Marriage under Esan Native Law And Custom

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Esan Bridegroom and Bride

Strictly in Esan custom there were three ways by which a man could come to have a wife: by betrothal, by the dowry system and by inheritance.

This was the commonest, the surest, the supposed cheapest and the cause of all our ills and confusions in the Native and Customary Courts today. A man could ‘beg’ for the hand of a girl from conception to the age of

five.Seeing a woman pregnant the man would send her a log of firewood (for night heating since the mud houses with thatched roofs were very cold), and say, ‘may the departed spirits deliver you safely, but if the child should be a girl, 1 beg for her hand in marriage’. The man might be anything up to sixty. years in age.

Should the pregnant woman have a baby girl, he renewed his request with more presents like logs of wood, yams etc. There might be two, three or more prospective suitors asking for THIS FOETUS’S hand! The mother and father at this time usually were quite non-committal. In places like Ebelie, on the hair-washing day that is when the baby is three to four months old, the man invited to help pound the foufou for the ceremony knew he had been accepted,. and he could afterwards come to ask for the girl’s hand formally. In most other places, by the time the girl was five, it was time to get serious with the request, and one took a calabash of palm vine, passed through a middleman, usually the girl’s uncle or cousin or godfather and came up to ‘salute the father’.. A discrete man said nothing on that day he was merely on a reconnaissance greeting. A few market days after. he repeated his visit, with perhaps, a bigger keg of palm wine. Then with much head scratching and much speaking in parables and ancient idioms, the ‘go-between’ informed the father of the object of their mission. The palm wine was dispatched by those present, and the suitor given the usual. Esan non-committal answer of I HEAR followed with, the equally non-committal I SHALL CONVEY YOUR REQUESTS TO MY MASTER; the speaker might be the Ominjiogbe, the virtual owner of all in the Uelen. This type of visit was repeated several times, until his tenacity was rewarded with acquiescence. From that moment on he had bought an object for which he would continue to pay until DEATH DO THEM PART. There was no actual monetary bride price demanded, but ever so often he brought the mother firewood, water during the dry season, yams frequently, and to the father, palm wine, often gave free labour in his farm or came to assist during the house building season. The more he made himself useful, the happier the marriage turned out to be There was no question of whether the poor girl liked her suitor or not, if she understood what all the ‘goings-on’ meant at all; in fact she was often unaware of the arrangement until she was coming of age. A sensible girl, therefore knowing the odds against her, would as well make up her mind to develop a liking for her husband-to-be, who had virtually become a servant to her family.

Once a year during the community festival special presents were made to the father (a bundle of seven yams and a calabash of palm wine), to the mother, yams and a calabash of oil, and to the girl, beads, cloth etc. By the time the girl was ten to fifteen, when the intended husband must have been nearly bald from carrying loads to his future father-in-law’s house, he must have spent well over Ebo Isen, a hellish lot of cowries numbering about 94,000 equivalent today to some N3.90. He could then start a gentle agitation for his wife to be sent to him.

On the long run this method of marriage. was more expensive but it commended itself to everybody because of easier payments, spread over five to fifteen years, and an Ebee was a tamer, more lovable, more trustworthy and more manageable wife than any other type.

The system of paying bride price was rarer, but was more lucrative system for the father; however only the. well-to-do could leave their daughters to grow before marrying them out. The patient father asked and got a heavy sum of money cash down, for his grown up daughter. This was between EBO EA and EBO ISEN, although some shylocks asked for astronomical figure of EBO IHINLON which was about 130,666 cowries weighing some 11.6cwt requiring some ten hefty men to carry. 
Although this system gave the father an avenue for money, it had its drawbacks. The girl who by then was between ten. to fifteen years old, had got to the age when, despite her sex, she could express her likes and dislikes. She could refuse a man despite his bags of cowries because of his ugly one eye, or a limp, habitual drunkenness etc. In practice however, the girl was forced and carried on men’s shoulders with fruitless wailing, to the husband’s house, and for the next three months the unhappy husband and his relatives had to stand guard over their bride, lest she bolted away. In Ugboha the dreaded juju masquerade was the effective messenger who led the protesting damsel to her unwanted husband.

Instances were many when the confounded husband after trying all methods of bribes and appeasements in vain resorted to a bestial mode of cohabitation the strong men of the family gathered, held the girl down and a grotesquely unnatural husband and wife relation was effected. The idea was to consummate the marriage and get the stubborn girl pregnant at all costs. Once so, she would be afraid of offending the departed spirits, as she would surely do, if while carrying a man’s child she as thinking of deserting him, which was equivalent to thinking evil of him. Then when she had the baby the chances, in Esan expression, were ELO OLE Kl DERE - her eyes would come down! What else could she do?

This was marriage by chance, and was relished only by the poor and primitive, particularly

when the woman to be inherited was old or evil 1ooking
When a man died, the. wife, if she was not an Onojie’s daughter, was inheritable after due burial of the father by the son. If she was the father’s only wife and the heir’s mother, then an uncle or Omijiogbe or the nearest patrikin, inherited her. If there were many wives, an heir who might not have been able to marry a single wife of his own, would suddenly find himself the owner of several wives. He could pick the younger and more beautiful ones, ‘dash’ some to his junior brothers and ask those he did not want in the family to refund the dowries on them. Sometimes some of the women who were asked to go and refund dowry, were unwilling to leave their children; in that case if there was no one to inherit them, the Egbele gave them an open license at the ancestral shrine. Such women were free to do whatever they liked as long as they did not bring open dishonor to their children’s family. Until more recently, this system of marriage was not practiced in Ekpoma. As soon as a man died the wives, particularly the childless ones, went to their homes. This Ekpoma custom arose in an attempt to curb the true hehaviour of next-of-kin, who used to be more anxious for what was likely to be inherited, rather than do all in their power to save the sick man.
I have already described what happened to a wife a man inherited, not from his father but from a brother or other relatives. When the inheritor died, his son and heir was debarred from inheriting this woman; the widow passed to the next senior brother of the deceased.

Although active mourning in Esan custom was over by the fourteenth day, it was against tradition to inherit a woman before the third month. After the woman had ended mourning for her husband, she might go and stay with her parents or may stay in her husband’s place, with her children; however she had to be in her husband’s place on the day of inheritance. The Edion of the Egbele were invited by the heir and told he wanted to inherit his father’s wife or wives. A goat was slaughtered at the ancestral shrine to formally inform the long line of dead ancestors that from that day on, the woman in question had become his wife. He then stepped across the woman’s extended legs, a thing that is adulterous if done to a woman not one’s wife. Whether there were two or more wives, it required just one goat to inherit all of them.

Before the formal inheritance, the intending inheritor must have gone to the woman’s parents or guardian for ITEKPEN - arrangements to smoothen the way. He went to them with a calabash of palm wine and cash ELANMEN EA or 2,800 Cowries now equivalent to N11.70k.

A woman who lost her husband must be inherited in this way within three months or she became a free woman. If there was no one to inherit her and she insisted on staying to look after her children, the freedom from Egbele had to be given on the day the other wives were inherited. Any sharing of the wives for the other brothers also had to be done on the same day.

Princesses, whether daughters of ruling or dead Enijie, were not:
Inheritable. The reasons for this were that they were married without any payment of bride price and, secondly, their noble birth made them marry as far as possible, for love They could not be forced to marry the heirs to their late husband’s. Such heirs might be unbefitting. It will be seen later that the Onojie, not taking bride price for his daughters was not particularly magnanimous; he married their mothers without paying a cowrie.

Marriage sometimes followed this system which in the main was disguised slavery. A person could pawn himself, his son or more often, his daughter to raise funds either when he was in trouble or needed money badly to pay a troublesome creditor. Ile pawn had to perform any given duties, the services being considered as interest for the Creditor. The person pawned could not be released until the capital had been paid fully. Where a man pawned his daughter for a big amount, he might never be able to redeem her before she carne of age. The Creditor might then take the girl as his wife, making appropriate deduction in lieu of this. The poor girl just had no choice iii the matter!

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