High bride price in Mbaise: Our story, by indigenes

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By Chika Abanobi

Recently, Nollywood queen, Rita Dominic, and her husband, Peter Anosike, the businessman-owner of Daily Times of Nigeria, set the social media on fire when they celebrated their traditional wedding in the Aboh Mbaise home of the actress. The event attracted dignitaries from all walks of life.

But while a Youtube video announced that the bride price was paid in full, without mentioning the amount and other things involved, a social media commentator claimed, without an iota of proof, that Anosike paid N700, 000 to Dominic’s family. Many respondents, probably from Mbaise, reacted angrily and called it a “well-orchestrated propaganda” to make the stereotyping about Mbaise bride price being the highest in Igbo land and Nigeria, stick. Contrary to the actor, comedian, and brand influencer Uche Maduagwu’s ‘prediction’ that Dominic’s bride price will be paid “spiritually,” it was paid physically.

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Igbo traditional routes to marriage

But those who are conversant with Igbo tradition argue that what the two lovebirds and the world of well-wishers came together to celebrate and to witness on April 19, 2022, was actually a climax of Igbo traditional marriage rites which usually begin with an inquiry known as “Iku aka” or “Iju Ase/Ajuju” (coming to knock on the door or make inquiries).Untitled11 4 Untitled12 5

Ihe Ajuju, as it’s called in the traditional Mbaise society would entail finding out more about the family that the man intends to marry from. What kind of people are they? Are they susceptible to untimely deaths? Do their girls give birth to only female children? Are they polygamous? Are they thieves? Are their women well-behaved or ill-mannered? These are some of the questions that are asked during the “Ihe Ajuju.” And, you don’t know how to get to know their answers from afar off. You get the information from someone very close to the family. So Ihe Ajuju is done for the immediate family, not the kinsmen or kindred.

During this time, the groom, accompanied by his father or the eldest family member, visits the bride’s family. At this meeting, the groom’s father officially announces his son’s interest in marrying the bride-to-be. Thereafter, she is called out by her parents and asked if she knows her suitor and would want to marry him. If her response is affirmative, they would proceed to the next stage.   

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The next meeting will be between the groom’s family and the bride’s extended family popularly known as “Umunna” (kinsmen). This meeting is important because the groom’s people have to restate their interest in marrying from the bride-to-be’s family, in the presence of her Umunna (usually comprising direct and extended family, including family elders). Once consent has been secured, a date for the traditional wedding is fixed and the bride price list is sent out. The groom takes a few gifts such as kola nuts, palm wine, beer, soft drinks, tobacco, snuff, and a goat which will be shared between the groom and bride’s family.

Following the second visit, the groom’s family can now proceed with the bride price negotiation and payment known traditionally as “Ime ego”. The groom’s family asks for the engagement gifts list which differs slightly from place to place in Igboland. Ordinarily, the money paid for the bride’s price is significantly small as it isn’t an indication of the bride’s worth. It is the extra gifts to be brought that make up the larger part of the bride price, all of which are then presented on an agreed date or on the day of the wine-carrying ceremony. In the traditional Igbo marriage ceremony, this stage often witnesses lots of back and forth between both families until a set amount is reached. Those in the know said this haggling aspect was dispensed with in Rita Dominic’s case.

The final stage is known as the wine-carrying ceremony or “Igba Nkwu Nwanyi.” The ceremony is done at the bride’s home and her family prepares a large feast for the groom’s family as well as invited guests. At this ceremony, the groom will present the bride price list along with the required gifts to the Umunna before the ceremony begins.

The highlight of Igba Nkwu Nwanyi is when the bride publicly points out the man she wants to marry. The bride’s father or eldest uncle (if her dad is deceased) prays traditionally for the bride, blesses her marriage, then gives her a cup or gourd of palm wine to go find and give it to the man she intends to spend the rest of her life with. It is the custom for her to look for her husband while being distracted by other men inviting her. Once she finds the groom, she then offers him the drink in her hand while on her knees. If he takes a sip, it signifies to the crowd that he has agreed or accepted to be her husband.

Mbaise’s natives rise in defence

But in Mbaise where she hails from, the rumour is that it costs a fortune, something reportedly running into millions of naira, to carry out these traditions. This is unlike in other parts of Igbo land, or Nigeria. In fact, in the past, there had been talks and bitter debates, especially on social media, about high bride prices in Mbaise, Imo State. Critics insinuate that it is one of the reasons many of their girls, especially the highly educated ones, do not marry early. In both traditional and social media, the idea of high bride price preventing or discouraging potential suitors from looking the way of qualified Mbaise ladies had been sold and resold a lot of times.

The town is generally believed to be the most expensive place to marry, in Nigeria because their traditional marriage rites consist of numerous components. Therefore, a man who intends to pick a bride from the place must be well prepared financially, someone noted on one of the social media platforms. But some of the town’s prominent sons and daughters natives that spoke with Saturday Sun dismissed the allegation as unfounded.

In 1934, an Irish nun established a convent, Regina Caeli College, in Ogbor Nguru, Mbaise, that served Orlu, Ikeduru, Okigwe and Obowo. Mbaise daughters who received early education at the College, were said to have attracted suitors from all over the former Eastern Region of Nigeria and beyond. Today, known as Girls Secondary School, Ogbor Nguru, or Ogbor Girls, for short, many critics believe that the so-called high bride price of a thing in Mbaise started with the products of this college.

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But Dr. Linda Ngozi Imoh, an Mbaise daughter, and President/Founder, National Association of Nigerian Nurse Practitioners, USA, doubted the veracity of the allegation in a chat with this reporter. “Yes, the school drew much attention, of course, and expectedly so, given that it is an all-girls school in Mbaise, but more for the academic eminence and qualities of the young women trained in the institution,” she said. “But the simple fact that the practice extended beyond the college at the time raises the question of whether it was the school or the “Mbaise” in the young women that attracted the many suitors to Mbaise land. While the origin might remain a conundrum, the axiom remains that Mbaise families invest heavily in training their daughters, both culturally and academically, and the outcome is the attraction.”

Asked to explain why, of all Igbo people, it is the Mbaise natives that are tagged with the stigma of high bride price, she argued that bride price is a cultural issue in Igbo land. She said: “That price differs from region to region, state to state, clan to clan, and from family to family. Although some places such as Mbaise have been tagged with high bride prices and resultant diatribes, we all need to realise that the value of a woman is nowhere equitable to whatever a prospective husband presents to her people in asking for her hand in marriage. It must also be noted that many families in Mbaise do not accept bride prices for their daughters. Rather, they require that certain customary items be provided for the kinsmen. That is called “culture”, and we are not going to eliminate that. It is the qualities suitors admire in these young women that propel them to appreciate the parents and community that raised them.”

Prof. Obichere Osuagwu of the University of Lagos, while also dismissing the tag, boasted that Mbaise women don’t go back to their parents after they had been married. “If they do, their parents will query them or send them back or ask why they did not think it through before agreeing to give out their hands in marriage to the man,” he said. 

People have always complained about a long list of traditional requirements. Where do they come in? His defence: “Except you want to show off, it doesn’t mean you are expected to bring all the things on the list as you were told or given. Nobody expects you to provide all that is on the list before you can marry our girls. That’s why our people say a naghi eji ego akpatara na nwanyi aru ulo elu (we don’t build a storey building with a woman’s bride price). Sixty per cent of what is paid goes back to the man and his wife, as the money is used to buy matrimonial things for her. If they mentioned 100 or 200 tubers of yam, the much you are able to afford, they would take. There might be the usual argument and dragging over it. But they will eventually collect them, if, at the end of the day, they discover that that is what you can afford. Nobody is going to kill you because of it; nobody is going to stop you from marrying the woman if truly you are in love with each other.”

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Prof. Viola Onwuliri, Nigeria’s former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, agrees with Prof. Osuagwu. “The allegation of high bride price in Mbaise is more of propaganda,” she said. “Apart from now that people are bringing home other people’s culture, usually we don’t do what they now call traditional wedding where people would spend money buying drinks, gifts, and all such stuff. I mean the “Igba Nkwu,” we don’t do that in Mbaise land.  You just come, finish with your in-laws, offer the traditional kola nuts, maybe one bag of rice, five or six wrappers, bride price, then you go and prepare for the wedding.

“But unfortunately people have gone to our Igbo neighbours to bring in this practice of Igba Nkwu, and once they brought it in, the local people would not remove their own because that is the culture. During the Igba Nkwu of a thing, the bride comes, and changes clothes about four times, the bridegroom would also change. They bring their friends. There would be music, excessive food, and drinks. That’s where the problem is. And, when you add it to the normal one people do, it becomes a big problem. The young people don’t want to leave Igba Nkwu and the old people don’t want to leave their culture. But it takes people of courage to do the needful. For instance, I have an only daughter. But when she was wedded, I told my in-laws that there would be nothing like Igba Nkwu, just go for the normal traditional thing. There was no band, no MC, no changing of clothes and bringing people to dance and all that. I told them it is not our culture. It is not that I couldn’t afford it. I did that just to show an example because I know it is not our tradition. I hope people will have the courage to do what I did.”

Like Osuagwu, she placed the propaganda about Mbaise people being shylocks when it comes to the issue of marriage list and high bride price at the doorstep of detractors. “The general impression that people have about Mbaise is, their bride price is very high. But it is not like that,” she stated. “Whatever they do is negotiable and many people have worked through it. Part of the rumour comes from our detractors who will never see anything good in the Mbaise person. But we have wonderful daughters that can hold their heads high anywhere. This is because in Mbaise, we believe that marriage is for life. We don’t encourage our children to marry and run back home. So, the good side of it is, we have fantastic daughters. We are very proud of our antecedents, of where we are coming from and will continue to tell people that the Mbaise ladies are wonderful. But that doesn’t mean we should deprive them of their rights. We are educated people and when you want to trample on our rights, you may not have it easy with us. An Mbaise girl knows her right.”

The true position of things, by the man with the list

Mr. Chis Ohanele, Executive Director, Mbaise Leadership Forum suggested that the body should set up a Women Advisory Council to address girls’ and women’s issues including, their rights and responsibilities, girl-child education, skills acquisition, child labour, early marriage and childbirth, street hawking and sexual exploitation.

Prince Jovita Okeahialam of Eziudo Onicha-Ezinihitte Mbaise argued that the high bride price that people talk about is even worse in other parts of Igbo land. He said: “In Anambra State, you may not spend much during your traditional wedding and bride price paying ceremony. But the real expenses come when your father or mother-in-law dies. If it is the girl’s father that died, you will be asked to buy and decorate the venue with about a hundred yards of different George wrappers. When your in-law dies, that’s when you spend money.”

In the course of discussion with Saturday Sun, his elderly father, Eze L.U. Okeahialam, a first-class monarch who is more than 100 years old, also confirmed what he said. He added that as big as the community is, the people do not intermarry. “It’s a taboo,” he noted.

Udeogu Okeji, Chairman of Umunna and in whose custody is the village’s traditional marriage list, said: “The list is not what will kill you or render you poor, except you want to show off. Once you have done “Ihe Onuzo,” (Opening of the Door/Reception), it means you have been received into the family. To do that, you need one jar of native wine; two cartons of beer and one bottle of whiskey. After “Ihe Onuzo,” there is “Ekwela m” (I have agreed/accepted or consented). Here the parents of the girl would call and ask her whether she is in agreement with the man’s visit or not, whether she accepts him or not. If the man repeats his visit, you will now tell him that you have asked the girl and she has agreed that he should come and do the necessary marital rites on her behalf. It is then you will do “Ihe Ekwela m” To do that, you will need two jars of palm wine, two cartons of Maltina, and four rolls of tobacco. One can either bring these items or monetise them.”

Other demands he pointed out from the list with him are things for the youths: N5, 000. “Even Umu youths, if they ask you to bring N5, 000 and they see that you were able to afford only N1 or N2, 000, they will take it like that,” he noted. “Bride price has no fixed amount. The family can mention N20, 000 but you may end up paying N3, 000 after negotiation or haggling. There are families you will get to and they will decide not to collect anything from you but ask you to take good care of their daughter. As for the things meant for Umunna (kinsmen), these things are contained in this list. But they are done through negotiation. But if you act as if you are the Central Bank of Nigeria, and that you can afford everything they asked for, then they take you the way you presented yourself. There is also “Ihe Ikoro” (Announcement/Town Crier). It is used to make an announcement to the town that something important is happening. Talking about Ihe Umunna, the following are usually demanded: N4, 000; one she-goat; 16 kola nuts (Igbo type); 21 jars of palm wine; two bottles of whiskey, and eight cartons of beer. But because of those who may not like to take palm wine or beer, two cartons of Maltina are demanded. There is also the Ihe Onye Eze (The King’s Demand). Demands for that are one carton of beer and N1, 000. Then there is the Women List: 40 tubers of yam which will be divided 50-50 between the mother of the girl and fellow women.”

Still talking about the high bride price and the association of Mbaise’s name with it, Prince Jovita Okeahialam made the following point. “It is the competition that makes the ceremony expensive. If this person comes and spends so-so amount, the next person would want to come and outdo the previous person. This Igba Nkwu is not our culture; it is a borrowed culture from Anambra people. I mean, people know the value of Mbaise wives: we are not ostentatious. Once in a while, there could be exceptions, but I can say 90 per cent of Mbaise ladies make excellent wives. They live within their means. That’s why men go for them. The reason we don’t sell our daughters is that something may come up tomorrow, a challenge, trouble, or something of that nature, and your in-laws may want to demand back their monetary expenses. An Mbaise woman always integrates herself into any family she is married into. She ingratiates herself with the brothers and sisters of her husband.  Except you drive or send them away, they can never on their own leave their husbands and run home on the basis that they had misunderstandings or quarrels with their husbands. Neither do they leave their husbands and start running after other men. I can say we have the most faithful wives in the whole of Igbo land.”

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