• I was captured two weeks after I resisted being married off at age 7 – Victim
By Emmanuel Unah
Many people are familiar with the Obudu Ranch Resort in Obanlikwu Local Government Area of Cross River State which is four hundred kilometres away from Calabar, the state capital. Its beautiful and alluring environment makes life pleasurable and the comfort attracts thousands of visitors every year.
What, however, many visitors to the Ranch Resort are not conversant with is the rustic tradition called ‘Money Marriage’ practiced by the people of the 18 villages of the Becheve community who inhabit the base of the mountainous area.
‘Money Marriage’ is akin to modern day slavery. It is a culture where girls, some as small as three years, are given out in marriage to men, old enough to be their great grandpa, to settle one form of indebtedness or the other by poor parents.
The girl so given out loses all her rights, including to education, as she becomes the “property” of the man who has the rights do whatever he wishes with the girl and if, per adventure, she dies during the course of the marriage, her family replaces her with another girl. And if her husband passes away, another family member inherits her.
The debt in question may be as meagre as N3, 000 borrowed during the burial of a family member, to pay hospital bills, or to undertake one form of communal activity of the other. The debt, oftentimes, increases as the ‘husband’ visits his in-laws with gifts which monetary value is calculated and added to the initial sum collected by the family.
As a ‘Money Wife’, the girl spends her entire life working in farms or hawking her body to other men to raise money to fend for her husband and her children and the children from the man’s other wives. This is one of the reasons for the influx of girls to the Ranch Resort during events like weddings, seminars, workshops and the mountain race to hawk their bodies to raise funds to meet their obligations. Any money so raised is usually handed over to the husband.
The head of the community, Oneen Osim, told Sunday Vanguard that the average Becheve man seeks to have a ‘Money Wife’ because the children from her are the children the man can look up to as his own.
“We have what we call love marriage where the man marries a woman he loves but the children from that marriage do not belong to the man but the wife. Whenever she like she goes with her children but the children of the ‘Money Wife’ belong to the man and he can use any of them for anything including ritual and nobody can question him,” Osim said
According to him, any Becheve man who has no ‘Money Wife’ is not seen as worthy of being called a man because, when he dies, his homestead fades away as his wife would go away with her children.
“If you don’t have a ‘Money Wife’, when you die, you will be forgotten soon after because nobody will bear your name or live in your compound – that becomes the end of you; that is why everyman here strives to get a ‘Money Wife’”
He said also during old age, it is the ‘Money Wife’ who takes care of the man; so she does everything including faming and selling her body to other men to raise money to fend for the man and her children, and, sometimes, the children from the love marriage.
Mr Philip Ukpan, a member of the community, corroborated what the clan head said, stressing that it is an age old tradition and, therefore, cannot be eradicated during their generation.
“The children of the ‘Money Wife’ are your own even if it is another person that impregnated her. Even if the children are 20, they cannot go anywhere but the children of ‘leather bag’ wife or love marriage will all run away with their mother”
The ‘Money Wife’ also loses her rights in her own family as she would no longer be accepted back to the family and, if she tries to escape, she would be ‘arrested’ and sent back to ‘her owner’. This is particularly so with the fearsome Olamde, a local deity, which when a ‘Money Wife’ escapes and the husband invokes it, the woman dies of a swollen body. So to avoid any repercussion, the woman’s family joins forces with her husband to keep her in the man’s house in perpetuity.
Narrating her experience, Maria Ogwu, a ‘Money Wife’, said, “Once you are given out as a ‘Money Wife’ by your family, no amount of cry or refusal will stop them from taking you to the man. I was given out at the age of seven and I resisted and ran into the bush and was eating palm fruits for weeks but they hunted for me and forced me to live with the man and since then I have had five children for him”
Another woman, Comfort Odu, said she had to give out her daughter, Mercy, in ‘Money Marriage’ when her husband took ill and needed N10, 000 to settle medical bills.
“When we collected that money and gave Mercy out, after some years when we got the money to refund the man, he said the amount had increased to N50, 000 and where do we have such sum to pay back? So Mercy has to remain there with the man”
Mr Jonathan Ugbai, an online journalist, who hails from the area, said the community has idols that natives use to enforce the ‘Money Wife’ tradition.
“Olamde is one of such community gods the husband can use to force the woman to stay with him. What the man does is to get dry plantain leaves and wrap them around the idol and that process transfers the woman’s soul into the idol; if the woman runs away or disobeys the man, one of the things he does is to throw that idol into a steam. As the idol soaks water, the woman begins to swell and dies”.
Officials of Cross River State government denied that the tradition of ‘Money Wife’ was still in practice. They claimed that the Child Rights Act has been domesticated in the state and offenders are liable to terms of imprisonment. “So, no such thing exists in any part of the state”, an official in the state Ministry of Justice told Sunday Vanguard when approached for comment while officials at the Ministry of Social Welfare feigned ignorance of such practice in the state.