Reviving The Fading Culture of Eleme Marriage and Traditional Wedding

In his book, Things Fall Apart, the celebrated novelist Chinua Achebe wrote that a clan where the people side with outsiders for their own pecuniary benefits against the custom and tradition of the land, is a clan where they have put a knife on the things that hold them together, and that such a land is bound to fall apart.

Although Achebe wrote about a fictitious African society in that book, the sad reality is that the 21st century African society is slowly falling apart as the thread that holds that society is beginning to unravel and will continue to unravel, so long as we keep trading our traditional and cultural values for foreign and Western ideals.

What is Culture?

I came across five different definitions of culture from a web site (www.tamu.edu) that has left me thinking a lot about what the future of my kingdom of Eleme and her people would look like:

1. Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possession acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group strivings.

2. Culture is the sum total of the learned behaviour of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.

3. Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

4. A culture is a way of life of a group of people – the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and intuition from one generation to the next.

5. Culture is communication, communication is culture.  

The definitions above can be summarized into this: Culture is the way of life – values, experiences, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and art – of a people that defines and differentiates them from other peoples, and is communicated from one generation to the next.  In other words, the culture of a people is their identity.  Or as the following definition from Webster’s Dictionary puts it culture is “the integrated pattern of knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”

What that means is that culture is both a way of learning and a medium of educating future generations. Without learning and education there can be no social growth. According to that definition, therefore, African societies stopped growing the moment colonialism was foisted on us. What African societies now have are European cultures transplanted on the African continent and psyche. That is why we regard a man wearing suit and tie, while sweating under the hot African sun as civilized, but consider the man wearing the more comfortable and weather-friendly caftan, danshiki or tying wrapper around his waist, which are our own ways of dressings, as backwards.

Yet the cultures and traditions we are busy destroying today were the things that bound our ancestors together, because in them are the values of morality, uprightness and truth. Today, Africans have nearly killed their cultures completely, and regard everything cultural as evil; but that is not correct. Culture and tradition in the days of our forefathers, ensured good conduct in society. Anybody who went against such conducts was ostracized or declared an outcast to forbid others from doing the same. Everybody was a watchdog for protection of the custom and culture and that promoted morality in the society.  That was why we had our societies living peacefully, honourably and with respect for one another.  Indeed, respect for elders and for one another was the order of the day among our ancestors.

Today, in the name of modernization and civilization, we have embraced all kinds of evil.  People do things with impunity and damn the consequences, because we have abandoned those things that our forefathers passed down to us, which put control on our excesses. The result is that the land has become polluted and evil multiplies, because of borrowed Western cultures that we now promote and celebrate out of our ignorance.  

Significance of Eleme Traditional Marriage and Wedding

I fear that among my people of Eleme, my generation might be the last generation that still retains a little knowledge of our custom and culture if nothing is done to address it. My interest in this article therefore is to awaken the consciousness of my people, as a traditional ruler of the land (one of the custodians of the traditions and cultures of the land) so that we can save what we have of our culture and tradition and hand it down to the generations to come; before modernization, religion and politics strips everything from us. Custom and culture checkmates a people’s behavior, enforces morality and compels them to live in peace, harmony, decency, discipline and orderliness in the overall interest and protection of the kingdom.  

Sadly, one custom and way of life of the people of Eleme that has suffered severe neglect in recent times is our marriage rites and traditional wedding.  More and more of our people now place more emphasis on court and Church weddings at the expense of the traditional Eleme wedding thereby forcing that rich cultural heritage of our people into extinction.  One doesn’t need to look far to infer that the rate of divorce and broken marriages in our society today can be attributed to the denigration of our traditional wedding.  

That is because the Eleme traditional wedding is a very serious affair.  It is one that ties not only the man and his wife, but also their families together into one.  Not only that, Eleme people place such importance on the marriage institution that there is a part of the marriage rites that involves the ancestors.  Marriage is the institution of a new home, the continuation of the lineage of progenitors past into descendants yet unborn.  So, Eleme marriage is an affair that takes the past, present and future of the society into consideration.      

Stages of Eleme Traditional Marriage and Wedding

The Eleme traditional marriage is quite an interesting one. It is interesting because of its cultural detail. The following are the different stages involved in the traditional Eleme marriage and wedding:

The first stage is when the groom-to-be and his family come with drinks to indicate their interest in the maiden.  However, there is nothing attached to the drink so that the family of the maiden is not compelled to repay the drink if they refuse the young man’s proposal.  

When the young man and his family come to make their intentions known, they do not get a straight reply from the family of the maiden.  Rather, they are asked to go home and wait to hear from the maiden’s family. Thereafter, the family of the bride-to-be will discuss with their daughter and ask her questions about the young man and whether or not she wants to marry him.  After that, they go ahead to carry out other investigations on the man, his life style and family background.  In our tradition, the family has the right to reject the suitor if their findings about the young man give them cause for concern.  If the young man is someone of questionable character, the maiden’s family won’t be inclined to give him their daughter.  Also, if they find unpleasant details about his family background they might not want to have anything to do with such a family. Thus the credibility of both the young man and his larger family are at stake when it comes to choosing a wife.  Our ancestors took time to drum it into our ears that at every point in time we should be in our best conduct, because we are not only representing ourselves, but our entire families and loved ones at all levels.

If the man crosses the first stage, his family will be informed and invited to collect the list from where they would proceed to the next stage which is Oko-oburu Otoor, meaning knocking of door or wine carrying.

Wine carrying in Eleme is quite different from our neighbouring kingdoms, because the suitor gives wine to different persons in the family who are important in the girl’s life. Apart from the father and mother, they also pay homage to other members of the maiden’s family that the father of the bride-to-be points out. The Oko-oboru Otoor involves the following steps:

• The first step is known as Nmi-ogorla meaning discussion drink.

• The second step is Nmi-obina Owa, which means drink for asking for hand of the maiden.

• The third step is Nmi-ejira Owa which means the acceptance drink.

• The fourth step is Osun-Ojiji, which means tying of rope.

The first three steps are done on both the mother’s and father’s side of the maiden.  By the fourth time, after receiving drinks from the prospective in-laws for the first three times, the family of the maiden is said to have ‘tied a rope’ on the bride-to-be barring any other person from coming for the hands of the same maiden.  This is known as Osun-ojiji, our traditional engagement and the rope signifies that the maiden is no longer free to be courted by any other suitor.  

The next stage after the Oko-oburu Otoor (knocking on the door), is what we call Ofula-echii, which mean paying of the bride price. Firstly, the two families settle the bride price and the groom’s family pays the bride price to the father of the maiden.  They also pay an extra sum in sevens (it could be 7k, N7, N70, N700, N7000, etc).  This is seen as money for the ancestors and is paid to the oldest man in the family of the maiden. Then the young man and his family take a goat (usually a very mature traditional female-goat, which must not be pregnant) to the family of the maiden.  This is known as the Mbo-te-ei (‘agreement goat’), and it must be killed in the ancestral hall of the family of the maiden in a ceremony presided over by the traditional ruler of that immediate community or his representative and council members.  That is to create awareness that the maiden is married and is a communal way of putting the woman in check so that other men do not go after her.  Marriage in Eleme does not only involve the living, but also the ancestors, so the slaying of this agreement goat in the ancestral hall of the girl’s family also serves to release the blessings of the ancestors upon the marriage.  

The next stage is when the groom performs what the Eleme’s refer to as Ngor-nka and it is strictly for the mother of the maiden. This entails buying wrapper, water-pot and other household items for the mother in-law.      

Next comes what is known as Oja-Onu, the buying of mouth or mutual feeding.  This is when the mother of the bride invites the son in-law and his family, officially feeds him openly and welcomes him into her family. After that ceremony, the son in-law has the right to enter his mother in-law’s kitchen and eat freely. This is a ceremony done to signify the fact that the groom and his people can eat freely in the home of their in-laws and vice-versa.  This ceremony symbolizes the fact that both families are now one.  

Part of the ceremony of Oja-Onu is the presentation of wrappers to the groom and some of his family members by the mother of the bride.  She personally buys the wrappers and on that day, ties the wrapper around the waist of her son in-law.  She also adds some tokes sums of money to the wrappers    

After the buying of mouth, the family of the girl performs another Osun-Ojiji on the maiden. The first Osun-Ojiji was tying of the rope to show that the maiden is engaged, but this second one is the loosening of the rope and is done on the eve of the wedding day, signifying that she is now somebody’s wife.

If the maiden getting married is the first daughter of her family (Osila), she goes to the stream to fetch water on a fixed date.  That fetching of water is purely symbolical and a way of announcing to the community that she is getting married.  When she returns from the stream, she will then be carried to the market on the shoulders of able bodied young men of her family to buy some minor items.  Again, this is symbolical and to show off to the whole village that she is getting married.   These are other ways of telling the community that she is no longer free to be courted by any other man.  On her return home, the land priest comes to offer prayers for successful wedding and marriage on her behalf.  

It is after the stages above have been concluded that the couple now proceeds to the wedding proper.  Eleme wedding is known as Ngbete or Ngelem.  The bride goes on a procession around the village, accompanied by the sound of the native drum.  This procession finally ends at the wedding arena and the bride goes round welcoming everyone who has come to grace her wedding before going to take her seat.

The Eleme people don’t just give out their daughters in marriage without adequate preparations.  If a maiden is to be married next year, for instance, her parents will use this farming season to farm and grow crops for her.  On the wedding day, the harvest from that farm (yams and other crops) will be presented to her along with other necessary household items needed to start her new home.  They do this to ensure that the bride does not begin her new home by going to borrow or ask anybody for anything.

The Need to Revive this Fading Culture      

From the above, it is obvious that there is urgent need to revive Eleme traditional marriage and wedding.  Firstly, is for the strong bond and family ties it builds among the new couple and their families.  These ties have a way of fostering peace, brotherhood and communal spirit among the people.  This is unlike the so-called white-wedding we borrowed from the West, which instills a sense of individualism on the couple.  

Western marriage teaches the newly wedded to see themselves as different from their families and imposes a feeling of isolation on the new home.  Eleme traditional marriage on the other hand, sees the new home as a continuation of the lineage of both families and fosters a sense of belonging on the couple.  Rather than feeling isolated in their new home, they feel a sense of inclusiveness and belonging to something bigger than just the husband and wife.

It is this sense of belonging that encourages the newly formed home to see the need to contribute to the wellbeing and growth of the society; because they know that they have a stake in the community.

Also, it promotes communal love and fellowship as depicted by the Oja-Onu, for instance.  When this ceremony is between children from different ethnic backgrounds, it goes a long way in bridging the divide between their people.  This is one way through which we can promote national love and brotherhood.

Stages of Eleme Traditional Wedding

S/N

Eleme Name

Meaning

1.

Man and his family come with drinks to indicate their interest in the maiden

2.

Oko-oburu Otoor

Knocking of door or wine carrying. This is done on both the mother and father side of the maiden and involves the following steps:

2a.

Nmi-ogorla

Discussion drink

2b.

Nmi-obina Owa

Drink for asking for hand of maiden

2c.

Nmi-ejira Owa

Acceptance drink

2d.

Osun-Ojiji

Tying of rope to indicate that the maiden is engaged to be married

3.

Ofula-echii

Paying of the bride price. Aside from the main bride price paid to the father, a token in any number of sevens (7k, N7, N70, N700, etc) is also paid to the oldest man in the family of the girl

3b.

Mbo-te-ei

Presentation and killing of the ‘agreement goat’ in the ancestral hall of the maiden’s family. This is supervised by the traditional ruler or a representative and members of the council of chiefs and elders of the community

4.

Ngor-nka

Presentation of wrapper, water-pot and other household items to the mother of the maiden

5.

Oja-Onu

Mutual feeding and buying of mouth of the groom, by the mother of the maiden, signifying the acceptance of the man into the family

5b.

Osun-Ojiji

Loosening of rope to indicate that the maiden is now somebody’s wife

6.*

If the maiden is the Osila (first daughter) of her family, a day will be set aside before the wedding when she will have to go to the stream to fetch water and be carried to the market by young men in her family to buy some items. These are ways of telling the community that she is now somebody’s wife. When she returns from the market, the land priest will visit her and offer prayers for a successful wedding and marriage, on her behalf      

7.

Ngbete/Ngelem

Traditional wedding proper.

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