The Arts

March 6, 2011

Fattening tradition in South Eastern Nigeria

A fattened Efik girl rounds off her fattening parade(Mbobo ceremony) in the market

IN old South-Eastern Nigeria, comprising the present Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Anambra, Enugu, Akwa-Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa and Rivers States of Nigeria, there are some ceremonies connected with traditional marriage, which must be performed before the bride and bridegroom eventually come to live together as wife and husband. Such ceremonies include: fattening seclusion, “Coming-of-age” and “Coming-to-meet” festivities.

Fattening seclusion, is peculiar to the peoples of old South-Eastern Nigeria, while “Coming-of-age” or “Coming-to-meet” are commonly practised among various ethnic groups of Nigeria, but varies from one area to another and from one ethnic group to another. The ceremony of “coming-of-Age” prepares eligible spinsters or maidens who have reached marriageable ages to meet their husbands. It is a special ceremony organized for both sexes, usually in groups. As a result, the eligible spinsters and bachelors are paraded in special attires designed for the ceremony, called “Obitun Dance Costume”, which is worn by maidens. The Obitun costume design is generally blue-black and red stripes to blend with red yellow and blue-black stripes of their head ties and wrapper. They are decked with necklaces of coral and aggrey beads with beaded wallets crossing over the chests. Horse tails and fans are also ceremonial accessories for this dance.

The Nsulu people of Igboland from Isiala Ngwa Local Government Area in Abia State also celebrate the “Coming-of-Age” ceremony known as Obada festival in a colourful way. It showcases maidens between the ages of sixteen and eighteen years, ripe for marriage. It is celebrated every five years either in October or November when rain has subsided. The period of five years interval is given, primarily to allow the under-aged maidens, below sixteen years, who have been given out for marriage by their parents at infancy or childhood to mature. In this regard, maidens below sixteen years in Nsulu-Iand of Isiala Ngwa Local Government Area in Abia State ‘are not eligible for the Obada festival or “Coming-of-Age” ceremony.

This is where the fattening seclusion quickly comes in to play its vital role of preparing the maidens (including the under-aged) for marriage especially among the Efik, Ibibio, Ibo and Kalabari ethnic communities among others, when girls of about fourteen years of age or thereabouts go into fattening seclusion. Some “coming-of-age” ceremonies include tests of strength and bravery for young eligible bachelors who engage in one form of games or other, such as wrestling and the winners take the lead as best suitors.

In olden days too, eligible bachelors were subjected to severe flogging as a test of strength. Often, maidens are betrothed or assigned to husbands at infancy or childhood by their parents. And bride-price is usually paid which entitles the husband legal ownership of maiden as wife, even though they might not have any sexual intercourse until the maiden is of age.

Before the introduction of coinage currencies in Nigeria, bride-price takes the form of iron currency such as hoes, axes and spears. Tin straws are also used especially in Jos Plateau where tin ore was extracted from the extensive alluvial deposits in the old river beds. Use of cattle as currency is predominant among the Fulanis, the Fulani, being a cattle rearing society.

Other local currency items include salt, tobacco heads, feather, farm products, textiles, beads, cowrie shells, copper bars, brass rods and gin among others. But if the bride price has been paid, there is a minimum age she must attain before sexual relation can take place. This is one of the primary purposes for fattening seclusion.

The idea of fattening is to broaden the pelvic region of a girl so that she might be able to “perform” the function of a woman at the time of marriage.

Fattening seclusion is a sort of confinement given to a maiden in old South-Eastern Nigeria who has reached the age of fourteen years or above which therefore prepares her for marriage at completion of seclusion. Thus the maiden is withdrawn from all domestic chores and social activities of her family and that of the community as well, and she is kept indoors.

It is a long period of rest, relaxation and recreation. It is a period of enjoyment and pleasure which involves a lot of eating, sleeping and refreshment. She is not allowed to cook or wash her clothes even her inner wears. A bevy of beautiful young girls are always around her to take care of domestic chores. She does not bathe herself but the elderly women do, who are invited by her mother, probably, those that have reached the age of menopause or whose daughters have been married off.

All that is required of the maiden is to eat and sleep, wake and eat, and nothing else. She does not do any exercise but indoor games, and this enables her to add weight as she is lavishly fed with nourishing food. The Efiks of Cross River State call the fattening seclusion, “Ufuk nkuho”, and the Ibo people call it, “Mgbede” while the people of other ethnic groups of Nigeria have various local names they call it. That is why in Iboland today, when a young lady sits tight at home, doing nothing but sleeping and eating without making any meaningful contributions to the socio-economic welfare of her family, usually, perhaps, one common question that people always ask her is “nwa-agbogho, I no na-mgbede?” (meaning young lady are you in a fattening room).

Also, in Iboland, some women name their daughters “Nwa-mgbede” because of how fat and plump the new baby girl is at birth. However, before the fattening seclusion begins, the maiden does visit her close relations and assists them in domestic chores. She fetches water for them from stream or river, no matter how distant it is. She also fetches firewood from the farm as well as takes part in local palm-oil processing in the family.

This is because it is those people that will in turn release their daughters to help and serve her during the period of her fattening seclusion. The period of fattening seclusion however varies from family to family in relation to the wealth of the girls’ parents. In the past, the duration or period of fattening seclusion is over a year or two, but nowadays, a girl can be fattened for a duration of about a month minimum and three months maximum, according to the pocket of the girl’s parents.

An Efik maiden after fattening seclusion.

Among the Ibibio people and Efiks of Cross River state, it is compulsory for a girl to be fattened, no matter how short the period of seclusion might be. It is commonly said that no matter how charming, succulent and beautiful a girl might look or how rich and wealthy her parents might be, no eligible son of Ibibio land dares marry a girl that is not fattened. It is always a thing of pride for a girl to be fattened in Ibibioland before marriage so that she can fit in well among other fattened ladies as a wife.

They do discuss their life experiences about fattening seclusion as house wives. It will also be a thing of mockery and reproach among relations and friends of the husband whose wife is not fattened. Fattening seclusion usually varies from one family to another or from one area to another, and from one ethnic group to another. The length of time may also vary in years or months. Besides that, Fattening seclusion may take place in group or individually.

The Efik people of Cross River State, for example hold their fattening seclusion in group. This is also applicable to the people of Oron in Akwa-Ibom state of Nigeria. In Oron of Akwa-Ibom state, each girl to be fattened is smeared with palm oil at the commencement of the seclusion. She is given a secluded room, which is cordoned with raffia strands. She is provided with a mat to lie upon, which must be removed after a few days and replaced with a bamboo bed and calabash for the storage of her valuables. In her secluded room, a string of raffia is tied across the room where she hangs all the bones of the fishes she eats during the period of fattening seclusion. This is to exhibit the wealth of her parents. That is, to allow her visitors see how sumptuously she is being fed and how opulent her family is.