Trado Marriage: The Itsekiri Way
By Jemi Ekunkunbor
With civilization and more people becoming Christians, the civil and church wedding are fast becoming the preferred choice of marriage ceremonies to unite a man and a woman in matrimony. The glamour and fanfare that characterize these ceremonies make it so appealing that the traditional marriage is often low-keyed and played down. Modern brides look forward to a glamorous wedding gown and pretty, well-made-up retinue of bridesmaids in gay attires; ditto for grooms.
Be that as it may, the African man, and indeed the Nigerian man, knows that the marriage that is most acknowledged and recognised by kith and kin is that contracted under customary law. It is on record and common in many communities in Nigeria that even where a woman has lived with a man for many years and had children for him, such a union is deemed illegal if her bride price had not been paid. In some cases, such a woman can be deprived of her rights and duties during special family occasions when in her husband’s community.
The traditional marriage, which involves a man going to the would-be bride’s family to ask for her hand in marriage, the payment of dowry and acceptance of same by the bride’s parents, helps to seal the deal and unite both families. Being asked for one’s hand in marriage is a mark of respect, not just for the bride but also for her family as well. This kind of marriage differs from community to community and from culture to culture with one recurrent decimal, the payment of a dowry or bride price.
Amongst the Itsekiris of Delta State, the traditional marriage, known as temotsi, is a necessary rite that every daughter is expected to perform. For the bride’s mother, it is an opportunity for her to pull all stops to ensure that her daughter is given out in the most glamorous fashion. For the Itsekiris, known for their rich cultural heritage, the bride is expected to make three appearances during the ceremony decked in rich accessories with which their women are beautified – silver, gold and corals. It is a fact that elegance becomes the Itsekiri woman.
The formal marriage kicks off with the head of the bride’s family welcoming the groom’s family with the presentation of kola nuts and drinks followed by an elaborate introduction of guests. The groom’s family later reciprocates the kind gesture by also making a presentation of kola nuts and drinks in larger quantity than that offered by the bride’s family. This is shared amongst all.
At this point, the spokesperson for the groom’s party presents another bottle of gin and two big native kola nuts and then, states the purpose of their coming.
After much deliberation and inspection of the groom, the bride makes her first appearance decked in silver ornaments on her hair, neck and hands over a matching wrapper. This is followed by entertainment by the bride’s family. Whilst all these are going on, the family members are kept entertained with food and drinks.
By the time the bride makes a second appearance, it is time for the marriage rites proper. It is interesting to note that the Itsekiris remain one of the few tribes whose bride price does not cost an arm and a leg. Till date, the bride price still remains one bottle of gin and 12 shillings. The 12 shillings now is approximated to N120.00 in our current currency. This tradition has been upheld through the years because they believe that giving out a child in marriage does not amount to selling that child.
Some elders explained that this, perhaps, is the reason why when an Itsekiri woman dies; she is taken back to her family for burial unlike in some cultures where she is interred in her husband’s community. Beside the simple pride price, the groom is also required to present other items as gifts for both parents of the bride. The other requirements vary from family to family.
Dressed again in two wrappers and bedecked in gold accessories covering her bare shoulders, the bride makes her second appearance. It is at this stage that the bride price is paid while the representative of their ancestors known as the Okparan prays for them and formally pronounces them husband and wife. Each family head takes turn to pray for the couple while the head of the family on the bride’s side formally hands over the bride to the head of the groom’s delegation.
At this point, the party is in full swing with food and drinks flowing freely. The bride makes a quick third change, trading the gold ornaments for corals. With this final outfit, she adorns her head with the gele or head scarf. It is in this last attire that she makes her way to be presented to the entire family and guests followed by the formal dance of the bride and groom.
It is important to note that amongst the Itsekiris, two wrappers (george of different types) remain the dress code for brides while the men also come decked in wrapper and top known as ikemeje. The look is finished with a hat, either a fedora or sexton hat.
Food and drinks
As with every party, food and drinks are very central to the entire planning as the bride’s family take pleasure in hosting their would-be in-laws as well as friends and family. Traditional delicacies such as banga soup and starch, owo soup and starch with boiled yam or unripe plantain on the side, pepper soup etc. make the list of cuisine served along with other more familiar foods like jollof rice, fried rice, egusi or okro soup served with eba or semo. With drinks, the palm wine is served as a special treat.