will show a sign after such argument that they were actually “playing” with the man when the man sparked. In Etsako, women beating are not common; I never saw my father and mother fought. They were 100 and 101 years old respectively when the passed on.
Common conflicts in marriage in Etsako are usually verbal arguments between the men and the women; sometimes it could result into insult on the man-husband. In some situations where the wife had used harsh and bad words or curse on the husband, she could be sanctioned with a fine of a chicken or goat by the husband or elders, if the matter was reported to the elders in the community. Where it is the husband who had used similar unwholesome words on the wife, she could go to the most elderly of the community to report the husband, and if he is found guilty he could be chastised or requested to apologize to the wife. In such, situations, the most elderly that is usually a man will summon the most four elderly females and few other elders in the community to sit with him in the settlement of such matter. The wife may also make report to the friends of the husband who may also settle the two. If the man beats the wife and she knew that she was not at fault or that she did not deserve the beating, she also can take similar action against the husband with the community.
There is the Ikuaghwa, a traditionalNocturnal Order that exist in one form or the other in all the local governments in Apemhai. The Order interacts with the people on all matters that comes or is brought to its attention. It comes out in the night to impose sanction on any one who quarreled or disturbed the peace in the community at an odd hour, especially in the Evening when people are taking their super. The Ikuaghwa in the communities is the highest court of the people; the Order comes out to intervene in serious situations, spiritual or mundane in the community; its decision is always final on any matter, and there is no appeal. Culturally, Ikuaghwa is the link between the ancestors and the living in Etsako. These are some of the levels of socio-cultural and traditional control that preclude divorce in marriages in many traditional societies in Africa, particularly in Etsako and Afenmai in general, in Edo State of Nigeria.
Child Bearing in Marriage
The greatest success in amarriage in traditional societies in Africa is one that was and is made fruitful. It is so to both the man and the woman in the marriage. A childless marriage is an unfortunate event that is frowned upon in Etsako and in many traditional communities in Africa. In Etsako, most women would ignore most marriage challenges no matter how unpleasant they may seem as long as the husband is able to make them a woman and mother of children. Omone is a name of a beautiful girl I know in Etsako and in other communities in Apemhai;the name means a child is more than wealth of any kind. Traditional societies in Africa take pride in a large family which brings abouta large population, and Etsako particularly believes in a large family and population. It is in the culture that a large family is a wealthy one. It is a philosophical belief that the more you are, the more chances are that the family will survive in the event of a catastrophe. I would argue that Etsako’s belief in this philosophy, in comparison, is behind the rat race between the East and West regarding the need to grow large population; on the other hand Africans are being compelled to depopulate; sterilize their women to avoid large population development. The Imperialist observers superficially see the ability to produce food for the family as the reason traditional Africans seek to have large families, which is not correct. It is security and reverence to Nature that is always replicating itself for self-fulfillment and continuity. This is why Nature is indestructible, and an African, as a child of Nature is sustained forever, so said, the late Right Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria.
A belief in one-man, one-wife; one child and a dog, as a family is Eurocentric and unrepresentative of Nature.Europe and westerners have always been afraid of Africa’s large family choice, a major reason to look for a means to slow population development in Africa or destroy the population if they cannot stop the growth. Some opinions attribute the creation of Viruses such as HIV AIDS and the killer reptilian, called “Ebola” disease and ZIKA as a result of their fear and envy of Africa. Just imagine this: On August 12, 2014, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund UNICEF, an organ of the United Nations Organization UNO, in a report states that a “Quarter of global population will be African by the year 2050.” The announcement went on to say that “High fertility rates coupled with a rise in the number of women of child-bearing age will see two billion babies born in the region by 2050,” which is Africa. The report went on to state that “Based on current trend,” of birth rates, “within 35 years, 25 in 100 people will be African.” According to UNICEF’s projection or estimate, 40 percent of the world’s children aged under five years will come from Africa; “Nigeria, the region’s most populous country, will account for 10 percent of global births.” The report further states that “Africa’s 1.2 billion people will double in size between 2015 and the middle of the century, and reach 4.2 billion by 2100.” UNICEF says that Africa’s growth rate, population wise, means more overcrowding, and population density. The report continued that by late 2030, many Africans will live in cities, but in overcrowded environment, and would cause children to continue to struggle to survive. And on August 14, 2014, UNICEF again announced that “The Future of Humanity is African” The next report released by UN organ, states also that “The future of humanity is increasingly African because more than half of the projected 2.2 billion rises in the world population in 2015-2050 is expected to take place in Africa.” These so called researched Reports were released and published simultaneously just as the world and Africans were burying daily a shocking number of dead Ebola victims in Liberia and Sierra Leone. These reports at the time were instructive as to what mission and goal of Ebola in Africa.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude by saying that it is against the foregoing background that Marriage and family in traditional Africa and in Etsako particularly must be seen as an institution divinely ordained. Africa and Etsako particularly must take great care to preserve the sanctity of marriage and family. It is a blessing to Africa and humanity. It is the reason every conscientious African and a Nigerian in particular must nurture and respect marriage and family, the traditional way with a view to promoting it where ever he or she may find him or herself. And Etsako must continue to cherish its own marriage and traditional family system ordained by God for progress and continuity.