Igbo Heritage & Marriage Traditions

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The Igbo Heritage
Ṇ́dị́ Igbo a Nigerian ethnic group with a population estimated to be approximately 32 million, are one of the largest in Africa contributing to 18% of the total 177 million that populate Nigeria. When we speak of ‘Ìgbò, land’, we are referring to nine states of Nigeria where Igbos can be found namely: Abia · Anambra · Ebonyi · Enugu, Imo · Rivers · Delta · Akwa Ibom · Cross River.

The Igbo heritage cannot be discussed without a mention to the Nigerian-Biafran civil War. Between 1967 and 1970, millions of Igbo men, women and children were killed, hospitals, schools and homes were destroyed leaving Igboland devastated. During and after the war, many Igbos emigrated out of the indigenous homeland to seek skilled work, education and stability in other parts of the world including North America and Europe. It is this group of people who are known as the diaspora.

This dispersion of Igbos resulted in further opportunities for education, work and cultural enlightenment in the wider world, however this has come at the expense of the Igbo heritage, language and traditions being diluted. Many of the young Igbos in diaspora are unable to speak or understand the Igbo language. Furthermore, the Igbo traditions can seem irrelevant and out of context to children who are growing up in the dynamic and seemingly exciting western world.

The Igbo language consists of many spoken dialects, which to native speakers can be understood easily. To the young Igbos in diaspora whose first language may be that of a western country, Igbo language, rich in heavy intonation, can be difficult to learn and understand. Sadly, the loss of translation of the importance of these traditions and heritage, will inevitably come with the loss of the Igbo identity. Fortunately, many young Igbos, understanding how language, music and food represents our rich culture, are helping to re-establish the importance of these values within the community.

Courtship and Marriage: Past Marriages

Traditionally, Igbo men are at the head of the family. In the past, polygamy was a common practice and it was not unusual for a man to live in his compound with many wives. As most men were farmers and hunters, having many wives and, as a result, many children meant a workforce was available to tend to the farms and livestock. Furthermore, a man’s wealth was measured by the number of farms, livestock, children and wives he had.

Traditional Igbo marriages were arranged by the parents of the young men and women who would, in most cases, meet for the first time on their wedding day. Marriages depended on the say so of the young woman’s father even without her consent in some cases. As a result, many of these arranged marriages were not based on love but on family status, honour, friendships and allegiances. Practicality was the order of the day!

These women went on to become the pillars of their families. They accepted all the children within the compound, those that were biologically theirs and those that were not, as their own without discrimination. Despite not being educated themselves, they worked hard to ensure their children were educated. They were the role models of today’s women.

Today polygamy is seldom practiced, most Igbos practice monogamy. Although most marriages are now based on love, young men and women continue to seek the advice of their parents during courtship. As per western culture, weddings now tend to be entwined with religion and as a result, what some term the “church wedding” occurs before or after the Igbo cultural marriage that takes place in Igboland. The “church wedding” is of as much, if not more, important than traditional Igbo marriage ceremony to young people today.

Courtship: Practices in 1960s-80s

Igbo families has alsways recognised and valued the importance of education. Families sent their children, both girls and boys, to schools, colleges and universities overseas. Generations of Igbo families enjoyed the trickle of western influences, 1960’s music, courtship and romance. Many of these generations found their partners through introductions.

Introduction marriages have existed in Igbo land for many decades. When a young person comes of marriage age, extended family members, friends, uncles, aunties and even in-laws may look out for a suitable match. If a suitable person is suggested, arrangements are made for the two people to meet, usually chaperoned. The difference here, to the earlier practice, is that a marriage goes ahead with the consent of both parties.

One of the advantages of this process is that the family background of a young man or woman will be well known to both parties prior to courtship and marriage. Should the two people decide to take the relationship further, the person who introduced them takes on the role as mentor and will do all that is required to ensure that the marriage succeeds. Secondly, young people may have many introductions to people he or she may not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet and without the pressure of committing to a serious relationship or marriage.

Courtship: Dating

Igbo parents are notorious for their conservative approach to courtship before marriage. Igbo families want to avoid their family name coming into disrepute and as a result, young men and women dating openly without any family commitment is often frowned upon. Families seek to protect their women by advising against associating her name with a young man before the certainty of a marriage is confirmed.

In Igbo land, the courtship and dating process is usually short. Once a young man and woman are ready to settle down, they are advised by their respective families to progress on to the next stage of marriage.

In Igbo land, marriage is one of the second most celebrated events. The families of the Bride and Groom, Umunna and villagers, all play a vital role in the marriage rite. The main process of Igbo marriages has generally remained unchanged throughout the years although variations exist in different Igbo towns or subgroups.

The process of marriage can be quite daunting to young men and women, especially when juggling these traditions in the context of the western society in which they have grown up. ‘Igbo Introductions’ aims to bridge the gap between Western dating practices and Igbo courtship and marriage traditions. Just as traditional introductions enable young people to meet and court, ‘Igbo introductions’ aim to provide young Igbo men and women with the opportunity to network with each other, build lasting relationships and hopefully marry and enjoy a long lasting mariage as encouraged by our traditions.

Marriage: An overview

More autonomy has been given to young men and women in choosing their spouses. In present day marriages however the main process of Igbo marriages has generally remained unchanged. The downside of this "autonomy" is that where the young people do not understand or fail to remember the reasons and benefits of the Igbo culture, they are likely to marry outside of the Igbo community, which may prove incompatible with the wider family values and the individual's expectations. This autonomous trend can only succeedl where informed decisions are made. We at Igbo Introductions encourage all young people to exposure themselves to OUR BOND, OUR TRADITION and OUR HERITAGE. There are, however subtle variations that exists between different Igbo towns or communities.

In general, the stages of Igbo marriage are as follows:
Stage 1: Ikụ aka (The knocking on the door)
Stage 2: Ijụ ajụjụ (The investigation stage)
Stage 3: The return or 2nd visit. (discussion of the list)
Stage 4: The Igba ndụ and Dowry negotiations
Stage 5: The Igba nkwụ ceremony
Stage 6: Idu Ụnọ
Stage 7: The Imata ani

When two people wish to progress onto the next stage of their relationship, marriage, both will usually approach their parents with their intentions. Specifically, a young man will discuss his intentions with his father. Where a father is not available, the discussion will be with the nearest father figure in his life, usually an uncle or a member of the Umunna. It is the job of his father, or nearest father figure, to find out as much as they can about the young woman he wishes to marry. If all is well and the family is happy to proceed, the father will approach the family of the young woman in question. A date is then agreed upon for the first visit. The father will then inform a selected few members of his extended family or Umunna to go with him and his son to what is called the Ikụ aka. This translates as ‘To Knock’. The number of men attending the Ikụ aka can vary but is usually from 3 men upwards. Traditionally, and still today, women do not take part in this aspect of the ceremony.

Stage 1- Ikụ aka

On the day agreed by both families, the young man, accompanied with his father and selected Umunna will pay a visit to the young woman’s family. On arrival, they will be welcomed with ‘Oji’ (kola nut). After the kola nut has been broken and eaten, they will be asked to state the reason for their visit. The father will inform all present that they have come because his son (who is subsequently introduced) has informed him that he has seen a young woman who he wants to marry and that they have come to ask for the permission of her father to do this.

The father of the young woman will, at this point, say that they have heard their wish and that he will go back to ask his daughter of her opinion. He will then say that he will contact them when he has had an answer from his daughter. The families know that an answer will not be given on the first day. The two families may eat and drink before parting company. The young man and his family will then wait for a response from the young woman and her family.

During this time, the father and his daughter will have an in-depth discussion on her thoughts regarding the proposal. Based on his discussion, he will contact the young man’s family informing them of the outcome of his discussion. If both parties agree, they will then schedule another date to meet. It is important to understand that no commitments have been made, even at this stage of the process. Both parties are free to withdraw from the process without consequence.

Stage 2- Ijụ ajụjụ

Before the next meeting, both families will try to find out as much as possible about each other. The main purpose of this is to find out the characters of the families, their standing in society, the family dynamics, religion and even the general health of the wider family. Each family will usually ask people who are from the same town as their intended inlaws to carry out the enquiries on their behalf. For some Igbos, the Ijụ ajụjụ happens before the Ikụ Aka. The outcome of this Ijụ ajụjụ may determine the next step of the process. Any of the families may pull out of the process at any stage.

Stage 3- The return visit

When both families have completed the Ijụ ajụjụ and are happy to continue with the process, a second visit is scheduled. The second visit is designed to discuss ‘the list’, a list of items that the young woman’s family and the Umunna will request on the day of the Igba nkwụ (wine carrying day)

The igba nkwụ is the main wine carrying ceremony i.e. the main traditional wedding day. The "list" varies from town to town and is subject to negotiations. Typically, the list includes items for various groups of the young woman’s family such as the ‘Umu Ada’ (the young girls), the ‘Umunwanyi’ (the women’s group), and the ‘Umunwoke’ (the young men). These items, which might include gallons of palm wine, cash gifts, bottles of gin, kolanut, goats, packets of cigarettes or tobacco leaves, stock fish, jewellery, should be brought on the day of the Igba nkwụ . The exact number of items required depends on the traditions of each community or town. In some towns, the two families may also discuss the ‘Dowry’ to be paid.

There is no set amount and it largely depends on the family in question. However, in modern times, many families may only request a token amount for dowry in compliance with the traditions.

On this visit the young woman may be called to see the family of the young man. Her father may ask her, in front of all present, if she accepts the proposal and wishes for the process to go on. If the answer is positive, then the two families may go ahead and set the date for the Igba nkwụ and dowry settlement.

Please note that the time lapse for these stages varies depending on family circumstances.

Stage 4- Igba ndụ and Dowry Negotiations

Please note that in some Igbo communities, this stage is done before the igba nkwụ ceremony.

The Dowry is a payment negotiated by both families to be paid by the groom for having the brides hand in marriage. In some communities, the bride price is still practiced but in many, the dowry is now a symbolic gesture. Any amount could be suggested by the bride’s family. In some communities, there is no negotiations whilst in others there may be some negotiations and the price may be negotiated down by the groom’s family.

Once the bride’s price is agreed the families may then move on to the Igba ndụ stage.

Igba ndụ

Igba ndụ in Igboland literally means “Bound for life”. The Igba ndụ ceremony is carried out in Igboland in a situation where a binding agreement needs to be made to protect the people concerned. Igba ndụ may be done to settle disputes and as a covenant in marriages. The concept is tied to the existence of a supreme being or deities who are very powerful as to intervene in affairs of men.

In the Igba ndụ various deities may be called upon to witness the Igba ndụ. The parties to the covenant whilst swearing to the covenant will also call upon the gods to exercise punishment to the defaulters.

During marriage Igba ndụ, the groom, his father and the chosen men from both families will be taken aside where the items for the igba ndụ will be assembled usually by the eldest member of the brides’ family or the Umunna. This could include items such as kola nut, palm wine, hot drink, ofo staff, palm oil, plantain stalk, cockrel, fresh palm frond etc. It is worth noting that this varies for different Igbo communities.

During the process the chief priest or the appointed person who prepares the items for the Igba ndụ will prepare the concoctions to be eaten. This may range from kola nut to meat taken from the throat of a goat dipped in palm oil for some communities. Whatever different communities use is symbolic to replace the older practices which is no longer practiced.

During the process the people concerned all eat from the same clay pot or bowl as a sign of unity. They swear not to harm each other in any way either physically or spiritually, anyone who goes against the covenant the gods and ancestors will be called upon to dispense justice.

In another instance, a hole is dug, and plantain stalk used to cross the hole. The people concerned will be made to cross the makeshift bridge, with a declaration that whosoever breaks the covenant will fall into the pit which signifies endless problems. Once the Igba ndụ ceremony is complete, the dowry can then be paid.

If the bride and groom are not ready for the full Igba nkwụ ceremony, but are ready to move towards living together, then the Igba ndụ and dowry settlement is the minimum that is required before a young girl is considered married and can then go on to live with the groom.

* Please note that some families may prefer the Igba ndụ and dowry to be done on a separate day privately away from the crowd whilst in others all could be incorporated into the Igba nkwụ day (Wine carrying Day)

Stage 5- Igba nkwụ ceremony (Wine Carrying)

The Igba nkwụ (wine carrying) day is the public ceremony to signify that the girl is getting married according to Igbo traditions. In some families, this ceremony is far more important than even western church or registry marriages. In recent times, due to legal reasons, many couples will have the traditional marriage followed by the church or registry marriage.

The responsibility for the preparation for the traditional marriage lies most heavily on the bride’s family. The family will invite the wider extended family, friends, Umunna’s, and the entire village and well-wishers to come and witness their daughter’s marriage. They will organise for plenty of Igbo delicacies to be eaten on the day by all in attendance. There will be plenty to drink, plenty of music, dancing and other entertainment. The bride’s family will also organise to have her friends and any unmarried young women in the family to be part of the bridal train. These women will be dressed in matching outfits to lead out the bride in a procession.

The groom and his family will arrive at the bride’s compound and will be greeted with lots of music, dancing and fanfare. They will be introduced to the Umunna from the bride’s family and ushered to their reserved seating area.

Kola nut and drinks will be presented, broken by the eldest man of the Umunna from the bride’s family. Traditionally, this is done for the appeasement of the gods. Nowadays, with the introduction of Christianity, prayers will also be said. The elder of the Umunna from the groom’s family will again reiterate their intentions and their reason for coming. At this stage, the father of the bride will welcome his in-law’s to be and explain that it’s up to his daughter if the marriage should go ahead. The father will send for the bride to come and see the guests.

The young woman will be led out in a fanfare of music and dance by the bridal train. The bridal train consists of the bride’s friends and any young unmarried member of the brides’ family. She will dance to her father and kneel before him. The father will reiterate the to the bride the intensions of the visitors. She will be given palm wine to drink in a calabash cup and asked to find the man she intends to marry and give the drink to him.

The groom takes the drink and dances towards the visitor’s area looking for her groom. It is traditional for the groom to hide amongst the visitors for the bride to find him. The bride dances through the crowd and onlookers looking for the groom. When she finds him, she goes to him and, kneeling, offers him the remaining drink. The man accepts it and drinks from it. Nowadays, in some towns, he may put any amount of money in the cup for his bride.

Both, cheered on by the crowd dance together towards the bride’s father. On getting to the bride’s father, both kneel before him for his blessings. The father of the bride blesses the newly wed and offers both words of wisdom and advice. Prayers are also said for the welfare of the couple. After the blessing, the couple arise to music and dance. Other well wishers wishing to offer words of wisdom may also do so at this stage.

At this stage the guests can then be fed and entertained with food, music etc.

It is common nowadays for the new couple to sit in a designated area for them whilst well wishers come one at a time to offer them words of advice and monetary gifts.

If the bride’s family wishes to do the Idu ụnọ ceremony, that could now be done after everyone has eaten and been entertained.

The end of the day is very emotional for the bride and her family. The bride will need to pack her suitcases and belongings ready to go with her groom’s family. Usually, the umuada’s of the family will try to prevent her from leaving until the groom appeases them with money.

The bride’s family all come out to wave her goodbye and to wish them well.

Please note that in some communities, the Igba ndụ and dowry is incorporated into the Igba nkwụ ceremony whilst in others it may be done at the beginning when the inlaws arrive or even days prior to the Igba nkwụ day.

Stage 6- Idu Ụnọ

(Please note that this varies in different Igbo communities)

In many communities in Igboland, "Idu Ụnọ" is practiced. Idu ụnọ is a ceremony organised by the bride’s family to shower her with gifts and presents to enable her to make a good start to her new married life. A girl’s family may decide to buy her gifts ranging from cooking pots and pans, jewellery, cars etc depending on their financial ability. There is no requirement for what the family may give, its entirely up to them. Nowadays, some families opt not to do a separate ceremony for this, instead they may choose to incorporate Once the Igba ndụ ceremony is complete, the dowry can then be paid. Please note that some families may prefer for the Igba ndụ and dowry be done on a separate day whilst in others all could be incorporated into the Igba nkwụ day.

Some families may prefer to give a monetary gift which is given on the day of igba nkwụ.

Stage 7: The Imata ani

This is the day that the bride’s family go to visit their daughter in her new home. The family of the bride, along with some members of the wider family, visit their in-laws. Gifts are presented, and the host family will entertain them with food, drinks and entertainment. The bride’s family will use this opportunity to ascertain that their daughter is happy and not being mistreated in her new home. Marriage ceremonies in Igboland can be a long and expensive undertaking, but they are usually worth every penny.

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