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MARRIAGE BY PROXY (Oronmwen emwan ni r’ uria)

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25/09/2017

In quite a number of Africa cultures and this includes Edo or Benin, there is this fifth form of marriage which is Marriage by Inheritance. This phase is fast dying out but still exists in pockets, in some families, and in some areas in Benin land. Because of the basic notion in traditional marriage that the woman is not only married to the husband but to the husband’s family, it is the customary observance that when the husband dies, the marriage is not automatically dissolved as might have been the case if the wife were to pre-decease the husband.

As the eldest son of the man inherits the properties of the father, so it could be for him to inherit the wives, notably the junior ones which he may be obliged to discharge at his discretion. Obviously, the younger, particularly, the virgin wives of the deceased who might have been acquired through infant, betrothal or marriage (IGAYI-OMO) could not be so discharged. The childless ones are also dually retained particularly if they are young and attractive. The decision to discharge or retain the wives is taken on the expiration of the prescribed period of mourning. In some cases, particularly in certain parts of Benin land, the younger brother of the deceased may be obliged to marry the surviving wife or wives depending on some variables, like the age of the woman, and her abilities to produce more children for the family. A case in point, among several known to the writer in the nineteen forties is that of an Enugu based Benin businessman, classically wealthy, who died in 1940 around the age of 45years At his death, his relations were asked to inherit his wives, quite a number of them, and some were young at the time. Due to prevailing Christian or modern influence, the wives declined. Refusal on the part of the wives precipitates certain rites that must be performed for this discharge to be in accordance with customary law. However, with this practice, the wife of the deceased man is obliged to remain in the family circle but she can seek a formal discharge from the family (not divorce), if she is unable or unwilling to continue with the prescribed affiliation in continuation of the marriage. Furthermore this type of marriage continuation may be symbolic or TOKEN marriage involving merely taking adequate care and giving shelter and security to the widow in the family environment and no more. The services of some of such inherited wives may be required for training and counseling of the younger wives in the polygamous household.

There is an example of a distant cousin of the writer who was obliged to marry the wife of his elder brother after the brother’s death in the early fifties. He had two children from that marriage by inheritance but he later got married to another wife of his choice in the Catholic Church and kept to that one wife as a lifetime having dissolved any further relationship with the inherited wife.
In modem times, and from Christian and other religious perspective, this practice is being increasingly regarded as odious, and now being largely discarded hence it is not necessary to give prominence to it, but where it is still inexorably practiced, there are basic rules governing it. No formalities are observed since no further bride price, gifts or family involvement are required beyond propitiation of the ancestors.

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