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ESAN LAWS OF INHERITANCE AND ADOPTION

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To non-Esan and even to modern people, some of the law and custom affecting inheritance and adoption appear warped, primitive and senseless but on taking a less cursory look; one would have to give credit to our simple and honest forefathers whose laws were laws were designed protect man and property in all the apparent chaos modern Esan finds itself in today is a glaring testimony of a nation caught between quasi-European ill-understood customs and the desire to appear modern by wholesale disregard of one’s roots, laws and custom that had guided our people for centuries. Making things still more difficult was the shameless exploitation of administrative officers, handicapped by ignorance of Esan language, laws and custom. There was a say followed with much laughter that each officer came new interpretations but the fault and shame were not with the officers whose duty was to rule a people whose laws and custom were alien and in some cases, the exact antithesis of European or British laws but with our irresponsible and bribed- soaked chiefs and councilors who had the shameless knack of giving different interpretations to the same Esan law, to suit the case the administration officers might be reviewing.

For example in common English Law, it is the duty of an animal owner to tie or fence up his animal to ensure that they do not wander off to do damage to other people’s property. This is the exact opposite of traditional Esan law. It is the duty of the property of farm owner to fence their farms to prevent cows, goats etc which lawfully wander about feeding, getting into their farms, if near the village. According to this Esan law, therefore, no farmer had the right to kill a cow because it destroyed his unfenced farm. A new administrative officer just coming into the country was sure to put his foot in it. If he depended upon the swinging pendulum of Esan chief’s interpretation of what was correct law!

The greatest havoc was wrought by this class of irresponsible misleading officers on Esan laws and custom affecting INHERITANCE: There was a time they told administrative officers that an issue from a betrothed woman belonged to the intending husband but no officer who studied Esan as such would be surprised if, reviewing similar cases on another day, was told by the very people that ONON NE EKELE OMON YAN OMON! (He who pregnant a woman owns the issue).

Therefore the difficulties of a sincere enquirer into those laws of inheritance are well-neigh insurmountable without a resort to more concrete and tireless, method, beyond the usual questions and answers. The enquirer must also bear in mind all the time that the insatiable acquisitive spirit of the Enijie influences every law with particular reference to those of inheritance. The pure and correct Esan law is to be found in the villages far removed from the ever spreading tentacles of the Onojie. That he did things and got away with them did not validate such action.
It will be more helpful to explain certain terms before these laws can be understood fully

(1)OMON OSHO: A child from lover.

(2) AREBHOA: This was a well known practice amongst people of Esan’B’

To a lesser extent it was practiced in the other part of Esan, but it was not as much a feature of the people. The custom is sald to be forbidden in Ugboha to my surprise.

An AREBHOA was usually a man’s first daughter (his EHALE). She was not married out to a man whan she came of age she lived in her father’s house where anyone she chose couls keep her as a lover. All the Issues of the association belonged to the girl’s father. The natural father of the issues had one reward uninhibited companionship at the girl’s father’s compound.

Only the well-to-do men could afford to have daughters and not to make money out of them for in Esan custom the suitor paid the BRIDE PRICE popularly called DOWRY, to the girl’s father. IN the case of Arebhoa no such price was demaned or paid, hence the natural father was merely a biological DONOR!

For the poorer classed who wanted to achieve the same object of Arebhoa no but could not afford to forgo the bride price there was a modification: it consisted of the acceptance of half the usual bride price by the father from the suitor, first an agreement was made that the marriage was going to be part –Arebhoa and on this understanding the father accepted half the dowry. In this case the girl could go to the husband’s place to live for what mattered was the system of sharing the issue! The first issues of this rather queer marriage belonged to the father-in-law, and if the marriage was blessed with many issues, a son and a daughter were returned to the father in law, When these later had issues of their own, a reciprocal return was made; e.g. from the original marriage a son Oko and a daughter Otiti were returned to the father-in-Iaw. When Oko had issues of his own he would return a boy while Qtiti would return a girl to THEIR NATURAL FATHER. Queer and stupid, if one had just a superficial look at the arrangement. Why did our forefathers of Esan ‘B’ think of the system of Arebhoa, or its modified form that went by the name of OMOGBE?

The reasons are to be found in Esan anxiety over ensuring perpetuity in a family, an attempt to curb extinction of an IJIOGBE or UELEN - the family unit. This could easily happen within two or three generations: Mr. ‘A’ inherited the property and wives of his father; now ‘A’ dies leaving only a daughter who was already fully married; j.e the bride price had been accepted. According to Esan custom, a woman is never allowed to come from her husband’s place to inherit her father’s property, so the male next of-kin inherited the property and the door of A’s father’s house was shut for ever.

Now suppose ‘A’ had made his daughter an Arebhoa, all the children of his woman male and female, could have been his own children so that on his death he could have Sons to bury and inherit his property instead of its passing to another door. Still more important was the fact that an Arebhoa had the same rights as a son: She could ‘marry’ wives who would be having sues- for her and she could perform the burial ceremonies on her father’s death, exactly as if she had been a male.

Thus where the system of Arehhoa and Omogbe was practiced it was rare for a man to die without an heir and in such places the custom of the Onojie inheriting the property of an heirless man was practically unknown.

(3) ADEBHOMON: This was a son a childless man or woman bought and adapted to the knowledge of his or her Egbele. On the death of the person such an adopted ‘slave’ could perform the burial ceremonies of the adopter and inherit the property according to Esan law and custom.

(4) OMJNJIOGBE: This was the head, (not by age) of the family or Uelen. it was a hereditary position in as much as each successor duly performed the  burial ceremonies of his father, and in Uromi, he must have performed the Ogbe ceremony too. The easiest definition of ominjiogbe is the FIRST SON OF THE FIRST SON traced from the progenitor of the family. On the death of the head of a family his FIRST SON went through the burial ceremonies and assumed the senior position or headship of that family. His father’s brothers, his own brothers and sisters, married and single, carne under his control and once a year the men paid him homage as the keeper of the family ancestral shrine during ILUOBO UKPE. In some parts of ESAN the term AKHEOA (House watcher) was used synonymously as Ominjiobe. In Ekpoma area this position of Ominjiogbe was held according to age of members of the family i.e. it went from one Odion to the next. The correct Esan custom recognized the OMINJIOGBE as the first son of the first son, the pivot upon which the family or uelen revolves.

(5) EHALE FOREHEAD): A man’s Ehale sometimes suffixed with NON ODION the first), is his first daughter, no matter whether she is the man’s first child or not; what gives her that tithe and position of respect in the family is her being the FIRST FEMALE child of the father.

(6) BROTHER: There are two types - paternal and maternal, in Esan custom the maternal type assumes a position of importance when it comes to the question of inheritance.

(7) ABIEKHE: This was common amongst Sons of rich men. As soon as a son was born to a man, that baby boy was given a wife, also a child! As would be expected the girl matured before the boy and so she started to have children which customarily were the lawful children of the boy not yet up to the age of puberty! When he carne of age, the children he would get himself from this woman and the other wives would be inferior in seniority to the ABIEKHE - those ‘BORN TO WAlT’ issues, a wife got while her  awful husband was a minor!’ Sometimes some of these children were only a few years younger than their FATHER!

(8) CHILDREN FROM LEGAL HARLOTS: I term these women ‘legal harlots’ for want of a better definition. Harlots they were though they were accommodated by Esan laws and custom for the purpose of inheritance, which was the cornerstone of the family existence. A man who was incapable of having issues either through impotence, old age or some other handicap, called in his Egbele, slaughtered a goat at the ancestral shrine to exonerate his wives from blame and the sure ire of the departed spirits, should  they commit adultery. From then on these were (in modern way of looking at things) licensed prostitutes and all the issues from this ‘promiscuous married life, were the lawful children of the handicapped man. Thus it was no polyandry. The only limitation to the freedom these women enjoyed was that they must not cohabit with any member of the husband’s family: they had to seek donors outside the husband’s uelen! To cut obvious psychological trauma to the absolute minimum, whoever the wives chose must remain unknown to their husbands.

(9) ISSUES BY A WOMAN’S ‘WIFE: This sounds to a non-Esan perfectly dreadful and unbelievable but that was what it was and it was a widespread practice in Esan. A childless but very rich woman not wanting her property to pass to her husband and desiring fitting burial ceremonies,
‘married’ a girl by paying the full bride price and bringing her to live with her. She was allowed to be ‘kept’ by any serviceable man of the guardian’s choice. All the off-springs of this association were the lawful children of the rice woman, that is, she was the legal though not the natural FATHER of the children! Again the man involved was merely a donor and for this privilege he gave the rich woman the services of a dutiful son-in-law.

Most of these customs- dictated by the all important Esan Laws governing inheritance - .had long begun to die out in Esan ‘A’ even before the coming of the white man, and with civilization even people of Esan ‘B’ began to realize the psychological harm any suggestion of bastard could inflict on innocent children, and so these arrangements forced upon men afraid to die without heirs lapsed without any formal annulment.

(10) ADOPTION: Adoption of a child must be done at the ancestral shrine and with the full knowledge of the adopter’s Egbele. Before the Egbele elders assembled, he announced that he wanted to adopt, usually a junior brother by a different mother, as his son and heir. A goat was slaughtered, to make the spirits of departed ancestors dead witnesses to the adoption! The flesh was shared with everybody wishing him well with his son. In the eyes of the living and the dead this boy had become his lawful heir4 should he have real sons later in life; these would be junior to the adopted son. Similarly a rich man could adopt a slave who could bury him and inherit his property. The one important premise in the law of adoption was that it must be with the sanction and knowledge of the Egbele; a goat slaughtered at the ancestral shrine was a MUST! In the same way to disinherit son one had to do so by slaughtering a goat at the ancestral shrine.
With dieses terms explained. ¡ can now proceed to examine the laws of inheritance as they affected children, wives, property, titles etc in traditional Esan society.

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