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From Paul Osuyi, Asaba
In Benin culture and tradition, marriage rites are held in very high esteem. According to Benin tradition, the family is the bedrock of any community hence the norms and values imbibed at the family level go a long way in the achievement of success or failure of the entire community. Marriage is seen as the starting point for the formation of this all-important bedrock.
As a result of the importance of the marriage institution, deliberate steps are taken to lay a solid foundation for it, one of which is to avoid giving tacit support to relationships between a man and a woman of marriageable age.
Groom’s visit and background checks
According to Pa Monday Osayande, a Bini man, to make a union between a man and woman legal, the prospective groom must make the first move by going to the home of his prospective bride to, first of all, seek acceptability by her immediate family, made up of her parents and siblings.
Osayande said that while making such a move, the prospective groom is advised not to go empty-handed, although he is not required to come with any gift. He added that they way and manner “he comports himself during this maiden visit is very important, as first impression matters a lot.”
“During this visit, he engages in discussion with the girl’s parents, particularly the father, who sizes him up to see how suitable and prepared his daughter’s suitor is for the sacred institution of marriage,” Osayande said.
In such a maiden visit the prospective groom may choose not to go with any of his family members, to demonstrate his independence. But in most cases, he may go with one or two friends, provided such friends do not ‘steal the show’ by way of outclassing the prospective groom in terms of appearance.
However, in most cases, his friends add colour and fill the gap, thereby helping to create a reputation and lasting impression in the minds of the prospective in-laws.
Osayande explained that, if the first visit is successful, it sets the stage for the next step of the marriage process, “which is the introduction. It is during this maiden visit that a date is fixed for the introduction ceremony. But, between that time and the date of the introduction ceremony, the family of the bride is at liberty to carry out a proper background check on the family of the groom, based on the information he provided during his maiden visit.”
He said, “This independent investigation is not limited to the bride’s family; the groom’s family may also do a background check on the family of the girl to ascertain her health status, among other things, so that they will know before hand the kind of woman their son is bringing home.”
The background check continues even after the introduction ceremony, as one of the reasons for the introductory rites is to ascertain if the would-be couple is related by blood because it is seen as taboo for people related by blood to get married.
On the day of the introductory visit, the groom’s immediate family and some members of the extended family arrive the bride’s family house and are ushered into the living room, usually called Ogua, where the ceremony would take place. The Ogua is arranged in such a way that the girl’s family sit on one side while the opposite end is reserved for the groom’s family. The mission of the groom’s family is to formally announce their son’s intention to marry their hosts’ daughter.
Osayande said, in the past, the ceremony took place at the home of the eldest surviving male sibling of the bride’s father where the overall eldest man of the extended family (Okaegbe) is invited to take charge of proceedings.
On his part, Mr. Osagie Iyahen, a native of Benin, explained that, during this introductory meeting, kola nuts and drinks are presented: “The family of the bride first presents kola and drinks to welcome their august visitors who, in turn, will present their own kola and drinks and other gifts, stating their mission in the process.
“But before the visiting party accepts the welcome presents, they will have to quickly state their mission through their spokesman. Usually, both families have spokespersons. The spokesman for the bride’s family takes time to introduce everyone seated on their side while the spokesman for the suitor’s family does likewise.
“The purpose of the introduction is for both families to meet and also for them to investigate if they are related by blood. They both also go in-depth to find out if there are any known bad traits in the family. In ancient times, both families usually conducted a check at their family shrine to know if there are any ancestral curses or diseases running in either family.
“If such curses are found, they either stop the marriage plans or appease the gods to break the curse. But this practice is being eroded by the prevalence of Western culture.”
As part of the introduction ceremony, the would-be bride is invited to the Ogua to identity her suitor, after which her father or the spokesman would ask her if she accepts the marriage proposal. If she nods in affirmation or simply says a resounding “yes,” the stage is then set for the consummation of the marriage, according to Benin native laws and customs. But if the bride is discovered to be pregnant, the marriage rites will have to wait till she is delivered of her baby as it is not permitted by tradition to receive dowry on an expectant woman.
Payment of dowry and other indoor rituals
Meanwhile, in some families, a list of items and requirements for the dowry for traditional marriage is usually handed over to the suitor shortly after the introduction ceremony. This list, in the past, was not negotiable. Items on the dowry list included salt, sugar, honey, palm oil, palm wine, yam tubers, hot drinks and N25 only.
However, in present-day practice, some families do not stick to the old list, they may add more items and make outrageous demands such that, on the day of the dowry payment, some of the items may be dropped based on agreement while some are monetised.
On the main day of the marriage ceremony, a lot of time is spent inside the Ogua, while guests, comprising friends and well-wishers patiently wait outside to receive the newly married couple, after which refreshment is served and gifts are presented.
The time-consuming ceremony within the Ogua involves several rites that are considered very crucial to the sacredness of the union. The few family members who are privileged to be inside the Ogua during the ceremony are seen as members of the ‘elite squad.’ They are privy to all the exchanges, arguments and banter.
Sir David Uwoghiren dwelt more on the list of requirements for the dowry: “The N25.00 is still paid till date but the quantity of the other items required is regulated by the individual families. Some might ask for larger quantity while others might ask for little. In addition, some families may add to the list.
“Let me tell you that marriage ceremony according to Benin native law is a very interesting and fun-filled event that also showcases the rich custom and tradition of the Benin people. At the Ogua, the spokesman for the groom’s family usually starts the negotiations after the initial welcome by the bride’s family. Mind you, the spokesman is speaking on behalf of the eldest man of the family who may be too old for such assignment.
“He will just sit there and be directing what should be done at every point in time. So, you may be hearing the voice of a young man but there is an unseen hand, which is that of the eldest man referred to as Okaegbe. The same goes for the bride’s family. The groom’s family’s spokesman usually starts by saying ‘we saw a beautiful flower in your garden and have come to pluck it’ while addressing the bride’s family. And the conversation goes on like that.
“During the welcome formalities, the bride’s family, also through the Okaegbe, who speaks through the family mouthpiece, presents kola and drinks to offer prayers. It is before the kola is accepted that the visitors state their mission once more. The bowl of kola is taken to the Okaegbe or whoever he delegates to perform the prayer. He picks one and offers the prayers, then breaks it. Other kola nuts in the bowl are broken and shared among those present in the Ogua.
“Then gin is poured into a small cup, he also offers prayers and pours libation to the ancestors. Thereafter, he hands over to the visiting Okaegbe who gulps it, before others are served using the same cup. The practice is to properly welcome the visitors by the hosts. The guests, on their part, will repeat this very practice.”
Since nothing untoward was discovered within both families during the background checks, it is assumed that the couple is free to be joined as man and wife.
Osayande added that, at this stage, “the bride is summoned and asked, once again, if she accepts the proposal, so that the gifts presented by the visitors could be accepted. Her answer is usually in the affirmative. She goes back to be dressed up in full Benin attire.”
The Ibiegua and Iyomo rites
Every member of the bride’s household has a role to play at this stage. First is the Ibiegua, which involves the settlement of the youths. A delegation of the groom’s family is led into one of the rooms in the house where all her younger siblings and relatives are paid some amount of money.
Osayande stated that those who are already married, even though they might be younger in age, do not partake in the sharing of the Ibiegua money. The money is meant for youths for protecting the bride till the very moment she is being given out in marriage.
He further explained: “While the Ibiegua is going on, another ceremony called Iyomo is being held simultaneously. This usually takes place in the room of the mother of the bride, where a delegation of women from the groom’s family ‘settles’ the women of the home of the bride.
“At the end of these two rites, the mother of the bride and the youths will come to the Ogua to report proceedings done behind closed doors to the larger house, saying that they are satisfied with what transpired and the marriage can proceed.”
Breaking barriers to usher in the bride
Meanwhile, in response to the earlier claim by the visitors that they had come to pluck a very beautiful flower from the bride’s father’s garden, the mouthpiece of the host will tell them that there are so many beautiful flowers, and that if the ‘main’ flower comes, would they be able to recognise it? The answer is usually in the affirmative.
According to Uwoghiren, “The next stage is for the bride’s family to start ushering veiled maidens who might be relatives or friends of the prospective bride one after the other for the groom’s family to ‘recognize their flower.’ Two maidens are ushered in, in quick succession, and the groom will ‘reject’ them after unveiling, saying they were not the reason for the visit, until the real bride, dressed in Benin traditional attire with Okuku hairdo and a veil over her face is presented.
“Usually, she stands out from the crowd. She is led into the Ogua by a married female member of the host, and she must not be a divorcee. Other relatives and close friends, including the previous spinsters, come from behind amid singing and clapping as the bride is being led in. However, she will not just step in like that. There are usually imaginary barricades or barriers that must be cleared before she continues the ‘journey’ to the Ogua. At every stoppage where the imaginary barrier is mentioned, the visitors are called upon to clear the road by presenting some money.
“This may happen three or four times before she finally enters the Ogua in her radiance. She stands by her father and the groom is asked to unveil her. He unveils her and, in joy, admits that this is the ‘flower’ he had come to pluck.
The betrothal rituals
“The father of the groom is asked to kneel while his son places his hands on his shoulders. A member of the bride’s family would call out the groom’s name six times but he will not respond. He would have to wait until the name is mentioned the seventh time by the bride’s father before he responds. Then the bride’s father would say to the groom’s father that he is giving out his daughter to him to take proper care of her.
“They would also tell the bride that she no longer has a room in the house before asking her for the last time if the suitor is the man she intends to marry. Once again, she says yes, to the admiration of all. Following this admission, the next thing, which is the betrothal, is performed. It involves the groom sitting close to his father or anybody playing that role, if the biological father is no more. And the bride’s father brings his daughter and drops her butt on the lap of the groom’s father seven times. His father would rise with the bride and place her on the lap of his son. That seals the union.
“Then the couple would rise and feed each other with a cube of sugar and a drop of honey in the first instance before taking a bite from bitter kola. This is to show that the institution they just entered is both sweet and bitter, and that they need patience to sustain it. Then prayers are offered by both families for the success of the union.”
At this juncture, from the money earlier presented along with other dowry items, the bride’s father takes only N25 and refunds the balance to the groom with an instruction that he should use it to take care of his daughter. Thereafter, refreshment would be served.
It was learnt that, among the dowry items are yards of cloth for the parents of the bride. Osayande said that, in the past, while the cloth for the father was presented, that of the mother would be withheld till the couple has had their first sexual intercoursem and, “if it is discovered that the bride is a virgin, the cloth for her mother, 15 yards, is presented to her as a sign of appreciation for the proper upbringing of the daughter.”
However, today, the clothes for the bride’s parents are bought ahead of the traditional marriage ceremony, and they usually wear them at the event. What follows after the betrothal is the traditional thanksgiving, where the groom presents another bottle of gin to his in-laws to thank them for giving their daughter to him in marriage. After that, the couple is joined by the ‘elite squad’ to dance into the open arena, where guests have been waiting.
Marriage under Benin tradition and custom is recognized by statute but there is no such custom or bye-law in Benin customary law restricting a man from marrying more than one wife so long as he can take care of their general welfare, including the children of the marriage.
Investigation revealed that it has become the practice however, that married couple now submit themselves to court or church or Islamic marriage, which is part of the received law that limits a man to one wife. Further checks show that the subsequent marriage by statute does not affect or legalize the one conducted under native law and custom.
In the event that a divorce is sought from the court, the dissolution under the received law does not automatically set aside the marriage conducted under native law and custom, which remains valid until it is set aside by the customary court, and the dowry is returned.
Speaking on divorce, Mr. Aiwerieghene Okungbowa, said: “Because the groom is allowed to marry more than one wife, he is hardly accused of infidelity that may lead to the dissolution of the marriage. Concubinage is discreetly practised by the man even though his wife might be going through emotional torture in the process.
“She cannot seek divorce no matter the circumstance. In fact, if she runs to her parent’s home for refuge, a responsible father will send her back to her matrimonial home because she was earlier told she no longer has a room in her father’s house.
“Her father can only accept her back if there is negotiation on divorce with the in-laws and the dowry, which is N25, is refunded. If this is not done, she has to continue to suffer in silence and bear the burden because it is only the man that can ask for divorce.”
There is no crime that is as grievous as infidelity on the part of the woman. This can nullify the marriage if the husband demands for divorce. It is seen as a taboo for a woman not to be faithful to her husband in what is called ofiowe yoha.
If a woman is caught in the web of infidelity and her husband still wants her, there are certain rituals she must perform, including killing of goat to appease the gods and ancestors. If that is not done, it is the belief that her action might affect the fortunes of the man in no small magnitude.