Lawrence Enyoghasu And Vera Wisdom-Bassey
The idea of a lover wedding his or her partner at death, reads or looks like a scene, a chapter taken from Zulu Sofola’s famous play, Wedlock of the Gods. The only snag here is that it is neither a play nor fiction.
In many parts of Igbo land, the practice of a man or woman wedding their dead partners has refused to die a natural death. It is still being practised in many places today by traditionalists who strongly believe in the constant interaction between the living and the dead.
Test cases of victims
One of them, Chinatu Ekpo, a middle-aged woman, recently got married to her sweetheart, Iheanyichukwu, 67, at a public wedding ceremony, attended by relatives, friends and well wishers. The only problem was that the man she wedded was dead. The man who died, sources say, after a short illness was blessed with two children: a boy and a girl. Though they got married in a traditional way, they could not bring themselves to do the white wedding.
This was what prompted the family to organize this wedding on the day of her husband’s burial. As the interment got underway, the wife dressed in a white wedding gown sat down soberly in front of the casket. This was to signify that a white wedding was taking place.
Her cheeks were covered in tears as sympathizers continued to troop in to console her with prayers and promises. It was indeed a painful death for the woman, her family, and those who knew her husband while he was alive. He was not all that sick they were quick to tell you. He only complained of a heart pain. But before you could say Jack, he was gone.
After the burial, as custom and tradition demand, sympathizers approached the woman with their gifts before proceeding to the graveside, to drop another set of gift items like yams, minerals and wrapper for the dead. Afterward the visitors are entertained. Chinatu told Saturday Sun that her joy was the children that she bore for late Ekpo.
In Ihiagwa, Imo State, Innocent Nebo, a middle-aged man ran helter-skater as he tried to complete the marital list of his late girlfriend, Amarachi Akazie. She allegedly died while giving birth to their only child, Ebere. But he could not fulfill the usual traditional marriage rites before death kicked in. While others appeared to be in gay mood, given the unfolding sight, Innocent seemed to be the only one in mourning mood. He sat beside his wife’s graveside with Ebere cocooned in his arms while resting her head on his chest.
All of a sudden, his little baby girl began to cry and did so for hours as if she knew that her mother was the one under the heap of red earth in front of her. This made Innocent drop some tears when he tried but could no longer pacify her. At that point, some sympathizers approached him to console and to lead him to a seat.
“I am sad,” he said to one of our correspondents with a voice slightly above whisper. “My world has come to an end. The only woman who loved me after God, has gone to the great beyond while trying to give birth to our child. She won’t be there to see her daughter grow up and give her life-lessons. I don’t know what to do for her now. I can only do what is needed because I have to transfer all the love I could not show her mother, to her.”
Believers, practitioners speak on the age-long tradition
Narrating similar experience, one Jude Ozokwo, 46, from Ideato, Imo State, said that his sister, Chinemerem, was a victim of such circumstance. In her own case, she and the man she was living with somewhere in Europe did not formally solemnize the relationship in holy matrimony before she suddenly took ill and died.
“She was pregnant without the husband seeking the blessing of our parents,” he said. “Traditionally, the child she gave birth to did not belong to the man. The man used to live with my sister in Europe before she died. We could not allow him to bury her until he performed the traditional marriage rites and paid her bride price.”
The stories of Chinatu and Innocent are all-too familiar one in many parts of Igbo land where the living marry the dead in holy matrimony, traditional or Western. The tradition expects the living partner to formally marry the deceased partner in a public ceremony if there is a child or property involved before the surviving partner could be allowed to lay claim to any inheritance between them. That is, in a situation where such was not done before one of the partners departed the world.
Speaking on the significance of the age-long tradition, a traditional ruler in Isu, Imo State, Jude Omuma noted that seeking the consent of the parents is traditionally legal and morally right. But sometimes it is not always so, he regretted, especially for lovers that met and started to relate in Diaspora.”It is like meeting a girl in the city then falling in love with her,” he explained. “The person starts a family with her without seeking the consent of her parents. This consent is sought by the man leading his family to see the parents of the girl. The meeting or marriage might be in the village, right under the nose of the girl’s parents; they might even know you or eat with you every day.
“Many men who get into such situation usually put the blame on lack of money with which to fulfill the traditional marriage obligations. They meet, maybe during the period of courtship and the lady becomes pregnant. Instead of the man to do the needful, he starts to procrastinate. Such a man may continue to vacillate until his wife gives birth to all their children. Before you say Jack, the children have grown up. If care is not taken, he may live with the woman say for about 15 years without performing proper marriage rites and paying her bride price. The Igbo believe that a woman becomes your own only when you’ve gone to see her parents to officially seek her hand in marriage. And this request is granted after necessary rites had been performed. The rites involve settling the men and women folks separately and paying the bride price.
“If you don’t do it all the children that the woman gave birth to, by tradition, belong to her and her people; this is why we insist on payment of bride price, even after that person has died. The man’s family must find a way to help pay the bride price, in the case of a woman. In a situation where the man is dead, his children can pay the bride price of their mother.”
Anayochukwu Okeigbe who hails from Aguata, Anambra State, said that there is no fixed amount for bride price in Igbo land and therefore it can vary from place to place, whether that is being done for the living or for the dead.
“The bride price has no fixed amount,” he took time to explain. “It all depends on your agreement with your in-law. It does not even concern the kinsmen. It does not come in the list of things to be done for them. It might be one kobo. But whatever rites there are to be done are better performed while the couples are alive because the moment death happens, couples find it costlier to marry their late partners because the in-laws, would then have superior bargaining power. The father of the girl might give stiffer conditions because he had just lost a daughter and might have been pleading with the man to come and do the needful while the girl was alive. If he didn’t do it at that time, doing it now she is dead will cost him something.”
He explained that the reason the Igbo don’t see the need to change the tradition is because it has helped to put many things in check. “It is an Igbo tradition,” he insists. “It is not maliciously done to punish anybody but to uphold tradition. It is done to cut short the waywardness of some youths; it is not right therefore to abolish the culture.”
A conscientious objector states his case
But Evangelist Peter Chukwu, member of the Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Renewal doesn’t seem to buy the idea of continuing to retain what he sees as an outdated tradition. “I don’t like it because it is God that gives children,” he said. “The father of the child should be given the right to raise his child. What if the Lord had taken her before she grew up, would they have to question Him? Another thing is: when the boy grows, would the mother’s family tell him that he does not have a father simply because he did not pay his mother’s bride price? How will the child feel?”
He regrets that in many parts of Igbo land a child born in such a situation is still being treated as an outcast if the biological father didn’t perform the necessary rites. “The children born in such a situation don’t have equal rights with the bona fide sons of the land. No land, no property will be given to them by the late mother’s family. They also don’t have the right to take a title.”