The Urhobo people of Niger Delta are indigenous people of Nigeria. It is estimated that about 2 million Nigerians are Urhobos. Urhobo is the 5th most populous ethnic group in the country and the single most populous ethnic group in Delta state. The Urhobo people are concentrated in these towns: Abraka, Effurun, Sapele, Ugheli and Warri. The language of the Urhobo people is called Urhobo (Logaby, 2013). Urhobo people’s history is generally said to have begun in the Edo territory, present day Benin City. It is believed that at the end of Ogiso dynasty, the Urhobos left the ancient town of Udo where they were formerly located to other peaceful settlement territories. Urhobo shares a common origin with its neighboring tribes: Ndokwa, Kwale, Isoko, Bini, Itsekiri and Ijaw as they all emerged from the same Bini Empire. The Urhobo people, although united, consist of 22 autonomous kingdoms namely: Evwreni, Idjerhe, Agbon, Ughwerun Avwraka, Eghwu, Okpe, Ephron-oto, Ogor, Agbarha-Ame (Agbassa), Agbarho Okere, Okparabe, Udu, Ughelli, Ughievwen, Arhavwarien, Uvwie, Oghara, Agbarha, Olomu and Orogun. Each of the kingdoms is headed by the king or clan head called the Ovie or Okpara-Uku. Although the Urhobos share origin and other similarities with their neighboring tribes, they have distinguished themselves clearly in some aspects of culture. This paper would address the distinct nature of the Urhobo people in regards to marriage, family life and festivals.
Nature of marriage
Marriage, generally, is the unification of a man and woman, which is socially and morally acceptable in a society. Within the Urhobo culture, marriage is seen as a divine and cultural unification not just between the couple, but between two families. Families have an important role in ensuring the success of the relationship through all its phases; from the engagement through the wedding negotiations to the actual marriage. Also, it is expected that the families of the bride and groom will intervene to solve any when problems or conflicts within the marriage (Urhobo People and Culture, 2013).
Traditional forms of marriage
There are different forms of courtship and marriage in the Urhobo culture: Esavwijotor Esavwijotor is a marriage pledge made by the parents when their son or daughter is young. This can be based on established ties between families, a business alliance or the observed special character the child. Normally, the marriage is not based on love, as it has been pledged since the potential spouses were young. However, love can develop once they are married. Ose Ose is an unconventional form of marriage where no dowry has been paid, but the union is still binding. It is similar to concubine. Couples may reside together or live separately. They possess the full marital rights and exclusiveness of a real marriage but restricted customary (legal) rights, such as the right to bury and mourn In-laws. (Peter Palmer Ekeh, 2005). Arranged Marriage in Absentia In this case, a man that lives abroad engages his family to marry a woman on his behalf. Both potential spouses may not have seen or met each other at this time. A representative stands in for the groom during the wedding ceremony. It may be mandatory for the wife to stay with the prospective husband’s family for a while whereafter she goes to be with him and live fully as his wife. Love is expected to develop over the course of the marriage. In some cases, either partner may reject the marriage and call it off.
The marriage process
- Pre-Nuptial Activities
- Negotiating the Bride Price and its Importance
This stage of the process begins with the groom and his family appointing a friend or a relative to communicate interest to the prospective wife’s family. This representative becomes the intermediary between the families through all stages of the marriage process. Before this, the man’s family must have conducted discrete inquiries to unearth any unwelcome hereditary diseases or any intolerable trait or behavior shown by her mother. There is a belief help by many among the Uhrobo that the behavior of a mother can indicate the daughter’s future behavior in her matrimonial home (Edevbie, no date). Once the man’s family is satisfied, the representative formally approaches the parents of the girl to officially declare the man’s interest to marry her. Typically, the man’s family sends the woman’s parents gifts to increase the chances that they will treat the request favorably. Usually, the response is not given at that time, but after the intermediary returns multiple times. During this delay, the girl’s side has the opportunity to conduct their own investigation into their prospective in-laws and also to discuss the proposal within the family. If the results are good, the proposal is accepted and the message is conveyed to the man and his family through the intermediary (Edevbie, no date).
The potential husband and his family visit the bride’s family several times to negotiate some marriage prerequisites stipulated by the family of the bride, most importantly the bride price. The bride fee doesn’t consist of just money, but also includes other symbolic gifts in the form of kola nuts, bitter kola, honey and gin or palm-wine. The paying off the bride fee in Urhobo traditional wedding has many purposes.
- It secures and legitimizes the place of a woman in a home and in society, as she is now a married woman and of higher status than before.
- It puts approves and authorizes the living arrangement of a woman residing in the husband’s home.
- It legitimizes the place or role of children in the family. Children with fathers that neglected the payment of bride fee, are considered as em?r?se (children born out of wedlock) and face discrimination both inside the family and by society.
- The payment of the bride fee is a reminder to the husband to cherish his wife and treat her with respect.
- It is sign that the bride’s family approve of her marriage. So, the bride enters the marriage assured that she can depend on her family for support if she ever needs it.
Though the bride fee in every region is already known, the negotiation of the bride fee is complex. Individuals involved tend to speak indirectly, using proverbs and idioms in Urhobo to instruct or to make demands. During the negotiation, the bride’s side tends to ask for more money, emphasizing the superior virtues and qualities of their daughter. The other side attempts to reduce the price by asking for compassion, considering of all their previous efforts. The bride’s family usually responds favorably, as long as the fee doesn’t fall below local standards. This negotiation can last for a long period until both parties are tired and so choose to reach an agreeable settlement. The Wedding Ceremony: Bride Price Payment and Handing over of the Bride On the day of the ceremony, the groom’s family will appear at the bride’s home. The bride’s family will offer drinks and kola nuts and money to them, in accordance with Urhobo tradition. After this preliminary entertainment, the guests are asked why they visited. The guests state that they have come with the intention of marrying the bride for their son. If the bride’s family accepts this proposition, next comes the process of the identifying of the bride they wish to marry. The bride’s family will parade about four girls in front of the groom, who will reject them all. The groom’s family would have to pay the rejected girls some money. Then, the bride is presented to the groom to verify the real identity of his decided bride. After she is identified, the bride is asked if she wants to marry the man. The family of the bride can only receive the bride fee if she agrees. Then, the groom or his family pays the bride fee to the bride’s family and upon acceptance, the bride’s father pours out a libation to the gods and ancestors. “The libation is poured using a native gin (ogogoro) or may be represented by Gordon gin and kola nuts”.
The Head of the family says a prayer “in a spirit of ?kp?vw? (thanksgiving) to God and in remembrance of the ancestors, whom he calls upon to bless the marriage. He invokes the five themes traditionally used in Urhobo prayers, namely ufuoma (peace), omakpokp? (good health), em? (children), efe (wealth) and ot?vwe (long life)”. The bride then sits on her husband’s laps. The gin is handed to the husband to drink who, after his first gulp, hands it to his wife who also drinks and passes it back to her him to finish, as a sign of respect. After this is done, they are declared husband and wife and both families shower the couple with money.
This is the last stage of a full marriage per Urhobo custom. It is the offering of the bride as wife to the groom’s family. After the wedding ceremony, both families meet to set a date to move the bride into her husband’s home. The groom’s family and friends are waiting to welcome his new wife. They perform a special ceremony to summon the husband’s ancestors to also accept her, and bind her to her husband. There is a marital blessing during which the parents and older members of the family pray and bless the bride and her marriage. Festivities celebrating the arrival of the bride will continue all night and well into the following morning.
Differences between traditional and modern Urhobo marriage
When traditional Urhobo Marriage is compared with the Urhobo marriage of today, some differences emerge. These differences can be attributed to the influence of western culture or evolving values of the society. Boy Meets Girl Courtship This is the courtship process most commonly used in modern marriages, as opposed to the traditional processes listed earlier. In some cases, the parents may not know of the initial courtship, and may not be involved at all until their son or daughter informs them. Both families then get involved, and the plans for marriage are initiated. Modern Marriage Process Most modern marriages still preserve some aspects of the traditional marriage rites, in addition of a Church ceremony and the Registry. Family Involvement From the courtship stage to the wedding ceremony to the post-marriage life of the couple, Traditional marriage is centered on the families. Traditional marriage encourages family intervention or mediation, which has been shown to reduce the chances of divorce or separation, but family intervention in contemporary marriages is seen as interference. Marriage is between the bride and the groom, so the families do not have to be actively involved.
Love in the Marriage
The basis for traditional marriage is wealth, prestige and for children. Love, whether it occurs later or not, is not at the forefront. On the other hand, western influence has promoted the notion that marriage cannot function without love making intending couples adamant to see and love each other before and during the marriage. In modern marriage, people get married because they are in love. Monogamy Urhobo traditional marriage is polygamous in nature. It allows the husband to marry as many wives as he can afford to. However, polygamy has faded in modern times, due to the prevalence of marriages based on love and the social taboo now attached to it. Modern Urhobo marriage is monogamous. “Monogamous marriage consists of the exchange of mutual vows by the couple at the exclusion of other women”.
Traditionally, there is a double standard among the Urhobos whose gods punish women who commit adultery while the men are spared. The husband can to marry as many wives as or have as many affairs as he likes without punishment whereas, a married woman dares not allow her hand to be held by another man. “Usually, Eri/Erivwi, (the spirit of the ancestors) will attack the woman with some ailment and even kill her husband and children until she confesses or an oracle reveals it. The atonement is based on a strongly held belief among the Urhobos that one who has defiled the ancestors needs purification to avoid their wrath. The woman is stigmatized for the rest of her life and required to sacrifice a goat to appease the deity and to ritually cleanse her before she can continue her marriage if the man wouldn’t send her”. Within a modern marriage, adultery is always wrong, regardless of who commits it. However modern Nigerian society still retains much of its patriarchal ideals, and thus, even in modern society the condemnation of adultery is still more severe on the woman.
Rights of the Woman
In a modern marriage, women are conferred with the right to property upon the death of their husbands, giving them necessary support. This system recognizes the contributions of the woman towards the creation and management of the family home. She is also given the rights to her spouse’s pension.
Implications for Polygamy and Traditional Marriage
Modern Urhobo women now have both forms the traditional marriage and the western marriage, which excludes polygamy. Financial independence from their husbands, as a result of better education, freedom and lower tolerance, has led to a rise in the level of divorces. Women are now more aware of their legal rights in the marriage and more often exercise those rights e.g., a woman can now evict her husband on the grounds of domestic violence.
EVALUATION OF MARRIAGE IN URHOBO CULTURE
What elements should be kept or eliminated?
Based on the implications of the above differences between Traditional and Modern Urhobo Marriage, some aspects of traditional marriage should be retained as part of the cultural heritage, while some aspects must be discarded. Aspects of the cultural marriage that are cherished and should be kept are the family involvement in the marriage and the concept of communal celebrations between family, friends and villages. On the other hand, some elements of traditional marriage should be discarded. Polygamy and its effects on the women in society should continue to die out. The suppressed rights of women during the courtship and wedding and within marriage should also be left. Another aspect should be discarded is the concept of Omot’ohwofa. Its literal meaning is, “a girl is another person.” But connotatively, it means that it is a waste of money to educate the female child, because she would eventually get married, change her maiden name and join her husband’s family. So, even though she is your daughter, she is just “another person” (ohwofa).
How can marriage contribute to national development?
Traditional Marriage is a union of two families, clans and even villages. This tendency towards communal living can be an avenue to foster unity within Nigeria. Marriage between cultures, if encouraged, can be the means through which tolerance of the cultural differences can develop. National Development is about raising the standard of living of a people. A united nation will be able to work better together to develop the country.
The traditional Urhobo family is basically extended- including one’s parents, grandparents, great grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. Children raised in the typical Urhobo traditional setting would regard any of their uncles or aunts as their parents and their nephews and nieces as their brothers and sisters. That family system was the model and the nuclear family of western civilization is strange and deemed hostile to the traditional values pertaining to family. Even in modern Urhobo towns, loyalty to one’s family and village continue to have a strong hold in the actions and behaviors of their people who live away from the communities of their home-towns. The Urhobo people are more accustomed to the extended family model with the nephews, cousins, grandparents who are taken care of by the children. There are the invisible (spiritual) and the physical members of family. The members of the family which are considered non-physical, especially ancestral beings and deities, are powerful and are regarded as higher than human beings. Their presence is fully acknowledged in the Urhobo community, they are manifested in man-made objects, local shrines and altars of the non-physical. In cases where spiritual beings are believed to have been reincarnated in children personal names are given to those children. Harmonious living of the various Urhobo communities is fostered by Religion. Religion has always been an important part of the Urhobo culture. It controls all facets of their culture and brings about socio-political and economic structures. In the quest to attain harmonious living within communities there are some channels through which traditional Urhobo religion follows. They include transfusion of certain key religious ideology, initiations, rituals and sacred objects, some of them are:
- Belief in ancestors
- Libation initiation rituals
- Dominant ritual symbols
- important traditional institutions
- ways of improving communal life.
Through maximum lineages and families the Urhobo people live in a very sociable environment and usually stay together to form communities. Urhobo people have many things in common. These include farms, waterways and market places. They also have communal shrines, squares and centers, different forms of masquerades, rituals and festivals for play activities, religious purposes and economic and political activities. Members of the same community can be differentiated by expertise in various professions, forms of trade and skills. Some traditional Urhobo societies are focused in rain-making, weaving of baskets and other items, wood carving, practice of local drugs, fishing or hunting. All these characteristics portray the communal living of the Urhobo society. There are two dimensions of the Urhobo society, the non-physical and the physical dimensions, the world of the physical, and the world of the non-physical, souls of children and divinities. The non-physical beings are usually portrayed in the form of symbols, objects and shrines.