MARRIAGE AMONG THE IGBO OF NIGERIA
by Celestine A. Obi
I. Concept and Social Significance of marriage
i) 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.
iii) Love and Courtship in Igbo Marriage
Anybody who has the misfortune of having to define love finds himself in a great difficulty. This is because the word 'love',, like 'justice' is subject to many bewildering and often contradictory interpretations or connotations. Many a murder, many an abortion and other crimes and shocking sins have been committed in the name of love. Here our purpose is not to discuss love and love stories such as are found in many novels today. Rather we want to explain how the Igbo young man and young woman are attracted to each other when about to marry and what keeps them together in married life. In the past young men and young women associated occasionally. "Company keeping' and ",going steady" as a prelude to marriage among Europeans and Americans were unknown. During feasts and dances, women had their group while the young men also kept to their own group. The practice of a boy marching up and down the town with a girl did not exist, although it is coming in gradually today. This however does hot mean that the two groups lived in two different worlds or that they were like parallel lines that never meet. On several occasions they meet and talk freely. Moreover, none of them cola ever grow up in a ghetto since, each village usually farmed in a common land, fetched water from the game stream frequented the same market and played on the same play-ground. It must have been this that Dr. Marwick had in mind, when he remarked that "in Africa, the traditional way of life is intensely personal ... one cats and drinks, talks and works and plays and hunts and perhaps fights alongside the same set of people. This constant succession of face-to-face relationship covering all the activities of living gives to tribal life a special quality and makes the rules governing the formal relationships between people particularity important. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of marriage".
His remark applies to the point we are making.
Before marriage, a young man who loves a girl would speak to his parents about her. The parents will examine not only her physical beauty, but also her physical, mental and moral fitness, then her resourcefulness, graceful temper, smartness and general ability to work well. Her parental background must also be investigated. This is as it should be for "Such a tree, such a fruit" tel père, tel fils" as the saying goes, or "by their fruits you shall know them". Parents inquire very meticulously vices like murder, theft, lying, obstinate disobedience, wanton violence and other undesirable qualities would be introduced into their family. If the girl's mother is known to have been lazy, idle, gossipy, quarrelsome, way-ward, insubordinate to her husband, it may be concluded that the daughter would have these vices. This conclusion is based, for what it is worth, on the assertion that daughters usually take after their mothers. "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his". It is necessary to note that the inquiry is done by both parties - that is, the family of the girl and that of the young man.
Once the inquiries have been satisfactorily completed, the two families now look forward to the settlement of the bride-wealth. The details differ but what we set down here is what is common among the Igbos on both sides of the River Niger. Young people about to marry, may exchange visits, which are regulated by custom and supervised by the parents/guardian of either party. This is for them the occasion to know more and be more interested in each other. Basden here makes an interesting observation: "The word 'Love' according to the European interpretation is not found in the Igbo vocabulary". And in his other book on the Igbo he continues : "The nearest approach to the idea is ifu nanya.- that is, 'to look in the eye' in a favourable manner". According to his statement, the word 'Love does not exist in the Igbo language. Later on, he emphatically concluded: "Love, then, usually has no part to play in native courtship". In our submission, this is the height of over simplification of the matter, because, for one thing, Basden does not define what love or courtship essentially means. For another, from his conclusion it is evident that his study of the Igbo people is superficial.
Among the Igbos, the period of courtship comprises the first meeting, other meetings of the two people concerned, the mutual inquiries conducted by both extended families and the state of friendship leading into the actual celebration of the marriage. If by 'Love' Basden means mere sentimental or emotional feeling which sooner or later ebbs away with time, or the number of years of living together, then he may be tight to say that the Igbo husband and wife do not love each other. For the Igbo, love is much deeper, more important than the emotional feigns. For -them love is not merely motivated by physical beauty. They accept completely the saying that: "Marriage, the happiest bond of love might be, if hearts were only joined, when hearts agree". Love is the sum total of the physical, psychological, economical, social and moral attraction which exercises a magnetic influence on the young man and the young lady, on the one hand and on their extended families on the other. Their attraction as we see here is not merely physical. There is in their love mutual trust, confidence and mutual self-giving. Each feels proud of and satisfied with having the other as partner in the difficult but noble task of raising a family. This is what the Igbos of the past and today generally understand by "ifuna-anya" .
Since the people live their lives together and since families are closely knit, courtship is not a private affair. The family of the young man invites the girl several times to stay a native week at time with them. During this time, she studies the man and his family while they in their turn observe and admire her ways.
iv) The Young Man Before Marriage
From all we have seen so far, it is evident that the Igbo does not step into marriage without preparation. It is a step which must be taken with the eyes wide open.
In what therefore does the preparation consist? In other words, what education is a young man given as a preparation for his marriage? What should ho know and how should ho behave himself when ho has grown to the ago of marriage? This stage is well described by Sporndli as follows: "As soon as a boy comes to the age of reason, he undergoes a civic juvenile test by which ho is initiated into the juju cult by iba nammuo (the walk to the spirit land)". By this ceremony ho is initiated into the secrets of "egwugwu" and told of ana-be-mmuo'. These are secrets which, he can never reveal to anyone of the female sex nor to the yet uninitiated of his own sex. This is an age-old ordeal meant to test the psychological balance and the sense of responsibility of the boy. It is a rigorous training in personal discipline and strict preservation of secrets. Any young man who revealed these secrets was counted a big disgrace to his family. In the past he would either be killed or sold into slavery to a distant town. His family would be subjected to the payment of many heavy penalties. Thus the young man must be able to think his thoughts and keep them to himself. Reason above all must govern his emotional life. He has to prove his worth. "As the adolescent waxed into an adult man", writes Mr. Aniadi, "he must now build his own separate hut in his father's compound. He has his own weapons, farm implements and a barn.... It was time to distinguish oneself in competitive activities like wrestling, dancing, fighting, work and skill, especially when girls were among the spectators". Here we have a summary of all he should be doing some years after the initiation in-to the egwugwu society. Of course Sporndli was not very accurate in his estimation of the age for initiation. It takes place years after coming to the age of reason (10-15yrs). After this then the youth begins to learn to tap palm trees for wine. At this stage he performs the ceremonial rites, for official entry into his age-grade. He thus gets into the category of those obliged to pay tax to the state.
Where the men have a lucrative occupation, like the people of Awka who were famous for black-smithing, the young man joins the working group and so begins in time to earn money rapidly. As we have seen in chapter one, "the men of Agukwu Nrí are the priests whose presence is necessary for a valid celebration of the ceremonial rites in connection with the coronation of kings. "They travel far and wide', as Basden explained". in the performance of these priestly functions". Basden also testifies that the men of Umudioka - Dunukofia go from place to place to practice their trade - as they were the renowned experts in the cutting of ichi (tattooing the face, as a sign of mature manhood) or tribal marks. Young men born in these towns on growing up follow the trade of the men and easily make money to build their own houses, pay the bride wealth, and make initial payments in some of the common titles.
It is in place to remark here that what we have described in the last paragraphs belong to the past rather than to the present. All the different cultures have the following qualities in common: dynamism and susceptibility to change. Consequently what is described here is no longer completely true today. For instance, no young man wears the loin-cloth now. Tattooing has long since gone out of fashion, and blacksmithing has been replaced by more decent and more lucrative occupations like mechanised agriculture, carpentry, bricklaying, trading, clerical work and teaching in schools, colleges and Higher institutions. Western culture has been so mixed with Igbo native culture, that some old customs are no longer accepted, while some are accepted only in a diluted form in many towns. The change is very rapid but somehow unfelt by the younger generation
v) The Girl Before Marriage
In the sub-title, love and courtship, we saw that inquiries are made by both parties to the proposed marriage. If the results are unsatisfactory, the marriage is dropped. To be able to pass the test of these inquiries both the youth and the maid have got preparations to make. We have seen the picture of the young man before marriage. About the girl before marriage, Basden has the following comment to make, 'By the time they are nine or ten, they are regularly employed in fetching supplies of water. They take part daily in such duties as the sweeping of the compound, the rubbing of the house, the collection of firewood and the preparation of food. Soon after daylight the women folk leave the house in order to bring in the morning supply of water..... ... On market days, practically the whole female population move to the market place either to trade or to enjoy the general entertainment such gatherings afford... "From the age of four and five, the women are taught to balance tiny pots of water on their heads so that they have a stately carriage. The job that takes precedence over all others is the visit with the waterpot to the stream or spring....". This is the initiation of the girl into household duties and her success in this field counts very much in winning her a suitable husband. The way she went about her duties will recommend her as a suitable and capable housewife. Her family background and the character of the mother have a lot to add or to subtract as the case may be. Since in the past, practically all girls were meant for marriage, parents usually trained their daughters as future house-wives. They have their age-grades and dance groups. The Igbo girl at this stage begins to imitate the other girls of her age group and becomes more self conscious. Girls usually take pride in their physical features, especially where they have been fully developed and well-formed without natural defects, as Mr. Aniadi remarks. No girl would go to the public assembly without first carefully adorning herself. "Wristlets, ear-rings, necklaces and rolls of jigida on the waist were the prominent and coveted ornaments. To these Basden adds the following: "More widespread are the brass leg rings. For the complete outfit these are graduated in size from the ankle upwards, the number of rings depending on the size of the girl. Up to a certain age the rings must finish below the knees, at full age they must extend above the knees... These are worn prior to marriage and never after". Besides these, bracelets of ivory or sections of huge elephant tusks are worn by rich ladies or women of high rank. The anklets are about nine inches in depth by from two to three inches in thickness. It is not at all comfortable to wear these, but the girls have to put up with them as being imposed by fashion. It is not only the Igbo girls that have had to undergo acute physical discomfort to find a husband. It has been known that western women used to wear a steel-framed corset, while in China mothers used to bind the feet of their daughters very tightly in order to achieve the love-fetish and attraction which lay in small and dainty feet. All these are equally of "The village belles take particular pains to attract the attention of eligible young men and do not hesitate to advertise their personal charms. On gala days, every available ornament is brought into requisition. The girls revel in dancing and seize every opportunity of displaying their charms". Some Igbo girls add poise to their erectness by deliberately walking upright and chest-out. Why all this show? One would be inclined to ask. You would not blame them, if you understand the motive. This is the time for silent but vigorous campaign for a good husband. This ambition glows fervently inside every girl and restlessly demands an urgent satisfaction before the teeming full and pointing breasts sag and bow to age.
In the choice of a wife, the Igbo gives preference to a girl with long thin limbs which are regarded as signs of fast growth and hugeness later on in marred life. Whereas ideas of female beauty vary from people to people, the horror of disease or of physical deformity can be said to be universal. Nevertheless, what is beautiful to a European or to an Asiatic may seem repulsive to an African It is all a matter of taste and De gustibus non est disputandum as the old adage has it. For instance in Western Europe, fashion may decide the position and width of women's waists, and corsets be used to emphasize them, while obesity in a woman goes against the established standard of female beauty. However among the Kirghiz of Central Asia and some West African peoples fatness in a woman is regarded as attractive. Also among the Igbos in the past, a prospective wife was set aside in a hut and fed and instructed without much exercise until she was well prepared physically and psychologically to assume the role of house wife and after a short time, that of a mother. This practice which no longer exists today, was referred to "ino na nkpu or npu' (returning to the fattening house).
Dr. Briffault said of the natives of the interior of Ceylon, that for them, a beautiful woman must have very long hair often touching her knees, a nose as sharp as a hawk's, her breasts must be conical and her hips very wide and her waist so small that it can be clasped with one hand. We do not pretend to swear to the truth of this report, in its every detail but at least it helps to explain why the Igbo have their own canon for the perfect woman. As a general rule, fat young girls with stout brawny joined limbs (called ukwu nchi - grasscutters short legs) are not ranked among the beautiful according to Igbo standards. This is because such usually scarcely ever added an inch to their low stature later- in married life. A huge woman (not necessarily a fat one) is the choice of most people. This has many obvious advantages, for not only that she commands respect and is the pride of her husband, also she will be able to do farm work and in childbearing, she would generate her kind. Furthermore, it has an added social advantage. Such a woman because of her size is easily recognisable in the assembly of women. Given the average skill and intelligence she usually becomes the leader of her dance-group or the president of the women's council.
II Kinds of Traditional in Igbo Marriage.
Monogamy is the form of marriage prevalent among a civilised nations whose social structures are based on the Greco-Roman tradition and Christian religion. Primitive food collectors, for economic reasons were usually limited to one wife. Advanced nations of Europe and America, and the places influenced by European civilisation are for social and economic reasons also monogamous. The pygmies of the Congo basin and those of Asia, the Adamanese islanders, the Aeta of the Philippines, the Kubu of Sumatra, and the Semang of Malaya also have this practice of monogyny. What is said about the above mentioned peoples can apply to the Igbo, for although polygamy is practised, yet monogamy is the common type of marriage.
In the Igbo society, polygyny is not merely tolerated, it is encouraged and accepted, still monogamous marriages very greatly outnumber polygynous ones. Among the Igbo, a father accepts responsibility for all his wife's children throughout his life. This makes the choice of a wife and the recognition of marriage an important matter for the community.
The normal age is 25-28 for the man and from 14 to 18 for the girl. In some parts of Igbo land, child-marriage (ldo-nkwu nwanyi, igudo-nwanyi) literally, bringing bride wine, staking bride claim, was practised. "Rich parents", says Basden, "often select a wife (or wives) for a son, while he is still a boy, he probably having no knowledge of the transaction ... This method of acquiring a wife is known as Nwunye-nwa-madu. It is a way of displaying well-to-do parentage". However this is rather very rare and must have fallen into desuetude since Basden wrote. The normal procedure is that the young man chooses a wife himself, though it may sometimes happen that a father will make the selection and then quietly disclose his choice to his son. This is not in any case imposed on him, since his father, mother or guardian or whoever else makes the choice or pays the bride wealth for him may be regarded as his benefactors. He can reject the choice but in most cases he does not, for he trusts his father's expert experience in this field. It is commonly accepted that the older people are more sober in choosing marriage partner. There is a good point in this, since eiders have had experience of marriage, and known cases of successful and unsuccessful marriages, they are in a better position to detect the qualities in a prospective housewife. We are still in the realm of monogamy and it may be important to point out that usually al1 marriages begin as monogamy but many end up as polygamous. This is because it does happen that the young man on growing up may take more wives according to his means and the circumstances in which he finds himself. The childlessness of the first wife is not the only reason. In fact there are many as we shall see shortly ahead.
ii) Woman - to - Woman Marriage
This may be described as the devise whereby a sterile woman tries to render her supreme service to society, thereby strengthening her position as a useful and responsible member of her husband's family. She pays for a new life on behalf of her husband,. or she provides him with the necessary funds for a new marriage, with a view to raising children for her husband by proxy as we may put it. Dr. Meek describes another form of this type of marriage. He says: "Even an unmarried woman may marry another woman by paying a bride rice...". Dr. Obi disagrees with Meek's description: "in our submission, this is not a marriage between one woman and another. The fact that the bride price and other customary dues were paid by a woman is immaterial After all, many mothers make these payments for and on behalf of their sons of any age; so do fathers, guardians and maternal uncles".
From Obi's argument we can say that what really constitutes one as a husband before law is not essentially the paying of the bride wealth taken by itself alone but taken in conjunction with consent, capacity and the formal giving away. We shall discuss these in detail in another chapter. A typical case of a woman marrying another exists among the Neur where a rich and influential Zulu woman may marry another woman by giving marriage cattle for, her, and she is the pater of her wife's children begotten by some male kinsman of the female husband. In the cases where Meek was talking of married women, sometimes marrying other women, the fact is that those women were carrying on the marriage in the name of their deceased fathers or husbands.
Nwunye Nkuchi which means an inherited wife or a wife taken in another's stead. Basden testifies that this was widely practised in Awka Province. A man by this practice takes over his dead father's wife or dead brother's wife where there is no heir, or male issue or if the heir is a minor. This depends on the will of the woman, her age and the man's ability to maintain her. Her previous marriage was not terminated by the death of her husband. it now continues with this heir who has inherited her . Apart from this "lecriratic" marriage, Arthur Phillips describes another type which he called 'Ghost marriage'.
It consists in a woman being married to the name of a man who died unmarried so that his line need not die out. Consequently, children born of this marriage should bear the name of this unmarried dead man. Philips says that this is encountered in East and Central Africa.
iv) Nwunye Nhachi: ldegbe, Arewah
When a man dies without a male issue, one of his daughters stays back, selects lovers with whom she cohabits to beget children on behalf of her dead father This institution also existed among the Western Igbo where it was called Idegbe, and among the Edo-Speaking people who called it Arewa or Arhewa. The children, thus raised, would succeed to her father's property. Among the Lele of the Kasai, such a woman is said to be called "wife of the village. Of course here the very idea of Idegbe precludes marriage, so that there could be no doubts regarding the affiliation of any children born to the woman in question.
important remark is in place here. In different localities in lgboland
in the past as well as today, marriages are contracted in a multiplicity
of ways regarding preliminary procedures,: marriage ceremonies and even
the final act (inductio in domum). However the end product, the resulting
marriage as an institution is the same in kind and legal incidents. We
have yet to discuss another kind of marriage polygyny. We have on purpose,
included sub-headings ii, iii, and iv, not that they are kind-s of Igbo
marriage, but rather that they were customs sanctified by age, usage or
circumstances of the tame and place. Since any given culture is never at
a standstill, never accepted once and for all, it may be easy to see why
these practices lingered on for a long time. "There is no bulk of stable
and fixed eternal culture given to a people for all time". This shows why
it has been possible for the Igbos to have abandoned the practices described
above. In the processes of selection and integration of new elements, these
practices dropped-out. Consequently in the Igbo community today, there
are two kinds of marriage monogamy and polygyny, of which monogamy is the
Not every people accept the view that a man should have only one wife. Among the Eskimos for instance, it has observed that whereas each husband married one wife, a man of fair means could marry two or more to make himself socially important. Also, although monogamy may be the accepted practice among the peoples of the Kalahari Desert and Australian aborigines, still polygyny is said to be found among them too. Some sociologists and anthropologists try to make up a general explanation for the existence of polygyny, saying that it occurs mainly among pastoral and agricultural peoples. But this statement is only a little short of becoming an illicit generalisation, for the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara Desert are practically monogamous even though they are a pastoral people and practised the Islamic religion which guaranteed a plurality of wives. Experts like Westermarck and others asserted that polygyny represented a decadent form of marriage. This is at best a theory, which has yet to be developed or dropped. Furthermore, although it used to be held in the 16th. and 17th. centuries that Mohammed was the inventor of polygyny, hence its spread in Africa and Asia seemed to be coterminous with the spread of Islam, nevertheless, it has been found out that polygyny was much more widespread than this.
The Igbo social order is patriarchal Marriage is both monogamous and polygynous. In the past, polygyny was rather encouraged and supported while today the support is at least tacit or implied since society still accepts it as a lawful form of marriage. We have cited instances first to show the aerial dimension of polygyny, in other words, that it is not restricted to the Igbo people, nor to pastoral and nomadic peoples, and secondly to show the different reasons for, and circumstances in which different peoples adopted and perhaps still tolerate polygyny.
ii) Reasons for Igbo Polygyny
"As far as polygyny is concerned, there are various reasons why a man may want to possess more than, no wife:
a) among many peoples, a man must refrain from intercourse with a woman who is pregnant or nursing;
b) among savages, women age early and lose their attraction for men;
c) many men like change....;
d) Quite often, the barrenness of the first wife leads to taking a second, in conditions namely, where great value is placed on posterity".
Among the Igbos, polygamy is adopted for economic and social, and for sexual and other reasons. In the past, it was the normal ambition of every family-head, to continue to add to the number of his wives throughout his fife. The man needed many hands so as to cope with the work in his farms. Women themselves are generally very good at farm work. A wife does not only help but within some few years, her children will join the team. Love for having children is another dynamic factor that leads to polygyny among the Igbo people. Children are a great asset, and so every marriage has procreation as its raison d'être. When a marriage has proved fruitless, then another woman, (at times one already pregnant outside marriage) is sought to redeem the situation. If the husband fails to or delays before taking a wife, he sets the ball of gossip rolling. Often people advise him to act quickly. "Marriage must be fruitful. Of what use is it, if it is not fruitful? One year is enough for any woman who would have a baby to begin making one".
A second wife may also be taken if the first becomes impossible to live with. Both will now compete to win the good favour of the husband. We have also seen cases where the first wife led the way in marrying a second wife into the family. It is not only for economic reasons or to have children that has made polygyny to flourish as it did in lgboland. Many people, especially Chiefs married for social prestige. Just as it is the custom that among the Lango people of Uganda, there is no limit, so also among the Igbos there is none either. It is not uncommon to find a man with 5 to 10 wives or sometimes even more. It is taken for 9Canted that such men can feed the wives, otherwise they fall prey to public criticism and gossip. It is important to point out here that the polygyny meant here as found among the Igbo people is different from the. 'harem' type. It is polygyny in the strict sense. We can not say that sexual reasons are completely absent from Igbo polygyny but from our observations it can be said that they are not among the principal ones. Igbo women were never enclosed in harems.
iii) The general attitude of Igbo women towards polygyny?
One of the arguments usually adduced against polygyny is that it implies a disregard for the feelings of women. However this may not be applied in the case of the Igbos and many other peoples who are 'polygynous. The jealousy of co-wives is said to be engendered but this is denied in the case of the Ashanti and some other African peoples as well as for New Guinea, Australia, also the Eskimos and then the Kaffirs. As a rule, the jealousy of co-wives is not the characteristic of Igbo polygyny. Granted that women in polygynous families at times quarrel, but bickering between women who live and work together can not be avoided no matter whatever their relation to one another. The regularity and gravity of these largely depend on the wives' level of education and the man's ability to rule the large household. An Eskimo wife, asked why her husband married another wife, answered: '1 asked him myself, for I am tired of bearing children'. This mentality is also found among the Igbos as we have already shown. It does not however mean that the Igbo wife's value is set on bearing children alone, but rather that the Igbo love for children is so deep and extensive that the first wife would want children in that family, even if she herself was not a mother. Polygyny also settled sexual difficulties as Dr. Westermarck explained. In the past, the Igbo and Lango custom of not weaning a child till after three years, which went hand-in-hand with that of non-cohabitation between husband and wife although the three years created a great sexual problem especially for the man. The solution was found, not in going against this custom but taking another wife. However Miss Kingsley's assertion that "West African women do not care a 'tinker's curse' about the relations of their husband, with other women, provided he does not waste on them the cloth, etc., which they regard as their perquisite, could not be applied to the Igbo polygynous family. Moreover, in our submission, the statement is too sweeping and at bottom, a complete misrepresentation of the actual situation. This is because, the fact that polygyny is accepted among a people does not necessarily mean that their sexual morality is low. Polygyny well understood and as it exists among Igbos is as distinct from promiscuity as darkness is from daylight. In short the Igbo woman is well reconciled to the idea of polygyny. Where there were many wives often there were also many children and so an assured hope of a most resounding second funeral ceremony - an honour which pagan parents so much cherished and looked up to. Where it is difficult to obtain a husband, polygyny creates a situation that will make it possible for many more women to be absorbed into the married state. In fact, women in a polygynous household are usually on good terms. They give help to one another and bring about the better organisation of the household. Consequently, it can be said that in the past, polygyny was in its zenith among the Igbo where affluence existed and where the desire for a large family was strongest. Today however, a change of attitude may be noticed among the Igbo women. As an informant told me, it takes more time, more money, more anxiety to bring up children today than it did in the past. It will not do, merely to brine children into the world, there must be some notable assurance of being able to educate them. Moreover the Christian religion which has thrived in lgboland teaches that true marriage is monogamous and that polygyny must be abandoned. Therefore the present change of attitude towards polygyny is not merely due to the defects inherent in polygyny as such, but also due to contact with the western civilisation, the emphasis on higher education and higher standard of living and the impact of the Christian religion.
iv) The defects of polygyny
Just as it is said that no system of government, is necessarily the best, so also it can be said that all things being equal, no system of marriage is necessarily the best. Monogamy is the prevalent institution in many parts of the world, but this does not mean it has not got its defects. In fact monogamy is a lofty ideal to be aspired to, but its practice is so imperfect that at times it would seem better to legalise polygyny. This is a speculation
The point we are making is that monogamy in practice is equally full of many defects and scandals in the world of today, while in principle it is a lofty ideal. The polygynous system can lead to the economic exploitation of women, that is, by reducing them to mere tillers of the soil, fetchers of water and hewers of wood. In the case of harem polygyny, the woman can be reduced to the man's pleasure object, things that are destined to the satisfaction of his sexual urge. Furthermore, it does sometimes happen that the women are too many for one man to cope with, so that, they of necessity have to seek lovers outside the family. Socially it may at times not be to the best interests of the woman. According to certain cultures the other wives of the polygynous household, are subordinate not only to the husband but also to the 'chief wife'. Being a second wife has other disadvantages. For instance, the co-wives are not admitted to baptism as long as their husbands is alive and cohabits with them. This creates a highly embarrassing situation, not only for the priest and his assistants, but also for the women who after attending catechism in preparation for baptism, often get the apology , "Sorry madam,1 I can not baptise you, it is against the law of the church". In fact many Igbo women still find themselves in this awkward predicament. In this way, polygyny holds back the forward march of evangelisation among many peoples of Africa. Now we come to the maintenance of the family. In general, only the well-to-do are expected to take more than one wife. But it does often happen that people who began life rich end up in stark poverty. This is worse in a polygynous household, where there will be too many mouths to feed but very little output due to the fact that the man and his wives must have grown old or at times are suffered from prolonged unemployment. We have already said that the women of a polygynous household cohabit peacefully, and this is true in most of the cases I have personally observed. However I have to add here that this amicable cohabitation always presupposes the existence i n that family of a fair amount of wealth and contentment. Many a time children from polygynous household show signs of incomplete parental upbringing, especially on their father's side. Today for instance, it would cost ten times normal to keep the polygynous household and to educate the children.
A word for polygyny
To begin with, all we are saying here is that monogyny being the approved and ideal, is in practice full of abuses. Polygyny has its good points but is not to be compared with monogamy. Polygyny is condemned on the grounds that it implies an outrage to the feelings of women. This may be true but only up to a point. For as we have already shown, Igbo women, do not detest the husband's marrying other wives. As for the Igbo , so also the Kaggirs, the Ashanti, the New Guineans, and the Eskimos. An Akikuyu East African woman gave the following message to the women of Europe: "Tell them two things, one is that we never marry anyone we do not want to, and the other is that we like our husband to have as many wives as possible". What this lady said applies very much in the case of the Igbo women as has been made clear earlier on. It applies too to the different peoples among whom polygyny is found. Consequently the opinion that it arouses feminine jealousy has to be modified. Feminine jealousy, it must be remembered, is much more a product of social condition than anything else. It is an effect, not a cause. It shows the woman's desire not to part with the male on whom she depends for protection and economic support. It does not as a rule refer to the relations of the male with other females, as long as the said relations do not form any danger to the economic and love association. In many cases this does not happen. It can be argued that our contestation here applies only to women of the far distant past and not to those of today, since what used to be true of the females in the past need not necessarily be true of those of today. This is due to the fact that women today enjoy more social, economic liberty than their counterparts ever did in the past. It must be admitted however that the s o-called emancipation of women has not given to all of them economic independence. For one thing, women today with higher education and emancipation, still need protection from their husbands. For another, the number of working women that have attained economic independence is infinitesimally small considering them on a world basis. Again, polygyny is widely regarded as a moral virtue; to support as many fellow human beings as possible is not only a mark of wealth but a form of philanthropy. In its absence, very many women would be forced to live a miserable single life. It is not uncommon to read from some European anthropologists and sociologists that polygyny is lent among primitive or uncultured peoples while they speak of monogamy as a mark of civilisation.
However the use of the term primitive-and-uncultured is unfortunate. It seems to mean that there is only one culture in the entire world - this is contrary to the fact. This one culture would of course be the one in which monogamous kind of marriage is said to predominate. However, even in Europe it has been said that real monogamous marriage has never existed. Of the Romans and the Greeks it has been observed that while their marriage institution was monogamous, they could scarcely ever be said to be monogamous in their sex relations. The more appropriate term to be used in this context should be "successive polygyny". in the civilised world today where divorce and exchange of wives are found to be of frequent occurrence the marriage institution can not be said to be really monogamous. For, a man who begins by having one wife that he can divorce for another at any time, is no more monogamous than an unmarried person is a celibate. Consequently, estimates as to the extent of polygyny in a given society can be very deceptive. In fact, it appears better to say that it is the poor man that is a monogamist all over the world. But it must be moreover remembered that the prohibition of polygyny, which was said to be natural and to be met with among all nation s in a state of 'refinement', was actually promulgated for the first time in any part of the world in the code of Justinian in the sixth century. What must have happened even among the civilised or cultured peoples. before the promulgation of his law could be anybody's guess. Again it must not be forgotten that in any polygynous society most of the men have one wife at any one given time, although they may later take two or more. In fact, as Prof. Grottanelli said "Theoretically vast majority of peoples are polygynous but the rule in such societies is permissive polygyny and actual monogamy.
from unpublished doctoral thesis submitted to Pontifical Urban University,
Rome (1970) by Celestine A. Obi)