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The Life Of a Benin Woman Of Those Days

Last Update (July 9, 2020)

The Benin woman of those days, right from her birth to her death exists for the traditions of the land. And she is under the control of these traditions throughout her life.

But for the fact that the Benin people know that it is through women they can multiply, the birth of a female child could have been regarded as an abomination.

Because of the severity of these customary traditions, a female child is regar.ded by her family as a male before she goes to her husband. On the other hand; a male child is taken as female by the village; or town’s people because he is still under his mother and exposed to frequent touching by or contact with the mother who by tradition shouldn’t be touched, or talked to for a greater part of her life.

For example throughout a Benin woman’s life she should not be. Initiated into any of the powerful cults — Ovia, Ebornisi, Okhuaihe, Erumian, etc. She is even forbidden to see some of them or chorus the songs of some others when she hears them chanted.

The tradition also regards her as a stranger in her father’s house and family because she belongs to her husband house and family.
Therefore, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, she is bound to live in her husband’s house,

The marrying away of a girl begins with the betrothal .ceremony to the successful suitor.

When a baby girl is born, suitors begin to approach the parents by sending a log of wood — ¡mu’ Ikerhan  gboto — and a bundle of yam to the parents of the child.

This is the Ivbuomc— “asking for the child”. This is mostly done because by tradition every male child in Benin by right ought to get his first wife through his father. Or when a young man gets a girl of his choice, it is the duty of the parents to go and ask for the girl in marriage.

The other aspect is, the parents of the girl could give her out to reciprocate their friendship with a family or give her to a young man who “has distinguished himself in one way or the other”.

The girl’s family conducts series of investigations into the family of any proposed suitor. Such a family must be disease—free, free from. Scandals and crimes When finally a suitable suitor is got, he is notified of the date for the formal betrothal.

The suitor when going is accompanied with gifts which includes a big calabash of wine, coconuts, kola nuts and two shillings. The suitor with his people and gifts and the girl’s family go to an ancestral shrine to notify the gods that they have given their child to the suitor. And henceforth, the suitor gives ah services to his prospective parents-in-law Services include working in the girl’s father’s farm. Presents of yam, firewood, etc., are also given to the parents.

When the girl grows up and could be conveniently separated from her parents, the father sends to the suitor telling him that his “wife” is of age and that he should come to take her in marriage. Then follows the... Iwanien Omo, when the suitor goes to the Parents of his would-be wife with yet another calabash of wine, four shillings and kola nuts which are brought along to acknowledge the message and his preparedness to get his wife .

A period of three months is then set for the suitor and his family to come for her. At the end of the three months, the suitor and his family send a message that they are already waiting for their “wife”. For the second time, thirteen days, will have to be given them to come back because Airhiomomorie edena buede — you do not take the bride to her husband on the day marriage promise was given

Before the promised thirteen days, the bride’s family appoints a woman and a maid to accompany her to her matrimonial home. The woman stays for seven days while the girl stays for three months with her. Both must be given presents on their return.

Note—Some families demand bride-price while others do not Bride-price was paid in cowries until the Whiteman’s arrival when it was fixed at various amounts and today it is 12 But this is always violated by some people who believe that there is no fixed amount as bride price.

On the thirtieth day, there is merriment on both sides. The bride— Ovbioha is led by her relatives to the husband’s house with all her property. The husband’s friends and relatives gather singing and drinking, while waiting for the .bride to arrive.

Before the bride gets there, the party leading her sends messages between three and seven times to the husband that there are barriers Ughunghun on the road, and that he should come and cut or remove them so as to get a thorough passage to bring his wife to him safely.The husband there and then sends money to the party.

While on the way,. the party begins to sing various songs for .marriage Ovbioha gha nien aro—aro — meaning Bride be proud
Iyodo iruko, Erha. odo iruko — Your Parents-in-law will not be a barrier to your progress in their  son’s house.
Ehuomo ughi mu re —you will come back with pregnancy, etc,

Immediately they get to the husband’s house, there is a shout for joy. Then there is immediately the Ikpobo—Qvbioha; the ceremonial washing of the bride’s hands. The bride is immediately placed on her husband’s laps by her brother or a male member of the family (If the husband still has a father, the bride will be placed on his father’s laps too). A bowl of water is brought Money is put inside it. A new headtie is bought too. Then a woman is called, preferably the husband’s senior wife if already married. She washes the hands of the bride inside the bowl and the headtie is then used as napkin to clean her hands. Both the money in the bowl and the headtie are given to the bride after that.

After entertaining the bride’s party, they are given gifts and they go back, while feasting and drinking continue in the bridegroom’s house

Two days after, the bride is taken to the family altar and prayers are said for her.

On the third day, the husband goes to greet and thank his parent’s inlaw and they then entertain him.

On this same day, the bride does the Igbikhiavbo ceremony — ie beating of okro on the flat mortar.

Then on the seventh day, the mother of the bride pays the daughter a visit in company of some of the women in her quarter. She demands the cloth or bed-spread on which both of them the bride and bride groom had the first sexual union. If the bride was met at home by the husband —— i.e. if she proved a virgin — the mother would be given the cloth and presents, including some amount of money.

Up till the seventh day of mother-in-law’s visit the bride’s breakfast is cooked by’ her parents and usually the food is enough for her and the husband’s family, including their neighbours.
In the third month the bride, accompanied by women in the husband quarter, visits her parents. They are feted and sent back with gift and money.
The bride may have been pregnant by then

Pregnancy and Oath
Some days after the woman’s arrival to her husband’s house take an oath to be faithful to her husband.

She is woken up in the morning when she has not tasted food or she is taken to the altar or shrine where she takes the oath a kolanut is put on the shrine. She is asked to kneel down before the shrine with her hands on the shrine. She repeats after the officiating priest-or any person conducting the rites. She repeats the following;

“I have come to marry Igbinoba. If I plan any evil against him or do anything to kill or harm him him, his children or any member of household, this juju will kill me. Or because I have taken this oath employ others to do it for me, the juju should kill me”, etc

When she is on her menstrual period, she leaves the main house to the Owehe — a private and secluded apartment for women except when pregnant While here, she does not touch anything in the house that will be used by the husband. She does not touch her husband or cook for him. ¡f by accident her body touches her husband during the period, she will- throw sand on the husband and later buy alligator pepper etc and collect purification leaves (ebe afo)-etc to make him HOLY

Below are a few of the things a Benin woman should not do in addition to .some already mentioned during pregnancy.

Until three months after her delivery, she cannot’ go near or sit by her husband— because she is still in Owa-Aden, ie. She is not clean or pure enough yet.

If she sees a man urinating on, the roadside, she should spit out.

While sitting, if she stretches’ out her legs, she should be vigilant for a man not to walk across her legs because it is another form of adultery

She is forbidden .to shake hands with other men except half or full brothers of her husband,

If she mistakes a man for her husband’s relative and greets him as such, she should report to the husband immediately or it will be treated as adultery. .
She does not use the same bucket or boil the husband uses for bathing to bathe

She does not use the same toilet or bath with the husband.

She has only one cloth for sleeping ‘with her husband on the same bed for sexual union. When the cock .crows, she must go and take her bathe and keep away the cloth. It is never exposed and is kept alone in a box. (The husband too should not eat, drink, touch anything like wearing apparels, etc., until he bathes himself).

If she has a baby boy, she does not put him on the back to the “Small Toilet” — urinal - and the “Big Toilet” — latrine.

She should not commit adultery by thought—ie. if she sees a man and admires him in her mind, it could make her barren or sick  if she does, she must confess.

If she is in the dream and another man has sex with her, she should report to her husband first thing in the morning. She will, buy wine and carry it to the altar where it will be sprinkled in prayers for her forgiveness, while she prays for pardons that she knows nothing about it.

She is forbidden to participate in or discuss obscene talks. ‘If she hears others discussing it, she should spit out sputum.

Once the fowls have gone to take shelter — night—fall — she should not take her bathe

If she is suspected of adultery, she is woken up very early in morning. Before she tastes food or oil, she is made to take oath she had done anything with any other man besides her husband. (Pregnant women, however, do not take oaths in Benin).

If though annoyance or for any reason whatsoever she curse her her husband with her private part, it is a serious offence. If the ceremony is  done the very day to recourse it, a hen is used along with other minor things. But if it exceeds that day, she will buy a sheep kola nut and wine Two elderly women who no longer menstruating  and bear children will use them to perform the ceremony which is done in the night It is done near a gutter running from inside the  house and  passing through a wall to the outside. The man is asked to squat near the gutter and expose his private part to the gutter from one side (either inside or outside) while the woman squats and poses her private part to the gutter from the opposite side. Prayers to recourse the swearing are said and the sheep slaughtered. The bowl of water is poured into the gutter from inside. And the couple will immediately go to sleep. They are bound by tradition to live together that night in connubial felicity — sexual union — to complete the ceremony. The two old women will carry the sheep home because the celebrant won’t eat of it

The woman before the shrine of the husband’s family will have to name all the men that have talked love to her and those who had sex with her too.

This could be done immediately she gets to the husband’s house of when she gets pregnant. . Cleansing ceremony is performed and she is for as long as she is married forbidden to greet or talk to the men that were mentioned Emwan no ya temwen. If there are some that Ware impossible for her not to greet, they (the men) will be given ceremonial kola nut to eat, so that the woman could greet them when they met. In case of relatives, either brother, cousin or uncle, a goat will be killed and both the woman and the man will share the ears of the goat and eat. Then another member of the family will use a cudgel to flog them with their hands tied behind. But flogging could be a mock type if you want to be lenient because most cases of this nature were committed while young.

When the pregnancy is seven months old, the woman plaits a hair style known as Isaba. Then she will carry seven tubers of yam the hand of an antelope, 31 pieces of coconut, four kola nuts with at least four lobs each, a type of necklace known as Ohihi(e) (made of cowries, bronze bell, beads and coins) to the altar of the husband’s ancestors (Aro-Erinmwin). There she prays for safe delivery, and that the child should live to serve the parents. Then the father-in-law puts the necklace — Ohihz(e) on the neck and prays to the guiding spirits of the family to protect her and bless her with safe delivery of the child

During this period also, the Ewe-Ikpese — the goat to avert pregnancy ordeal (only done in first pregnancy) — will be killed before the woman’s family’s altar and another at the man’s family’s altar, The man or the family buys the goat to be killed at his bride’s family’s altar and the woman’s family does the same to her .husband’s family. Only the hand of the goat is sent to the other family in either case

The next morning after that ceremony comes the Izese-Ere — making sacrifices to evi1 doers and other likely impediments in life. A branch of Ukhu tree (Diopyras species) with four branch lets is cut and painted with native chalk — Orhue. Then it is dotted with Ume (Pretrocarpus).  (It is red and mostly used by Sango worshippers in the west to paint shrine oddities). One Okpan (gourd plate) is filled with - beautiful ornaments, glass, beads, cowries, rings, ear rings, cloth pieces and covered. It is then tied to the stick and taken to a conspicuous place at the outskirts of the village or town there, a native doctor prays for her that she had made the sacrifice to wave off the perils and troubles of evil doers who do not want the progress of other people. Both the stick and the gourd are circled round her head and pinned erect or the ground. Any person who passes there and sees it first, cuts the gourd and carries it home to enjoy all the bcautiful things inside it,

On the eighth month of her pregnancy, she will loosen the first plaiting— Isaba and plait another type called Omo i vba vb uvbi — the first child of a woman does not meet her mother at pre-puberty age It is when the woman is in labour that this one is loosened ever before the child touches the ground with its head.

If the woman wishes to wash her hair during pregnancy period, she .should start before her belly (pregnancy) is four’ months old, If she fails within that period, she should not touch her hair until fourteen days after the delivery of her child.

On the fourteenth day after delivery, she will give her child to another person to hold while she washes her hair, until it dries, she should not touch the child This is the Iheto — washing of the hair

When the child is born, if the father is from a family where they tie the traditional. cloth — Erhuan — he  is forbidden to see the child until seven days when  the will perform the  ceremony.

In Benin, a pregnant woman is referred to in many ways and some examples are :—
(¡) A person on the top of a palm tree,
(¡¡ A person at the junction of the earth and heaven.
(¡¡¡) A person with two bodies
(¡v) A heavy sack.

The pregnancy- itself is also referred .to as Eko- belly.

In those days a Benin woman once marriage belongs, to her husband. The family and the state has no say over her She has nothing to say unless’ through her husband because. It is the. “Jaw that speaks for the head”. Her hands are tied arid she in a garden of l.ove from where she looks and participates in less than’ ten per cent of human activities because they are to her ‘a taboo.

Mourning a Husband
A Benin man has not much trouble when the wife dies; But Benin woman escorts her husband to heaven and if she is lucky may return. If a Benin woman loses her husband, she falls Egbe— a widow. The same word is used for a man (a widower) who lost his wife

If the woman is suspected to be connected with the man’s death, is made to swear on the Ehae — forehead, before interment

The Woman mourns him for seven days, counting from the Na wa ne first day ceremony. Firstly she loosens her hair herself with ashes and charcoal. She leaves her body bare and with a little dirty rag to cover her waist .She leaves her, bed for the floor. A type of leaves — Orinmwznwuwu — literary translation is come dies the death — seven in number are spread on the ground. On there she sleeps for the seven days.

A fire is made near her on the ground She use her leg to stir the flames. She cannot use her hands. A little broom is made and given to her. The broom consists of’ few broom sticks, Uwerhen — a burnt wood, Ero, Aya and Ighímiakhe — tetrapleura terraptera the last three are herbs. She holds it with her right hand throughout the seven days and eats with the left hand. She sings twice daily — morning and evening. The song is: Koko Odomwen — I mourn you my husband

On the seventh day, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., two of her own relative follow her into the bush to perform the last ceremony. One will be in her front holding a bowl of water and the other on her back. They keep far away from her in order not to see her. She cries and shouts along. They both hold lights. With the lights she sees the one in front. She does not look back. The one behind is to lead, her back with the light. She sings along Koko Odomwen. This tells people that she is coming and should be avoided.

When the person leading gets to where she will perform the ceremony, he stops and the woman stops and so also the last, on the very spot they stand when the man in front stops. He pins two forked sticks down and puts a cross-bar. He also puts the water container down there and walks far away.

The one behind does not move any longer. She walks alone in the darkness to the place and performs a big ceremony here and takes her bath with the water and returns home naked, leaving behind the rag — Ukpon na yakhue akhuorho — the cloth used for taking bath in rainy season — which she used throughout the ceremony, and breaks the empty water container which usually is a gourd. She then sings back Omo ighi ghe. yuej Odomwen — “It is children I will now look’ after for you, my husband”.

Some other ceremony she perform there by herself alone.

She is led back by the men in the manner they went,’ always avoiding seeing other people. Before she gets home, water and cloths are kept behind the house to bathe and cover her nakedness before people can’ see her. And the moment she finishes and enters the house, people welcome her back to earth and ‘she rubs her forehead with charcoal She could now move out of that house if she wants to go to re-marry, or could decide to remain as long as she pleases in that house so far she does not marry another man.

Note —before she leaves for the bush to perform the ceremony, she sweeps all the leaves she slept on, the wood ashes and wood she used for fire during mourning period with the little broom. She carries everything with the broom and throws them away during the journey. These rare and scarce materials used by woman in agony and perpetual confusion a native doctor-seizes with happiness and thanks the gods, because he uses them for making charms.
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