Traditional marriage in Aro Kingdom and its various stages

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Mazi Emma Kanu Ivi

Traditional marriage in Arochukwu Kingdom is an institution of a special type, well respected and treasured; it has been in existence as long as the Aro kingdom itself. It has a lot of Aro culture and custom built up in it. Some aspects of its norm have undergone some changes and modifications with time, yet some of its most treasured practices and procedures still remain inviolable.

Every adult man and woman always desire to enter into it, desirably at a reasonable youthful age. It is an institution that Aro tradition and culture recognise for legal and customary cohabitation of adult men and women (each man with his own wife or wives dwelling together) with divine mandate to procreate and populate the society. With very few exceptions, tradition always frowns at procreation outside marriage. It is regarded as a wrong thing. But time is gradually changing this view. In Arochukwu cultural setting, marriage gives high level of social respect and dignity to all men and women who are in it. Socially, marriage helps in building enduring social and cultural relationships across families and communities.

There are certain rules and regulations that guide entrance into traditional marriage in Arochukwu communities. These include that traditional marriage should not hold on Nkwo market day; that valid marriage must be between two adults of opposite sex, (man and woman); these days the man is expected to be above twenty one years and the lady not less than eighteen years old; consent of the intending couple is paramount and must be secured first of all before the consent of their parents become meaningful; the intending couple must show determination to make their marriage a success. Although no one is expected to exit from marriage institution once admitted into, Aro tradition still makes some provisions for an exit as may also be found in other cultures. Divorce is a dreaded thing but sometimes it becomes a reality. (However we are not going to discuss that topic in full in this write up).

Parents always encourage their children to get properly married in line with Arochukwu tradition and custom. Every entrant into marriage remains a scholar of the many likely complexities of gains and pains that marriage life may throw up even as the couples get more matured in the system. So, intending couples are usually tutored by their parents on the virtues of fidelity and morality, peace, tolerance, give and take attitude, patience, love and respect among other virtues that are sure to help them make their marriage a success. They are encouraged to remain helpful to each other and to learn to understand one another more and more in order to remain together and enjoy full benefits of marriage life. And so no reasonable spouse will wish to exit from his / her marriage except where it becomes obviously impossible to remain in it alive and safe.

Although marriage is usually contracted between a man and a woman, it is not totally a private affair between the man and his wife as some people may wrongly think. Family and community interest, not interference, is always expected and respected. In Aro Kingdom, marriage is really an affair involving one family with another family and by extension one community with another. It is a desirable expansion of the families or communities that are involved in the union. And so no one man in Arochukwu cultural setting or even in other Igbo land goes alone to another family or community to marry a woman without his people following him. He must go with some matured and elderly members of his family and or community to negotiate the terms of his marriage so that those who go with him will always bear witness to the necessary marital ceremonies that ensue. This has become an acceptable proof of evidence that a marriage between an intending couple has been duly done in line with the tradition and culture of the land.

Marriage in Arochukwu is also not a one day or a one time affair. It is a life time relationship and its ceremony comes up at various levels and stages which may take a reasonable time to conclude. Each stage may demand participation of certain numbers of people coming together from the two involved
families to perform the required activities that will eventually take the ceremony to its expected conclusion. The ceremony of each stage displays peculiar riches of Arochukwu culture, custom and tradition. Each stage is unique in its own and nature.

The Preliminary stage of any traditional marriage in Aro kingdom starts with a man or his immediate
family identifying a lady the man wants to marry. When identified, the immediate family of the man will first carefully investigate the family of the lady to ensure that it is a good family to associate with. If the family of the lady is found not to be a good one to associate with, the man is discouraged from further actions. And no further step is often taken. But if the family of the lady is found to be a good one to pick a wife from and relate with, then the first stage of Arochukwu traditional marriage rite begins soon after.

The first stage in Arochukwu traditional marriage ceremony usually involves only about two members of the family of the intending suitor, with or without the suitor, visiting their intended in-laws’ home. They will meet the father of the intended bride with a bottle of hot drink to ask that his doors be opened to their family for discussion on their intention. This stage is called “Ikutu aka” (knocking at the door). Really not many people are involved at this stage. So the father of the intended bride with or without any member of his family will welcome the guests and accept the drink they come with. But he will announce to them that the drink they have brought to him has no consideration attached to it. That it only acts as a reminder to him to make some consultations on their mission. That he may get back to them within four to eight market days as the case may be. This given time enables the father of the lady to consult with few of his own people and also to investigate the family of the man that intends to marry their daughter to find out if the man’s family is a good one to establish marital relationship with and whether their daughter will be happy there. If their findings are not satisfactory, the matter may end there. But if their findings are satisfactory, then they will send a message back to their intended inlaw to come and commence the second stage of the marriage rite at an agreed date. Every activity at this first stage is purely an indication of an intention to open discussion on marriage proposal.

The second stage is called “Ihe Avuru na’Ulo”; this means that the family of the man who intends to marry a daughter of the host have come to announce that they have found something good in the house of the host. Not more than four people, preferably three men and a woman, from the family of the intending suitor will go to the family of the expected bride, desirably with the suitor, to tell them there is something very good that they have found in their family that captures their attention. To show that they are prepared and committed, they will go there officially with two kegs of palm wine, one bottle of hot drink and a sizable portion of well dried animal meat. The father of the intended bride will normally invite few members of his family to come and observe what his guests have come to say and do. In all, not more than eight people may be needed from both families.

When after the father of the intended bride has welcomed and entertained his guests with traditional four Igbo cola nuts and some drinks, the leader of the guests’ family would state their mission. He would declare that they have found something good in the house of the host that they are interested in and would want to have. The host would ask them to state exactly the thing they have found in his house. They would reply and call the name of the lady they have come to ask her hand in marriage. The lady whose name was mentioned would be called out by her father and told what the guests have come to say and do. He will ask her daughter whether she knows any one among the guests in their midst and if she wants him to begin discussion with them on their mission. If she confirms and gives her consent to go ahead, then another step will be taken to enter into the next stage. But if she says no and refuses to give her consent, the whole arrangement is either terminated or suspended until the girl is duly convinced. No matter what happens, no marriage is ever deemed to have been entered into at this stage. Even if the lady accepts the guests’ proposal, it is still regarded as an invitation to the two families to begin serious discussions and arrangements to get the man and the woman traditionally married. Unfortunately some men do stop further activities at this level and erroneously think they have have gotten married. Some even take the women away with them without fulfilling any of the outstanding necessary Aro traditional marriage rites that are expected of them. Such men get it all wrong. They must be told they are not yet traditionally married to the women. They are only living with those women as mere concubines as they are not yet duly married to them. The consequences are very obvious.

The third stage is called “Nmayi Ajuju” (Wine for questioning). This is a very important stage and one of the major aspects of Aro traditional marriage ceremony. At this stage reasonable number of people from both families and their friends may be needed. The suitor is required to provide some drinks and other related items to the bride’s parents for use as evidence to ask their daughter certain questions publicly prior to any negotiation of bride price. The nature of the answers the lady gives at that public arena will surely determine whether or not the on going traditional marriage arrangements will continue or be terminated without any charge or liability on any of the parties. The drinks and the items, usually packed in two separate trays, are handed over to the bride’s family by the family of the suitor. A related member of the bride’s family will in turn pass on the first and second trays with their contents to the bride for her to present to her father and mother respectively. The bride will carry the first tray with its content and kneel before her father. Her father will ask her three specific questions which she must reply to very audibly. The questions usually come in this order: “My daughter, tell me who give you all these items you are presenting to me before all these people here?” The daughter answers that the items are from the man she loves. She then calls out the name of her suitor.

The second question follows thus: “Why did he give you all these items to give to me?” The lady answers that the man brought the items to show his readiness to marry her. The last question follows in: “My daughter are you sure that if I eat and drink of all these with my people we would not vomit them?” And the lady will answer affirmatively that they will not vomit them. The same process is repeated accordingly with her mother. Thereafter, those items will be shared and consumed by the men and women separately in their groups in line with tradition. This question and answer session is aimed at getting the bride to confirm publicly that there would be no cause in the future that would warrant her parents to refund any bride price that would soon be paid on her. Each of her parents will in turn pray and bless their daughter. After all that, the bride’s father will give her daughter a glass filled with hot wine first and later re-filled with palm wine to go and fish out from the crowd the man she said she loved to marry. All these are done to further secure a public confirmation from his daughter that it is her choice to marry her suitor. Her parents will happily accept the suitor she has brought before them and each will bless both of them jointly, wishing them fruitfulness, peace and happiness in their new life and home they will soon start together.

The fourth stage is called “Nmayi Ububo”. (Drinks for private discussion between the families of the suitor and the bride). At this stage not more than six core male members of each of the two families are needed. They normally retire to an inner chamber to discuss privately the terms of the marriage. Discussion may usually center on the actual bride price and when and how to pay it. It may include any help request that each party may seek from the other. After the both parties have agreed on certain terms, marriage is now assumed to have been contracted and the man may be officially allowed to take his wife home on credit if he is not yet ready to commence the remaining parts of the ceremony that will involve payment of the bride price among other activities. By that, they will all agree to defer all other activities of the traditional wine carrying rite till any other time in future when the man would be ready and able to perform them. But the husband may need somebody, a man who acts as a middle man in their marriage arrangement, to stand as a guarantor that he would surely complete the remaining events later. And his guarantor may tactfully say: “bride price debt never gets decayed; It will surely be paid at any possible future time”.

Because of this concession to delay bride price payment, that is why we used to see some older married women performing their full traditional wine carrying ceremony several years into their married lives. Some even do theirs only when their own daughters are about to get married. Because their own daughters are not allowed to get married traditionally beyond the level of the stage where their own marriage rite had stopped. This is an acceptable tradition in Arochukwu culture. (But these days, it is found more desirable, more convenient and even cheaper to perform all the traditional marriage rite within a short time frame or almost at the same time. Deferring payment of bride price is almost going out of fashion).

Please note that at this stage of traditional marriage ceremony the lady is however regarded as ‘legitimately married to the man under a special guarantee’ and all children born by the lady to the family of her husband before the conclusion of all other rites of the later stages are deemed traditionally legitimate children of the indebted husband. But such a husband and his family remain an official debtor to the family of their wife until they conclusively perform all the activities of the outstanding stages of Aro traditional marriage rite.

The fifth stage is called “Ihu Onu Aku” (A ceremony for an open Negotiation of the Bride Price.) These days, stages three, four, five and six are performed on the same day of the main wine carrying ceremony though separately but with activities of each lower stage flowing immediately into the activities of the next higher stage almost simultaneously. (Now recall that the bride price terms had already been privately negotiated and agreed on at the fourth stage.) And so after the inner discussions of stage four where the actual bride price is negotiated and agreed, the families will still come out to the open arena of the traditional marriage event place to negotiate the bride price as if that has not be done in the private earlier.

The essence of this part of the ceremony is to give the people present at the event ample opportunity to bear witness to the negotiation and agreement of the bride price of the bride they have come to celebrate her traditional marriage. It is also to let the public know that the family of the bride has not at all flouted the acceptable Arochukwu traditional norm in bride price amount agreement. This stage will thus witness open offers and counter offers of the bride price bidding by the respective spokesman of the bride and groom families. This aspect of the ceremony may last for about five to fifteen minutes with all the jokes and humors associated with the bargains.

It may start with some millions down to some hundreds of thousands of Naira until an agreement subject to confirmation by the bride’s father is reached. At this point the father of the bride is called upon to declare publicly the actual bride price he would accept to give out his daughter into marriage. The father may start by declaring that his daughter is not for sale because she worths more than what money can buy. That he is here to marry her out in line with Arochukwu tradition and custom. He may add that his interest is not necessarily in money but in the peace and happiness of his daughter in the new family and community she is about to join. For that reason he would announce that the bride price on his daughter is only “Okwa Isii Aro”. This translates to twelve pounds twelve shillings of the old British currency converted at Aro ever fixed exchange rate of two Naira per Pound sterling (N2/£). And this always translates to twenty five Naira,twenty kobo of Nigerian currency. In fact, this is what every true Arochukwu bride is given out at, no matter her beauty and level of education. It is our tradition. It is our culture and custom and we are proud of it. Therefore, all the extra monies one may have spent on all other items and activities relating to any traditional marriage in Arochukwu Kingdom are deemed as mere gifts and these have no place in determining the bride price to be refunded in case any divorce in future occurs. Although divorce is highly discouraged, only the twenty five naira, twenty kobo is recognised as money due and that is what will come into consideration when ever Aro traditional marriage bride price and expenditures are debated upon.

The sixth and final stage is called “Ibu Nmayi Ukwu”. It involves two principal activities, namely: “Ikwu ugwo isi Nwanyi” (Payment of the bride price) and “Itu Aju Nmayi” (Dropping of big pads for carrying of the main wine for use in the traditional marriage ceremony.) These two events constitute the principal ceremony of Arochukwu traditional marriage events. And for these two events to happen, six good looking women, six young men and six elderly men, all presumably from the groom’s community must feature prominently at this stage. The six women, who are well dressed with Omu Aro or joji wrapper, will carry six saucer plates on their left shoulders to represent the “Okwa Isii Aro” containing in total the twenty five Naira, twenty kobo bride price. The ladies will lead the procession of the eighteen person team to the compound of the father of the bride or at the venue of the traditional marriage ceremony. These women usually proceed to the event venue with loud shouts of joy in form of praises (nkubi).The six young men carrying on their heads six big pads made of dried plantain leaves will follow the procession behind the six ladies.

The six pads represent the big pads upon which six big jars of palm wine for the main wine carrying rite will rest upon. The six elderly men carrying six strong tall walking sticks will follow behind the six young men in the procession. These last six represent six strong old men from the community of the groom on a long journey in search of a good wife for their son. All these are meant to send a strong message to all that any journey to Aro traditional marriage is not a child’s play at all. It is not even a one man or private affair; it is a serious affair involving young and old men and women from both families and communities. The eighteen person procession team will be received at the entrance of bride’s father’s house by the host family. The six ladies would be ushered into the inner chamber of the man’s house where they will deliver the six plates containing the money for settlement of the bride price. The money will be counted in the presence of few selected male members of the two families. Part of the twenty five Naira, twenty kobo bride price money will be given back to the family of the groom as an assistance to them by the bride’s family. Part of the balance of the bride price money will also be reserved for the family of the mother of the bride. The remaining part will be handed over to the head of the family of the bride or direct to the bride’s father for further distribution among the family members as he deems fit. The six pads and the six walking sticks will be dropped in the front of the bride’s father’s house in two sets of four and two. A set of Four of the pads with four of the walking sticks will be dropped at the right hand side of the house and the remaining set of two pads and two walking sticks at the left side.

The ones at the right hand side will remain there for a long time as evidence that the family had recently conducted a traditional marriage of one of their daughters. The ones at the left side will be taken along with part of the bride price money to the family of the mother of the bride on a date and time agreed by both families but not later than four days after the marriage was conducted. The essence of this gesture is to testify to the family of the bride’s mother that their grand daughter has been given out in a marriage to another family or community. This is usually celebrated as an increase and expansion of all the families involved in the marriage.

This paper tactfully did not discuss the items that are needed and provided for as gifts to the bride’s family members and items for entertainments of guests at the ceremonies. Because those items usually differ from family to family and from one village to another. Official items for the activities of each stage of the ceremony also differ. But the bride price issue and “Ibu Nmayi Ukwu” paraphernalia remain inviolate and sacrosanct. Preparations, decorations and presentations of “Nwa-mgbede” (the bride) to the public are very important aspect of any Aro traditional marriage as they usually add beautiful colours to traditional marriage ceremony. In the olden days, after the fourth stage of her traditional marriage ceremony Mgbede, the bride, would be carefully prepared and kept in a fattening room for some months, well decorated and made ready for presentation to the public during the fifth and final stages when the bride price issue is settled and carrying of the main traditional marriage wine is performed. But these days where activities of stages three to six of her traditional marriage ceremony are held at same time, the Mgbede is usually prepared, decorated and presented on the same day of the main wine carrying event. Mgbede Aro is a beauty to behold and it is a huge topic of its own.

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