The Arts

January 23, 2023

Sipping the cultural brew of African marriage 

By Ikenna Kamalu                     

Authoring and publishing books on the history and sociology of the Ukwuani people have become a creed to Barr. M. Ọ. Ozah, whose latest work, Ukwuani Customary Marital System, charts a course through a hitherto unexplored literary terrain. 

The New Year gift to the literary stock of Ukwuani people is an intelligent foray into the marital traditions, customs and institution of marriage in Ukwuaniland, presented in very lucid and refreshing language and laced with the intellectual vitamins of Ukwuani proverbs. It gives an insight into the marriage customs and observances of Ukwuani people, exploring their ancient and modern traditional marital culture.

In his Foreword to the book, the erudite Chief P. C. Okpor JP., a former Chairman of Ndokwa Local Government Area and retired Director, WAEC International Office, Accra, describes the book as “the first comprehensive attempt to document systematically Ukwuani way of life as regards their customary marital system…. written… in a language and style that will appeal to the average Ukwuani man or woman”, and the author as “a cultural revivalist, a cultural enthusiast and a campaigner for Ukwuani ways of life.”                     

Coming at a time when the institution of marriage is threatened by high rates of divorce, single parenthood, homosexuality and lesbianism, Ozah’s new work which projects the aesthetics of Ukwuani marital system is a bold statement on the need for Africans to rediscover their roots in the face of the failure of Western civilisation. The trademark peace and tranquility of the African home under our traditional system of marriage has remained ever elusive since the advent of Western-type marriages which we legislated as statutory marriage.

As Achebe puts it in his book, Things Fall Apart, they put a knife in the things that held us together. Westernization, colonialism and foreign religions condemned much of African culture, including the marriage system. They forced their worldview on us and the centre could no longer hold.

Today, we are faced with broken marriages, broken homes, torn apart families and estranged spouses. Are these not enough pointers to the failure of western concepts of marriage and family? Are these not enough for Africans to rediscover their roots?

It is this journey of rediscovery that Ozah, a senior member of the Vanguard Newspapers’ team of legal practitioners, has vividly set the pace for his Ukwuani people, pointing out to his readers that Ukwuani marital system is no less legitimate nor inferior to the western system and, as such, one should not be deceived by the white gown of wedding underneath which lie some decadence and putrescence.                            

The nine-chapter book opens with the Ukwuani concept of marriage, defining and stating the purposes of marriage. It describes the nature of marriage in Ukwuaniland, listing about six types of marriage, some of which have become extinct presently.

The author goes global in comparative analysis by citing even international documents like Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women 1979, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child in making informed analogies.

Chapter two of the book describes the entire gamut of choosing a spouse. One interesting feature of this chapter which the author calls background check and avoidable traits is unfortunately sorely missing in most modern, western type marriages, and this absence is often the cause of many failed marriages.

In Ukwuaniland, and by extension in traditional Africa, families critically investigated the pedigree and background of potential spouses in order not to soil their corporate integrity or compromise health and ethical standards. Spouses who marry under the western culture type hardly observe this rule nowadays, the expansive claims of the extended family over members in matrimonial matters having been extensively weathered by legislation, foreign religion and modernity. The result is that many end up marrying socially or ethically incompatibles and sooner than later the cracks and fault lines begin to emerge.

Knowing one’s spouse to his or her roots was very crucial in traditional African setting. The dating and courtship which would have provided modern marriages this opportunity to know their spouses have been unfortunately reduced a base orgy of immortality.                   

The third chapter discusses the bride price, its components, relevance and significance. Its payment and acceptance mean that parental consent was given on both sides to the marriage. The author calls it an endorsement of a stamp of family and ancestral approval and legality on the conjugal relationship of the couple. It formally marks the transition from the status of unmarried to married. It is a mark of legitimacy which secures and enhances the position of the woman as married de jure. It binds the wife in fidelity to her husband.           

The fourth chapter of the book delineates the marital obligations of the parties. As the author pointed out in the opening chapter of the book, marriage embraces and loops in both the immediate couple and their families who share in the rights, duties and obligations arising therefrom. Couples who know and appreciate their obligations are more likely to make a success of their marriage.

As Ozah puts it in local parlance, ogoli mali nso die we shi o ji ogwu na nu a. When spouses understand the do’s and don’ts of their partners, there would be peace and harmony and uninformed observers would attribute it to a spell cast on one by the other.

The author has a way of lacing or summing every subject discussed with pertinent proverbs or saying, adding native meaning and colour and bringing the point to bear on the native reader.

Raising children is the thrust of the fifth chapter which features issues like pregnancy, circumcision, post-natal care or omugwo, child naming and general child rearing. While explaining the rationale for female circumcision, the author vibrantly points out the dangers associated with it and its prohibition by modern law.                                   

The rights of the wife in the family is the subject of chapter six. Contrary to the widely held view that traditional marriage offers the woman little right, if any, Ozah’s work reveals that the Ukwuani woman’s place in the family is eminently fortified with rights. The chapter examines two traditional women bodies, Umuada and Ndiom onusa, female members of a family by birth and marriage respectively, to which the woman belongs and which see to her welfare.

Divorce and the interesting maze of how it is handled are discussed next in chapter seven. Marriage being a lifetime contract presupposes that the union would one day be terminated by the death of either of the parties. Mourning in the event of death is the focus of the penultimate chapter of the book. It discusses such issues as the duration of mourning and levirate marriage.

Contrary to feminist views that traditional mourning is tilted against and discriminatory of women, the author says the mourning period among the Ukwuani, which is about three months of seclusion, was, apart from the show of grief and pain of loss, meant to watch the widow for any sign of pregnancy in those days when there were no electronic scanning devices.

The observation period was necessary so that the widow would not unwittingly and erroneously assign a pregnancy belonging to the decreased husband to a subsequent suitor. Secondly, in traditional Ukwuani, a woman is deemed to be married to the family, not just to her husband and accordingly, on the death of her husband, would be assigned, especially if she is still within child-bearing age, to another member of the family. This is called levirate marriage.  

Ozah calls the levirate system Ukwuani’s social security for the economically unstable widow, protecting her from poaching by fun-seeking men and keeping her in the warmth and comfort of the family at such a time of great emotional trauma. This is a more reasoned position compared to feminist views that levirate remarriage considers the widow as a chattel.

Unfortunately, however, westernization and the dwindling fortunes of the economy have sounded the death knell on this aspect of Ukwuani marital custom and it is now extinct. No wonder the gamut of unmarried widows which provide a sad pool of sexual adventure, giving rise to moral degeneration in modern times.

The concluding chapter of the book is more or less a marriage advisory, a counselling on how to build a successful home. Openness and frankness are keys.                             

Ozah’s work on Ukwuani Customary Marital System is a little piece of a masterpiece in research into the sociology of marriage in Ukwuaniland. The book comes in a beautiful brownish cover with the map of Ukwuaniland on the front, inside which is the silhouette of a couple on a blue background.

The title is in white and black letters atop the map, with the author’s name below the map in black letters. The book is well proofread with very minimal spelling and structural errors. This notwithstanding, one cannot but agree with the publisher that with his 8th book on Ukwuani issues in twelve years, the author has demonstrated his deep engagement with the customs of the land of his origin and his clarion commitment to Ukwuani literature.

Ukwuani Customary Marital System will make an interesting and educative reading for both Ukwuani and non-Ukwuani readers, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone with an interest in knowledge.

*Reviewer: Dr. Ikenna C. Kamalu