This write up emerged as a request to offer an explanation to the question of when do people establish marriage intent and what symbolic rite can act upon it, therefore express or define that intent with a systematic kinship cultural authority. I shall attempt to answer this question by looking at the commencement of traditional marriage rites some of which are symbolically and customarily indispensable in a culture context. I will show how the Igbo create marriage intent and agree to marry a couple to cohabit, fulfil rites and advance themselves.
Having said that, below is a response I provided to a family who sought for this write up to help them settle a prolonged marriage dispute by their lawyers somewhere here in North America. It is also important to say that no one should worry but count oneself blessed to marry Igbo men and women. They are about the best keepers of marriage, and indeed, they work so hard, care and support marriage as a life time commitment. Paying bride price is an obligation but it does not stop marriage from proceeding and being lived out. Some traditional rulers or Ezes have taken bold steps through legislations and palace orders to control the cost of marriage in Igbo, yet one can only dispense what one can afford and move on, including a token fee to symbolize bride price to secure final blessings and moving in to the home of the bridegroom where a bride is expected to live for the rest of her life. Once any form of marriage has occurred, the Igbo think of home custom as the basis of direction. To reach an intent for marriage, the law of palm wine and kola nut carrying, presentation and sharing will not be waived.
Sharing this information with readers is a part of cultural analysis and education that can benefit us to know more of our culture and when and how to apply it in situations that we face in life. The point is, culture is a function of community identity, activity and behaviour and it is designed to help its owners and practitioners to solve problems and live meaningfully within it.
Generally, in Igbo culture of Nigeria, there are always some critical marriage questions people regularly ask. Such questions are supremely fundamental that we must address them and provide counsel around them. The importance to explain cultural approaches and issues that they pertain to is that stable and troubled marital states unfold due to differences partners bring to the marriage. A marriage is a vow to a common life-long lasting love transaction between two individuals and their families and communities. It is uncommon to see two people jump into marriage without involving their families. Families are central to any form of genuine and blessed marriage. Alulu di mkpa, to marry is important, yet it is set out to ensure happiness, hope and success by all those involved. To choose not to marry is frowned at, but to marry, it must be endorsed by the families of the bride and groom whether they live at home, in town or in another country.
It is shown in Igbo as it is also relevant in similar cultures that when two people and their families agree to marry-in a bride or marry-out a bride, it comes with the boldness to recognize, accommodate and share marriage rites, vows and outcomes. As they do so, they are fulfilling cultural needs and obligations. To marry according to Igbo culture is to follow the rules of participating kin communities as wife givers and wife takers to ensure social order and progress are put in place. Every marriage is prayed for to succeed by procreating, have good health, build family house and own property, contribute to community development, as well as live good and long life. Although marriage is a competitive form of social relationship; it is adored and celebrated with pomp and pageantry. To belong and become respected as a successful member of the community, a matured male and female are expected to marry according to the tradition of Igbo marriage system.
Currently, I have been asked to show at what point in time or which event in Igbo marks a genuine marriage. In other words what social exchange transactions confirm and confer the right to say that marriage has occurred and the couple can start forming a family and become recognized as husband and wife? Would such a marriage rite culturally count as to when marriage has started and is therefore endorsed? As such, how do Igbo people record their times of marriage and kinship events that embody a recognition and awareness of a marriage? When does marriage get said to exist and become a lived experience?
To address the above questions in light of having been consulted to affirm the status of Igbo marriage, I make bold to say that there may be symbolic social versions or options available to different communities in Igbo land. But the bottom line is that in Igbo society, account is recorded and narrated in social stories about what happened and who is involved in marriage transactions that customarily accord hope and comfort to marriage givers and takers. Until certain social ceremonies that promise order and relevance are carried out, marriage in Igbo can be termed temporary or unfinished.
However, I am concerned in this rendering with the immediate point of symbolic social action that confers awareness and genuine accord to marriage agreement. Said otherwise, I am to indicate at what point of a marriage stage and time the Igbo hold fast to say that marriage is truly initiated and therefore accorded a true rite to stand as agreed marriage for a husband and wife.
Drawing from being engaged in different forms of marriage analyses and representations in Igbo society; and having published books and articles related to the same, I make some informed assessment of the social ceremonies that duly accord rights and obligations to marriage between partners and their families. Let me as such state that across Igbo communities – at home and in the Diaspora, it is central that individuals, usually a man and a woman – will develop interest in one another or may be referred to or discovered, recommended and linked up by friends and kin people.
Upon agreeing by two individuals to marry with love and interest, they will contact their respective families and kin persons and share their proposals, including seeking for advice and support or otherwise. Investigations are carried out to agree to suitability by both families. Once investigations to show that the intended marriage will be valid and successful for the bride and groom to proceed; they will traditionally and genuinely visit each other's homes to fulfil marriage agreement rite. Here both families will connect and enact the tradition of in-lawship. By connecting, I mean, an officially planned or arranged visitation will be carried out. The family of the groom will carry palm wine and other related items of social exchange to the family of the bride on an appointed market day – to socialize, agree and endorse the marriage or not. It is important that this happens. It begins the initial and powerful starting point to carry the marriage forward as an endorsed marital state.
To explain a bit more clearly this question, "when actually is the intent of marriage established? Precisely, when do the Igbo create marriage intent and live within it as a couple? Does it matter to have marriage intent created and given a rite in the culture? Certainly, it matters for the Igbo to create intent to marry in a special culturally allowed meaningful way. In other words, why is marriage intent created as a social obligation? The intent to marry and live as husband and wife is created once the two families have reached an agreement that the couple can marry and give the couple their support and blessing. Traditional food items namely kola nuts, palm wine, snuff, and dry gin must be presented and consumed to honour the event. Discussion of the moment may or may not focus on the bride price at the same day. Usually bride price payment can be made in a different ceremony when the suitor is able. Once the couple is pronounced husband and wife by their families, they can start relating, visiting and living as husband and wife. Clearly, this means that the relationship is valid and recognized starting from the singular social exchange event of carrying marriage palm wine with kola nuts, snuff, dry gin and other relevant gift items in-laws can share and identify with the rite of marriage awareness and blessing.
Furthermore, the visitation for the declaration of intent, agreement and blessing is essentially and symbolically to look at one another, share stories and questions of whom you are and weigh the potential of the suitor and bride. It also helps to look at the promise to marry a daughter out from the family. Once both families are satisfied to proceed with the marriage, this day marks the beginning point the bride will be addressed as a wife (nwunye, nwanyi ya), and the groom (di, di ya) as a husband to one another of a person respectively. For example, the groom will start being called or addressed as Patrick, Di Ngozi, and similarly the bride will stand to be addressed as Ngozi, Nwunye Patrick.
The significance of this ceremony of awareness is culturally deep and powerful. It confers the obligation for dignity, respect, security, safety and protection of one another. In other words, marriage has been declared and recognized and the two individuals can start acting as husband and wife with full rights and responsibilities. In addition, there are other social ceremonies that sustain a healthy marriage in the kinship light. As the Igbo adopt the beginning stage of recognized marriage with palm wine carrying, sharing of kola nuts and hot drinks, including good meals of commensality and blessing ceremony, a suitor is encouraged to carry out such ceremonies, namely the payment of bride price/wealth and the larger feasting by the community with a list of material items for women, men, elders, youth and in-laws.
These social exchange transaction ceremonies are expected to be fulfilled as long as a suitor can afford them. In cases where a suitor may not be able, they do not stop the marriage from being recognized in the event the partners continue to live together and share married life and times. Social exchange ceremonies around marriage negotiations are important to show that effort has been made to confirm responsibility to care and support by both sides of the male and female partners.
After social exchange rites such as payment of bride wealth are completed, any off spring resulting from the marriage will culturally belong to the male who paid the bride price, including all forms of inheritance rights. A suitor who lives outside home can send or instruct his or her family and siblings to assist him or her with running the course of fulfilling the marriage ceremonies.
However, the most important evidence of a recognized marriage dates from the very day and time of carrying the first palm wine and kola nuts and sharing them with the family of the bride and having the marriage intent declared and awareness pronounced and welcomed. Authoritatively, once a marriage is conceived and agreed upon, any other social exchange ceremonies can be immediate or prolonged. Marriage ceremonies can continue even after the partners have been living together for a long time with children.
To count how long one is married, is not based on the day bride price is paid. Rather it is based from that very moment, day and time the first marriage palm wine carrying and kola nuts are placed, shared and intent of marriage is pronounced and blessed. The awareness is therefore critical and it is the very cultural and social manner of approach which accords the notion of proper engagement and recognition of the marriage with respect, dignity, responsibility, therefore a symbolic action is performed to advance the marriage without fear or ridicule.
Let me conclude this awareness of state of marriage by saying that when two adult persons agree to marry, they are culturally obliged to introduce themselves to the two families in the first place. Once the families agree to the call-up, or quest, for marriage the marriage is considered valued. It is understood as a concrete step in the right direction to live and consummate the marital interest. It is further the responsibility of the two families to call on their larger communities to celebrate the marriage through social exchange transaction ceremonies. Ibu nmai alulu nwanyi (to carry marriage wine) - is so tenable that it must not be ignored or played with for any marriage to be recognised and respected, therefore stand out to be given a mutual oral or written history of long or short existence. In all cases of completed marriage rites or cases of marriage rites being-in-progress, once marriage wine and kola nuts are carried out responsibly, shared and endorsed, a history of the marriage is said to have earned a time and as event that it surely began and made sense.
Let me also note that after the carrying of marriage wine and kola nuts, providing social exchange items and paying the bride price or wealth, two other registrations are called for in the modern time since the introduction of western law courts and Christian religious rites. It is expected that in order to validate a marriage in the local government marriage registry and in the office of the clergy, questions regarding the marriage endorsement, ceremonies and payments will be asked and witnessed to by both families.
As this submission is requested for my expert opinion, I have provided this detailed information regarding when the Igbo of Nigeria in which I was born, socialized, studied, represent and write about as a professional social and cultural anthropologist, create marriage intent and live within it as a couple.
I have strong hope that I have been able to point out the customary rite that marks the beginning of marriage intent and what follows after it. Once marriage intent is established, agreed to and blessed with presenting of palm wine, kola nuts and meal which are shared, the event is served as a validation of welcome and the starting phase to address the male and female as husband and wife. They can live together and share responsibilities even as other ceremonies are in progress or being undertaken to celebrate the cultural fulfilment of the way we marry.
At Christmas like it is currently, many traditional and Church marriage ceremonies take place. The intent to marry gives hope and safety for families to support working through the period of marriage and living together. Igbo society is one of the best defined cultures that build sustainable marriage relations. As suitors and brides show themselves for the taking, parents and siblings engage in wishes, prayers and blessings to make their wards connect and succeed. Marriage is everything for the Igbo. It is an obligation, a demanded social payment, and be it known that it is not a choice to refuse to marry the way we marry.
Merry Christmas and Happy Experience of New Year, 2014.
Ezumezu 1, Ehime Mbano, Imo State, Igboland