Editors’ note: this page contains two of Helen’s dissertation chapters. Chapter 3 deals with women’s roles in kinship and descent group contexts, while Chapter 4 examines their roles in what she calls “structurally differentiated organizations”.
CHAPTER THREE: KINSHIP ROLES OF WOMEN
3.1. Historical Setting and Ecological Overview
The Onitsha Ibo are a sub-group of Northern Ibo (Forde and Jones 1950:28-29) whose community was located a few miles from the eastern bank of the Niger River prior to the coming of the British in 1857. The town is situated in a vegetation zone called “derived savannah”, which results from the patterns of shifting tropical forest agriculture in areas of high population density (Keay 1949:19). Although Onitsha abuts on areas of very high population, at the time of first European contact, there was no scarcity of land in Onitsha itself, with an estimated population density of 400 per square mile, as compared to 1000 per square mile for the most congested areas extending somewhat inland and to the southeast.
[Editors’ note: the following description uses an “ethnographic present tense”, referring to the late 19th century, in much but not all of the discussion.]
The Onitsha settlement pattern is one in which residential clusters are nucleated on high ground with the farm land radiating out from them. The traditional division of labor in agriculture is as follows: men clear and fire the undergrowth and plant and harvest the major staple, Guinea yams (dioscorea spp). They also provide supplies of corn and beans. Women assist in tending the residential farms and are available at peak work seasons such as harvest. They are also responsible for the cotton crop and were seen by early travelers cultivating it and weaving it into cloth (Crowther and Taylor 1859:29). The farmland outside the village is, however, essentially a male domain and women are prohibited from sleeping there lest they offend the yam spirit (ifejioku) by their sexuality. Most of a woman’s farming work is done in gardens near her house, where she grows cocoyam, pepper, okra, and other vegetables to supplement the food supply of her household. A woman may also use for her cooking or for small trade the fruit from trees such as palm, breadfruit, banana, plantain, which are growing, generally untended, on her husband’s land. Only the profits from the sale of nuts from the kola tree go exclusively to her husband.
Both the residential nucleus and the farmland are situated on an upland characterized by acid sands and easily leached soils (Grove 1951:11). In order to maximize the farming yield, such land cannot be farmed more than two years in a row and should be allowed to lie fallow for at least five years. A concentrated labor force is needed for clearing the bush prior to planting, for the prompt planting of seed yams at the beginning of the rainy season, prior to the heavy rains, and for harvesting the crops before they rot. This work is done primarily by men and those in charge of farms must be able to summon a work group quickly that is adequate to the farming needs.
Due to the tropical forest conditions, a great deal of labor is also expended throughout the farming season on care of crops, weeding, etc. Onitsha settlement patterns appear to comprise a stage in terms of population density reflecting ecological conditions in which sources of manpower are still more in demand than is land. An ambitious person, able to summon sufficient helpers, could increase his own personal landholding by individual clearing of unclaimed land. A man attempts to farm as large an area of land as possible. The tropical forest conditions, however, which entail constant care of fields during the growing season, limit the land that can be economically dealt with to that which is within a few miles from the house land (Jones 1949:311). Some expansion was occurring into the territory of neighboring Ibo groups, but in spite of Onitsha’s economic advantages due to their control of the market on the Niger, this expansion was met by resistance from the peoples formerly claiming the land. At the time of European contact there was evidence that the Onitsha community was increasingly concerned with defining its boundaries and its community in opposition to neighboring groups.
It is hypothesized that the ecological conditions discussed above provide a set of conditions favorable for high status for Onitsha women. Because of the limitations on expansion, the community remained nucleated, thus facilitating close contact between a woman’s natal and affinal patrilineages. This contrasts sharply to the conditions in a rapidly expanding group such as the North Eastern Ibo, where farm settlements are frequently separate from the community of one’s birth (Jones 1961:127). Women also controlled production, distribution and profits from the taro crop, which was depended on to prevent famine during the time between the planting and harvesting of yams. They appear to have had similar control over the cotton crop, though information is not adequate on this point. Further, with the introduction of cassava in the mid-nineteenth century, women became even more independent in regard to food production (cf. P. Ottenberg 1959:205-223; Levine 1966:186-193). Women were never, however, the main producers of subsistence crops, but rather tended to concentrate their time remaining after the completion of household and garden tasks on trade. The ramifications of this will be examined below.
3,1.2. Historical Setting
The location of Onitsha on an upland extending to the east bank of the Niger between the Niger delta and Idah facilitated contacts with diverse cultures. Fishermen from rivers in Ibo country and traders from Igala and further North were frequent visitors to the Onitsha market in pre-contact times. The major cultural centers influencing Onitsha were Benin, Igala, Aboh, and Nri.1
Onitsha people trace their history to a kingdom called “Ado-na-Idu”, apparently a chiefdom tributary to the Kingdom of Benin and located in the Asaba-Agbor uplands west of the Niger. Due to conquests of the Benin armies shortly after the arrival of the Portugese in 1458, this community was forced to move, first to the lowlands near the Niger and then across it to the east. Onitsha accounts of warfare with Benin are corroborated by oral traditions in Benin itself (Egbareva 1960:30, 32) and by similar traditions in other towns called “Onitsha” west of the Niger. Although Onitsha people relate much of their social organization to the Benin sphere of influence, the relationship is most evident in the existence of chiefs whose names are similar to those in Benin (Bradbury 1957:35-37), in the nature of [the] divine King, and in the performance of certain major ceremonies involving kingship.
The second great cultural influence on Onitsha derives from Igala, a kingdom which also claims that its kings came from Ife via a town called “Ado”. Igala influence is thought to be responsible for numerous items in the Onitsha King’s regalia, and for the introduction of a particular type of masquerade society associated with the fearful masquerade called the Tall Ghosts (muo ogonogo). The relationship with Igala was primarily one of trade, with the former in a dominant position. Markets were held along the river or on the sand bank between Onitsha and Asaba (Boston 1960a:52-58). Fish and salt were traded by Onitsha and Aboh peoples for slaves and ivory from the North.
The kingdom of Aboh, the third sphere of influence, also traces its origins to an area near Benin from which it, like Entice, was driven due to wars with the armies of Benin. Aboh people eventually settled on the Niger Delta, at a site of critical importance in the control of trade between the coast and Northern parts of the Niger (See Henderson 1972: 65-73). By the end of the seventeenth century through various political manipulations, Aboh gained control over the access to the upper Niger and thus was able to fill the important role of primary riverain middleman for the two most important commodities, slaves from Igala and firearms from the Delta. Aboh also functioned as a middleman for foodstuffs comin down river and imported goods coming up-river from Brass (Boston 1960a:52-58). After the coming of the British in the late 1850’s, Onitsha took over many of these middleman functions and its market attained great importance (Ibid).
The fourth culture to strongly affect Onitsha was that of Nri, whose people claim to have come from Igala. Nri and the related Aguleri peoples situated along the Anambra river are considered by Boston to have been one of the main centers of Igala influence east of the Niger (Ibid). In Northern Ibo mythology, the first Nri King is regarded as the creator of the two main Ibo food staples (the yam and taro) (Thomas 1913:137), and the originator of the ozo title system. Because of his special relationship with the land, his people gained the duty of cleansing neighboring communities of “sins against the land” (Henderson 1972:58-65) and they also controlled medicines for making yams plentiful and edible. Nri was also regarded in many Northern Ibo communities (including Onitsha) as a place where the dead went prior to the traveling to the underground.
Whatever may have been the political importance of the Nri kingdom (the splendor of which is suggested by the archeological finds of bronze casting at Igbo-ukwu near Oreri) (Shaw 1967:134-143), by the time of British contact, its cultural-religious influence was more important than its political one. Like many neighboring towns, Onitsha people observed spiritual allegiance to Nri for various critical ceremonies such as the cleansing of abominations and the crowning of a Queen. Also, prior to his installation, the Nri King (the one from Oreri) had to sacrifice to the Onitsha earth shrine (ani Onicha) but before performing this rite, he customarily was required to ransom one of his servants from the Onitsha king, a practice which suggests both his powerful traditional influence and his current lack of political control (Henderson 1972:297-8).
The sand bar located in mid-river between Asaba and Onitsha was for a long time an important international market place, but the Onitsha waterside market itself also became a focal point for riverain traders from Aboh, Ossomari, and Igala, who came bringing goods desired by the less accessible peoples of the Ibo hinterland to the east. Due to its position on these important trade routes, Onitsha obtained firearms from Abo and Ossomari earlier (probably around the 1780’s) than did nearby Ibo groups, and they used such weapons to force neighboring groups in Ogidi and Obosi to affirm at least nominal allegiance to the Onitsha King.
However by the 1830’s Onitsha no longer held a monopoly on firearms among its neighbors, for the latter had been trading with the slave-dealing Aru Chukwu traders towards Calabar who also brought Western weapons. Consequently, by the time the British traders and missionaries came to Onitsha in 1857, the town was harassed on three sides by warring neighbors and the Igala kingdom to the north was attempting to manipulate marriage ties with Onitsha in such a way as to obtain greater influence over that town.
Once the missions and trading company were established and Onitsha’s political position was strengthened, changes occurred rapidly and accelerated after the British government took over direct control over Ibo country from the Royal Niger Company. Visitors to Onitsha in the mid-nineteenth century were impressed by the size of the market where an estimated 2,000 persons regularly gathered (Crowther and Taylor 1859:288). Onitsha women made up the bulk of the traders, and the men present were generally foreigners who had traveled some distance to bring their goods to market:
Today being the general market-day, many people from Ndoniyi, Abo, Igara and Oka attended it. Some of the traders from the lower parts of Ozipita were seen with their canoes actively padding up the river, and many from the lower parts of Igara. I counted 50 canoes on the beach.” (Crowther and Taylor 1859:328-329).
A Few years later, the French traveler Adolphe Burdo described it:
“The shore at Onitsha offered a curious site: the river was filled with native canoes, and on the shore was a great crowd, motley and busy, coming, going, talking, and gesticulating, and sometimes appearing greatly excited.” …. “It was market day, and the canoes had brought men belonging to the neighbouring tribes to Onitsha to exchange their products for the European wares which the black traders sell either on their own account or on that of the factories they represent.” “Standing or sitting, the women were exhibiting their wares: at one places calicoes, at another beads, here jugs or bottles of gin or rum, and everywhere large calabashes of salt. The men walked about among the groups, making exchanges with palm oil or ivory for the merchandise they wanted, or soldiers made their purchase with cowries which are current in this region.” (Burdo 1880:125).
The Town was situated about a mile and a half from the main market, and its population was estimated in 1859 by Taylor as 13,000 (Crowther and Taylor 1859:427). An early European visitor describes it as consisting of clusters of huts, separated by well-cleared paths (Burdo 1880:128). The houses were built on a rectangular base with a pitched roof and an open air central courtyard (Mbanefo 1962:19).
The advantageous social position of the Onitsha woman was noted by the early missionaries and explorers. Taylor remarked,
“I must confess that women are not deprived of their rightful status in society, nor, as in other tribes, doomed to perpetual degradation”,. . and “Still at Onitsha the women are not treated as degraded beings, as among the other tribes, with whom they are regarded as mere beasts of burden. They are even generally trusted to manage commercial transactions. They transverse the country to collect palm oil and ivory, and sometimes their exchanges display surprising intelligence. They do not, however, fill the office of commissioners until they have attained a certain age. But this is an end of their prerogatives; they cannot aspire to any public function or dignity. When a war breaks out they follow the combatants, collect and tend the wounded, and exhibit a good deal of courage and much goodness of heart.”. (Taylor and Crowther 1859:265-266)
It was also observed that some Onitsha women were dressed in expensive cloths and wore pipe corals around their necks (Crowther 1871:125), and heavy ivory bracelets and anklets “as a mark of their worldly distinction” (Cole 1862:147).
Onitsha women were often reported to have some influence over the affairs of men. For example, an Onitsha King’s daughter, who had been converted to Christianity, strongly influenced her father’s attitude to the mission (Crowther 1871:126) and another Onitsha woman, married to an Igala man, encouraged her son to bring troops from Igala to support her village’s kingship candidate (Crowther 1873:217). Women were also seen to be active in religious matters. It was reported that a procession of singing and dancing women traditionally encouraged Onitsha warriors in their oncoming battle (Strong 1884-1893: Nov. 27, 1889). Women took part in various public sacrifices; e.g., during a smallpox epidemic in 1863, women offered sacrifices to the Niger River to drive off the sickness (Taylor 1865:146).
The historical examples cited above are not intended to indicate that women were equal to men in position or power, but only that, considered in the context of other Nigerian groups, they appeared to the traders and missionaries to have a relatively high status in relation to their men. Historical accounts, however, also give details of sasswood ordeals for Onitsha women accused of witchcraft (Strong 1884-1893: Aug. 31, 1888), and death penalties imposed on non-initiated women who learned the secrets of the masquerade society (Strong: 1884-1893: Aug. 5, 1888).
But in general, Onitsha women not only had advantages due to their control of certain crops and their proximity to their own patrilineages (a matter to be discussed later in this chapter), but also they expanded upon the traditional Ibo role of female trader. Onitsha men, like men in many other Ibo-speaking areas, disdained trade and regarded the only worthy occupation as the cultivation of the major staple and ritual food, yam. However, the market opportunities available to Onitsha women far exceeded those available to women trading in the interior markets.
A further fact should be mentioned in regard to the position of Onitsha women. As indicated earlier, Onitsha legend relates that the original settlers of the town came from across the Niger, in the direction of Benin. From the earliest days of colonization, it appears that the people of Onitsha regarded themselves as closely akin to Western and riverain Ibo and greatly superior to the neighboring Eastern Ibo whom they referred to as ndibgo, a term translated by some groups as “servants”. These prejudices were reinforced by the evident cultural differences between the two groups, e.g. the Onitsha possessed a prestige-giving King and chiefly council, unknown among the surrounding towns, and some other differences in culture and social organization. Dialect differences compounded early difficulties in communication. Further, Onitsha people attained a higher standard of living, largely due to their favorable trade position.
The important point to be noted here is that the Onitsha people regarded all members of their community, both male and female, as superior in status to any persons in the Ibo hinterland. Some consequences of this belief will be discussed under the section on marriage. Throughout this chapter and the next, we shall be comparing the position of women relative to that of men in regard to the major social institutions of Onitsha, i.e. the patrilineal organization, marriage, the village, the age sets, masquerade, ozo systems, chieftaincy and kingship. Special concern will be focused on the degree to which women are assimilated in the patrilineage of the husband and the degree to which they retain significant membership in their own.
3.2. Kinship/Descent Structures
The Onitsha Ibo are organized into localized patrilineages, each of which possesses an ideology claiming descent from nine ancient “clans” (Ebo), ancient co-resident groups maintaining village status (Henderson 1963:73ff) which are said to have come from Ado-na-idu across the Niger. Although people can trace their clan affiliations, only a few of these putatively ancient groups actually remain as localized lineages with village status of their own. Due to decrease in numbers in some clans and increase in some clans and increase in others (and to in-migration by outside individuals or grups), most have formed conglomerate village groupings or undergone fission. Many have taken new names. However, the patrilineage is the focal unit of Onitsha society. It gives the primary ascriptive status to any individual, whether male or female. The villages, which are organizationally modeled to considerable extent upon localized patrilineages, present a “as-if” genealogical unity to the rest of the town even though they may be genealogically complex. A major reason why some persons are called “slaves” is that they have no genealogical attachment to any of the recognized patrilineages of the town. Also, it is through patrilineage shrines that the major part of religious activity is mediated. All levels of the patrilineage are represented by priests. Just as the father’s position in regard to his immediate descendants is assumed after his death by his senior son and thereafter by the other sons in order of seniority, the same process occurs at higher levels of the lineage where the segments (theoretically children of one father) rotate in holding the lineage priesthood. These matters will be discussed later after a brief examination of some of the major kinship categories and the terminology dealing with them. Mention is made of the terminology primarily because it may indicate certain sorting processes in regard to the categorization of women, which may in turn relate to their social roles.
3.2.1. Kinship Terminology
The primary kin-types are father (nna), mother (nne), and child (nwa). Most second degree and other further degree kin are referred to through combinations of these terms, e.g. father’s father (nna nna) or father’s mother (nna nne) or their combinations with a modifier, e.g. mother’s father (nna-ochie, “old father”).
The term nwanna, literally “child of father”, is used to refer to any agnatically related collateral kinsman of sex. The plural of nwanna, umunna, “children of father”, may be used to refer to the collective patrilineage at any depth, including all those patrilineage members who are agnatically linked to any apical ancestor. Though “child of father” (nwanna) applies to both male and female members of the patrilineage, further terminological distinctions are possible. Two terms which have their primary reference in the father-child relationship but which are generalized to the wider patrilineage context are okpala and ada. The first term is used not only to refer to a man’s senior son, who is succeeded at death by the next senior son, but also any male collateral agnate who presides over the shrines of an ancestral father. In referring to those priests representing genealogically higher levels, the prefix di- (okpala) is usually added, meaning “master”. The term ada, “daughter”, has more general usage than does that of okpala, since ego may refer to any female member of the patrilineage in general as nwa-ada (“child-daughter” pl. umuada , an important term for the collective “Daughters” of a lineage). Ada is also prefixed with isi, “head”, to refer to the senior living female kinsman linked with ego through agnation to an apical ancestor (Henderson 1967:26-27).
It is pertinent to note that two somewhat divergent tendencies are expressed in the concepts of “child of father” and “child-daughter”. While the first refers to all members of the patrilineage and therefore denotes a certain equality of status among male and female members, the more specific usage of “child of father” in regard to male agnates and “child daughter” in regard to female agnates suggests the latter’s minority. The prefixes of di (okpala) and isi (ada) single out ritual roles of priesthood controlling agnatic ancestral shrines. The term nwanne, “child of mother”, is used both in the context of the nuclear or polygynous family when speaking of one’s full and maternal half siblings and in a more general sense. It may be used to refer to other patrilineage members when ego wishes to stress that they and he are both descended from one mother, even at high genealogical levels such as FFFM, or it may refer to any persons with whom one shares an apical maternal, but not paternal, ancestress (Henderson 1967:33) . Both the terms “mother’s child” and “father’s-child” are self-reciprocal.
The term nna/nne ochie may be used as a general term for grandparents, and may be translated as such. Primarily, however, it refers to non-agnatic linkages on the G2 level or greater. Both male and female agnates including MS, MB et al. linked to ego through a mother are separated from mother and raised to the grandparental generation and referred to by the same term as that applied to MF or MM. They, in turn, call all those related to them through a Daughter of their patrilineage, Daughter’s child (nwadiani, lit. “child of the land”). This term primarily denotes the children of female members of ego’s lineage and their children’s children, regardless of sex.
The terms nnaochie, nneochie/nwadiani demarcate a linkage through women which is intelligible as an Omaha pattern. However, unlike other recorded Omaha types (Lounsbury 1964:377), both the male and female agnates linked to ego through a mother are raised to the grandparental generation (Henderson 1967:30). While the Omaha rule is that MB is elevated to MF, in Onitsha MS is also elevated to MM. We see, again as in nwanna category, a striking male-female equality of treatment is implied in such terminology.
It should also be noted that all women who stand in the position of being maternal to one of ego’s agnatic ancestors, i.e. FM, FFM, etc., are separated terminologically from their collaterals. Just as M is classed separately from MS or MB, FM, for example, is referred to as “father’s mother” (nne nna), while FMS is referred to as “old mother” (nne ochie). The implication is that women, when viewed as procreators of ego and his agnates, are classed with ego’s male parent or grandparent. In a similar manner, MM and MMM may be classed with MF and MMF (Henderson 1967: 32). Children of MM by a husband other than MF are not called “old father” (nnaochie) or “old mother” (nneochie) but rather “child of MM” (nwanne nne); children of MF by a wife other than MM are, however, referred to as “old father” or “old mother”. Their terminological elevation of members of maternally-linked patrilineages to grandparental status is reflected in normative patterns. While regarded as maternal figures such persons must be treated with respect and are seen as “owning” their Daughter’s child. Although the Daughter’s child can make demands of his mother’s patrilineage members, in terms of property and protection of his rights, he is always considered dependent on them and must, in turn, perform services for them in an obedient and respectful manner. This relationship will be discussed later in this chapter.
3.2.2. A Comparison of the Roles of Male and Female Members of the Patrilineal Descent Group
184.108.40.206. Childhood and Adolescence: Boys
During the first years of a child’s life, especially during the 2 ½ year period of nursing, the mother rather than the father plays the primary training role. During this time a father does interact with his children in small ways, however, e.g., bringing food or toys. In such treatment he quite early begins to show some sex differentiation, boys being brought miniatures of objects relevant to the adult male role, e.g. drums, hoe; girls being brought more sex neutral objects like stones and food.
At this time, the mother is the primary disciplinarian of boys and girls, but she is not especially punitive to either. Unlike some societies in which mothers do almost all the work in cultivating crops and are frequently tired and irritable, Onitsha mothers have some leisure to spend with their children, and tend to encourage rather punish aggressive self-assertion, especially in boys (Levine 1966:188, Henderson and Henderson 1966).
At about age four, sexual differentiation in children’s activities becomes quite evident. At this time, boys begin informally to play at the role of masquerades and attempt to frighten passing women and girls. As they grow older, they are more and more drawn into masquerade activities, and by the age of six they are expected to join the society of the small masquerades (mbekwe), where they are taught certain skills necessary for later life and where they begin to learn the traditional folklore (Okala 1953:85-86). Although boys are assigned some tasks around the compound, they spend a good deal of their time in informal play associations called age grades (ogbo), hunting small animals and ranging over several villages in unsupervised play.
As boys grow older, around the ages of 6-9, they are permitted to accompany their fathers to lineage ceremonies and there they observe the importance of genealogy generally. They also begin to comprehend the significance of adult status differentiations based upon whether or not one has taken ozo title. A youth sees that the ritual objects of deceased titled men are sacrificed to and that the names of these men called out, while the names of untitled men are forgotten. Boys whose fathers have not taken title will be taunted by this fact by their peers and the father thus becomes a model for the boy, positively and negatively, for the achievement of status. Although the autonomy of Onitsha men is generally well respected, dependence upon the father is learned in the daily context of food distribution and in ritual connections of the father’s relation, through sacrifice, to the ancestral spirits (Henderson and Henderson 1966:34). The father also has the powerful sanction of the curse which, however, will rebound back on him if he does not speak the truth.
A duty of fathers of boys at this time is to introduce their sons to the most important means of achievement, farming. The boy is allotted space near the house where he learns the art of caring for crops. A boy of seven may accompany his father to the main farm occasionally to help in weeding, etc. but much of his time is spent in the peer group play. The father serves as the main model for his son in terms of status achievement, but he is not primarily a disciplinarian. Men dislike punishing their sons, especially the senior son, of whom more is expected than the younger ones. It is believed that if a boy is punished severely by someone to whom he feels strong attachment, he may simply die of the wound (Henderson and Henderson 1966:34). Thus a father who has an extremely recalcitrant son prefers to send him to his older brother for disciplining.
Ideally, the father concentrates his disciplinary training on the senior son, expecting him to help train the junior ones. The relationship between the father and the senior son is more restrained than it is with younger sons. For example, the senior son is not permitted to enter the father’s private storage room lest he become eager for the father’s death, having once seen what he has to gain from it.
A boy’s change to a more adult role is marked by his initiation into the masquerade society when he is about 9-10 along with the other neighborhood boys whose fathers have provided the necessary fees to those who will take part in the ceremony. The initiation has been detailed elsewhere (see Henderson and Henderson 1966:38-40) and all that needs mention here is that its emphasis is on testing the courage of the youths; they are threatened with castration or death if they have been frequently disobedient prior to this time. The elders of the lineage intercede for the boys, begging the masquerade not to harm them. At its conclusion the boy’s father, who has not been present during the night, takes his child home. A major element of the ceremonies is the “trip to the world of the dead”.
After this initiation, boys are grouped as umuilo (children of the village square) and are able to follow the masquerade without being chased (Henderson and Henderson 1966:38). About this time they are assigned certain duties as a group, such as sweeping village paths, drumming at funerals, etc. The youth as an individual is put largely under the discipline of the group itself. Youths will also begin to take a greater role in working on their fathers’ farms. The final initiation into the masquerade society occurs when a man is about 15 or 16. On this occasion, the boy is beaten by the masquerade and, finally, shown that the masked figure is really a living kinsman. He is then administered an oath of secrecy concerning the true nature of the masquerade (Basden 1966:373-375). Now the boy may actively take part in masquerade activities and even wear certain types of masquerade costumes. After his final initiation, a youth is considered to be a young man (okolobia).
220.127.116.11. Childhood and Adolescence: Girls
When boys are beginning to take a strong interest in the masquerade activities, girls are helping their mothers in daily tasks and taking care of younger siblings. By the age of seven or eight, sexual differences are strongly emphasized and a girl would not follow a group of boys in their games and hunting activities, since she would be rejected by them. Similarly, any boy who consistently plays with girls would be ridiculed by his peers. Modesty training, beginning at about the age [of] four, is stricter for girls than for boys.
At the time when boys are joining the “small masquerade society”, girls begin to take part in organized dance clubs (otu egwu aja) within the village, led by older girls approaching puberty. An older boy also is important as a leader who organizes their dancing performance and conducts quasi-rituals for them. One of the Wives of the Village is chosen as “mother” for the group and settles their internal disputes. The presence of the adults in supervisory position over girls marks a difference from the boys’ “small masquerade societies” where there is no parental figure to settle disputes. The girl’s “clubs” perform dances as entertainment around the village in return for presents and praise, and they also dance at funerals, especially those of one of the other children of the group.
As they mature, girls continue to take part in dance groups. Particularly during the pre-marriage period, girls compete with one another in their ability to attract men. Girls who do not meet the standards of the group, that is, those who steal, engage in sexual acts, or are exceptionally ugly, are subjected to severe, though indirect ridicule (akuku). These rivalries are on a very individual level, and unlike those of the boys, do not generally involve remarks about the relative merits of different families.
Both boys and girls are expected to be respectful to elders, but girls are more closely regulated. They are also disciplined more sternly than boys. If both are working together, the girl is expected to be more careful and efficient. While a boy may run away from a task, a girl will more likely be punished for avoiding work. Boys are thought to be quick and careless in their actions, while girls are tidier and more moderate. The mother gives her daughters more training in conformity than she does with her sons. Girls appear to be punished more often in the family context, while boys are frequently disciplined through peer activities and by slightly older boys.
Fathers expect unquestioning obedience from their daughters, but generally leave their training to their wives. Girls do not usually accompany their fathers to lineage ceremonies outside their own compound, although they do participate in religious activities involving the household, being called to take food and drink in the ceremonial context, as are boys. Girls run errands and engage in service-oriented behavior as a means of attracting the attention of the father.
Once a girl reaches the age of menstruation (ikpu-ala, “putting on breasts”) her behavior is watched more carefully by her mother and she is warned that it is an abomination to bear an illegitimate child. A girl of the age of puberty who is exceptionally hard to control may be punished by the ulaga masquerade which has been called in by her father. Such severe control is usually not necessary; more often a girl is restrained by scoldings by her mother and warnings of her forthcoming marital responsibilities.
Girls are often betrothed prior to puberty but generally do not go to live with their husbands permanently until the age of 16-18. Their husbands are usually at least 6-9 years older than their brides. There is supposed to be strong affection between brothers and sisters, but a boy is taught to regard his sisters as he would a male and also to view the body of “cross-sex sibling” as “pricking like thorns”. Thus sex play within the village is openly disapproved of in the few years before puberty, and definitely forbidden after puberty. Sisters are believed to be jealous of their brother’s prospective brides and to be especially critical of them. As will be shown, this attitude tends to continue after the brother’s marriage.
To conclude, the groups to which children and adolescents belong focus interests on members of one’s own lineage and village and provide bases for future adult roles. Young men and women, by their mandatory participation in drumming and dancing clubs which perform at important ceremonies, especially funerals, have the opportunity to learn some of the meaning of the religious concepts involved and to observe what is the appropriate behavior. In their own compounds, youths can also observe both their fathers and mothers sacrificing and praying to religious objects and they are brought into participation in the rituals.
Although girls form friendships outside their own village, some of which prove useful later in trade connections, they are more restricted in their freedom to travel about than are boys and tend to emphasize domestic pursuits. Boys engage in more achievement-oriented activities, such as hunting and wrestling, which involve them in friendships with persons outside their own village. Their membership in the lineage-based, though town-wide masquerade society (see Chapter Four) gives them further opportunities to participate in activities in other villages and to engage in competitive games with youths around the town. They thus gain a more cosmopolitan orientation than do girls.
18.104.22.168. Decision-Making Among Adult Males of the Patrilineage
Many important decisions involving religious, economic, and political questions are made within the corporate patrilineal descent group. Within the patrilineage there is a major division between Youths or unmarried men (umuilo, “children of the village square”) and the elders (ndi ikenye), with both groups having clearly defined spheres of influence. While the Elders, especially those who are titled, are responsible for the major decisions concerning the patrilineage, the youths have a right to be rewarded for activities undertaken for the benefit of the lineage. If denied such rights, the Youths as a group may refuse to perform some of their major duties, e.g. burying the dead. On the other hand, if individual lineage members fail to attend meetings and fulfill their duties, they can be ostracized and cut off from religious ceremonies. The relationship between father and senior son sets the pattern for the young man’s relationship to lineage elders in general, especially to the priest (di-okpala) of his lineage. The father is the spiritual intercessor for his children with their immediate lineage segment ancestors, and the son is under the moral jurisdiction of the paternal ofo, the staff symbolizing righteous power (Chapter Two). In return for spiritual protection afforded him, the son should bring his father homage (ife nru) in the form of gifts at certain points in the ceremonial cycle and labor on his father’s farm. This relationship is paralleled at higher levels of the patrilineage in relations between priest and lineage members.
It is because a priest controls the ofo and other religious objects of deceased ancestors that he is able to administrate the properties associated with them. Lineage priests represent their members in religious matters and are called upon to swear oaths on behalf of the segment of the entire lineage when disputes occur over religious matters.
In regard to land usage, each son has a right to build a house on the garden land assigned to his mother by his father, and he need only obtain the sanction of the lineage priest at the widest level of the patrilineage from which he hopes to obtain help in house construction. After the dedication ceremony, the householder will pay annual tribute to this priest, but in return he gains the security of having permanent possession of his house and land, the only condition being that he not commit an “abomination” against the land (See Chapter Two).
When farm land is controlled by a priest of an ancestral house of considerable generational depth, a collective decision will be reached prior to the planting season as to which plots of land should be farmed that year. These will be sub-divided among the individual families which render homage to the lineage priest. However, if a man has sufficient resources, he may clear and then exploit unclaimed land which then becomes part of his personal estate. Disputes within the immediate family are brought to be decided by the holder of ofo, the father, whereas disputes affecting a wider circle of persons in the lineage come under the jurisdiction of the priestly holder of the ofo representing a higher level of paternal (patrilineal) authority.
The patrilineage elders will also make decisions in disputes involving other lineages in the town since they are responsible for the maintenance of social order among lineage members and for their personal security, including blood vengeance in murder cases. Patrilineage elders also have the ultimate authority in regard to what persons are suitable for their members to marry, and they handle disputes over the distribution of bridewealth received in the marriage of their Daughters.
Onitsha patrilineages undergo continual processes of growth and segmentation, the latter often being due to disputes over the succession to ancestral ofo and other shrines. These processes will not be discussed here, nor will further details be given on the internal workings of the patrilineage in regard to its male members since they have been amply documented elsewhere (Henderson 1963, 1972).
Succession and Inheritance by Males
Property and inheritance and priesthood succession are mechanisms for maintaining the social order and are supervised by patrilineage elders. When a married man dies, his personal ofo is taken over by his senior son after the latter has set up a shrine to his father (See Chapter Six: inyedo nna). He then has the right to administer any properties that were personally held by the father2, such as personally acquired land, houses, economic trees, animals and bridewealth of the deceased’s daughters. In return, the senior son must officiate at the paternal ancestral shrines and operate his affairs justly under ofo moral standards.
Also, the oldest son of the deceased upon becoming custodian of the father’s property also takes on his duties, e.g., he should allot property including animals to his brothers and see that they acquire wives. Each brother, if married, works his own land, keeps his own harvest separately, and has a separate house.
The role of the priest who controls a given set of paternal objects passes from senior to junior sons of a man and then drops a generation to the senior son’s senior son. Junior sons also acquire their own personal paternal staffs (ofo) and thus administer ther own personal estates, and they may establish shrines to their father prior to their taking the ozo title. However, they remain under the authority of the “father’s” paternal ofo in matters outside their own immediate family.
Succession to other valuable goods and resources which the deceased did not personally acquire in his lifetime, e.g. ritual objects, ancestral houses, and immovable properties such as land and shrines associated with deceased fathers, pass not to the senior son but to the deceased’s junior brother. Succession may rotate through various lineage segments. Movable property, such as animals, money, and personal objects is usually divided into shares at the death of their owner, with the men who financed the funeral, ideally, the senior son, taking the largest share. A share will also go to the deceased’s immediate patrilineage priest.
In general, the senior son of the deceased has a right to claim any of the wives (excluding his mother) of his father that he wants, but they, in return, are free to refuse him (see below).
22.214.171.124. The Adult Daughter’s Role in the Patrilineage
This section is concerned with the problem of to what extent a woman participates in the activities of her own patrilineage. The question will be asked: to what degree does the patrilineage dispense with its female members upon their marriage (Schneider 1961:11), and on the other hand, to what degree does the patrilineage “define the status of all members of the descent group irrespective of sex” (Lewis 1965:103).
A daughter, like a son, is under the moral jurisdiction of the paternal ofo and this condition does not cease with marriage. Upon the father’s death, the relationship continues with his successor. She is also expected to bring homage (ife nru) to her lineage priest at certain times during the ritual calendar, and her husband may do so also. The woman’s lineage priest, especially her father or her brother, can forbid her from attending certain ceremonies, e.g. those held by people from whom his family wishes to disaffiliate; if she disobeys, any illness thereafter will be attributed to her disobedience and she will have to do penance to him.
If the father is dead, the woman will come to her brother’s compound during annual ceremonies to give homage and to ask for prayers to be offered on her behalf. He may not ordinarily refuse to give them. Nor may he refuse, if he is the lineage priest or holds requisite shrines, to make any sacrifice to them that may be required by a diviner for his sister, although she will first have to provide “sacraments for the offering”.
On the other hand, if the man’s sister is the holder of any ritual powers (see below), she may not refuse, except under circumstances mentioned, to perform any traditional rites that her brother asks; if she did, or if she performed them improperly, it is believed that the vengeance of the ancestors would be vented upon her, her children, and her brother.
Although women have a certain equality of access to lineage shrines, they never inherit any of their father’s ritual objects and therefore cannot administer his estate, except under exceptional circumstances (see below). While elderly female lineage members may be asked to give their advice in various patrilineage disputes, they do not normally attend meetings with the men, and when they do it is about matters concerning certain rituals or problems which are thought to be of special concern to them, such as the care of orphans in the lineage.
However, a female member of the lineage possesses certain secondary rights in the lineage estate. She should not be refused a place in her brother’s compound if she leaves her husband. If he is the lineage priest and she the priestess, he must build a separate house for her. Also, if her children are not given sufficient financial support by their father, the brother should assist them.
Although it is not uncommon (anyway in recent times) for a wealthy woman to finance the title taking of her brother by the same mother or give food to his children, she is not obliged to do so. Even if she returns to his village, she does not have household duties in regard to him, nor must she give him produce or share her money from trade with him.
While a woman has no a priori rights to any land in her lineage, if she returns there she must be shown an area for her garden. Further, it is not infrequent for a father to give his daughter a piece of farmland for the use of her husband and sons on the condition that it reverts to his lineage segment if she leaves no descendants. If a woman without children is divorced by her husband, the land reverts to father.
Women are also entitled to usufruct rights to trees on their lineage while they are residing there. A woman’s child is entitled to use farm land and may build a house on land in his mother’s lineage. He may even eventually take ozo title there, an act which amounts to naturalization.
A woman’s personal security is, in the last recourse, the responsibility of her family. She can return to her own village if sick or uncared for by her husband and his people. If she is murdered or kidnapped, her husband’s village will usually try to retaliate quickly or claim compensation unless the woman has borne no male children. In the latter case, the pressure for vengeance will be exerted on them by her own people.
It is a commonly held belief in Onitsha that a man’s sister is jealous of his wives and consequently tends to be critical of them. It is also believed that she can make her brother impotent. It is said that a man’s sister has the right to enter her brother’s house and order his wife to refrain from certain behavior under sanction of being fined. If the sister can convince other lineage Daughters that she is correct in her demands, they can drive the wife out of the house.
Such measures are indeed extreme. It is more common for a sister to watch her brother’s wife’s behavior carefully for signs of infidelity. However, a sister may also play a constructive role in her brother’s marriage. If there is a misunderstanding between the man and wife, either party in the dispute may ask the sister (by the same mother and father) of the husband to intercede and bring about a settlement. Such matters are generally handled within the immediate family and other lineage Daughters are not brought into the matter, the grievances thus being kept secret.
The Daughters of the Lineage: The Head Daughter (Isi Ada)
Just as each patrilineage segment has a priest, it also has a priestess or Head Daughter (Isi-ada) whose symbol or office is an ofo, a short wooden staff conferred on her by the Head Priest (Di-Okpala). The woman chosen is often the priest’s senior agnatic sister or her nearest classificatory equivalent.
The ritual staff, which gives the Head Daughter a share in the priest’s religious powers, enables her to receive shares of animals at sacrifices, to obtain homage prior to the performance of major lineage rituals, and to represent all the Daughters of the lineage. It partakes of the paternal authority of the priest of the lineage segment, but it is also regarded as passing from senior Daughter to senior Daughter through a male mediator, and thus draws upon the powers of its past female users, the dead Daughters of the lineage.
The Isi-ada ofo is believed to protect the Head Daughter from polluting influences, i.e. the ghost of a newly deceased person, and to enable her to cleanse her lineage brother’s house of dangerous elements. Prior to taking her position, the Head-Daughter-designate must present a goat, fowl, and drinks to the lineage priest who is conferring the office upon her.
It is not uncommon for Daughters of a lineage to refuse to take the position of Head Daughter, or to resign from it once they have been so designated. Women complain that they are forced by their families to take up functions which properly should be performed by the higher level segment Daughter and that they have become ill as a result of this transgression.
Duties of the Daughter: ritual participation
The Head Daughter has many critical functions in the religious activities of her brother’s lineage. At this point they will merely be outlined, for these will be dealt with at more length in Chapters Five and Six. Her presence is essential at all funerals, and if she, or the lineage she represents, has been offended by the previous behavior of the deceased, she may refuse to attend the Burial or Lamentation rites until compensation is made.
Prior to certain annual ceremonies, it is necessary for the Head Daughter to “calm” or “quiet” the houses of married lineage Brothers, and she may also be called upon to do so prior to the performance of personal religious rites such as ikenga dedications or sacrifices. This “quieting” or cleansing refers primarily to the purification of sexual offences, e.g. if the owner of a house fears that adultery or incest have occurred in it, or in the case of a titled man, if anyone besides the man himself and his wives have had intercourse therein.
The Daughters of the lineage are responsible for clearing away various dangerous elements from human relationships. Upon receiving evidence of a Brother’s wife’s adultery, some of the senior Daughters of the Brother’s lineage will advise him to refrain from eating his wife’s cooking lest it give him disease. They will urge that he require her to undergo ritual adultery confession (see Chapter Five). This confession is led by the Head Daughter of the husband’s lineage; at its satisfactory conclusion the wife is instructed by the Daughters in proper future behavior, and the husband, especially if he is an ozo titled man, is ceremonially cleansed of his wife’s polluting presence.
Duties of the Daughter: Settling disputes
Not only are the Daughters viewed as able to deal with potentially harmful ghosts and to cool the hot and dangerous forces engendered by illicit sex, they are also believed to be able to settle disputes within the patrilineage and to cool the anger of the parties involved. Even when there are quarrels between men of the lineage e.g. over use of land, the Daughter’s investigation of the matter and hearing of both sides is considered an important means to an amicable settlement. If they fail, so, it is believed, will most other individuals.
The Head Daughter may also be called upon to mediate disputes between the lineage priest and other male members of the patrilineage. Women do not, however, enter a quarrel between men unless specifically invited to do so. More commonly, the Daughters may be called upon by either their lineage Brother or his wife to settle a marital quarrel.
All of the disputes mentioned above may be “cooled” through ceremonies conducted by the head priest or the Head Daughter in which both parties are asked to drink from the same cup and swear that they will not try to kill one another. Ostracism (nsupu) is the greatest punishment that can be leveled by the Daughters and it can apply to both male and female members of the lineage. It is because of this that men fear the Daughters of the lineage more than they do the collective Wives of the Village.
Ostracism means, in effect, that the Daughters of the lineage will not perform any ritual services at funerals or at annual ceremonies. An ostracized woman is prohibited from taking food with the other women of her lineage. Also, she will not be able to benefit from their trade connections. Not only are individuals ostracized for not accepting settlements to disputes profered by the Head Daughter (note that if it is a case involving men, the women will have been invited to give a decision probably by the lineage priest and their action will be in support of him) or, in the case of women, for not attending ceremonies, but it may also occur if a man has deeply offended other members of his lineage by making them perform rituals considered dangerous and disgusting in order to prove that they have not been poisoning him.3
A reconciliation may be affected through the presentation of drinks to the Daughters, after which the Head Daughter will undo her oath against the erring member, and make him fit to again take part in lineage ceremonies, especially those which involve food sharing.
Duties of the Daughter: Instruction into patrilineage affairs
It has been reported that in some Onitsha villages, boys and girls a few years before puberty are traditionally purified and then instructed in the lineage tradition by the Head Daughter (Henderson and Henderson 1966:40).
Organization of Lineage Daughters
The Daughters of lineage segment hold regular meetings which are presided over by the Head Daughter who breaks kola and prays. Food is shared in strict order of seniority by age, titles such as Mother of the Masquerade (nne-mmanwu) or Ivory Wearer (Onye-otu-odu) having no bearing. At these meetings various disputes are settled, dances selected and practiced, and ritual matters, especially those concerning shrines of the village which are primarily propitiated by women, discussed. In judging cases, there is an attempt for unanimity and age must always be respected. The Head Daughter gives the final decision.
If the localized patrilineage has numerous segments, each with its own priest and Head Daughter, it is a rare occasion at which all the Daughters of the patrilineage will meet. One such occasion, for example, is the sacrifice to the shrine which is commonly held as common by the entire patrilineage. However, leading Daughters representing the various patrilineage segments may meet more frequently, depending on the need for coordination of their activities in the wider lineage.
The Head Daughter of a lineage segment collects money from the various female members – money which has been earned from trade or other sources, including that given to them as individuals for their dancing performances at funerals. This money may be used to purchase cloth for glorifying the funeral of a prestigeous member of the lineage.
The organization of Daughters keeps tight control on its members and their successful efforts are strongly correlated with the fact that Onitsha women, traditionally, did not often marry outside the town. Daughters are supposed to attend all of these organizational functions and also to attend all funerals of lineage members. If a Daughter is late to a funeral, she will be fined, and if she argues the penalty, she will be fined more heavily. If she fails to come at all, her property, especially her cooking utensils and her mortar, will be seized and held by the Head Daughter until she responds in an appropriate manner.
Splitting of Lineage Daughter’s Organizations
If closely-related men in a lineage segment decide to perform their religious ceremonies separately from other men in that segment, the women who have previously all belonged to a joint Daughters organization will also split according to the new division.
It can also happen, however, that the female members of a lineage segment will separate while their males will not. In the case of a highly successful, expanding lineage segment, the Head Daughter of this junior segment may claim equal status with the higher-level Head Daughter whose ritual authority she previously recognized. The latter may reject this claim to equality arguing, for example, that the junior segment’s founder “died in the presence of his father” (thus eliminating him and his descendants from control of the father’s ritual objects) or that the founder was a stranger who came to Onitsha and was “sheltered” by the present priest’s ancestor.
The women of the splitting segment may refuse to return to full lineage participation even though the men of the segment continue to perform certain ceremonies together (e.g. funerals). However, the strains implicit in such an imbalanced situation tend to lead the men to divide along the lines of the Daughters. Of course, it is believed that if the splitting group of Daughters has no legitimate claim to possessing their own ofo, illness and death will befall their group, for ofo will rebound upon any false user, but successful splits do occur and may force the hand of the men.
Daughters and Property Inheritance
Women do not directly inherit anything from their fathers; if a man has no sons, his property, i.e. houses, self-acquired land, money, etc. goes to his nearest male relative, not his female children. Nor can a woman administer a man’s estate because this is regarded as a step toward inheriting it. Any trees that belonged to the father may be used by any of his children, but they are not thought to be the property of women, especially those who are married out of the localized patrilineage.
However, contrary to the general rules of inheritance it is reported that a man who had only female children could select one of them to remain in his household, unmarried, bearing children, the males among whom then constituting his heirs. Such a woman is referred to as “adagbe”. She is in many ways reckoned as a man, and thus her son is heir to her father.
Such a custom is also found in Western Ibo and in the Awka Ibo area, where in both, the woman could help to administer the father’s estate, inherit the father’s house, and hold it and other property in trust for her children (Thomas 1914:130). She could, also, in these areas, pay the bridewealth for a wife if she herself proved to be childless. At Onitsha Olona, on the Western side of the Niger, just as the father can pay a token amount of bridewealth for his daughter to his lineage priest, the daughter, if she bears no sons as adagbe, may do likewise and retain her own daughter in the same role. It is probable that a similar pattern obtained in Onitsha though specific ethnographic information is lacking at the present time.
There are certain other ways, however, that women can obtain land use rights. As mentioned earlier, upon her marriage, it is not infrequent for a father to give his daughter a piece of land for the use of her husband and sons, on the condition that it reverts to the giver’s lineage if the woman leaves no descendants. Since Western influences have led to land being regarded to some extent as a marketable commodity, women have been able for some time to own land in their own right through purchase of pledge (Meek 1937:203; Obi 1963:69).
If land is obtained prior to marriage or after divorce, the woman may dispose of it as she wishes, and it is inherited by her children, if any, or her own kin. However, “the sort of woman who should like to acquire heritable rights and interests in land and who could find necessary purchase money is often neither young nor likely thereafter to get married” (Obi 1963:71).
Land acquired while a woman is living with her husband or prior to the return of the bridewealth would be inherited either by her sons, or, if deceased, by her husband or his lineage mates. If a house is built for a woman on her husband’s land, it would be taken at her death by her husband’s relatives; the same principle applies if it was built at her father’s village. Men should not claim houses built on patrilineage land other than their own.
Traditionally, houses built by women would not be of such great size and value that they would be likely to come into dispute. Even today, if a woman wants to put up an elaborate concrete-block house, she will not build in her husband’s village since the house can then be seized by her husband’s relatives at her death. Rather she will prefer to build at the urban waterside area. Such houses are causes of current disputes, but it appears that if a woman has no children, and if she has built the house with her own money and not her husband’s, and has paid back her bridewealth, the house will go to the lineage of the woman, not the husband.
If a woman’s husband is dead, and she has self-acquired property, for example, currently in land and a house in the waterside, and if she has no sons, this property can go to her first born grandson, if he claims her body at death and buries it near his and his father’s house, thus making himself nominally her first born son.
A woman’s movable property such as jewelry, cooking utensils, clothing and ivory4 has traditionally been inherited by her female children, with the senior child taking the largest amount. If a woman has no children, her husband can claim this property, and if he is dead, the woman’s sister will take it.
Money and livestock tended to pass to the woman’s sons. If a woman has taken such movable property to her husband’s home upon marriage or obtained it while living with the husband, he will inherit it from her if she has no sons. Although Onitsha women were in a position to obtain more valuable property than their counterparts in rural areas, what Thomas said of the inheritance of women’s property in the Awka area may also be true to a lesser degree for Onitsha, i.e. that the rules regarding the rights of sons and husbands in the woman’s property are ambiguous, thus implying that it is only recently that women have held property in which sons might have interest (1913:123-124).
3.2.3. Patterns of Marriage Arrangement
Exogamy and Endogamy: Marrying within Onitsha
The basic model for social organization of the villages comprising the Onitsha community is that of the patrilineage, and although village and localized patrilineage are usually not coterminous, this is regarded as the ideal state of affairs. Therefore, members of the same village do not intermarry, and it is said that “we are all related”. Also, a basic criterion governing exogamy in Onitsha is that one cannot marry into a family whose priest may be called upon to perform one’s rituals. Aside from exogamic rules in effect for the patrilineal group itself, its members are also bound to respect more extensive restrictions resulting from ties through women. This matter has been dealt with elsewhere (Henderson 1967) and will be discussed again in Chapter Five in regard to shrines to women.
All persons who regard themselves as descended from and serving a common ancestral mother are also bound by rules of exogamy. The ritual tie between an individual and an ancestral mother is passed from sons as well as daughters of a woman to their children. Thus a man or woman may be “serving” not only his deceased mother and mother’s mother but also his father’s mother and father’s father’s mother (Henderson 1967:44).
Exogamy also applies to children of women of the same patrilineage. A self-conscious group of individuals may thus exist who see themselves related to each other through both maternal and paternal ties to a common mother. If, after a number of generations, members within that group (umunne: children of the mother) wish to intermarry, they have to go to the member who holds the shrines representing the original mother and perform a sacrifice to sever this tie. A similar ceremony is performed to cut off ties between descendants of a woman and the patrilineage segment to which that woman belonged.
A goat is sacrificed to shrines representing Daughters of the Lineage (umuada) which are held by the priest of the ancestral mother’s patrilineage segment. Thus, for example, it would be possible after performing such a ceremony for a man or woman to marry a member of his/her mother’s mother’s patrilineage, thus severing the grandparent/daughter’s-child bond.
Marrying Outside Onitsha
Until recent times, it was extremely rare for an Onitsha woman to be given in marriage to an Ibo man residing in the eastern hinterland. The primary reason given for this exclusion was that these people were viewed as inferior in their customs to those of Onitsha. Onitsha women could, however, marry men from the rivers in Ibo areas, Ndi-olu such as Ossamari or Asaba with whom the Onitsha [Ibo] felt that they had more affinity; Onitsha people say, however, that men from these areas were given the ugliest Onitsha women, ones who could not find husbands within their own community.
This same pattern of marrying ugly daughters to non-Onitsha men is also applied in regard to Ibo hinterland men who have come permanently to reside in Onitsha as farmers and diviners. The children of such a marriage could farm land given to their mother by her patrilineage, and once the father has died these children can take ozo title under the sponsorship of their mother’s brother, thus becoming incorporated into his family.
Onitsha men state that Onitsha women are prouder than those of the hinterland and that, being aware of their superior position as Onitsha persons, they will refuse to take orders from a hinterland husband and will, in fact, constantly subject him to ridicule. They further state that it is necessary to treat an Onitsha wife with more consideration than an Ibo woman from the interior since she has a greater right and ability to leave her husband. Onitsha women are also believed by Onitsha men to be more likely to scold and use abusive language in marital disputes than are women from neighboring areas.
Men from the Ibo hinterland, on the other hand, today regard Onitsha women as less dependable and faithful than their own women, and cite in support of this claim a rather high separation and divorce rate in Onitsha. They attribute these alleged failings of Onitsha women to the current low bridewealth in the Onitsha traditional town, as compared to the more exorbitant rates in the interior. The amount of bridewealth among Onitsha people is today low enough to be easily refunded to the husband by the girl or her new suitor.
In the past, however, a non-Onitsha man wishing to marry an Onitsha woman was required to pay a higher amount of bridewealth than was a local man. According to 1915 court records, there was also a ￡7 fine incumbent on any man who sought to give his Onitsha daughter to a foreigner. The latter rule restrained the rare father who might wish to marry his daughter to a hinterland Ibo man in order to obtain more bridewealth. Historically, Onitsha women did not marry non-Onitsha men in any large numbers and this is undoubtedly related to differences in life styles between Onitsha and her neighbors which would support claims of potential marital difficulties.
Aside from the prestige factors mentioned earlier in this chapter, a major difference lay in the fact that Onitsha women traditionally engaged in less farming than did the women of the interior, but were instead much more concerned with marketing and the Niger trade, thus obtaining considerable funds for their own use. It would have been degrading to such a woman and her kin to marry her into a community where harder farming labor and generally lower standards of living would be routine.
It is important to observe that Onitsha men, however, frequently took wives from foreign communities near Onitsha. This may have been due in part to the fact that the strict rules of exogamy operative in Onitsha severely limited the number of potential spouses available. It is likely that Onitsha women were preferred for the position of senior wife (anasi) though there was no proscription involved. Frequently in cases of marriage between Onitsha men and non-Onitsha women, the latter were brought to Onitsha as children and trained in Onitsha methods of dress, cooking, etc., in the household of their betrothed’s mother. During this training period, they would also fill the role of servants.
If this pattern was not adhered to, the new bride would have to learn about distinctive Onitsha customs from her fellow village wives (with their famously hypercritical tongues). Also it appears from a survey of the history of land holdings in certain areas bordering the original Onitsha settlement that considerable expansion of the community was due to the fact that neighboring groups often gave their Daughters, upon marriage to an Onitsha man, substantial tracts of land as dowry (see Henderson 1972).
Betrothal and Marriage
In the following discussion of betrothal and marriage ceremonies, the model described is the traditional one that existed at the time of early contact with the West and which has continued to a considerable if attentuated extent, even today . The amounts of bridewealth cited below are those of recent times, i.e. the mid-twentieth century, and are given only to illustrate relative amounts presented to different persons and groups in the social structure.
The initiative in looking for a suitable spouse usually lies with the prospective husband’s relatives, with women playing an important role. The boy’s mother is the person most dedicated to finding him a wife, and her objections to any potential girl are regarded as decisive because of the enjoined close contact between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The mother uses all channels of information, notably the Daughters of her husband’s and her own lineage who are married into villages where prospective brides live, to investigate the reputation of the girl. A girl’s personal failings, such as tendencies toward promiscuity and theft, and her family’s reputation in respect to the presence of certain diseases and involvement in oaths and witchcraft accusations, are given special attention.
Once a suitable girl has been found and approved by the lineage elders, the boy’s family will make visits to the girl’s parents. During this time the girl’s mother investigates the new suitor through channels similar to those used by the bride’s mother. If a marriage is deemed suitable by the families and the lineage priests involved, a ceremony of betrothal occurs (ibu mmanya nwunye: carrying palm wine for wife) during which wine is presented by the man’s patrilineal relatives to persons representing four patrilineages related to the bride: 1) the patrilineage of the bride, 2) the patrilineage of the bride’s mother, 3) the patrilineage of the bride’s father’s mother, 4) the patrilineage of the bride’s mother’s mother.
In 1) the wine is distributed to the senior lineage priest, elders and Daughters; in 2) to similar groups; in 3) to the father’s mother or her lineage priest who directs its distribution within the lineage; in 4) the same as in 3). Thus each of these four groups are regarded as sanctioning the betrothal by their acceptance of the wine.
The individual chosen as mediator who officially witnesses the marriage process also receives wine. During the ceremony, the betrothed couple drink wine from the same cup. Prior to this ritual, any presents given to the girl or her family are not refundable if the marriage is terminated. After the wine ceremony, however, the prospective bridegroom should record the gifts since their value is refundable upon divorce. Also after the wine ceremony, affinal terms are applied between the betrothed person and the kinship units involved.
It is difficult to ascertain when “betrothal” formally begins in this society. Since Onitsha people themselves refer to the betrothed girl and boy as husband and wife after the wine ceremony, we will do so in the context of this discussion. The payment of the bridewealth ensures that any children born of the marriage will be affiliated with the husband’s unilineal descent group. Children born during the marriage or until the refunding of bridewealth belong to the husband. Children born within a reasonable interval after the bride and groom begin to have sexual intercourse but prior to the girl’s final removal to her husband’s home, also belong to the husband. Illegitimate children, unclaimed by any father, might, in the past, be killed.
For the next few years while the bride-to-be lives at her own home, the bridegroom should make payments of the bridewealth demanded by the father-in-law and also perform labor services for him such as assistance in farm work, e.g. clearing the bush, making yam heaps, and fences, and in house building. He also gives presents to the girl’s family, such as palm wine, yams, and firewood, and if he is a hunter, a share of any killed animals. At the annual Onitsha holidays presents are obligatory. He should also give his prospective bride gifts (ife aro).
Amounts given for bridewealth have varied considerably over the past hundred years, but prior to the use of English money, cowries, manilas, brass and iron rods made up of part of the marriage sum as did yams, fish, meat, and other staples. Labor services were far more important than they are at present. 5
Bridewealth due the Patrilineage of the Bride
The bride’s father or his representative receives the largest part of the bridewealth (oji nna: “kola of the father”, currently ￡7). Some of this sum is redistributed by him to his lineage segment. Labor services (ife nru aro), yearly tribute to father during betrothal (which at present have been converted into a symbolic token sum of ￡1) were, as mentioned above, an important part of the father’s bridewealth. His immediate lineage priest and lineage priestess receive separate shares of the bridewealth, that of the former (oji diokpala) being about twice that of the latter (oji ada). Palm wine and gin is also provided for the Daughters of the father’s lineage segment.
Bridewealth Due the Patrilineage of the Bride’s Mother
The second largest part of the bridewealth goes to the bride’s mother (￡4) although she shares it with her own patrilineage, including the Daughters, who rejoice that their Daughter’s child (nwadiani) has gotten a husband. In the case of a marriage of a senior daughter, the mother gives the “kola for the mother” (oji nne) to her mother, in gratitude for the services the latter has rendered. The mother retains, however, an additional portion (oji oruzuma) for having trained the girl. A separate portion of the bridewealth is given to the mother’s senior lineage priest and priestess.
Bridewealth Due Other Patrilineages
Additional bridewealth “kola” are given to the father’s mother and to the mother’s mother. If these women are deceased, their shares are given to their lineage priests (Henderson 1972). If the groom is the senior son, his father will usually contribute the major part of the bridewealth. With successively junior sons, the more senior sons should assist him with the bridewealth. The bridewealth that accrues from the marriage of the senior daughter should also be used to pay the bridewealth for the senior son. Although rich women can, through their husbands, pay the bridewealth of wives for their sons, it is not common for a man to expect his wife or her patrilineage to contribute substantial amounts towards their daughter’s child’s marriage.
Bridewealth, Services, and Eventual Marital Residence
During the years while the bridegroom is performing labor services for his future father-in-law and distributing parts of the bridewealth, the girl, once she has attained puberty, is making annual visits during the ossisite festival in November to her husband’s house and there performing domestic tasks under the supervision of her future mother-in-law. During the visits (ije uri), the girls receive gifts both for themselves and for their families from the members of the husband’s village.
These annual visits continue for three years, but during the second year the boy may ask for permission to take the girl to his home and to have sexual intercourse with her. On this occasion the bride’s virginity is tested by the placing of a white cloth on the bed which is later displayed to the boy’s family. If the girl’s virginity is established, the bridegroom sends a full pot of palm wine to his mother-in-law; if not, a half-pot. Lack of virginity is regarded as a humiliation to both the girl and her mother who failed in the supervision of her daughter, and it is not easily forgotten, but rather brought up as a point of insult in disputes between women. The Daughters of the husband’s lineage are especially inquisitive and derisive.
After this initial sex experience, the girl returns home for a year before going permanently to her husband. It appears that traditionally she was free during this time to take lovers (iyi oyi) as well as to continue having intercourse with her husband. Any children conceived during this time belong to the girl’s husband (Basden 1966:71). After this period, and the complete payment of the bridewealth, final arrangements are made for the formal “leading the wife to her husband’s house” (idu uno). The final rituals occur at the home of the bride’s father where the marriage is blessed by the priest of his lineage who prays that the couple live long and be fruitful. At this time wine is presented by the groom and his representatives to members of the bride’s family and lineage, and wine is also shared between the husband and wife themselves, as at the betrothal ceremony.
A time is fixed for the removal of the bride to her new home. On the date set, the bride goes to her husband’s village. She is accompanied by boys and girls from her own village, most of whom carry gifts from the lineage segments of the bride, her mother, her father’s mother, her mother’s mother, the same units which received part of the bridewealth. At her husband’s village the bride and her party are entertained with kola nuts and palm wine. Depending upon the status of the bride’s family, the gifts that she brings to her husband’s home may in Onitsha amount to more than her husband has given in bridewealth. The minimum gifts expected are mortars and pestles, brooms, clothing, firewood, yams, soup pots, and other household utensils. But a wealthy father may also give his daughter slaves or land for the use of her husband and her children.
Summary regarding Bridewealth and Marriage
Several striking facts emerge from the details of bridewealth distribution. First, while the father’s share is the largest, the mother’s share is second in amount to his. A separate “kola” is reserved for not only the priest, but also the priestess of both the bride’s lineage segment and that of her mother. Third, the amount of gifts that are given to the bride rank third, in current estimated wealth expenditure, after the mother’s kola, though they are not part of the actual bridewealth. Fourth, the amount of dowry that accompanies the bride to her new home is often equal to the amount of bridewealth paid in order to remove her to that home and claim her children.
Thus we see that the importance of women as members of their own lineages is reinforced by the bridewealth payments and by the dowry expended upon the bride by her father and others who have shared in the distribution of her bridewealth. Further, prior to removal to her husband’s house, the bride is permitted a great deal of sexual freedom. A quote from Leach regarding a different societal case is apt here. While
…the marriage ceremony has served to transfer to the husband’s lineage all offspring of the bride, however begotten, the physical person of the bride herself has not been so transferred. She remains a free and independent member of her own original patrilineage. (1961:118)
3.2.4. Social Roles established through Marriage
The Roles of Husband and Wife
The overlapping of spiritual jurisdiction in regard to a woman is indicated by two rituals which occur during the marriage rites (Henderson 1972). One, discussed above, is conducted by her own patrilineage priest prior to her removal to her husband’s house, and the other occurs in her husband’s village when she bows to her husband’s patrilineage priest and takes palm wine from him in a rite defining her as dependent upon the good auspices of her husband’s ancestors. Any children she may have are also affected by the ancestors of their mother, but they are primarily bound authoritatively by the ofo of their father’s lineage priest, not that of their mother’s. A husband and his lineage priest must provide spiritual protection for the new wife, by praying for her at annual ceremonies, by sacrificing to the village shrines for her benefit and providing her with treatment from a native doctor if she is ill.
Not only does the new wife show her reliance upon her husband’s shrines, but she also must confess the names of her previous lovers lest her sexual pollution poison her husband (see Chapter Five). Since a woman is under her husband’s spiritual protection, she should not need to bring in protective medicines herself. Nevertheless, husbands fear that wives will use medicines and “foreign” shrines to gain control in the household. Upon marriage, therefore, a woman must promise never to bring such harmful objects into the compound, though historical indications suggest that shrine importations have often occurred.
Onitsha people believe that both partners in marriage may use various medicines to control one another, as for example when the husband puts a powder on his tongue to make his wife obey his words, or when the wife tries to control her husband by placing medicine in his soup. If a man is weak and dominated by his wife, gossips will speculate about the medicines his wife employs6. Wives are also occasionally accused of poisoning their husbands, which then necessitates bringing in a native doctor to neutralize and remove the offending medicine.
Roles regarding Household Economy
Prior to the final homecoming of the wife, every man must establish a permanent house of his own with the help of communal labor from his own lineage segment and that of his mother. The house is generally built in a section of his father’s household land which has been assigned to his mother for her gardening. In Onitsha, unlike many other Ibo communities, the man and all his wives live in one house, which in the early years of marriage is usually a simple gabled one. When a man takes the ozo title, he builds a house with a central courtyard and rooms situated off the veranda (see Figure 2). The husband is expected to provide his wife with yams, corn and beans from his farming and palm nuts from his family’s trees. He also contributes meat from hunting.
In regard to household economics, a wife’s major duty is the preparation of food for her husband and children. To aid her in this purpose, she is given a plot of land near the husband’s house in which to grow vegetables and spices. She may trade items from her garden, or the cotton from her husband’s trees, for meat, fish, or palm oil. A discussion of the role of Onitsha women in trade will be found in section 3e. Women also engage in pottery and basket making, but these items were frequently obtained from trade with nearby non-Onitsha [peoples]. A wife was also responsible for providing both firewood and water for her household needs. [Figure 2. – dissertation page 143]
Roles in Domestic Relations
Within her husband’s house, each wife has a separate sleeping area for herself and her children and a separate kitchen. The first wife’s kitchen is situated to the right of the husband’s altar, while the second is situated to its left. Kitchens of additional wives are located near the entry door. A major element in any kitchen is the hearth (akukwa), a tripod on which pots are placed, and at which the children of the woman take most of their meals. Grinding stones, mortars and pestles are also found in the kitchen, as is a storage bin for each wife. There are also some communal storage areas in other areas around the courtyard. (For further details see Mbanefo 1962:18-25). Also kept in the woman’s kitchen are ritual objects representing her mother, father, mother’s mother or deceased sisters and her personal chi. These objects will be discussed further in the next chapter. It is important to note that the Onitsha woman’s ritual objects are supposed to be readily visible in her kitchen and not hidden in her private sleeping quarters.
The relationship between husband and wife is not an openly demonstrative, affectionate one; in most activities aside from shared household concerns, the man and woman go separate ways. They do, however, visit relatives and bereaved friends, observe new dances in the village, and do some farming together during peak work periods. While a woman may discuss village and town affairs with her husband, if she inserts her opinion when men are conversing, she may be asked to leave the room. It is generally expected that her opinions on community matters will be discussed primarily with other women. Women make their own decisions concerning what to cook, when to feed the children, how to spend money they have earned in trade, and how to do their farming and marketing tasks.
The senior wife (anasi) holds a privileged position in the household and it is she who publicly receives esteem, as when she is called forth before the other wives to take kola and wine from her husband, or when she is given a special share of meat at her husband’s rituals of sacrifice. The senior wife has a right to the kidneys and sirloin of any animal killed in her husband’s house. This woman often holds the key to the locked rooms of the house where the husband stores his valuables, and it is she with whom a man confidentially discusses his problems and to whom a knowledge of his properties and wealth may be extended. Traditionally, the senior wife supervises the rubbing of the compound walls in the morning and evening and directs cooking for the annual festival cycle for burials.
Roles Arising through Procreation and Motherhood
Procreation is the most important part of marriage in Onitsha, and barrenness is dreaded by all men and women. A woman who does not give birth a year or so after marriage is taken to various native doctors for medicines, and if these efforts fail, gossip begins about how she may have “spoiled herself” or which supernatural factors may be responsible for her sterility. Such a woman may specialize in trading and thus maintain an important position in the household, but she will always find it hard to avoid the covert ridicule of her co-wives. Both partners in the marriage fear lest they have no children to care for them in their later life.
Not all of the blame for lack of children is placed on the woman, however, and it is well known that male impotence is a serious problem in marriage. The wife in such a circumstance has a duty not to speak of her husband’s condition openly in such a way as to bring ridicule upon him, but she can take her complaint to her husband’s family. The family may chose to send a widow to see him to find if the complaint is justified. If it is, the wife may be taken (without her husband’s knowledge) to the village land shrine and exonerated from the consequences of committing future adultery. A liaison with a man from outside her husband’s village will then be arranged with the hope that it will result in a pregnancy. Such a conception is nominally attributed to the woman’s legal husband.
Although it is cause for divorce for a woman to speak of her husband’s impotence, women are believed to be fond of speculating about the sexual abilities of village men and making insinuations. Beside impotence, it is recognized that there are other disorders among men which interfere with conception, such as “weak semen” or the inability to discharge semen during intercourse. Factors such as the above are more difficult to prove than is impotence, and when they are involved, public blame for infertility is more likely to fall on the woman than the man.
Onitsha concept of procreation involves the action of the man’s semen (yre) in carrying the child seed into the woman’s womb (akpa nwa). The male is solely responsible for the creation of the physical body of the child; the woman is not viewed as giving anything but the place in which the child is formed. A child may, however, resemble relatives of either the father or the mother. The most fertile period for a woman is thought to be the first five days following the end of the menstrual period. If either party refuses to cohabit during this period, he or she is called upon to give an explanation by the husband’s family if a complaint is made. A woman is never free to refuse her husband intercourse unless she is menstruating.
If a woman is sterile she may give her husband the money for the bridewealth for a new wife or pay the bridewealth herself to the girl’s parents. In the latter case the children are regarded as the children of the first wife, whom they address as mother. Sexuality, while responsible for the greatest blessing an Onitsha man or woman can attain, parenthood, also has a negative side. Intercourse between parents while the woman is nursing is believed to affect the milk and sicken the baby. The purification that is demanded of a man being initiated to the ozo title society or the leader of the igo mmuo rites demands sexual abstinence for several days prior to the event. It is believed that sexual relations put the man in an unclean condition which prevents his prayers from being answered.
Through the Ibo speaking area, it is an abomination against the land to have sexual intercourse while lying directly on the earth without at least a mat intervening (Talbot 1927:32). A menstruating woman must remain in a “place of isolation” (uzo abani), either in her own room or in a special room near the gate to the compound. While she is there, she sleeps on a mat which is not used for any other occasion. From this room she may supervise household activities and she will be attended to by her children or co-wives. While a married woman is considered to be in a “forbidden” state (nso) during menstruation, an unmarried girl is not so dangerous and may remain in her usual sleeping place and even do her household tasks, including help with cooking. Menstrual blood is believed to be a source of danger, and intercourse during this period is an abomination.
In sexual relations outside marriage, men are permitted a degree of freedom that would be considered an abomination if extended to women. Men often establish long lasting friendships with women (nuno) which may be either platonic or carnal in nature. Some men prefer to have these relationships with women married into one’s own village since infidelity would not be casually suspected there (such infidelity being an abomination). Since friendships with married women outside one’s own village or one’s mother’s village are open to charges of adultery from jealous husbands, widows or divorced women are preferred objects of such affection.
As a part of this role set, gifts are exchanged by lovers at festivals and they do mutual visiting, especially if the woman is a widow, often including convivial exchanges between the wife of the man and his female friend. In some cases the women are regarded merely as old friends and confidants, in others, sexual outlets for the husband and a relief to his wives. When such relationships occur within a man’s own village, the husband of the woman involved is supposed to view his brother’s behavior – such as sitting near the wife or eating soup prepared for the husband – with tolerance. Indiscriminate intercourse by a man, however, is believed to make a man susceptive to feminine magic and also to cause disease or impotence.
Sexual relationships of women outside of their marriages are a much more serious matter, as would be expected in a society where the payment of bridewealth gives a man and his family control over a woman sexually and rights to her children. If a man suspects his wife of infidelity he will accuse her in front of members of both his own and her own family. He may also beat her, and, if she persists in the behavior, send her from his house. This he will do also for his own self-protection since her continued infidelity may cause his death or his children’s, even though the initial symptoms of such an illness may be as ordinary as a hiccough. If the husband is elderly or titled, he may demand that a ritual confession be performed.
The Role of Mother
The most esteemed role for a woman in Onitsha society is that of mother, and during her child-bearing years she devotes a great deal of time to the care of her children, much more time than the father spends. The duration of the post-partum sex taboo (2 ½ – 3 years) is a time of indulgence for the child, but even after the child begins to spend more time with his peers, the close ties to the mother continue. Until the age of puberty, both boys and girls sleep in her room, and until marriage, they eat from her cooking pot.
Throughout a child’s development, the mother is critical of his behavior, but she is also protective, not wishing to expose his faults to his father or other members of his family. This is especially true since disapproved acts such as theft are said to reflect disgrace on the mother and on her own lineage. A mother has the right to beat a son or daughter without their offering resistance. Her punishment is even more respected than that of the father, for while the latter may be capable of acting capriciously or venting his hatred of the wife onto her child, the mother is believed always to have the interest of her child in mind. Complaints about ill-treatment by one’s mother are treated with ridicule, while those about one’s father may be listened to seriously.
If a child strikes either of his parents, he will be punished by their respective families. In some cases the sin must be ritually removed (see ChapterTwo). Although a girl is much closer to her mother than is a boy, especially in sharing confidences, a boy will often tell his mother first if he is interested in marrying, so that she can look into the background of the girl. A boy will also come to her for money, regarding her as more generous than his father.
Children fear they will be badly treated by their father’s other wives if the parents separate, and it is not uncommon for them to accompany their mothers to their natal villages. If the children remain with the father, the mother will ask women of her village, married into that of her husband, to watch over them. If a boy sees his father beating his mother, it is not uncommon for him to either restrain the father by holding his arms, or to actually strike him himself. It is also said that if a boy learns where his father hides his money, he may steal some to take to his mother.
Sons have more responsibility than daughters to care for their elderly mothers. Elderly women frequently move to their sons’ compounds instead of remaining at their husbands’ if the latter have younger wives to care for them. With the sons they have less work to do and get more attention. They are given staple foods, garden space, and if possible a separate hearth. If the mother is a trader, she may contribute to the household finances.
Frequently the burden of cooking for the husband’s mother falls on one of the wives, though the mother-in-law may, in return, perform such tasks as watching over small toddlers. Just as the mother defends her son’s rights and encourages him in his achievements, he in turn sees to her welfare, respects her, and, if he is able, honors her with huge ivory anklets or bracelets. The relationship between mother and son is considered to be the most binding one in Onitsha society. The closeness of the relationship can also bring harm and it is believed that a man’s mother may keep him impotent while she lives or may use witchcraft against his children.
Onitsha people are well aware of the potentiality of conflict in a situation where a mother resides with her son and they may, in difficult cases, discourage a woman from going to her son’s house. Nonetheless, this residential pattern is very common in the town. The mother-daughter tie is also a strong one, reinforced by the fact that whenever an Onitsha woman is about to give birth to a child, her mother must be informed and will come to stay with the daughter for 28 days after the birth, caring for her and the new infant. If she is able, she provides fish, oil and other ingredients for soup for her daughter while her son-in-law provides yams. Although wives of the village and the husband’s mother may also help to bring food and firewood to the new mother and to care for the infant, the primary responsibility falls on the new mother’s mother. It is felt that only she can be depended upon to give the weakened woman the attention she requires. Members of the new mother’s lineage will also send gifts to their Daughter.
While staying with her daughter, the mother will try not to anger the rest of the household, but it is considered permissible for her to try to make peace should a quarrel occur between her son-in-law and his wives. At the conclusion of this period, the mother-in-law should be given a cloth by her son-in-law to replace the cloths that she has “spoiled” in caring for the infant.
Whenever her daughter is ill, the mother (or, if she is dead, her patrilineal kinsmen) must be informed. Daughters are also required to have their husbands present cloth and goats to honor their mothers at funerals (see Chapter Six). Elderly women are, however, regarded as potential witches and their intentions concerning their children’s children are feared. Consequently, old women not immediately related to the new mother are warned to stay away from the house where the new-born is kept for at least the first month of life. In fact, the mother’s mother herself risks being accused of causing illness to her grandchildren unless she is held in very high esteem. It is believed that if a woman is not on good terms with her mother, the latter may strike through witchcraft at the grandchild.
Aside from the difficult structural implications of a woman going to live with her daughter in a patrilineal, patrilocal system, it is said that no woman would want to live with her daughter’s family since in the case of misfortune, she would be the first accused. Her position would indeed be very weak for it could be argued that she must be of bad character since her husband’s relatives refused to take care of her.
Finally, it should be added that mothers are concerned that their female children have a brother’s compound to which they can retreat in times of emergency. In the past it was not unusual for a wealthy woman who had only one son to marry him while an infant to a nubile girl who was then encouraged to take lovers and produce offspring. If there were male offspring, a home would be assured for the woman’s daughters, even if her own son died prior to siring a family. The daughters of the woman are then seen as having a fixed base and cannot be ignored by their lineage mates if they are in need of assistance.
Roles relating to the Patrilineage of the Mother
It is said that without first becoming a Daughter’s child (nwadiani), no man can become a real Onitsha man, and this is related to the important role of the Mother’s people in the life of a Daughter’s child, especially at title taking and funerals.
The Daughter’s child is allowed liberties in the homes of his mother’s patrilineal relatives. In general, he is treated permissively and given the right to demand food and other goods from these maternal kin. Both male and female Daughter’s children can follow their mother’s patrilineage mates to a ceremony and demand a share in the food and drink. Such acts are regarded as amusing and proof that the Daughter’s child is happy among his Mother’s people.
It is an abomination for Daughter’s children to have sexual relations with the wives of Mother’s people or vice versa, but they may engage in covert sex play with Daughters of men of their mother’s patrilineage. The Daughter’s child is obligated to respect the members of the patrilineage of his mother. He or she must demonstrate obedience to his mother’s patrilineal relatives in numerous ways: e.g., if a boy of his mother’s village strikes him, he should not strike back; if kola is offered to him in the presence of his mother’s people, he cannot break it unless the dish is first touched by a maternal kinsman to show his seniority; he cannot call anyone to take drink in his mother’s village but should, instead, pour the drink from the jug (a low status act) while the maternal kinsman offers it. He should perform services such as helping in digging graves of maternal kinsmen regardless of his age, and in carrying their heavy loads.
If there is a quarrel between a man’s patrilineal group and that of his mother, he should present the latter’s case to his own people. While a Daughter’s child may live in his mother’s village and use land given to her by her father, if he begins to become aggressive, he may be told that after he dies, his children will no longer have any rights in the land. Theoretically, the descendants of a Daughter’s child who remain within a village can never become high-level patrilineage priests but must always remain outsiders. Due in part to the relatively high divorce and separation rate in Onitsha, and the fact that in these cases a woman is allowed to take young children to her own village until they attain the age of sense (uche), it is not uncommon for men to grow up in their mother’s village and then decide to remain there as adults. There appears to be little objection to this on the part of their patrilineage, of which they remain members and in which they usually take title and are buried. If, however, they choose to take title in their mother’s village, they have undertaken an act of “naturalization” and may even be buried there.
Role Relations Among In-Laws
The husband-wife relationship is strongly colored by the opinions held of each by their own relatives, especially those of the husband. In certain ways a man’s father has more control over his son’s wife than does the son himself, since if the father dislikes her, he can easily find fault with her actions, accuse her of idleness, theft, making medicine, and, most heinous of all, committing an abomination. If the son still refuses to send his wife away, the father may tell him to no longer come to his house or partake in his rituals. Considering the patrilineal structure of Onitsha society, it would be unthinkable for a man to choose a woman above lineage affiliations and the protection of ancestral spirits. To avoid alienating her father-in-law, a woman should behave toward him with great respect and serve him well, thus earning the approbation “she bows her head” (ona erube isi). She addresses him with his honorific name.
Although less powerful than the father, the husband’s mother can be an important advisor to her daughter-in-law. Women are supposed to regard their mothers-in-law as they do their own mothers, and ritually this close relationship is symbolized by the fact that in ceremonies to shrines in the husband’s village, the daughter-in-law and her children are considered part of the husband’s mother’s kitchen and called to take food as a family unit. Conflicts inevitably occur, however. Onitsha men observe that women usually expect their sons’ wives to behave in a manner which they themselves in their youth did not find congenial, i.e. being quiet and obedient, constantly alert to conserving family resources, returning home early from market, and bearing many children.
Complicating the relationship is the fear that the mother-in-law will use witchcraft against her daughter-in-law. This matter will be discussed in more detail in Chapter Five. Quarrels between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are settled by the men of the affinal lineage. If, however, the wife flatters her mother-in-law, performs her own household tasks well, and encourages the older woman to take responsibility in rearing the children, she and her children may receive the mother-in-law’s praise and even be defended by her when there is a dispute with her husband.
Brothers and sisters of the husband may also affect the married life of a wife, as for example when a man hates one of his brother’s wives, refuses to call her to take drink or to eat her food, maligns her in front of her husband. Or when a sister, wishing her brother had married another, looks for reasons to accuse the wife of infidelity. A woman should always be respectful to her husband’s sisters and take their advice cheerfully. If she abuses them, they can take away her cooking pots, fine her, and suggest to her husband that she be sent away. Some women complain that their husband’s brothers and sisters are free to remove household property while they themselves are forbidden to take objects to their own families.
Affinal terminology indicates the way the marriage partners are viewed by the members of their affinal lineages. Both male and female sibling adopt the male position in regard to a sibling’s spouse. Thus a sister calls her brother’s wife, “my wife” (nwunyem) just as does a male of her lineage. The wife’s lineage members do not, however, refer to her husband as “my husband” (dim) but rather as “my in-law” (ogom). Wives, by adopting their husband’s point of view as fictive members of his patrilineage, also refer to husbands of Daughters of that lineage as “in-law”. Wives show deference to all collateral agnates of the husband, male and female, referring to them as “our husband”. The ascending lineage agnates of the husband and the lineal maternal kinsmen are, however, referred to as “father of my husband” or “mother of my husband”. Although the wife of a lineage male is called “wife”, once she has children, she is also called “mother of x child” and this may be taken as a sign of her partial incorporation in[to] her husband’s patrilineage, an incorporation which entitles her to burial privileges and other honors.
Husband Roles Relating to his Wife’s Parents
Aside from providing for his wife, a husband has an obligation to give her father an annual tribute of yams during the harvest season and also some labor service on his farm, if requested. If there is a death in her immediate family of orientation, he is required to perform certain services there (see Chapter Six). If he fails to do this, her family will pressure her to leave him, and divorce under these circumstances is quite justifiable.
While both the husband and the father have control over the girl, the father’s ofo supercedes in power that of the husband and he can detain his daughter until the son-in-law has paid the annual tribute (Henderson 1972). A man is also required to give some annual gifts to his mother-in-law and to present her with cloth after she leaves after caring for his wife after the birth of a child. Although meeting the requirements of homage-giving are less obligatory in regard to one’s mother-in-law, a woman who dislikes her son-in-law is believed to chide her daughter constantly about the marriage and urge her to leave the man. A husband also is required to inform his wife’s parents if she is ill or about to give birth.
Roles and Problems relating to Trade
The fact that Onitsha women supplement their food supplies through trade has been emphasized earlier. This statement, however, does not fully reflect the importance of trade in their lives. Onitsha women often learn how to trade in a particular item from their mothers or sisters, and they may also be helped financially in trading by their brothers or husbands. If a woman is divorced or widowed, it is the responsibility of her family to devise ways for her to begin trading, either by giving her the funds to make initial purchases or by introducing her to women traders who will give her items to sell on credit, with the understanding that anything she makes over the owner’s asking price is her profit.
No wife should engage in trade without her husband’s permission, but this is not difficult to obtain since a man is glad to see his wife providing household necessities on her own. Only if the man provides the produce or the finances with which the woman trades must she account to him for her profits. Markets are held not only in the various Onitsha villages where the primary trade is in small household goods, but also at the central Onitsha market (Otu-Nkwo) and markets of neighboring towns. Products sold include cloth, palm oil, pepper, fish, and other soup ingredients.
Many women leave for the morning market as soon as their domestic tasks are under control, and spend several hours there, buying, selling, and socializing with other women. In the village markets, barter was apparently the rule, but in the main Onitsha market it appears that cowry exchange was regulated by the head of the women traders and her committee. Brass rods and manilas were also used in place of barter exchange. The main Onitsha market, which was traditionally held on nkwo days, was primarily a concern of women.
Men from the interior were not permitted to trade directly, but had to sell their goods to female customers in Onitsha who then traded the goods at the main market. However, men coming from Aguleri, Umulu, Ogbara, Igala and Asaba (all riverain areas) were allowed to trade directly in the market. Women also traded at the sand bar in the Niger River across from the main market, going for fish which were brought – often through prior arrangement and prepayment — by men from Igala or Ijaw areas. In the past, some women also engaged in slave trading as did some Onitsha men. Further, groups of Onitsha women would go from their marital villages, often protected by a company of Youths, to rural markets several miles from the town.
Although all men expect their wives to engage in enough trade to supplement the produce grown by the family itself, and although they readily see the advantages of having a wife who is a moderately successful trader, they regard the role with a strong degree of ambivalence, distrust, and even jealousy. Traditionally, it is said, a wife who profits through her trade and buys tobacco, kola, and fish, presents these to her husband and tells him of the other profits she has made. He then blesses her and encourages her to reinvest her profits in further trade. A wealthy wife might also pay the Ozo title fees for her husband and sons, and might arrange infant betrothal for her sons, encouraging the brides to bear children by lovers in their husband’s names.
For themselves, successful trading women would purchase many slaves and take a sort of partial “equivalent” of ozo title which enables them to wear leg and arm ivories. Frequently, a wealthy, older wife would live in a separate house, perhaps even in her brother’s village, while her husband would be cared for by his younger wives. Such an arrangement was considered equitable by all. While a man and a wife are living together, the husband has no legal claim on his wife’s wealth, except for that amount he may have used to start her in business.
If a wife refuses to share her wealth with her husband, he has two traditional routes: 1) to fine her for minor household infractions; 2) to hire robbers to steal her property and thus reduce her to poverty. In the past, before Western currency, it was harder for a woman to conceal her wealth, for a large mound of cowries is readily seen, and it would be safer to store them in her father’s or brother’s keeping. Thus women who wish to protect their wealth may leave some of it with their brothers who may build houses in which their sisters may live if separated from their husbands. If the woman is driven away by her husband or leaves him voluntarily, he can claim all the properties that have come to her while she resided in his household. And although she may well make off with numerous items without his discovering the fact, he may require her, upon repayment of the bridewealth, to swear an oath that she has removed nothing from his house.
Men fear that once a wife becomes wealthy, she will visit native doctors more frequently and purchase medicines and charms with which to control both her domestic and trade relationships. An even deeper fear is reflected in the saying that when there’s much wealth in a house, children run away. The implication is that since women are likely to misuse their sexuality, they become barren. For example people think that many trade relationships Onitsha women make with men from the riverain areas are cemented through sexual liaison. A more likely explanation for the fact that so few big trading women have numerous children is that the more children a woman has, the less time will be available to her to make money.
Also relevant is the fact that the dutiful wife, cognizant of her husband’s fears about infidelity and engaged in her own child-rearing, will not engage in large-scale trade until she is past menopause, thus forfeiting many excellent trade opportunities and falling behind her barren peers. Onitsha people say their women perceive these various factors and seek, having taking a husband for a brief period to avoid the stigma of spinsterhood, to repay the bridewealth themselves and live an independent life. Such women may, if infertile, themselves marry “wives”, usually non-Onitsha girls, who bear children in their name. Thus the women gain heirs for their wealth and property. This, however, is not a common pattern, and we are uncertain how old it is.
Relations between Onitsha and Riverain Women Traders
A detailed account of development of the main market and its subsidiaries after the establishment of permanent trading contact with the British would lead us away from the main aim of this chapter, namely to indicate the main roles of women in Onitsha social structure. It is of interest, however, to note that it was Onitsha women far more than Onitsha men who took advantage of the early trade contacts with the foreign companies. Onitsha men have always considered trading to be women’s work, while the farming of staple subsistence crops is theirs. However, Onitsha chiefs did not hesitate to direct the activities of their wives and slaves in trade ventures which brought profit to themselves.
The women who first built houses at the waterside and traded with the foreign companies were often mistresses of Sierra Leone and European traders who, unable to buy land themselves, leased it from Onitsha people and built houses for their wives. The latter, even after these foreigners had departed, exploited their trade contacts and gained wealth and independence. Free-born Onitsha women also saw new opportunities open up to them, especially women who had been banished to the missionary waterside for witchcraft.
Men and women from riverain Ibo areas had for a long time maintained trade relationships with Onitsha women and had dealt directly in the main Onitsha market. These people, with whom the Onitsha Ibo feel more kindred than they do to the interior Ibo, used both their extensive trade contacts up and down the river and their close ties with Onitsha to gain prominence in market affairs after the coming of foreign companies. Marriages between Aboh men and Onitsha women were important in furthering these trade contacts both before the coming of the Colonial government and afterwards.
The marriage, for example, of an Onitsha woman to an Aboh man, and his subsequent settlement on land at the waterside given to his wife, is cited as an important factor in the further settlement of other riverain people nearby his compound. A son of this couple was made chief of this waterside area by the Onitsha King and chiefs, and he himself cemented his position by marrying both Onitsha and Ogbaro (Olu) wives. A number of Onitsha men who were prominent in market and waterside affairs also married Ogbaru women. The mpatolo society of many wealthy Onitsha and riverain women was formed as a result of the many ties through trade and marriage between these groups. Its members are primarily concerned with attending important occasions such as ivory-taking or family funerals. Igala men were also important traders who intermarried with Onitsha women to some extent. Further, several Onitsha villages are clearly derived from Igala settlements.
Wives as Collectivity:
Spheres of Independence and Cooperation among Co-wives
In the Onitsha traditional system, each co-wife has a great deal of independence and autonomy. As mentioned earlier, each wife has her own cooking area, her own enclosed sleeping place where she and her children sleep and where her husband visits her at night, and her own garden. Trading of garden and other items is done individually. In many cases, each wife prepares food for her husband each night, but in some families husbands prefer to have the wives take turns in cooking for them. If a husband asks a wealthy wife for some of her money, it is generally understood that he will not spend it on providing for other wives and their children. For example, a woman may gladly contribute to her husband’s title-taking or even glorify herself by paying bridewealth for a second wife for him, but she will not wish to finance another domestic unit’s upkeep.
Ideally, however, co-wives should cooperate, bringing wood and water and caring for each other during childbirth. While it is not uncommon for them to watch each other’s children, they generally prefer to have their own older daughters take the primary responsibility when they themselves are absent. Although all wives have a basic equality with one another, the senior wife is primus inter pares and is given special prerogatives which have been discussed in part above. She should welcome the addition of other wives to the household to share her chores, especially if she has recently given birth and the post-partum sex taboo is in effect.
Aside from these special rights due the senior wife, the husband should try to equalize the statuses of his wives, sleeping with each one in turn, eating some of each wife’s cooking, distributing yams and other foods equally among them, regardless of the number of children they have. He may, however, give the excess food prepared for him by his wives to his children, seeing that none go hungry, or he may present food to the children privately, telling them to take it to their mother. Even though a husband may try to avoid creating tension between his wives, disputes invariably arise over the relative statuses of the wives. For example, the wife who has children but does not trade in quantity will not have as many provisions as the one with fewer children but more trading ability and time.
Between the extremes of women who have no children and plenty of time to trade and those who have little time, Onitsha people recognize that a woman with few children is more likely to have money to buy market food and prestige articles for her children and husband than the one with many children. She will also have more time to make herself beautiful. Also, a junior wife whose son is wealthy may be able to obtain ivory for herself prior to the senior wife. Reasons for favoring one wife over another vary, and the potential conflicts of the situation are magnified by the contradictory rewards available to women. If they live up to the cultural ideal and have many children, they may be secure in their old age, but they may also lose the opportunity of being the attractive wife with whom the husband most likes to be seen and who is called upon to be present when guests arrive.
While quarrels occur over which wife does the housework best, which one stays at market too late, etc., the most bitter arguments and the ones that tend to cause life-long hostilities are those that concern children. Ironically, however, it is ritually forbidden for a woman to quarrel over the fact that one wife receives more food because she has more children – this is regarded as “counting the children”, comparing their number to one’s own, and wishing their death. The disputes therefore are more likely to occur in an indirect fashion, as when one wife encourages her children to fight with those of another. If a wife feels unloved she will also suspect that her children are unloved. This suspicion may well be vindicated, since many men and women maintain that if a man hates his wife, he will also hate her children no matter how much they try to ingratiate themselves with him. Children are always associated with their mother’s hearth and are even referred to as “children of the hearth” (umu akukwa) since they eat from one cooking pot.
Disputes between wives may lead to extreme fears and accusations, as when a woman, generally the mother of the senior son, fearing the latter will be poisoned by her co-wives, sends him to live with her parents; or when one wife openly accuses another of being a witch and trying to “eat” her enemy and her children; or when a woman tells her children to never associate with an unfaithful co-wife and never to let her get power when she dies. It is not uncommon for women to suspect co-wives of using poisons and to protect their families by purchasing medicines of their own and warning their children never to eat anything given to them by the hated co-wife. These quarrels between women help to account for the fact that brothers of the same mother cooperate much more readily in later life than do those of different mothers.
If the Village Wives cannot settle a dispute among themselves, the husband or his sisters may arbitrate. Accusations of witchcraft may bring about trial by ordeal, a matter to be discussed in the next chapter. It is significant in light of the many quarrels between co-wives that sororal polygyny, though not forbidden, is extremely rare and regarded as unworkable since it causes dissension between sisters.
The Village Wives as an Organization
All the women married into a village belong to a group called “Village Wives” (Ikporo Ogbe) which meets every eke day at the house of their leader, the woman who has seniority in terms of length of marriage, to practice their dances and to discuss the welfare of the village. The head woman, who is addressed by the others as mother (nne), summons the other women by beating a gong (uboma) which she keeps in her house when it is not being used in dance practice. The group maintains a small fund to purchase dance costumes and provide gifts to mourning members.
As members of the dancing group whose only performances are given at funerals, the women select a skilled person as their organizer and another woman as the lead singer who holds the box (ukpa egwu) for collection of money given by well-wishers. After a dance the money that is collected by the singer may be divided among the women according to seniority. While dancing, individual women may separately be honored with gifts which they are not expected to share with their companions. Any food that is given the group will be divided by the “messenger” (nwozi), who is the woman most recently married into the village. Senior women (as measured roughly in terms of age) receive food first.
If a woman is on good terms with her fellow Village Wives, i.e. has been a regular attendant at meetings, she can expect that these women will also share in any cooking tasks assigned to her; if she is widowed, they will assume the major cooking responsibilities at the funeral. Other benefits that accrue to members are gifts of money at the death of a parent and and assistance to needy members in starting in trade.
The Village Wives may also setttle disputes between co-wives, even to the extent of forcibly taking their cooking utensils until a settlement has been reached. The Daughters of the Village will not attempt to settle a quarrel between wives if the Village Wives are planning to hear the case.
Another duty of these women is alluded to by Basden who refers to a council of older women who interpret to newly married girls the rules which regulate the lives of married women of the village (Basden 1966:225). We did not record the existence of such a council in the Onitsha past but it would seem to be in keeping with the other functions of the village wives.
Should a woman not regularly attend meetings of the women’s group in her village, either because she feels she does not have time, or her husband, irritated by the frequent meetings, prohibits her from attending them, the group will levy a fine against her. If she refuses to pay, some of her property may be seized, only redeemable after the payment of a heavier fine than the original one. The most extreme punishment is to ostracize her from village activities and to fine any women who associate with her. This means she would get no help in household tasks, could not travel with the other wives to trade, and could not call on them to cook if a funeral occurs in her own or her husband’s family. Women’s talents for gossip (akuku) are strengthened by the organization of Village Wives. If these women believe that a man of the village is interfering with their organizational activities or violating customary behavior especially in cruel treatment of his wife, they may slander him throughout the town. An elderly Onitsha man gave us a clear picture of the situation:
We say never argue with women. Let me have a dispute with men but never with women. If you enter into their trap you will not come out again. Forever after, you go to stream [to the Nkisi stream where Onitsha villagers goto bathe], they will call your name. This woman goes to market, she talks my name, that woman talks my name, here and there and my name is all over in the town. No! We keep peace with women.
The “Town Women”
All married women of Onitsha are nominal members of the “Town Women” (Ikporo Onitsha), a group which meets when emergencies occur in the town such as drought, epidemic, or disputes, and which has certain control over the town market. In the dry season of each year, they perform rites to certain shrines to ward off evil from the town. The nature of these ceremonies will be further elaborated on in Chapte rFive, but at this point we are primarily interested in their organizational structure.
Although young women are nominal members, the women who decide on policy and who generally attend emergency meetings in force are the elderly, post-menopause women, most of who have taken some type of title such as Mother of Masquerade (nne-mmanwu) or Ivory Wearer (onye odu). The leader of these women is, theoretically, the oldest woman in the town. She need not be particularly wealthy or have exceptional mystical powers. Her decisions can be overruled by other elder women who serve as her councilors.
Most of the activities of the Town Women revolve about propitiating major shrines near to the market, and regulating the everyday affairs of that market. In performing sacrifices for the town they must have the assistance of the Ruling Age Set (see below), consisting of mature men who refer to the women as “their mothers” and to themselves as “your children”. At least in recent times, they have appealed for harmony among the women and community unity in seeking the welfare of the town.
The relations of the Town Women to the Onitsha Main Market are, at present, severely limited due to the Westernized condition of that market. The leader of the women retains the prerogative of ringing a bell in the market to announce proclamations decided upon by the Town Women and the power to prohibit all Onitsha women, upon threat of fine, from going to the market on religious holidays.
The Town Women also attempt to settle quarrels that have occurred between women, especially those concerned with the traditional markets. After hearing both sides of an issue, the accused woman swears her innocence on a shrine belonging to the Town Women. It is believed that if she is guilty, she or her children will die. When a woman is fined for disobeying a rule proclaimed by the Town Women, and refuses to pay, she is dealt with in the same way as a rebellious wife on the village level, i.e. she is prohibited from mingling with other village wives, and if any of her relatives die, Onitsha women are forbidden to attend lest they themselves be fined. More information dealing with the traditional role of the Town Women in regard to the market is given in the next chapter.
Two somewhat contradictory tendencies can be seen in the actions of the Town Mothers in times of community strife. These were exemplified in a dispute in 1954 over whether a man from the X section of town or the Y section should receive a certain chieftaincy title. Reflecting the extreme polarization of views about the subject, the Village Wives of sections X and Y began to meet separately and to refuse to go as a group to funerals. Because the elderly influential women were split on this issue, no initiative was taken for the performance of the annual ceremonial rites for the good of the community as a whole. Several of the important women involved, though Daughters of one section and wives of another strongly sided with their husbands’ village, probably because they had borne sons in that village. Many women, however, secretly sided with their own villages but did not dare to openly speak against their husband’s selection.
Although this example is from recent times, there are indications that in the past, women also reflected major schisms of the community. Although in the above case the women were reflecting the positions of their husband’s villages, they argued that the chieftaincy dispute was of no concern to women. Onitsha men fear that when there is community disorganization, as when there is a prolonged kingship or chieftaincy dispute, when the official male leaders are not fully assuming their customary duties, women will attempt to seize power, taking more of an interest in men’s affairs, calling frequent meetings, passing more market rulings, declaring heavy fines against recalcitrant members and even, occasionally, trying to fine men (c.f. Green 1964:146-147; 173-174).
Separation and Divorce
Causes of Breakup
The most common causes of increasing antipathy by a husband towards his wife are these: barrenness or the bearing of only female children, infidelity, failure to engage in trade and consequent dependence on the husband for all her finances, or trading excessively and neglect of home and children. Men also complain that their wives do not show them respect and tend to interrupt their conversations. As mentioned earlier, men fear their wives are using magic against them or actually poisoning them.
Court cases from the early part of this century show a number of instances of men asking their wives to swear they were not using “juju” against their co-wives or their children. Indeed, wives were asked to bring a native doctor to remove a shrine in the living quarters as “it is against custom for a wife to make juju or ikpu mmuo juju without knowledge of her husband” (Onitsha Native Court 1940: Case 73). One of the most hostile acts of a woman is to curse her husband, e.g. “may grasses grow over your house”, implying that he will soon die. If divorce does not immediately follow such a statement, a ritual purification must be performed by the wife to undo the abomination.
Women complain that their husbands do not give them proper support, that they beat them too frequently, are impotent, often drunk, have too many “lovers”, are too jealous and restrict the wife’s freedom of movement by preventing her from visiting friends or parents, behave cruelly to their children because they hate the mother. They also complain that they are constantly harassed by their husband’s relatives, that the husband has neglected to fulfill certain duties in regard to Burial ceremonies for the woman’s father or mother, that their children are being poisoned by co-wives and that they are unable to keep protective medicine for self-defense.
When fights occur the wife is expected not to fight back physically, but to run from the house and take lodging either with neighboring relatives of the husband or in her own village. Disputes are often settled after the case has been heard by a council of relatives, e.g. the wife may call her father or father’s brother or brother, while the husband may call his father, senior brother or friend, who gather at the husband’s compound. Women are usually not present and there is a feeling that their presence might exacerbate the situation. In some cases, however, the Daughters of the husband’s lineage are called in to mediate the dispute.
Dissolution of Marriage
A divorce is effected when the bridewealth is paid back to the former husband or when the husband drives out his wife and renounces all claims to her future children. A woman may leave her husband for any reason, but, if she does this voluntarily, she or her family is expected to pay back the bridewealth, including the value of certain gifts the husband has given to her and her relatives since the official betrothal. When a woman wants to leave her husband, she first tries to arrange for a prospective husband to pay the bridewealth to her father, who then gives it to the husband.
Onitsha women have been described in court cases as forcing their fathers or brothers to accept the bridewealth from a lover by claiming that they would die if denied their wish. On the other hand, if a woman does not have a lover, her parents may be reluctant to refund the bridewealth themselves and will encourage her to return to her husband. However, there have been occasional cases when a rich woman’s parents or brothers would eagerly pay back the bridewealth in order to obtain her trading talents and wealth in their own village.
If a reconciliation is to be effected, the husband and his relatives will come to the father-in-law with gin and ask for the return of the girl. At this time, the conditions under which the woman left her husband and her various complaints against him may be discussed by the two groups. When a wife returns to her husband under these circumstances, the two families may ceremonialize the occasion of their reunion by a transfer of palm wine or gin.
Unless she has another man ready to return the bridewealth, or can return it to the father herself, it is considered a sign of bad character for a woman to refuse to return to her husband. Exceptions can be made under circumstances of extreme cruelty or ritual abomination. In some Ibo areas, in the past, if a wife refused either to return to her husband or to repay the bridewealth, a member of her family could be captured and sold as a slave (Meek 1937:282-283). Whether or not this was ever true in Onitsha, it is clear that most fathers did not want to give the husband and his lineage the impression that they were urging the girl not to return to her spouse.
It was also possible for a wife to leave her parents’ house when they pressured her to return to her husband, or go to the village of her mother’s people, mother’s mother’s people, or father’s mother’s people, who might be more sympathetic. In some cases this would involve going to live outside Onithsa, in one of the neighboring towns. The fact that most fathers desire to see their daughters remain with their husbands, does not mean that upon a girl’s marriage the father relinquishes all control over her to the husband. On the contrary, it will be remembered that a father has more power over his daughter than does her husband, due to her being under his ofo. He can call her home if he thinks that her husband is not giving him enough tribute, not performing enough services, or badly mistreating her. A mother can also make demands of this nature.
As a protection to the new husband, however, the father of the bride may be made to swear at the marriage that he will not use his paternal powers capriciously. If a woman’s father orders her to leave her husband or if he lets his daughter remain in his house without returning the bridewealth, upon the woman’s death he must inform the husband and present an ample opportunity for him to “mourn his wife” (see Chapter VI), which amounts to his bringing her back to his household in death. The husband then has the right to his wife’s properties, and also the responsibility of paying her debts. If the parents perform the entire funeral ceremony themselves, the dowry is not refunded nor is the husband able to demand his wife’s belongings.
Although it does not appear that women resisted the infrequent demands of their fathers to leave their husbands, the relatively high rate of separation in Onitsha is due more to marital difficulties between the partners themselves than to interference by the girl’s parents. If a husband drives his wife away for reasons other than barrenness or infidelity and he is unwilling to have her come back to her household, the bridewealth is not refunded until the woman remarries. In order to force his wife to leave his house, a husband may remove her hearth, bathe in her room, or hand her a replica of his chi-sticks (Meek 1937:277-278). All of these acts signify that a wife can no longer remain in her husband’s house unless there is a ritual retraction performed (ibid.). The first of these acts, like the breaking of a woman’s cooking utensils, would otherwise only occur at her death. Such dramatic acts are not necessary, however, since a husband need only tell his wife to leave the house and she will generally comply.
As in the case of a woman voluntarily leaving her husband, relatives on both sides will usually try to bring about a reconciliation. If a woman wants to leave her husband, she may try to force him to drive her out (and thus forfeit the bridewealth), by accusing him of impotence indirectly and through gossip. When a woman is divorced or separated from her husband, she should take with her only the clothes and meager cooking utensils that she brought into the marriage. At present, the rate of separation is relatively high in Onitsha7, and various sources do not indicate any extreme marriage emphasis within historical times on the permanency of the marriage tie, at least among those in early married life.
For example, court cases from the early part of this century give in full detail many instances of separations. The women involved are often those who consistently miscarry, whose children die at an early age, or who have borne only daughters. These women appear to abandon their husbands or be sent away by them with some frequency. Other cases involve adultery, quarreling, or abuse by the wife, etc. Also, it is well known in Onitsha that in earlier times, it was not uncommon for a beautiful married woman to be “stolen” by another village, thus leading the offended village to retaliate with similar behavior. In these cases, the woman would be offered gifts by the Daughters and wives of the abducting village and encouraged to stay. If the woman agreed, the bridewealth would be repaid to the former husband in order to avoid warfare.
Even today it is not rare to find women who have borne children in several villages, and lists of the multiple marriages of certain elderly or deceased woman and men can be obtained. Such women usually ended their marital adventures toward middle age in a marriage by which they had borne sons.
Custody of Children
Any children that a woman bears prior to the return of the bridewealth belong to her husband. One of the major rights that a husband obtains by marriage is to incorporate children born to the marriage into his lineage. If a woman leaves her husband and does not return the bridewealth, any children she bears to other men will be regarded as sons of her legal husband. A woman may not marry another man until settlement is made with her former husband, the new man giving the bridewealth to the priest of the girl’s lineage or to her father who then returns it to the husband.
When a woman separates from her husband, she generally keeps her smaller children with her until they have reached the age of five or six or even longer if they themselves wish to stay. The father, however, is expected to retain interest in his children and to help them when necessary. The burden of their support may, however, fall on the woman and her immediate relatives. As long as a woman is supporting these children, it is difficult for her husband to reclaim the bridewealth even if his wife left voluntarily. If a man drives his wife away and she continues to bear children while residing at her father’s village, he may claim the children, upon payment of a weaning fee to the mother (Meek 1937:283).
In the early part of this century, it was argued that the husband loses all claim to these children (and their brtidewealth in the case of daughters) if he refuses to pay this fee. However, it is clear that the father has prior claim to these children over the woman’s family and he can “reclaim” them at any time by giving a token amount for their past support. The woman’s family will not try to forcibly retain any of her children, for if the children die, traditionally, that family would be held responsible for the death by the family of the legal father. In order to prevent a woman from legally removing a child conceived in one lineage to another lineage, she must, upon repayment of the bridewealth, take an oath that she is not pregnant.
Divorcees and Widows
When a man dies, the person who has been responsible for the major financing of his funeral should see that his widows are either remarried or maintained in the deceased’s compound or at their parents’. If the heir refuses to provide support for the widows, including provision of a home, he will have difficulty in claiming their bridewealth should they remarry; if he refuses to perform their Burial rites, the woman’s family may dispute his claim to the bridewealth of female children of their daughter.
The widow may choose to marry any of her husband’s sons or junior brother, or to return to her own village and marry any man she chooses. Unless she marries the husband’s heir, however, her father or lineage priest must repay the bridewealth to him upon her remarriage. A senior brother of the deceased, however, must not marry his junior brother’s wife, since this would be equivalent to a “father marrying his son’s wife”, nor may he keep her bridewealth for himself; rather he should use it to support his deceased brother’s children. If a widow has been having sexual relations with any one of the males of the lineage segment, she may not take another one as her husband since the two would be committing an abomination; the rivalry that would ensue from such a condition is not tolerated within the lineage.
A widow need not remarry, and a middle-aged or elderly woman may choose to return to her own village if she has no sons and thinks she can support herself comfortably through trade. In general, widows tend to remain in their husband’s village and marry the husband’s brother or some other close kinsman. However, the younger they are at the death of the husband, the more likely they are to return to their own village and enter into a new marriage outside the husband’s lineage.
A widow of child-bearing age, if she agrees, may remain in her husband’s compound bearing children for him, supported by her husband’s heir. The progenitors of these children will either be relatives of the deceased or men selected from outside the village. Elderly widows whose children are approaching the age of marriage themselves, rarely marry outside the husband’s lineage segment, and tend, in fact, not to marry at all but to be maintained by the husband’s heir or their own sons. Women of this age are regarded as past the child-bearing stage and ready to focus their attentions on their grandchildren. Also, it is said that adult sons would oppose their mother’s remarriage outside the village, since they would not care to see her loyalties divided between her new husband’s village and their own. The status of the woman who is divorced or separated from her husband deserves special attention.
Unlike some societies where, it has been maintained, there is no role for the unmarried female (Gray 1960:54), Onitsha women have certain rights in their own villages. This is due in large part to the fact that a woman who is “driven away” by her husband need not return the bridewealth until she remarries and therefore does not constitute a heavy burden to her own lineage membership. If the woman is doing well in trade, and has already borne some children, she may not wish to remarry and thus remains in her own village. While this situation is more common with middle-aged or elderly women, it is not prohibited for a younger woman. It may happen also that no man will want to marry the woman due to her physical appearance and her reputation either as a scold or as a harlot. Also, a woman may voluntarily leave her husband, repay the bridewealth herself, and choose to remain unmarried in her own village.
It should be made clear, however, that whether or not a woman chooses to remain in her husband’s village depends to a large extent on whether she has adult sons. If so, her social position is best in the husband’s village, often in the son’s house, directing his wives and attending to her grandchildren. If she has no sons to watch out for her interests, she may prefer to return to her own village and the protection of her brothers who, it is said, having shared in the bridewealth from her marriage, owe her this security.
When a woman returns to her father’s or brother’s compound due to divorce or widowhood, she has rights to a house, land, and ceremonial sacrifices. Her duties to her brother or father are not onerous: she does not cook for them, give them produce or share her money from trade with them. If she and her children are destitute, males of her family are expected to care for them until she can begin supporting herself. It is said by some that a brother was supposed to build a house for his sister, especially if he is a lineage priest, since “a priestess and a priest should not live in the same house”. While this would seem to be consistent with their somewhat independent spheres of influence, we were unable to corroborate this for the present.
Women who have returned to their own villages are notorious for spending a lot of time at ritual activities such as funerals and male and female title-taking. At such occasions they consume their full share of food and drink. Also, they are not expected to remain chaste, but rather are free to behave with a certain degree of license for, after all, it is said, “Can she lock her privates?” In this century there has been an increase in the number of women who “prefer a life of promiscuous intercourse or harlotry to remarriage” (Meek 1937:213). These women are usually the ones who take the role of lover to a married man since this position would be a highly dangerous one for a married woman living with her husband (and whose fidelity should not be questionable).
3.2.5. Summary: Women’s Roles in Kinship and Descent Groups
In this chapter it has been observed that women in the Onitsha community maintain important roles as Daughters and wives to different patrilineages. Their activities in both kinds of lineages are facilitated by the nucleated settlement pattern which involves both ecological, historical, and political factors. Unlike women of the Ibo hinterland, they spend less time in agricultural work and more in trade, the opportunities of the latter being greatly enhanced by Onitsha’s position on the Niger at a junction for numerous contacts.
126.96.36.199. Roles in the Natal Patrilineage
In the discussion of the role of women as Daughters of the patrilineage, it was shown that in certain respects the Onitsha kinship terminology, while basically an Omaha type, accords more status equality of women to men than is common elsewhere. In regard to the role of men and women in the authority structure of the patrilineage, it was seen that women do not inherit lineage shrines and therefore cannot control lineage lands and property. They may, however, be given gifts of land upon marriage. An exception to the rule is the situation in which a man selects one of his daughters as adabge to bear sons in his name. Elderly women as Daughters have a greater share in lineage decision-making than they do as wives. The position of the lineage priestess is analogous to that of lineage priest, and she is given similar respect. The Head Daughter is, however, subordinate to the priest and appointed by him. While she does not take the kind of oaths in inter-lineage conflicts that the lineage priest does, she does risk danger to herself and her family in her acts of purifying and quieting a house from sexual and other offenses.
The organization of lineage Daughters, led by the Head Daughter, is tightly knit, due in large part to the fact that Onitsha women rarely leave Onitsha in marriage. Seniority in terms of position in lineage segments and age is important in selecting those in leadership positions. Daughters as a group are feared lest they ostracize a member of the patrilineage and refuse to conduct requisite ceremonies for him. When describing a woman, it is often more important to identify her by her own lineage affiliation rather than be her affinal one. In the Onitsha case Daughters are “as much agnates as brothers and sons, although as women their over-all social status is usually considerably inferior to that of men”. (cf. Lewis 1965:103) For both men and women their patrilineage offers a measure of security, admittedly greater for men than for women, but nonetheless there to be claimed if the affinal patrilineage does not meet its obligations. This is true both in matters of vengeance and in the performance of funerals. A woman temporarily relinquishes some of her rights in her patrilineage (as, for example, to a house and land) upon marriage, but may regain them upon separation, divorce, or widowhood. In religious matters she is tied to both lineages, since she is subservient to the paternal authority of both her own lineage priest and that of her husband.
The situation in Onitsha is not so clear cut as among the Somali, for example, discussed by Lewis, where a woman’s life is always primarily the responsibility of her own natal kin (1962:40). It may be said, however, that in Onitsha a woman’s political, jural status is ultimately the responsibility of her own lineage, even though, as a woman, she ranks below men in her lineage rights and privileges.
188.8.131.52. Roles Established through Marriage
Exogamic rules apply not only to the patrilineal group, but also to ties traced through women. Relations through an ancestral mother are carried and transmitted by sons as well as by daughters. For Onitsha women, marriage to non-Onitsha men is regarded as degrading. Onitsha men, however, freely marry non-Onitsha women, the women gaining prestige and access to the Onitsha market, and the men frequently increasing their lineage’s land holdings through dowries brought by their brides.
The relative importance of the girl’s family, and of the patrilineages related to the marital partners, is indicated by the sharing of bridewealth between these groups. Indicators of the bride’s status are the gifts given to her and the period of license allotted to her which may be taken as an assertion or her role as a “free and independent member of her own original patrilineage” (Leach 1961:118) even though her child-bearing capacities have been transferred to her husband’s lineage. Division of labor in domestic affairs has been discussed at length. It is important to note that the woman has important marital rights although to a lesser degree than the man.
The mother-child bond is especially strong and the reciprocal nature of the relationship is seen in the fact that while the mother is the person believed to have a child’s interest most at heart, it is as the mother of a grown son that a woman attains her greatest security. While deferential behavior is expected of a Daughter’s child in regard to members of his mother’s patrilineage, they, in turn, are committed to upholding his interests in his own patrilineage. While most men retain allegiance to the patrilineage of their fathers, an individual may legitimately choose to take ozo title in the village of his mother, thus relinquishing all rights in his father’s patrilineage. At this point repression of this individual’s maternal ancestry is likely to begin, and the individual is regarded as a junior son of his mother’s patrilineage.
Such strong matrilineal ties correlate with a type of patriliny where women retain their patrilineage rights and obligations and where the sibling bond may conflict with the marriage tie (Lewis 1965:104). The fact that a person may choose to affiliate with his mother’s patrilineage indicates a “less exclusive system of descent than where this is impossible or very uncommon (Lewis 1965:105). The Onitsha kinship system may be viewed as a unilineal one with an “optative element” (Murdock 1960:11-12) which permits full affiliation through complementary filiation.
Women who have living children are incorporated in the kinship terminology of their husband’s lineage, while still retaining a role in their own. Both a man and woman must be respectful in dealing with parents-in-law, for just as the husband’s kin can urge him to divorce his wife, so the wife’s father can take her away from her husband if he feels neglected in services and tribute. Affinal relations are not, however, characterized by excessive restraint, and there are no striking avoidance patterns.
The role of the Onitsha woman as trader has not been discussed at length here. Appropriate behavior for this role has not been clearly defined, but it is evident that men fear that women, with increasing wealth, may abandon marital ties. Such women can easily repay the bridewealth and then pay bridewealth for girls from elsewhere who will bear children in their name.
The relationship between co-wives is characterized by a high degree of autonomy, although there is also enforced contact and cooperation due to the fact that wives are frequently living under one roof, instead of in separate huts. Conflicts arise over relative status, wealth, or number of children, and are reflected in tensions between children of different mothers. It may be hypothesized that sororal polygyny is rare because the cooperative, joint efforts of Daughters are so valued by their natal lineage (cf. Gluckman 1950:180).
The Village Wives are organized, like the Daughters, on the basis of seniority of position. But in this case the seniority is based on relative length of marriage as contrasted to lineage segment depth and chronological age among the Daughters. Like the Daughters, their most severe punishment for disobedience is ostracism of a member. These women have few indispensable duties, as a group, in the ritual of their husbands’ lineages, but they do participate in patrilineage funerals as organized dance groups. Their absence, however, unlike the absence of the Daughters, would not render funerals or lineage rituals inoperable.
The Town Women, to which all married women nominally belong, do have important ritual functions which are non-ancestral in nature. Their organization usually reflects schisms in the community based primarily on male affairs. However, men fear that during times of discord and confusion, women will usurp some of their traditional powers. D. Discussion From an examination of Onitsha patterns of separation, divorce, and widowhood further insight can be gained into theoretical problems concerning relations between descent group structures, marriage stability, and the legal status of women. The point of departure is the recent debate on the putative relationship between stability of marriage and degree of incorporation of a woman into her husband’s patrilineage. Specifically, there are four kinds of social patterns, present in Onitsha society, which, social anthropologists have argued, are indicators of stability of marriage, and of incorporation of a wife into her husband’s lineage:
184.108.40.206. Stabilizing Factors relating marriage and lineage systems:
Factor (1): In Onitsha there is a moderate bridewealth payment which must be refunded prior to remarriage. Gluckman has hypothesized a relationship between high bridewealth payments, patriliny, and stable marriage (1950:191-192). Both Lewis (1962) and Fallers (1957) have argued, in rebuttal, that there are different types of patrilineal systems and that high or moderate bridewealth payments do not necessarily ensure stable marriages. Goody and Goody have argued that high bridewealth enables men to control the movement of women, and although it does not ensure a low divorce rate, it does ensure a low rate of sibling residence (1967:241), since a brother cannot afford to return the bridewealth for his sister.
In the Onitsha case, we have seen that the presence of a moderate bridewealth does not militate against elopement by the wife if the new suitor can repay it. A husband cannot prevent his wife from leaving him, nor can he refuse to accept the repayment of the bridewealth as long as the woman or her father is prepared to repay it8. Further, if a husband drives his wife out of his house for reasons other than adultery or barrenness, and refuses to take her back even though she is willing to return, he cannot retrieve the bridewealth until her remarriage. Under such circumstances, the woman does not become a liability to her kin and may be welcomed in her natal village
As both Fallers and Lewis have argued, a more critical factor than the amount of bridewealth in stability of marriage is whether or not the wife retains rights in her own lineage or is absorbed into that of her husband. One index of such absorption is the permanent transferal of the woman’s child-bearing capacities to her husband’s lineage, a transferal which is not dissolved at death (Gluckman 1950:184; Fallers 1957:121). In Onitsha, children born after a separation but prior to the repayment of the bridewealth belong to the lineage of the husband. But unlike such societies as Zulu, where the husband’s rights to the child-bearing capacities of his wife are passed on to his agnatic heirs, in Onitsha, although there is a custom of levirate (marriage of a widow to her deceased husband’s brother), it is not mandatory. A woman cannot be inherited by the heir of her husband or designated as a bearer of children for her deceased husband without her consent. Nor can she be given by her husband or his kin to another man (cf. Sonjo, discussed by [in] Gray 1960). It is evident that her father and his patrilineage continue to have jurisdiction over her ultimate disposition from the fact that at her remarriage to a member of her husband’s family, her lineage priest must be given a token sum and palm wine to acknowledge her membership in her lineage (Meek 1937:284). Of course, at any time during her marriage her father can recall her to her own lineage. The situation is like that among the Ngwa Ibo of south-eastern Nigeria, where the right over the life of the bride is jointly held by the husband and his father-in-law.
Moreover, if a woman dies early in her marriage, the husband has no claim on a sister of his deceased wife. In some Ibo areas her parents may give him another daughter in consideration of a reduced brideprice (Meek 1937:284), buy this does not appear to have been at all common in Onitsha. In any case, the new wife does not bear children in the name of the deceased woman (cf. Zulu, Gluckman 1950:185). A childless woman’s body is returned to her own lineage and the affinal relationship is severed between the two lineages
Another index of absorption into the husband’s lineage is the relinquishing of the woman’s legal rights in her own lineage. Lewis cites the Somali case in which there is an unstable marriage, yet there are bridewealth payments which give the husband full rights over children prior to its refund (1962:40). He hypothesizes that where the wife gives up her pre-marital legal status and is incorporated in her husband’s group, men and women are subject to dissimilar agnatic loyalties and [the] marriage is stable; where she does not, the marital couple are subject to similar agnatic allegiances and marriage is unstable (1962:43).
As shown earlier in this summary, the woman in Onitsha retains numerous legal rights in her own lineage, even though the responsibility for her welfare is in the first instance with the husband and his lineage. If they fail to protect her, her potential claims upon her own lineage are activated. One can agree with Lewis that the relative frequency of divorce ties in with the nature of the multiple ties that women have to their own and their husband’s lineages. However, one can go further and hypothesize that an indication of the legal freedom of women is reflected in their ability to activate and maintain rights in their own and their husband’s lineages. In Onitsha women are in demand by both these lineages; in their own they are needed for crucial ritual duties (see later chapters), wanted (in rare cases) as potential bearers of sons for the father, valued for the ties that develop between Daughter’s-child and Mother’s people, and appreciated as economic additions to the household of their brother through their trading activities.
On the other hand, the husband and his lineage try to attach a woman who has borne children to their lineage, e.g. she has her health and welfare guaranteed by her husband’s lineage and its shrines, she is partially incorporated into the lineage kinship terminology, and she becomes eligible for various honors. A woman’s ability to play upon the fact that her person is valued by both lineages, gives her a greater degree of freedom than where she is solely responsible for all her legal rights.
Factor (2). It has been argued that the chances for marital stability are increased in those societies where the filiation of children is firmly established, filiation of children being a “measure of the firmness with which the right in genitricem is held by the husband (Gibbs 1963:555). An element of instability and dissension is introduced where adulterine children are not unequivocally filiated with their pater rather than their genitor (ibid.). Instability is also increased where children, at the divorce of their parents, may be allocated to the kin group of either the mother or the father and where illegitimate children are not filiated with their mother’s group rather than that of the genitor.
Where there are strong unilineal kin groups, a child is usually affiliated to the lineage of his pater rather than to his genitor, and, of course, as we have seen, strong unilineal kin groups have been characterized as having high marriage payments, the levirate, and a low ratio of sibling residence and social paternity (Goody and Goody 1967:236). In Onitsha the status of both male and female individuals is primarily established through agnation, not bilineally or through attachment to political units . The child does not belong to the lineage of the genitor unless the latter is also the pater. Adulterine children belong to the man who has paid bridewealth.
There is also in Onitsha an absence of extensive fosterage due to the fact that in strong patrilineal societies where members of a lineage have joint interests, they are unlikely to want the control of children to pass into the hands of non-lineage kin. Although daughter’s-children may be found living with their maternal kin, this is usually a form of refuge or crisis-fostering; children are rarely sent to maternal kin by their parents.
The absence of fosterage means that a woman is deprived of children to care for unless her own children choose to remain with her. However, this factor is not as serious a deterrent to separation and divorce in Onitsha as it might appear, since children will be drawn to their mother’s villatge for various reasons outlined earlier. Given the compact nature of the community, they will not lose contact with their mothers, even if the latter have remarried several times. In spite of the fact that the Onitsha system is strongly characterized by agnation, there is an optional pattern present, i.e. a person can choose, when adult, to affiliate with his mother’s lineage and renounce his claims to his own. It may be asked, why is there not more pressure to make this alternate pattern a preferred one? Several factors help to explain why this optional pattern is not commonly utilized: a) By payment of bridewealth (see above) a man obtains the right to affiliate children born to the marriage to his lineage. There is no alternative as far as children are concerned. This does not mean, however, that children must live in their father’s village if they do not wish to. b) A woman’s family dare not retain her children forcibly since they will be held responsible for any harm that might come to them. c) Women do not inherit property from men, and sons who may choose to remain with their mothers will be disadvantaged in terms of property inheritance in her lineage. Although a daughter’s children will be provided with land, their claims are always defined as secondary. d) While in some societies redistribution of unequal resources is achieved when individuals choose to farm land in their mother’s patrilineage though affiliating with it formally, in Onitsha a man may farm land of his mother’s lineage without disaffiliating himself from his own lineage. However, as Davenport has noted, it is not unusual in such systems as this for the land to be permanently transferred to the lineage of its users after several generations (1959:568). e) Given a system like Onitsha, where patrilineages are the major corporate groups through which most of one’s rights are defined, any individual who affiliates with his mother’s lineage collapses all of these rights into one lineage, and forfeits the important protective functions that their mother’s people play for their daughter’s child. The unusual, but accepted pattern in Onitsha, in which a woman remains at home bearing children to be her father’s heirs, could serve as a model for a multilocal system, were radical changes to occur in other segments of the society such as subsistence and land tenure.
Among the Gola, a West Atlantic people, for example, while patrilineal descent is the ideal, non-unilineal descent groups are statistically predominant (D’Azevedo 1962:509). Individuals tend to live wherever they find the best economic and status advantages, either with their father’s people or their mother’s . Descent and inheritance may pass though either males or females, but in the latter case the females are considered merely custodians (D’Azevedo 1962:509). This is a situation similar to that of adagbe in Onitsha. Although a woman may be recognized as the founder of a Gola lineage segment, she “is thought of as a descendant of a legendary male ancestor who was the original founder” and the principle of patrilineal descent is thought to be only temporarily suspended (509).
In Onitsha, however, given the stable nature of the agricultural system and the absence of major disruptive warfare, a change toward an “ambipatirilineal” system (D’Azevedo 1962:509) did not seem probable at the time of contact. It is probable, however, that the presence of this optional pattern of affiliation in Onitsha, in conjunction with other factors already discussed, relates to the relatively high divorce and separation rate in Onitsha (as well as to the often “mixed” structure of villages as compared with patrilineages).
Factor (3): The levirate generally ensures that a woman has a home in her husband’s village after his death. Where there is no levirate and a woman is forbidden to marry her husband’s close kin, an elderly woman knows, even prior to her husband’s death, that eventually she will have to seek security elsewhere (Goody and Goody 1967:233). This may encourage her to leave her husband and further her own interests prior to the time when this is absolutely necessary. The levirate represents a continuance of the original marriage (see no.1), indicating the rights transferred in marriage are transferred permanently (Gibbs 1963:554).
The form of “widow inheritance” present in Onitsha undoubtedly leads to considerable stability in marriage among elderly and post-menopausal women. However, unless they have sons also resident in the husband’s village, they may choose to go to their brother’s village, believing they will be better treated there. The reasons appear to be similar to those cited by Esther Goody in regard to the Gonja, i.e. in her own village a widow’s surviving kin are generally junior to her, thus placing her in a superior position. Among her husband’s kinsmen, however, considerations of birth order are secondary to constraints of affinity. The role of wife is defined as subordinate, [the role of] sister is not (1962:43). Again, we see that a woman is free to choose whether her position as wife-mother is free to choose her position as wife-mother or her position as sister is to be emphasized.
Factor (4): In Onitsha there is ceremonialization of marriage which serves as a stabilizing factor, since it involves numerous kinsmen in the ritual, and thus “calls attention to the union and stresses the meaning and significance of marriage” (Gibbs 1963:555). Where supernatural powers are called upon the union may be viewed as supported by supernatural sanctions (ibid; Leach 1957:52). For example, an extreme lack of ceremony is evident among the Lozi where divorce is common. There, the bride’s senior relatives do not even attend the marriage ritual which is regarded as “play of children” (Gluckman 1950:190)
In Onitsha, the marriage rituals are attended by various groups. The bride and groom drink from the same cup and receive prayers for the success of their marriage by the priests of both lineage segments. The amount of ceremony is, however, markedly less than that involved in funerals.
To conclude, the status of married women and mother in Onitsha is undoubtedly the cultural ideal for females. There are, however, alternate roads to esteem and personal success. Although most divorces occur during the early to middle years of marriage, a period sometimes referred to by anthropologists as “experimental marriage”, the rate appears to diminish most rapidly once the children are reaching maturity and the woman is approaching menopause. The commencement of child-bearing, in itself, does not ensure that a marriage will last, though the chances for its success are markedly improved with the birth of sons. It is not rare, however, for a woman to bear children in several villages. Elderly women may move to their brother’s village, if they choose, without immediate pressure to repay the bridewealth.
Certainly the fact that women have independent means of support tends to undermine marital stability. However the situation in Onitsha at the time of contact ahd not reached the extreme where the “mode of access to valued ends is through dependence on the role of women” (Gibbs 1963:557) rather than through the descent group, as among the Kpelle, or where women know their husband’s economic dependence and use this to break his dominance, as among the Kanuri (Cohen 1961:1245). The relative freedom of the Onitsha woman relates to the fact that she can either utilize her roles of wife and sister at the same time, or emphasize whichever one seems most advantageous. Her value to both her natal and affinal lineages, which is enhanced by her role as trader, makes this possible.
CHAPTER FOUR: STRUCTURALLY DIFFERENTIATED ORGANIZATIONS
4.1. The Village
4.1.1. Lineage Heterogeneity
As mentioned previously, residence after marriage is virolocal and the basic model for the residential unit, the village (ogbe), is the localized patrilineage. Both the land that is used by members of the village residentially and for farming, and the major shrines, are controlled by patrilineage priests who succeed to their positions through seniority. The activities of the village are not, however, exhausted by a discussion of the patrilineage, since the former also contains structures which are based on principles at variance with those of the latter. Also, although most males resident in any given village may be patrilineally related, at least at the higher structural levels, this need not be so since non-kin may live there if they have some tie to an important person, e.g. as laborer and diviner, and cognatic kin are welcomed if they are the children of Daughters of the lineage. While a village may be composed of segments which are unrelated to one another, it usually can present a genealogical character in which inconsistencies in family histories are concealed from the public, or simply ignored in light of an ethic of long association. Whether or not the members of a village are patrilineally related to one another, they generally maintain the rule of exogamy.
4.1.2. The Role of “Chiefs” (Ndi-Ichie) in Villages
A village is identified as a residential unit which has a square (ilo), common shrines, and frequently its own small market (afia). Organizationally it is distinguished by the presence of a chief or chiefs (ndichie) either currently or in the remembered past, a masquerade society, units of Village Youths, Village Wives, and by the shared activities of the villagers, especially at funerals.
While the patrilineage priest handles many of the internal affairs of each patrilineage unit and attends to its shrines, it is the chief who represents the village in the wider community or in inter-village affairs. For example, while the priest must pay for the good fortune of the partners at a wedding, the chief must witness the payment of the bridewealth and, in the case of divorce, its refunding. The chief, who obtains his position not through his ascribed role in a patrilineage but by his wealth and prominence in community affairs, is appointed by the Obi of Onitsha after the payment of a large sum to the Obi and to other chiefs. The King is not obligated to give chieftaincy to any given village, but there is strong pressure to ensure that all major village units have a chiefly representative to uphold their interests at the King’s council.
Major villages tend to be represented by Senior Chiefs (Ndichie-Ume) while minor villages have only lesser ones (Ndichie-okwa or 0kwareze). Once appointed, a Senior Chief may not act in the role of patrilineage priest. Traditionally, the chief is supposed to be an accomplished warrior (odogwu), capable of leading his village in battle for the good of the whole town. Once appointed however, chiefs have been known to lead their villages in intra-town fighting and also to compete with allegedly deadly magic against other Onitsha chiefs.
Senior Chiefs hold the war drums (egwuota) which are required not only to summon men to battle, but also to complete Onitsha funerary ritual. If a village has no Senior Chief, it must take gifts to a neighboring Senior Chief in order to obtain the use of his war drums. This act puts them in a general position of dependency upon him, since he may refuse their request if he feels they have not been giving him proper respect (see Chapter Six). A chief also has a degree of control over the market located within his village, especially if the market is held on land owned by the patrilineage segment to which the chief belongs. This control comes partly because of a chief’s role as arbitrator in disputes between villagers and non-villagers, and within the village, and partly because of the general awe in which such a man is held due to his ritual purity gained through the initiation process and his reputed skill in sorcery.
Because chiefs have dealings with other villages and even neighboring communities, they are in a better position to guarantee safe passage for traders than are ordinary individuals. Using such guarantees, wives and lineage Daughters of chiefs frequently become wealthy traders.
The chiefs are dependent upon both the age sets (ogbo) of a village and its masquerade society (orokwute) for enforcement of decisions arrived at during meetings of [the] King, chiefs, and “the age set controlling the land” (ogbonachiani) (hereafter: Ruling Age Set), or meetings of just the latter two. Senior Chiefs are restricted in their control over both age sets and masquerades: they cannot regularly attend meetings of their age set since to do so would be to admit equality with the other members of the group; they cannot become active in masquerade activites without defiling their purified status. Thus age sets and masquerade societies can demonstrate their independence of the chiefs. Another characteristic group in a village, the Village Wives, was discussed Chapter Three. Village Youths will be dealt with under age sets below.
4.2. The Masquerade Society (Mmanwu, Orokwute)
4.2.1. Membership and Organizational Bases
All men within a village must be members of the masquerade society, the final initiation into which occurs at about the age of sixteen. During childhood, the society has been the object both of imitative play and of fear, the latter being encouraged by parents as a disciplinary measure. The masquerade represents the reincarnated spirits of the dead of the localized patrilineage; on most occasions, however, the masks do not represent specific individuals. Different age levels are represented by different types of masquerades (see Chapter Six). Those masquerades which represent the deceased spirits of elderly men are owned by the village or patrilineage in common and kept at the home of the head of the masquerade society. Each village owns at least one Igala-derived “Tall Ghost” (mmuo ogonogo), portraying a long-deceased prominent chief, whose presence is necessary at funerals of titled men and which exercises a powerful sanction against lawbreakers.
Traditionally, there appears to have been sufficient integration of the village-based masquerade societies to enable the Ruling Age Set to require the presence of masquerades from different villages as its means of enforcement when it wished to punish lawbreakers. Although a man is initiated into the masquerade society of his own village, he is considered a member of all the other Onitsha village societies (with the exception of Igala-derived villages, who practice a certain discrimination against their neighboring, so-called “Ndi-Igbo” villages). With the local group’s permission, he may participate in their activities.
4.2. 2. The Characteristic of Leadership
The masquerade society has a set of elder leaders (ora okwute) who, though often untitled, are always highly respected men with forceful personalities. They are often active members of the senior age sets in the town. Their leadership is independent of the chief. In cooperation with the Ruling Age Set, they have been known to block the chief’s power (Strong 1884-1893: April 7, 1885). Under more harmonious circumstances, however, the Prime Minister (Onowu), the first ranking Senior Chief, and the Ruling Age Set usually work closely together and direct the town-wide masquerade society to enforce their rulings.
Masquerades are not subject to the direct rule of the King; his own association with death, it is said, cannot tolerate the physical presence of the reincarnated dead. It is stated that the King would be immediately deposed if the masquerade were to enter, and thus in a manner of speaking defile, his sacred, secluded compound (see below).
4.2. 3. Major Functions of the Masquerade Society
The primary concern of the collective masquerade society is the punishment of those who reveal the secrets and defile the masquerades by fighting with them. If a man is accused of performing such acts, his case is heard in a central square (usually Ilo Obikporo) by representatives of the different village societies. If judged guilty, he will be killed by the masquerade society. If individuals disregard pronouncements of the Ruling Age Set, e.g. by trading with a town nominally hostile to Onitsha, the chiefs and masquerade meet and decide on appropriate punishment. For less serious matters, such as constant quarrelling in a village, a masquerade, representing a youthful ghost of that village, may seize the property of the miscreants and force them to pay a fine to retrieve it.
4.2.4. The Position of Women in Regard to the Masquerades
Many of the activities of the masquerade concern the control of women and the strictest secrecy is maintained to prevent females from learning the true identity of the masked figures. Even today, many elderly women were afraid, when interviewed, even to speak about the masquerade, let alone imply that they doubted its ghostly origin or comment on any of its secrets. In the past, if a woman looked at the secret night masquerade (ayakka) she would be buried alive by it. If one should chance upon a secret of the society, she would likely be killed.
Females were often prime targets of harassment by the masquerades. It is not uncommon for women and children to run to an adjacent house and barricade themselves within while the incarnate ghost threatens them outside. Any youth who has been initiated, however, can lead a woman to safety while she hides her eyes. If a woman is carrying a pot and seems unable to run, she may turn her face toward the bush and hide her head to avoid being flogged. Women, however, also show a certain ambivalence toward the ghosts. In regard to more elaborate and dignified ones, women of the village may follow from a distance, singing praises of their costumes and dances. A type of sexual teasing can be observed between unmarried girls and youthful masquerades, e.g. when girls shout at the Ulaga masquerade, retreat when chased, and return to again be chased.
The youthful masquerades (especially ulaga) are used to threaten or punish quarrelling women, or those who return late from market and disturb their neighbors by pounding food late in the evening, or those suspected of infidelity due to their trade relationships with traveling fishermen. Sanctions usually involve the seizure of the women’s cooking utensils until a fine is paid or a change in character evidenced. Beatings can also be administered. The Tall Ghost (mmuo ogonogo) is called upon to banish a woman accused of witchcraft and judged guilty by the King.
As noted in the previous chapter, elderly, post-menopausal women may become members of the masquerade society and will then be addressed as Mother of the Masquerade (nne mmanwu). This is a rare honor, traditionally, often performed because a son wishes to show his high esteem for his mother and, indirectly, to display his own wealth. Membership in the society prevents women from being the object of masquerade attacks. A woman is usually initiated in her husband’s village and, to her intiation, may invite male and female intiated members of her own village as well as her husband’s9.
When a woman becomes Mother of the Masquerade, men of the village must go around to the villages of her father, her mother, and her father’s mother, paying each of them a certain amount of money in order that their masquerades will respect her and treat her as a member. The largest share of money goes to the woman’s husband’s village. Of this, her sons, the contributors, receive their share.
Once a woman has become a member of the society, she can be present at all its activities, i.e. the trying of cases, general discussions concerning the masquerade, and she may even go into the secret room from which the ghosts emerge. No longer will she be chased by passing ghosts. She may come out to greet the dreadful night masquerade with drinks, though it is said that the ghosts will hide when she appears. It is especially appropriate for her to be present when the masquerade representing deceased young women (abogo mmuo) appears. A Tall Ghost will be present at her funeral, much as it is for adult men. Women, however, never put on masquerade costumes. In general social interaction even outside the masquerade society context, these Mothers of the Masquerade are addressed by their title, given respect, and asked to break kola nuts in the presence of younger titled men.
4.3. The Age Set System
4.3.1. Membership and Organizational Bases
Men born within three years of one another generally belong to one age set, and though formal groups are not established until early manhood, the idea of a bond between those of approximately the same age has been recognized since childhood. As noted in Chapter Two, age mates are believed to share elements of a common destiny, including a common time to die. Both those that are dead and those that are living are thought to try to influence their comrades.
The activities of young men on the village level, such as clearing paths, drumming at funerals, and burying the dead lay the bases for later age set formation. When the youths become more mature and begin to marry and take ikenga (Chapter II), the image of a man with ram’s horns and a machete, they may give their age set a name and begin to recruit members on a town-wide level through contacts made in wrestling contests and warfare mobilization. Warfare was an important part of the younger age-sets’ activities and the ikenga, symbolizing aggressiveness and desire for achievement, an appropriate emblem of their strivings.
The duties of younger age sets also include being available for communal labor when called out by chiefs and being ready to assist one’s mates in house building and farming. The more mature age sets [are] expected to take an interest in the maintenance of proper custom and help shape public opinion behind important issues.
Age set membership, which cuts across kinship and status groups, is characterized by equality. There is a formal head, usually the oldest member, but no one person can be said to be permanent leader or spokesman for the group. Although chiefs belong to age sets, they do not participate in their activities. Titled men are regarded as equals by their age-mates in the context of age-set activities. The King is considered too sacred and exalted to belong to an age set. The extemporaneous leader of the age set is usually a man who speaks forcefully and who is respected for his honesty, regardless of his wealth or status.
4.3.2. The Ruling Age Set
Among those age sets with middle-aged members, one will be chosen by the people to be the Ruling Age Set (ogbo-nachi-ani, lit. “Age-set guarding the land”). The set selected will be one that has numerous prominent members such as chiefs, titled men, and most importantly, men known throughout the community for speaking the truth fearlessly. As noted above, men such as the latter are also likely to be leaders of the masquerade society on the village and town levels.
The duties of this age set will be to consult with the King and proclaim new rulings for the town, to assist the Town Mothers in their major sacrificial rites, and to direct the younger age sets. In conjunction with the leaders of the masquerade society, it directs masquerades to enforce laws and punish offenders.
4.3. 3 . Social Clubs (Otu)
Age sets in Onitsha have certain resemblances to societies and social clubs in that after the initial formation of the core group, a fee may be required from new members. Although age is roughly ascertained by inquiring what farm land was in use when the individual was born, men may, once they have attained middle age, join higher or lower adjacent sets, depending on what people they feel most comfortable with. The older sets are made up of members from many of the elders’ sets whose members have been depleted through death. There also exist true social clubs (Otu) whose membership is open to persons regardless of age and who organize on the basis of common interests such as dancing, drinking, or occupational concerns, e.g. the hunters’ society.
4.3.4. The Position of Women in regard to Age Sets and Social Clubs
Traditionally women did not belong to age sets and the primary age grading occurred prior to marriage when all girls of marriage age wore their hair in a certain way, put brass rods on their legs, and danced in a distinctive style. It was from age groups of this type that men selected women to be their wives. Women considered undesirable were taunted and ridiculed by their age mates (Henderson 1966:40-42). When women moved to their husband’s villages, they formed dancing clubs on an inter-village level which were modeled on the organization of Village Wives, with the oldest girl being the nominal head and the youngest members the messengers. A male patron was selected who was generous, respectable, and not objectionable to the women’s husbands. He would frequently accompany the women on their dance displays around town, as would a few male guards.
It was not uncommon for women to visit neighboring towns and study their dances in order to improve their repertoire, or to go to such towns and perform. Although this study is concerned primarily with the traditional role of women in Onitsha, an interesting and significant light on the position of women is revealed by the recent history of these dancing clubs. In the 1930’s some new dancing clubs were formed with both male and female members, in spite of protests from the King and chiefs concerned about the immorality that might follow such an action. Husbands protested that their wives would have more excuse to stay away from their duties at home and more opportunities for infidelity.
However, the mixed clubs were so popular that a few of the male age sets began to admit women. Soon women began to organize what they called age sets (ogbo) on their own, and then to demand admittance into the corresponding male age set. By the mid-1950’s, almost all age sets had both male and female members who shared in food and drink and held office equally. Their major activities consisted in dance practice and in accompanying members to funerals, to title takings, and to other special ceremonies.
Most clubs insist that male and female members have no intimate relationships with each other either inside or outside the group context; this has apparently mollified Onitsha husbands concerned about the innovation. The change in the composition of Onitsha age sets can be related to the declining power of the age set as the executive arm of the chiefs, since the coming of modern Western government to the town, and the corresponding blurring of the lines between age set and social club. Some activities of the age set, however (such as those concerned with the Masquerade), are undertaken apart from the women members, although the latter may be asked to contribute money which is then used for the purchase of new ghostly costumes.
4.4. Ozo Title System
So far we have been examining aspects of Onitsha social structure which are heavily biased in the ascriptive line, i.e. the patrilineage framework of the village organization, the basis of the masquerade society, and the membership criteria of age-sets. However, Onitsha social life is heavily influenced by achievement orientation, the basic focus of which is the ozo title system. When discussing the title taking unit, reference will be made to the clan (ebo) rather than the patrilineage, for it is the priest at this highest-residential level who keeps the religious objects necessary for purification.
A detailed description of the ozo title system is not relevant to our purposes and has been provided elsewhere (Henderson 1972:247-66). It is the general meaning of the ozo system and its relationship to the role of women in Onitsha society that is of concern to us. Although the position of lineage priest is ascribed and not open to competition, a man who has not attained ozo status cannot sacrifice an animal to his titled ancestors and therefore must delegate his authority to another lineage member who is so titled.
4.4.1. Religious Basis and Membership Standards
It is said that theoretically a man’s senior son, who will act as minimal lineage priest on the death of the father, should be the first person in the family to take ozo title. Strict conformity to this ideal exists at present more among sons of one mother than among sons of one father by different mothers. Nevertheless, the priest of any given lineage segment must attain at least the minimal level of ozo title taking (ikpa mmuo), thus enabling him to officiate at the family shrines, before other members take the full ozo title. Such a person will not, however, be able to sacrifice in the presence of fully titled men.
Throughout the initiation process, the ozo man becomes purified, or holy, in comparison to ordinary men, and is thus entitled to certain rights and privileges that are denied to others. As a sign of his elevated status he owns a staff (ossissi), fitted with three iron rings, which serves as a symbol of righteous authority and takes the place of the un-titled man’s ofo; a wooden box (ukpulukpu) made of kola wood in which he keeps his private treasures, such as kola nuts and cowries; and the chi tray (okwachi) which holds the ozo man’s chi sticks, purified by having been bathed in chalk. While the chi tray is destroyed at its owner’s death, the ringed staff and treasure box are retained by the titled man’s descendants.
Prayer involving them necessitates calling forth the name of the former owner, thus ensuring that deceased ozo men will be ritually remembered as individuals and not simply called forth as a group like deceased non-titled men. Also part of the regalia of a titled man is a leather fan which he may wave to separate disputing persons, an elephant tusk horn (odu) to trumpet his presence, a goatskin on which to sit in order to avoid direct contact with the ground, and a fish-eagle feather (ugo) to wear in his cap10.
Not only does the titled man have the right to sit on the throne and preside at religious functions if he is also the acting priest, but he may also preside over public meetings in the absence of the chiefs (Orakwue 1953: 31). Such men are exempted from manual labor and from acts fraught with danger from contact with such impurities as grave-digging and corpse-carrying. Titled men are also permitted to build houses with an open court in the middle. At ceremonies, they sit apart from untitled men and are served larger portions of food.
Because of his position, however, the ozo titled man is expected to behave more responsibly than other persons, for his words are likely to be heeded by the ancestors, especially when they are emphasized by the striking of his ossissi staff on the ground. He is also not above punishment for criminal acts and abominations.
The taking of an ozo title involves the redistribution of considerable amounts of wealth among one’s own family and clan. Before beginning the preliminary steps of title-taking, a man must establish a shrine to his father (see Chapters Two and Six) and also to his mother if she is deceased. Next, the aspirant will tell his plans to his brothers of the same mother who pledge their assistance, then to his brothers by the same father, and finally to the clan as a whole. He also goes to the priest of his own lineage segment, the priest of his mother’s patrilineage segment, and that of his father’s mother’s segment, to inform them of his intention to take title and to obtain their blessings in this endeavor.
At these occasions, the candidate’s senior wife and senior son and daughter are also called to the altar to take drink which has been dedicated to the ancestors. Thus their status is marked as separate from the rest of the candidate’s family of procreation and they are allowed to partake of some of his purification.
Traditionally, the process of title taking often took over ten years, with gifts of yams, corn, beans, and cowries being given to the titled members of one’s own clan at regular intervals. At these times, a member of one’s mother’s patrilineage, often the mother’s brother, serves as a witness from outside the clan to the amount of goods received by that unit. At the end of the period of presentation of food and goods, the mother’s people, male and female, are entertained by the candidate. At the final payment of the money for the spirits, the candidate gives palm wine and a sum of money to his clan priest. His senior wife, eldest son, and eldest daughter also present token gifts to this priest “in appreciation of the honour done to her household” (Ifeka 1962: June 16, p.2) by the acceptance of the husband-father into the society. Here, again, the prospective titleholder shares his impending honor with certain members of his primary family.
Once the title fee has been shared by the members of the title-taking unit, a date is decided upon for the religious rites which complete the purification of the candidate. In preparation for these rites, the candidate has his head shaved (except for a tuft) by the Head Daughter of the clan. In the evening, the candidate, dressed in white to symbolize his purity and accompanied by the ozo men of his clan, proceeds to the clan priest’s shrine (nze) which contains the sacred objects necessary for purification. Brought to the shrine are the candidate’s ozo staff and his chi tray, the latter painted with white chalk and carried by a virgin girl of the clan. The rites performed by the priest at this shrine are a closely guarded secret and only ozo men of the candidate’s clan should be present as spectators. Ozo men from other clans, e.g. those of the candidate’s mother and father’s mother and person’s related to him as Daughters’ sons may view the more public rites, as may untitled persons. After numerous prayers and sacrifices, the candidate shouts that he has completed his titled taking, and the spectators then praise him as do the Daughters of the clan who have been watching the public aspect of the ceremonies from the house of the clan priest.
It is said that it is their duty to praise the new ozo man. It is not clear whether the women as a group receive any particular portion of the animal that has been sacrificed, as do the male members of the clan. They are not forbidden to eat this meat, however, as are all women who are not members of the candidate’s clan. It is through their ties to female members of the ozo initiate’s clan that Daughter’s sons are allowed to eat the sacrificial meat. The striking fact here is that even at this occasion which symbolizes masculine purification, Daughters may be present and share, minimally, in the event.
Since the initiate is in a highly purified state, he may not sleep at his own home that night or have any contact with his wife for fear of pollution. Instead, he goes to the house of a nearby titled man. Wherever he goes, he is followed by the virginal girl wearing white who carries his purified chi. The next day the ozo men of the clan go the initiate’s house where his wives, especially the senior one, give them fish, kola nuts, and a small amount of money which they then share among themselves (Ifeka 1962: June 19, p.2). The women announce the titled names that they have selected for themselves and are then officially given them by the lineage priest. It is essential that this ceremony be performed and the wives be elevated to a status appropriate to their husband prior to his return to his house.
On the evening of the same day, the titled man is led to his own house by the other titled men and any other friends and relatives who may have been invited. The Daughters of the clan accompany him to his house, singing; patrilineage members from the candidate’s mother’s lineage, father’s mother’s lineage, wife’s lineage, wife’s mother’s lineages, and wife’s father’s mother’s or mother’s mother’s lineage, are usually present. At his house, the new ozo man is greeted by his senior wife and presented with a goat and two large fish. When an arch is constructed of egbo sticks, the husband and wife dance on either side until the wife goes under the stick and embraces her husband three times, thus ending their enforced isolation.
This public act of recognition accorded the senior wife (and sometimes the senior son and senior daughter) enables her to partake of the sanctity of her husband’s status to a greater degree than other wives. She is able to prepare food for him to be used in sacrifice to the ancestors, and to chalk his chi prior to ceremonies. She is referred to in this context as “wife of his god” (nwunye chiya) (Orakwue 1953:27). If the first wife is deceased or not living with her husband, none of his other wives may take her place either at the ozo initiation rites or in preparation of the food and cleansing of the chi. His young daughters or other “female relatives” may, however, fulfill these duties (Orakwue 1953:27).
4.4.2. The Relation of the Titled Man to Females
It must be emphasized that the purification of the ozo man at the clan shrine refers to a ceremonial cleansing of past misdeeds, including contact with female sexuality, the dangerous and polluting aspects of which have been discussed above (Chapter Three). No women are permitted to take ozo title and no woman of child-bearing age, even a Daughter, may enter the nze shrine which is kept clean by a pre-pubescent girl or boy. No woman may touch the ozo staffs and only a woman who partakes of her husband’s purification can touch the chi tray and wooden treasure box. If a man has ozo title it would be an offence to the ancestral shrines which he holds for any other man or woman to have sexual intercourse in his house.
Nevertheless, relationships to and through women have an important role in the ozo activities. There is undoubtedly a strong correlation between the fact that prior to a man’s calling on his mother’s people for assistance in title taking, he has established a shrine to his mother if she is deceased. It is unlikely that the mother’s village would cooperate with him in his endeavors if he did otherwise.
Daughters of the clan are selected to carry the chi tray and to shave the head of the ozo candidate. Elder Daughters may eat the goat killed at nze. Daughters, but not wives, are present at the nze ceremonies and praise the candidate. They are, however, not permitted to see the most secret rites of the shrine, a privilege allowed only to ozo men of the clan. The symbolic problem of why a virgin, pre-pubescent girl rather than a virgin boy is selected to carry the chi tray cannot be answered here, but the selection of a woman to shave the candidate’s head prior to his rebirth as an ozo man is consistent with the female role in funerals and other piacular rites (see Chapter Six).
The senior daughter of the candidate shares in his elevated status to some degree and serves as a replacement for the senior wife if she is absent. It can be seen that the Daughters involved in the ozo rites are those who are defined as without sexuality, being either pre-pubescenet or post-menopausal. Wives, however, are viewed as active sexual threats, as polluting through their menses and endangering their husbands through acts of infidelity. Prior to the performance of important religious rites, a man abstains from sexual relations with his wife, and, as mentioned above, after his rites at the nze shrine, he is considered too pure to have any contact with her for another day. Yet the wives of a titled man are set apart from other women primarily by the fact that they also “give money to the spirits” in return for which they receive a titled name.
The names selected by women to reflect their association with ozo purithy are often even more open in their praise of wealth than are the men’s, i.e. “one who feeds on plenty” (oliaku), “one who parades riches” (odoziaku); “one who has shot down an elephant” (obguatuluenyi) (Ifeka 1962: June 21, p. 2-3).
4.4.3. Special Honors Accorded Women
All free-born Onitsha women are eligible to wear large pieces of ivory (odu) on their arms and legs as a demonstration of their attainment in life, and, generally, of the esteem in which they are held by their sons. A woman would not wear ivories if her husband were alive and untitled, although she could put them on after his death. At present, any woman married to an Onitsha man can wear ivories, but some say that traditionally only Onitsha women and those from riverain Ibo groups were eligible. The most likely people to finance the ivory purchase are the sons of the women, the women themselves (especially those who have grown rich through trade and have already assisted their husbands in ozo title taking), and the rich, ivory-owning women. It is said to be quite rare for a husband to buy ivories for his wife.
Traditionally, once the ivories have been purchased, the woman who is to be honored invites her relatives, especially the Daughters of her own, her mother’s, and her husband’s lineage segments who themselves own ivory. Ivoried wives of the village into which she is married will also be included. Representatives of both the woman’s own lineage and that of her husband will be present when she first puts on the ivory early in the morning on the day of her presentation to the community as an Ivory-Wearer.
It is impossible to say whether any religious ceremony traditionally occurs on this occasion, but if it does it is more likely in the nature of a blessing by the lineage priest than a detailed ceremony or sacrifice. (This point is made here because informants continually minimized the religious significance of ivory wearing.) In the afternoon, there is a feast for all those who are in attendance, and it is financed by the same person who has purchased the ivories. Kola is broken and prayers offered by a titled man present. Songs are sung, praising the wealth of the woman and that of her children.
The Ivory Wearers are referred to as having lifted themselves above others and become “like elephants”. Those who possess the heavy iron anklets dance in a cumbersome manner, imitating elephants. Aside from the esteem that ivory wearers are accorded in their lifetime, one of the important reasons given for wishing to obtain these expensive bracelets and anklets is the fact that the funeral of the Ivory Wearer resembles that of the ozo titled man in many significant respects. (This matter will be explored in Chapter Six.) Unlike the men, however, the wearing of ivories of itself does not entitle a woman to officiate an ancestral shrines.
Such wealthy women, however, do have predominant voices in women’s affairs (see below). In recent times (under the encouragement of prominent titled men), many of the Ivory Wearers have organized themselves into an association (called Otu Odu) which is modeled on the men’s ozo title society. Ivory wearing is now spoken of as the “female equivalent to ozo title”. Since women have consciously copied the men, it is difficult to separate the older, pre-colonial features associated with putting on ivory from recent additions. For example, at the present time, the approximately sixty members of the society are differentiated on the basis of whether they possess both ivory anklets and bracelets or only ivory bracelets.
At initiation ceremonies, the anklet and bracelet owners wear white cloth (like the ozo candidate), sit at the head of the group, and are given large portions of food, while those with only bracelets wear colored cloths and receive smaller portions of food. In both cases there is an initiation fee of ￡10 which is shared among the members of the society. At the initiation ceremonies the candidate puts coins into a basin of water, and each of the members of the society blesses the initiate, washes her hands, and removes a few of the coins, two for those with leg ivory, one for those with only bracelets. The water is discarded after the more esteemed women have washed, and refilled for the rest of the group. This is referred to as “washing away poverty”.
The custom just described resembles one involving ozo titled men. A newly-initiated ozo member, when visiting a friend’s house, is asked to wash his hands in a basin containing coins and to bless his host. Other ozo men present then wash their hands in the same water, blessing the initiate and wishing him a happy future. The coins are removed by the initiate and the water poured into the host’s house to bring good fortune (Orakwue 1953:30). In the case of the ivory-wearing women, however, the older members of the society take the coins, not the initiate, and the water is disposed of unceremoniously.
4.5. Chieftaincy and Kingship
4.5.1. The Organization of Chiefs
Earlier in this Chapter, the role of chiefs was discussed in the context of the village and wider community. At this point other aspects of the chieftaincy title system should be mentioned briefly, and the roles of women in regard to chieftaincy compared with their role in regard to ozo titled men.
There are six Senior Chiefs (ndichie ume) and approximately forty lesser ones divided into two ranks. All chiefs must, prior to their installation, have been ozo men. Once a man has attained a position as Senior Chief, however, he must relinquish some of his rights as an ozo man, particularly in regard to priestly functions. Senior Chiefs give up use of their ozo staffs – which are necessary for communication with titled ancestors – and forego the rights of priestly sacrifice in the presence of ozo titled men. Thus the religious duties of the priest are clearly separated from the more political ones of the Senior Chief. Lesser chiefs also have certain limitations placed on their ritual capacities as lineage priests, for example, they are prohibited from swearing oaths.
The six Senior Chiefs hold the war drums which are kept in a separate hut to avoid contamination by female sexuality. They also possess a sword (abani), giving them the right to practice human sacrifice, and a war spear (ogbanchi). Their ofo consists of eight iron-bounded sticks tied together with wire. The attendants of the Senior Chiefs wear small bells to frighten away evil spirits and warn women and children to look away from the chief or risk spiritual danger. Lesser chiefs hold only the war spears and a smaller string of ofo, the latter being used for chiefly, not lineage rituals.
All chiefs wear caps (okpododo), decorated with eagle feathers to indicate that the owner is, symbolically, a man-killer.
The six Senior Chiefs are regarded as councilors to the King, and with the King they judge cases brought before them, traditionally including murder, theft, and witchcraft accusations. Each of the Senior Chiefs and three from the lesser grades can preside in the King’s absence over community-wide meetings announced by the King.
The taking of chieftaincy title is even more expensive than that of ozo, but though the backing of a candidate’s family must be obtained prior to undertaking the venture, the rites leading to the installation are much less influenced by lineage concerns than are the ozo man’s rites. Unlike the ozo society which is open to any free-born Onitsha man who has the necessary funds and the approval of the head priest of his clan, chieftaincy is available only to those who have gained influence with the King and the Senior Chiefs. Thus the orientation is more political than religious.
Dancing groups representing the initiate’s patrilineage, and his mother’s and father’s mother’s patrilineage segments, are present at the new chief’s outing ceremony. Groups of Village Wives and the Daughters sing his praises. The wives of the chief, however, do not publicly partake of his status as do wives of ozo men; they are not publicly embraced or given special names. Nor are women associated with carrying any of the chief’s ritual objects, probably because most of these objects are associated, symbolically, with warfare. Wives do, however, appear in rich dress at the outing ceremony and may, throughout the chief’s life, use his influence to further their trade connections.
The chiefs live in a purified state, second only to the King, and therefore have the power to make judgments over the affairs of me. To maintain their purity, they are surrounded by ritual restrictions not binding on ozo titled men. Some of these involve total avoidance of contact with the dead; they may not see a corpse nor directly perform funerary rites for their kin. Though they direct masquerade activities to some degree, they may not wear the mask which represents the ghosts. They may not travel across bodies of water since they might see a canoe that resembles a coffin; nor may they sleep anywhere other than their own homes without performing a ceremony of propitiation.
The Senior Chiefs do not eat cooked meat for fear it is ritually contaminated. Chiefs also fear that their fellow chiefs are using sorcery against them and employ both offensive and defensive medicines to protect themselves. This matter will be discussed further in the next chapter in a general discussion of mystical methods of attack.
Some of the most severe restrictions surrounding the Senior Chiefs are those in regard to women and sexuality. The food which the Senior Chiefs eat must be cooked (and eaten) in a specially constructed kitchen (ukoni); it must be prepared by a virginal girl or boy. This is to prevent pollution from menstrual blood and sexual acts. It is noteworthy here that an ozo man can eat cooked food prepared outside his home, and that purification of one of his wives is in part due to the fact that she presents food to him which he then gives to the ancestors.
The Senior Chief, himself, is regarded as resembling an ancestor who must be fed under especially purified conditions. To avoid contamination, Senior Chiefs may not shake hands with ordinary men who may have had sexual relations with many women. Unlike ozo men, chiefs are not allowed to have “lovers” outside marriage. Their lives must represent models of sexual decorum and restraint because of their elevated status and advanced age. The literal translation of ndichie is “old ones”. Another, perhaps more important reason for this restraint is that the more contact the chief has with various women, the more he exposes himself to the chance of eating polluted food. Informants state that if a chief were to take “lovers’, he would become sick due to the outrage of the clan ancestors and the clan Daughters. Upon consultation, native doctors are said to diagnose promiscuity as the cause of the sickness. It may also be conjectured that a chief who possesses such purity and political power would not want to become a party to an adultery dispute.
The rites preventing sexual excesses on the part of the chief may be viewed as having protective functions for members of the community who might otherwise be unable to restrain the chief’s influence over their wives and daughters. The lesser grade chiefs are attendants to the King and Senior Chiefs, and serve as sources of information about the affairs of the town. They are also responsible for initiating ceremonies in conjunction with native doctors for the welfare of the town. The restrictions imposed on them are much less onerous than those on the six Senior Chiefs.
4.5.2. The Onitsha King (obi)
220.127.116.11. Political and Religious Activities
It may be observed that with the progression in status from a common Onitsha citizen to titled man to chief to King goes a corresponding tightening of restrictions on behavior. With each status change giving more power and influence come more dangers from contamination, especially from food and sexuality (and also lmore dangers to those who come near the powerful person). The relationship of men to women becomes much more tightly defined. The Onitsha King reflects logical implications of this progression. By maintaining his high degree of spiritual purity, however, he becomes, severely limited in his ability to govern the town. He must be viewed as more of a religious than a political figure.
The Onitsha King must be a member of the royal clan, and, ideally, a man of good character and royal bearing. The position is not hereditary within the clan, however, and agreement should be reached on the suitability of a candidate by various important segments of the town, i.e. the Senior Chiefs, the age grades, and members of the royal clan. The process of selection is both complex and variable and will not be dealt with here11.
At his installation, the King is dedicated to a town spririt called Udo and is thereafter regarded as its servant. His person is viewed with a mixture of awe and revulsion, similar to that shown to those “cult slaves” (osu) to udo shrines which are found among the Ibo living east and southeast of Onitsha.
All of the restrictions that apply to the Senior Chiefs apply also to the King, but he has additional ones: when he speaks, his mouth should be concealed behind a fan; he cannot see a masquerade, since “there can be no two ghosts competing for power in one town”. This saying refers to the fact that the King is believed to have “died” during his installation, at least as far as his existence as a normal human being is concerned. He lives an extremely secluded life, devoted to prayers and sacrifices for the good of the community.
His only public appearance outside his palace occurs at his annual outing ceremony (ofala). Aside from his religious duties, which include announcement of annual religious events, the King, theoretically, is the supreme political power in the town. In cases of murder, theft and other serious crimes, he, in consultation with the Senior Chiefs, decides what the judgment will be. He has the sole right to administer the sasswood ordeal in witchcraft trials. With the agreement of the chiefs and Ruling Age Set, he can make and repeal laws. Only the King has the right to call a general meeting of all important segments of Onitsha, sit on his throne (ukpo) and break kola for the entire community.
He has the right to order human sacrifice, to declare war and claim booty, and to confer chieftaincy. He has the nominal control of all forest land, and all leopards, wild pigs, bush cows, and elephants killed by Onitsha hunters must be brought to him (Orakwue 1953:66). In return for receiving chieftaincy or in the hope of receiving general favors, his subjects bring him a multitude of gifts consisting of food, drinks, slaves and cowries. Much of this wealth is redistributed, however, as befits a man of high prestige.
While the secluded King uses his relatives and carefully selected townsmen as sources of information about what is going on in his domain, his power is extremely limited, since, without the agreement of the Senior Chief, he cannot mobilize the masquerade society nor the age sets (whose leaders usually cooperate with those of the masquerade) as a means of carrying out his wishes. Without the concurrence of the chiefs as leading warriors, the King cannot wage war.
Although the chiefs are appointed by the King, they hold their positions for life and cannot be deposed. Many of their emblems of office are similar to those of the King: both have ofo, war swords, and elaborate regalia for ceremonial appearances. Although there is no evidence that all the Senior Chiefs have ever opposed the King at the same time, historical documents refer to certain chiefs who regarded themselves as equal in power to the King and refused to subordinate themselves to him (Crowther 1875:122; Crowther and Taylor 1859:312). Clearly, this tendency for independent behavior by the Senior Chiefs has been present for a long time.
Lest it be thought that the Onitsha community is in a constant state of schism, it should be emphasized that the King fulfills numerous integrative functions by serving as a religious focus for the many villages, by appointing chiefs who are supposed to represent village interest in terms of the wider community, and by meeting with all important segments of the community for rigual purposes and [mkh edit] settling disputes. Chiefs are dependent on the good will of the King if they wish to take part in meetings at the palace
18.104.22.168. The King’s Relations with Women
The King’s Wives The King’s wives live in quarters separate from his own compound and are not free to move about the town as are other women. They may not even go to the main market, but are restricted to the use of markets held for their benefit inside the King’s compound. When male visitors come, the women are watched by servants of the King. The women are allowed to leave their compound, accompanied by the King’s slaves, to fetch water at the stream. On these occasions, they were given respect by all present and allowed to take precedence to others (Orakwue 1953:62).
The King’s wives live outside his house to prevent the pollution of their sexuality from interfering with his sacred duties. They visit their husband for sexual intercourse during the day, instead of at night, in order to enable the King to be clean and pure for his morning religious duties. During the four days prior to the annual outing ceremony when the King is praying for the welfare of the community, he does not see his wives. At all times they are prohibited from touching any of his ritual objects. They do not symbolically share his status as do the wives of ozo men; they are not even present at his installation or outing ceremonies.
Adultery by the King’s wives is punishable by banishment or even death. Even after the death of their husband, they may not remarry. After the funeral, the widows do not go into traditional mourning but, it is said, flee the town in order “not to remind the community of the King’s death” (Ifeka 1962: June 4, p.2).
In Onitsha a son cannot supercede his father, and the death of the candidate’s father is a prerequisite for attainment of ozo title, chieftaincy, and kingship. For the king, however, the restriction extends to the mother also. Onitsha people say “One who has a mother has no age-set” (onwelu nne ada nwa obgo), meaning that he who has a living mother remains a child (Henderson and Henderson 1966:43). Some informants say that in former times the King’s mother might be killed prior to his installation, or that a funeral would be performed for her (in absentia) after she has been banished from the town. The members of the King’s mother’s patrilineal segment, however, do serve as useful sources of community information to him. At the King’s death, just as that of an ordinary mortal, the mother’s patrilineage segment must be notified.
Daughters of the King The King has two sets of “Daughters”, those of his patrilineage and representatives of a major village (Ogboli Olosi) said to be founded by the descendants of a daughter of an early Onitsha King. Except for certain funerary customs, the latter, the institutional Daughters, are more important than the King’s own direct kinswomen. Unlike his wives, the Daughters of the patrilineage of the King appear as a group at his annual outing ceremonies, and are spectators and singers-of-praise at certain public aspects of his installation.
When the King dies, the Daughters are immediately notified, and, with the men of the patrilineage, prepare a fit with fire at the bottom, over which the corpse is left to dry for about a year. At the end of this period of mummification and prior to the actual burial, they perform many of the funerary customs that are done for a titled man: they wash and prepare the body, clothe it in white, and keep vigil over it until burial. When cows are slaughtered at the King’s funeral, a share of the meat, the “waist” (ukwu efi) is presented to the Head Daughter of the King’s patrilineage, who then presents some of it to the Women of Onitsha as a whole.
The men and women of the village of Olosi, referred to as the Daughters of the Royal Clan, perform some rites for the King which are similar to those performed by patrilineage Daughters for all other Onitsha citizens, but they also do some things which would be forbidden to the latter. For example, representatives of the village of Olosi purify the King’s house prior to major ceremonies, and chalk his body in preparation for his installation. They must be represented at all important religious functions that occur at his palace, especially coronation and burial (Orakwue 1953:61). Contrary to the usual role of patrilineage Daughters, it is the men of Ogboli Olosi also have sole charge of the actual burial of the King, a highly secretive affair, traditionally accompanied by human sacrifice. (A detailed description of non-royal funerals and the role of women therein is presented in Chapter Six.
Aside from his own patrilineage Daughters and the Daughters of the royal clan, yet another person takes up certain duties toward the King which are similar to those of the clan Daughter. When the candidate for kingship is dedicated to the udo shrine by the priest of the clan of Obio, the Head Daughter of that clan shaves off tufts of his hair and offers them to the shrine. This is similar to the shaving act performed by the ozo candidate’s clan Daughter prior to his dedication to the nze shrine.
It is evident that the activities of women in the life of the King are more restricted than they are for any other person. Even some of the critical lineage functions of Daughters of his own patrilineage have been delegated to men and women of a village defined as “Daughters [of] the Royal Clan”. The King is so careful to avoid sexual pollution of his religious shrines that he selects, as assistants in the performance of traditional rituals, youths who must remain chaste throughout their time of service.
4.6. The Queen (omu) and her Council
Earlier in the chapter, the organization known as the Town Women was described as the main traditional women’s group found in Onitsha today. Historical records indicate, however, that prior to the turn of the century a superstructure was present, consisting of a “Queen” (omu) and her council (otu ogene) of wealthy, ivory-wearing women superimposed on this organization. The title of Queen was conferred by the King on a prominent woman of his choosing, although it appears that she had to be a Daughter of the royal clan. Prior to her selection, she made extensive payments to the King and to the Town Women, especially those wearing ivory. According to an early missionary, she was crowned by a person from Nri (Dobinson 1890:ms.).
The Queen was dressed in a white toga and wore a headdress similar to that worn by the chiefs; on her ankles and wrists were heavy iron pieces. Her regalia included a sword (abani), a fan (azuzu), and a drum (izabu) which was the counterpart ot the royal war drum (egwu ota) (Ifeka 1962: June 6: p.2). Ordinary women could not possess such objects, nor could they wear hats, since the latter were viewed as similar to masquerade headdresses (Basden 1966:210; Crowther 1869:84).
When she came to the King’s palace, she did not sit on the platforms in the recessed alcoves as did the chiefs and priests, but near the King, on her own portable throne which “was always carried before her by one of her male attendants” (Ifeka 1962: June 5). Apparently she was regarded as outranking the Senior Chiefs. She was entitled to celebrate the major occasions in the ceremonial cycle: ite umato, ajachi (see next chapter), and even to hold her own outing ceremony (ofala) a few days after the King.
Female councilors, who took the names of the King’s six highest chiefs, i.e. onowu, ogene, ajie, owelle, onya and odu, were selected by the Queen and presented to the King for his approval. Prior to taking up their positions, these women would have to present money and drinks to the King, Queen, chiefs, and Town Women. At this point parallels with the chiefs become less relevant. Although these councilors were highly influential in the women’s organizations of their natal and affinal villages, and even possessed certain titled insignia such as the fan (azuzu), they did not have most of the privileges possessed by the chiefs.
These women were selected more on the basis of their patrilineal affiliation than on their affinal ties, and were viewed as representing the village Daughters organization in such a manner that “it was not only possible to coordinate the activities of all the women but also to maintain religious and moral authority over secular affairs (Ifeka 1962: June 6, p.2). It was thus hoped that these “female priestesses” would represent their natal villages when councilling the Queen, and also report events to her from their husband’s villages.
The Queen and her senior councilors had certain rights over operations in the Onitsha Market, and they had to be present before the other traders set out their wares for sale at the market. They also were in charge of settling disputes in the market, regulating prices, deciding what markets Onitsha women should visit regularly, and which non-Onitsha persons could sell in the Onitsha market. As mentioned earlier, all foreign traders had to introduce themselves to the Onitsha market women and pay homage in the town (Okala 1953:39 ff.). Basden, writing of Ibo markets in general, describes similar functions performed by an “Amwu” and council:
The markets are controlled by the influential old women, and they frame and administer the rules and regulations and settle all questions as they arise. Each market is presided over by its ‘queen’ (Amwu), assisted by the women’s council, of which she is the head. This council often fixes prices, the rate of cowrie exchange, which markets shall be visited, and with what towns commercial relations shall be established or maintained. It decrees what articles are to be admitted into the market and what is taboo; this latter also being greatly influenced by the patron alusi (idol-fetish) of each market (Basden 1921:195).
In the town of Akwukwu, eighteen miles northwest of Asaba, he met the local queen, presiding over the market:
She was installed in the appointed place apart from other women. She was one of the senior women, but by no means ancient. Across the bridge of her nose and around her eyes were prominent chalk lines, giving her the appearance of wearing a monstrous pair of white spectacles….About her body was a white cloth – native woven – and on her head a quaint brown billy-cock hat, pulled well down and resembling a candle extinguisher. A single feather, the sole ornament, reared itself in a rakish manner at the side. The hat and throne indicated her rank and position, no other women in the market being allowed such prerogatives, except such as happened to be queens, belonging to other towns. (Basden 1921:195-6).
While traveling through Asaba, Northcote Thomas observed that the omu was entitled to take about a tea-cupful of palm oil from each vessel brought to market (1914:189). She also had other rights and duties:
When a ceremony was to be performed in the town she could stop people coming to the market, and each person gave her a yam, plantain, palm nuts, etc., to the value of about 1d., which the omu shared with her otu. The otu had to keep watch in the market and see that none of the prohibitions were violated. If a cock crowed in the market it went to omu…. (Ibid.).
The omu of Ossomari, a riverain Ibo village to the south of Onitsha, not only only had the above-mentioned duties as Town Woman in regard to supervision of the market (though she could not attend it) and dispute settlement among women, but she also supervised certain religious duties during the new yam festival and had an important role in wartime:
She is the field marshal and her war canoe must lead others in any military expedition. For she is reputed to have utata su onaa – a charm whose power derived from the women’s goddess Ossai Ndom Ossomari, a goddess of fertility and war who is also responsible for the welfare of the town. The charm renders the Omu’s shield impenetrable to any sorrow. With the power derived from the charm it is claimed she could make Ossomari warriors invisible (Ekejiuba, F. 1966:220).
No such warlike qualities have been indicated for the Onitsha Queen.
It is said by some in Onitsha that when there was a reigning Queen, she could sacrifice without male assistance. Whether or not she did have this power, it is clear that it is traditional for one of the lesser grade chiefs to be delegated the responsibility by the King of aiding and cooperating with the Queen and her councilors, and serving as their spokesman and official representative to the King and chiefs.
The role of the King in the ceremonies conducted by the Town Women is limited to being informed of the coming performance and concurring as to the date. These ceremonies and the roles of women in sacrifice will be explored in the next chapter. It should be added that the Queen and her council not only held their own court concerned with market and women’s affairs, but also sat with the chiefs when their deliberations touched on women’s matters.
There is some evidence that the Queen, once appointed, could not be deposed. It is certain the she could, on occasion, seriously infringe on the powers of the King. For example, it is said that a person who had offended the King could use the Queen’s home as an asylum (Meek 1937:192). During the reign of Obi Anazonwu (1875-1899), the Queen “acted in an autocratic way which gave offense both to the Obi and Ndichie” [Ibid]. It has been recorded that in 1884, the Queen, named Nwagboka, urged women to attend the church regularly and was quite successful in bringing influential women to the Anglican mission (Strong 1844-1893: June 29, July 4, 1884). Although there is no direct historical evidence that the Queen’s favorable attitude toward the church was a source of discord with the King and chiefs, earlier historical records show that Onitsha men had been concerned during the late 1860’s that their women would lose respect for the traditional ways through contact with the church ( Crowther 1869: 84, 86).
Some Onitsha informants today claim that Queen Nwagboka, after disputing with the King and chiefs, ruled that the Onitsha women should not cook for their husbands until her demands were met. It is said that though the men soon gave in, the King was so angered by this insubordination that he did not appoint a new Queen upon the death of the incumbent. Since 1886 the position has been vacant. In the 1890’s there were, however, women acting as councilors and one of the female leaders was the wife of a senior chief (Dobinson 1890:ms.).
Some light may be thrown on the problem of why women no longer attempt to take the titles of Queen and Senior Councilors by a brief look at some facts concerning the only Queens mentioned either in historical records or by living informants. Travelers recorded seeing, in the late 1870s, women acting as female “trade commissioners” (Burdo 1880:134-135) or a “board of trade” (Whitford 1877:172-173), and observed that the King demanded gifts for them from the traders, just as he did for himself and the chiefs. An early missionary account describes how “six elderly women who have a position in the council chamber” were invited to hear the mission’s statement of its goals in the presence of King Akazua (d. 1872) and to take part in decisions regarding the mission (Taylor and Crowther 1864:33). They were later consulted in regard t foiling a plot against the mission (Taylor 1864:142).
No mention is made, however, of one woman standing out from the rest as Queen. If there was a Queen during this time, it was Omu Onyero Nkechi, whose background is obscure (Orakwue 1953:59). The first Queen to be described as such by the missionaries was Queen Nwagboka (1884-1886), although references to her such as “the next queen” imply that someone had held the position previously (Strong 1884-1893: June 29, 1884). As mentioned above, she was a daughter of a royal village, Ogbendida, and married to a man from Ogbeotu. At the King’s outing ceremony in 1885, missionaries observed the following:
…shortly after the queen made her appearance with some chief women of rank singing and dancing towards the king showing their loyalty and hearty respect. In token of royal acceptance the king stretched out his scepter to the queen who touched it and rose from her knees fully satisfied (Strong 1884-1893: Sept. 25, 1885).
It seems odd that in Onitsha, where the names of Kings are remembered for many generations, and where important women are often associated with named shrines, only two Queens were recalled. Some informants suggest that the only Queen was Nwagboka, whose mother, an Igala woman married to a man from Ogbendida, bestowed the title upon her daughter. Approval may have been given by the King because the woman was a Daughter of a major royal village, Ogbendida, whom his own royal village (Ogbeozalla) had defeated in the Interregnum Civil War of 1872-3. As a consequence of Ogbendida’s defeat, its members had been denied kingship and access to senior chieftaincy positions. The bestowal of the title of Queen on one of its members may have been regarded as a political device to re-integrate this large royal segment.
Editors’ Note: These observations, together with comparative information from the early anthropologists and missionaries describing Igboland indicating that the “Omu” tradition was very much stronger west of the Niger than east, suggest that, in light of the absence of remembered earlier, or later, Omu-status women in Onitsha, the Installation described in the 1884-85 Misssion accounts could indeed have been an innovation linked with mission-facilitated efforts at peace-making within the Royal Clan. However, the historical facts also indicate that the Town Women had very considerable power, and that one of them definitely took priority at any given time. RNH
The story of the relation of the title of Queen to Igala reminds one of the numerous connections between Onitsha kingship and the Igala kingship. For example, it is said that King Omozele came to possess much of his royal regalia because his sister, married to an Igala man, had a son who later resided in Onitsha. This sister’s son-to-the-king returned to Igala and brought back royal accoutrements similar to those of the Igala King. Thus the regalia of the King was increased by the addition of cloth, brass anklets, and a brass royal sword.
It may be conjectured that over a long period of time there has been in Onitsha a leader woman and a group of wealthy female advisors or Town Women (see Chapter Three), all of whom were important both in the coordination of women’s activities generally and in the control of the Onitsha market. The fact that there are women who hold such positions and are called omu both in Western Igbo and in villages to the east of Onitsha, and that those in the latter appear to have shared with Onitsha a “symbolic crowning performed by an Nri priest”, indicate some historical depth to the custom (Basden 1966:210). The elaboration of the role and its modeling on that of the King and chiefs in regard to the possession of a royal sword, fan, and drums may have occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century due to influence from Igala, either directly through the Queen, or indirectly through copying of the Onitsha King’s regalia.
Another case of Igala influence on the role of the leader of women in an Ibo village-group is mentioned by Meek:
The village group of Ogurte is distinguished by having a female Eze. She is saluted as ‘Agamega’ or ‘Female Leopard’. It is not an Ibo custom, as far as I know, to confer authority in public matters on women, though…the women known as Umada sometimes intervene as arbiters in quarrels between kindreds or local groups. But among the Igala and some other tribes of the Northern Provinces women are occasionally invested with public authority. The present Eze of Ogurte is the first woman to hold the title, which she purchased with the consent of her own family and of the whole group, who, incidentally, are said to be of Igala origin….
The present Eze, being a woman, is the chief arbiter in all disputes between women, and takes a prominent part in settling matrimonial differences, recovering runaway wives and remonstrating with husbands who ill-treat their wives. She makes arrangements for the public sacrifice which the women offer periodically in the market-place to the ‘Umada’ or the deceased ‘mothers’ of Ogurte. She does not offer the sacrifice in person, as this duty is always performed by the oldest woman of the community….(Meek 1937:158-159).
Although information on Queens in Igala is very limited, Oldfield in 1833 had “dealings with the ‘queen’ who was not only quite an august personage with many attendants but also an extremely active trader in ivory and other articles” (Armstrong 1955:87). She referred to the Attah as her brother (Laird and Oldfield 1837, vol. II:247) and apparently had some religious duties for a three-day period when she was “making Ju-ju” (Laird and Oldfield 1837, vol. II:247).
It should be mentioned that certain women were prominent as title holders among the Nupe, another Kwa-speaking people located to the northwest of the Igala. This was true both for the royal capital of Bida and in the peasant villages. In the former, in pre-Fulani times, three women’s ranks existed which were bestowed by the King on his mother or father’s sister, elder sister, or daughter, all of whom had to be at least forty years of age and unmarried or separated from their husbands (Nadel 1942:147). These women took part in the King’s councils, owned land, held fiefdoms, and were generally considered as “kings over the women of Nupe” since they settled noble women’s quarrels, received homage, and distributed largess to the women of the kingdom (1942:147).
For the commoners of Bida there was another titled female leader, elected by the market traders of the city and confirmed by the King. She also settled quarrels, but in addition, she organized large-scale women’s work and supervised the activities of the market (1942:148). Like the Ibo omu, she could levy taxes on goods sold in the market, a percentage of which she gave to the higher ranking titled women. On the village level, there were also titled heads of women, usually over fifty years of age, who performed similar functions to titled women in the city of Bida, such as supervising the market. That they were, in former times, selected by the chiefs because of their reputed powers as witches is highly suggestive for the Onitsha case and will be further explored in the next chapter.
4.7. Some Extraordinary Women of Onitsha
Onitsha people have many stories concerning exceptional women who did not attain the title of Queen, but who were regarded as persons of great prominence. Most notable among these was Atagbusi, who apparently lived during the middle to latter part of the 19th century. She is accredited with numerous wondrous feats such as transforming herself into a buffalo (a totem of her lineage, Okposi-eke), preventing epidemics, and subjecting foreign traders to her will. She is believed to have represented the interests of Onitsha people in negotiations with early missionaries and traders (Ibeziako 1938:3 ff.). As late as 1913 Onitsha women resented the opening of a new market and established one themselves at the threshold of her former residence. Further mention will be made of this woman in the next chapter.
During an earlier period of Onitsha history, a woman named Iba, the mother’s mother of the heir apparent, Ijelekpe, fearing that her grandson would die due to the evil machinations of his enemies while in office, is said to have gone to her home village, Obamkpa, in the Western Ibo area, and brought back the royal ofo and important medicines (Henderson 1972). Crowther recorded an instance of the influence of an important Onitsha woman, a wealthy trader named Okwuma, who was married to an Igala man (1873:217-218). She supported her brother’s section in an Onitsha kingship dispute and, according to a local author, “came laden [from Igala] with requisites to wage successful war in favour of Enendu rival to Diali (Ibeziako 1938:3 ff.). According to Crowther, Okwuma’s son, encouraged by his mother, brought a force of men from Idda to support the candidate (1873:218).
In more recent times, Onitsha women have led organizedresistance to modern improvements such as new markets and a pumping station. In the latter case this was because they wanted to continue fetching water themselves from a favorite stream and also feared taxes. Women are even believed to have brought about the death (many years later) of a British District Officer who oversaw the uprooting of one of their sacred trees.
Most of the important extra-kinship political institutions in Onitsha are largely closed to women. One of these, the masquerade society, is directly involved in suppressing them. No woman under the age of menopause can know the secrets of the masquerade and none can ever wear a mask. Further, women did not, traditionally, belong to age-sets like the men’s, which were one of the major arms of the town-wide political action. They were therefore excluded from the ruling age set, which together with the King and chiefs passed laws for the town.
The ozo title society has as one of its main aims the purification of men from contamination by females, and elevation of men to a status approaching ancestors. Once titled, a man can perform ceremonies which will never be performed by women. The ozo title symbols such as the staffs, boxes, etc. are not owned by women, and only a few specially-designated ones dare touch them.
Women do not become chiefs and therefore do not sit in judgment over cases involving the death penalty. They are even more restricted in their dealings with chiefs than they are with ozo men. The ultimate in restrictions on females is reached in regard to the King, whose wives do not live in his house and are limited in the times they may see their husband. The King’s family Daughters have less a role to play in his life than do those of any other man, being largely replaced by males from the village which, according to tradition, was founded by the daughter of an early King.
On the other hand, women do participate to some extent in all of these above-mentioned institutions, and indications are that this encroachment has been increasing in recent times. Post-menopausal women can become members of the masquerade society, therefore are privileged to much of its secret information, and can even see the masker put on the mask. Some masks also represent women, placing women, symbolically, on a level with men. Initiation of a woman into her husband’s masquerade society is a form of partial incorporation into the husband’s lineage. The men of the village into which she has married take prime responsibility for the arrangements of this initiation, and pay sums of money to the masquerade societies of the woman’s father’s, her mother’s, and her father’s mother’s villages. The largest amount, however, goes to their own masquerade society and is shared among all members, including the woman’s sponsors. Usually, the woman’s son, rather than her husband, is the primary instigator in bringing an elderly woman into the masquerade society.
As stated above, women traditionally did not belong to age-sets with men, though they were grouped roughly as to age from early childhood. Girls of the same age were expected to marry at the same time. Once married, women formed affinal village dancing groups which participated in inter-village activities, and, in recent times, with their new male members, became so effectively competitive with male age-sets that the latter began admitting women on a more or less equal basis. This has only been possible, however, through the fact that the earlier political power of the age-sets has been relocated in other local structures of government.
In regard to ozo title, though women may not take it themselves, they do participate in every man’s title-taking. For example, a man’s deceased mother, as well as his deceased father, must be enshrined prior to his initiation. Also a man must call on his mother’s people for their assistance and prayers for the undertaking. Daughters of the initiate’s patrilineage shave his head prior to his initiation, and the meat of the animal killed at the nze shrine may be eaten by male Daughter’s children and even by Daughters, but by no other women. A virginal Daughter also carries some of the ozo man’s regalia immediately after his initiation, and the newly titled man comes to his home accompanied by men and women of his own clan. Although a newly-initiated man is at first restricted from contact with his wife due to fear of sexual pollution, she may, after giving gifts to the village ozo titled men, take a titled name and become purified enough to serve him in his ozo rituals. While it is necessary for a wife to become purified before having relations with her ozo husband, Daughters, who are defined as asexual, may be present at ozo rituals, touch the candidate, and otherwise be at least minimally involved in the ceremonies. They are not viewed as agents of pollution.
The wearing of ivories by women may be viewed as a type of copying of the ozo society, but of ancient vintage, though expanded of late into more formal organization. This honor may be sponsored by the woman’s son, and thus indicate a strong bond between the woman and her affinal lineage. In that case, both Daughters of her own and her affinal lineages are present at the ceremonies. Women who have put on ivories are not eligible to sacrifice at ancestral shrines, eligibility for which is a major reason why men take ozo title. Such women are viewed as having lifted themselves up and are highly praised. They also take honorific names.
Unlike a female member of the masquerade society, a woman may also take ivories in her own village. The ceremony in itself, does not necessarily indicate incorporation into the husband’s lineage. Wealthy divorced traders generally own ivories, often purchased with their own money. Therefore the “putting on of ivories” may be seen as more an independent achievement, less tightly associated with the lineage context, than is the entrance into the masquerade society.
In connection with special distinctions conferred on women, it should be noted that elderly women, whether or not they are married to titled men or are the owners of ivory, generally select honorific names for themselves, and it would be impolite for a junior person to address them by the names they were given at birth. Elderly women may, however, always be addressed as “mother” without giving offense.
Although women are barred from chieftaincy, they may, if wealthy and prestigious, be called upon to become members of the Queen’s council, somewhat analogous to that of the chiefs in regard to the King. This council made decisions concerning women and market affairs. Apparently, the female members were selected more for their patrilineal affiliations than their affinal ones, though this is difficult to ascertain at present. In any case, membership in the Queen’s council was not a sign of incorporation into one’s husband’s lineage. These women represented their village Daughters, yet also served as a link with their husband’s villages.
The Onitsha Queen was clearly appointed because of her membership in the royal lineage as Daughter, rather than because of affinal connections. The queen led her council in its deliberations, handled market matters and disputes, and conducted certain rituals. Women with similar functions are also found in Western Ibo, Riverain Ibo, and Eastern Ibo communities. It is suggested that Igala influence may have been important in the elaboration of the role of Queen in Onitsha and its copying of certain aspects of the kingship. The Onitsha Queen and her council had certain spheres of governmental autonomy. They were advised by a few second grade chiefs, but this relationship with the chiefs did not prevent the Queen and her council from opposing the King in matters concerning women.
This section has shown that in the extra kin political sphere, as well as in the familial sphere described in the previous chapter, women have significant roles both in their own and their husbands’ villages.
- Editors’ Note: See Henderson 1972: Chapters 2 and 3 for the material she references in the original footnote, refering to the relevant portions of Dick’s dissertation (1963). Return ↩
- He cannot use ritual objects acquired by his father as a titled man, until he himself obtains title. Return ↩
- In more recent times, one woman was expelled from all lineage activities for fifteen years, for having claimed that she was the sole heir to her brother’s pension. Return ↩
- This is true unless such property was inherited from the mother’s mother, in which case it passes to the deceased woman’s sister. Return ↩
- The current (1970) bridewealth amounts to £ 17, plus £ 3 for incidentals. Note that in Nteje (a community near Onitsha) the bridewealth in 1911 was stated to be as follows: 14 goats (£ 7), 400 yams (4 for a shilling), 1600 small yams (40 for a shilling), 40 fishes for 20 shillings, leopard skin (20 shillings), 4 dogs at 5 shillings each, 20 fowls at one shilling each, 15 legs of mutton at one shilling each; 18 fathoms of cloth at one shilling each. Also “my father built two houses for my wife’s father at 20 shillings each” (Nteje vs. Nteje in 1911. Onitsha Native Court). Return ↩
- Medicines of this kind are also used during courtship, and usually contain some part of the person, such as hair or nails, or they consist of some clothing worn next to the skin. Return ↩
- This inference is based on census data obtained during our research in Onitsha. Return ↩
- Meek mentions a case in Nsukka division where a husband refused to accept bridewealth, in order to prevent his wife from remarrying, and this giving him claim over any child born to her by a lover (1937:283). A ruling was passed to prevent this. Return ↩
- Fallers (1957) has indicated that where status is determined by political affiliation, the child is often claimed by the genitor. Also see Goody, J. 1967. Return ↩
- The eagle feather signifies purity It is said to “shed all filth”. Return ↩
- See Henderson 1972: 442,452-69. Return ↩