|Samuel Bayo Arowolaju||Wednesday, May 18, 2005|
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INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE:
A STUDY OF THE YORUBA NATION (PART I)
arriage institution is as old as the human race. It is also as prominent as the human society; transcending country, nationality, race, religion, and culture. It is one of the basic socially acceptable relationships among the human beings. Given, my knowledge of traditions and cultures of many social groups may be limited; the definition or constitution of marriage my be different; and the ceremonies and the rituals of marriage might also not all be the same; yet I have not found one race, no social, ethnic or cultural group populated by human beings that does have what is socially acceptable relationship between a man and a woman. What might be different, to some degree or extent, might be the degree or level of the sanctity or levity by which marriage is held. Granted the above postulations, we will start this discussion on marriage institution with the basic or fundamental assumption that marriage is a universal concept with many human societies except those who voluntarily decline.
The sub-topic of "A study of the Yoruba Nation" is deliberate for two main reasons. Firstly, having seen marriage from a macro-sociological perspective as stated above, as it relates to man in his society, marriage should also be seen from a micro-sociological perspective as it relates to man in his home, culture, and sub-culture. I choose the Yoruba people of the Southwest Nigeria in West Africa because I am Yoruba and can easily recall my personal experience, knowledge, and understanding of the people and culture and sub-culture to which I belong. Let me however state here that my knowledge of this national group is very limited as there are as many sub-cultures as there are many ethnic groups within the national Yoruba group. There are the Egba, Ijebu, Oyo, Ijesa, Ife, Ekiti, Akoko, Owo, Ondo, Ikale, Ilaje, among others. Believe me, each having its own sub-cultural differences within the larger Yoruba culture, driven by their lineage structure and dialectical differences, which might not be apparent or known to outsiders. This can also be said of other national groups in Nigeria and Africa.
Come to think of it, culture simply, can be described as the totality of the ways of life of a given people. A direct corollary to this is that there will be as many different cultures as there are many different peoples. People here means, an indigenous group of people or people that belongs to the same social and cultural group; who speak the same language or the same dialect in a sub-cultural group, and possibly can trace their origin to a common ancestor. For the purpose of understanding, we can see culture from the perspective of Core-culture and Culture-periphery. As one move away from the core culture or the center of the culture, the more diffused or say diluted if you may, the culture becomes, and including the language which may later becomes dialects.
This is why an Oyo man in Oyo state in Nigeria is still a Yoruba man as much as Ekiti man in Ekiti state and this is what accounts for the differences within similarities in the Ekiti dialect and Yoruba language they both speak. Most importantly therefore, this is why the sub-culture of the Ekiti might be different from that of Oyo man; though they are still the same Yoruba. From the above postulations, it can therefore be rightly said that the institution of marriage in Ekiti though with some similarities, might be different from what is found in Oyo. Again, this is why it might not be right to discuss marriage at such a national, continental, or global level as some would want to or often do. The direct and concurrent implications of this, especially to people outside those cultural or sub-cultural areas, are that there are stereo-types or generalized statements or conclusions that are erroneously dished out to innocent people. One of the purposes of this article is to correct such wrong assumptions, misconceptions, and therefore wrong impressions of Africans.
However, above all, there are the 'home-culture', the family upbringing, and the role of role models in the life of individuals. This is where individual values, virtues, ethics and ethos come in. While an African or a Nigerian, or Yoruba might openly state that his/her father has or had 12 wives and 30 children, I can say that my father had just one wife and five children. Yet, I and such a person, and our parents live under the same culture where polygyny (and not polygamy) is culturally permissible but not imposed. This is where sociological question comes in: Is it the society that makes man or the man that makes the society? A word of caution! There are very few cultures where polygamy is practiced but there are some ancient and modern societies where polygyny and polyandry are acceptable. Polygyny is here defined as where it is culturally acceptable or permissible for a man to marry more than one wife. Polyandry on the other hand, is the opposite, where a woman can have more than one husband. Polyandry is a combination of both polygyny and polygamy.
For instance, I have sometimes been asked by some of our Afrocentric African-American people in the United States of America, to explain the origin and meaning of what they call and highly regarded as the "marriage ritual of jumping the broom in the African culture." The first time I was asked this, I was careful not to dismiss the ritual as not African because I am not knowledgeable enough to know what all marriage rituals are in all the socio-cultural groups in Africa. Up to this time of writing, I don't know where and when in Africa, where marriage ritual of jumping the broom is or was observed. My lack of this knowledge or information does not make me a ninny or dismiss the ritual as unreal. It only shows the diversity and uniqueness of cultural practices with different peoples in Africa and in the other places.
Not being a repertoire of the knowledge of all African cultures and traditions does not mean that one is a dummy or an illiterate in African Peoples' Social Values and Cultures. This is where many will have to be educated that Africa is not a country though many people consciously or ignorantly treat her as one like USA. This is done by most for their self or egoistic political expediencies. It is high time such people are told that Africa is the second largest continent in the world, with more than 50 countries from Algeria to Zanzibar. Her 1998 estimated 850 million population accounts for over 12% of the world population living in a land area of about 12 million square miles. If language is one of the big driving force of culture, and it is; there are more than 900 different linguistic roots or stocks in Africa; out of which more than 50 are spoken by people who are more than half a million in population, from the Afro-asiatic in the north to Xhosa in the south. These exclude other dialectical sub-groups, which will run into millions. In all, there are more than a million distinguishable linguistic and cultural groups in Africa; from Akan to Zulus. Then, it can be assertively stated that it is unrealistic or unreasonable, and it is totally unacceptable for anyone to speak of an African culture in the midst of millions of African cultures. What can be said of Africa can safely be said of Nigeria where we can count at least 250 ethnic groups and therefore sub-cultures.
In addition to the above, is the polarization brought in by the introduction of Islam, Christianity, and other non-indigenous religions from other parts of the world. We have to emphasize that religion is a very important subset of culture. Since there are no people without its religious beliefs, so the systems of worships and rituals have always become an integral part of the culture of the people. Each group identifies a "higher power" to which all questions without answers by man or all phenomena beyond human understanding are directed. He is called God in English, Elshaddai in Hebrew, Eledumare in Yoruba, Chineke in Igbo, and Ubangiji in Hausa. To a very large extent, these religious beliefs have helped redefined, remodeled, and reshaped the institution of marriage within the various cultural groups. Suffice however to say that from whichever angle we might want to see it, marriage has become a social, cultural, religious institution and fast becoming a political institution, which has served and will continue to serve the social, political, economic, emotional or psychological, and physical needs of mankind.
Marriage is held very sacred and in very high esteem; and of a very social and moral value among the traditional Yoruba. I say traditional Yoruba, to reflect the general cultural values among Yoruba living within the core-culture or in the cultural peripheries and who are bonded by the traditional values as opposed to those who have been acculturated into the western cultures through the instrumentalities of the mass media or living outside their indigenous boundaries. There are certain Yoruba cultural values that an average Yoruba man or woman is expected to uphold irrespective of location and distance from the core-culture and home. I will have to be apologetic if inadvertently I introduced ethnic bias. It is neither intended nor meant to impose my Ekiti or Home sub-cultural values on this discussion or the other Yoruba ethnic groups. It only further exemplifies the difficulty in discussing the institution of marriage on a country or continental or on international level.
Among the Yoruba, marriage is between families and not just individual man and woman who met somehow and think that they can live the rest of their lives together. In most cases it is the two parents who do the dating or courtship on behalf of their son and daughter. It was even a taboo for the husband and wife to be, to meet even on the street before the marriage night. This is predicated on the fact that it is a social and family dishonor and disgrace for a bride not to be found as a virgin on the night of the wedding when the marriage is traditionally consummated. This means that premarital intimacy or intercourse is treated as a social taboo or even an abomination by the Yoruba, which no one thinks of committing.
Daughters are given out into marriage for various reasons, including friendship, good character, and the valor of the bridegroom or his family. Where the two families were not close friends or associates who know all the dark and bright sides of one another, painstaking and thorough background checks are conducted to make sure that there are no communicable diseases like leprosy, lunacy, insanity or any other genetically transferable malformations or defects like barrenness. They will also check for criminalities or such social vices within each other's families or lineages. The family of the bride to be will also have to make sure that the groom to be is not lazy but hard working and being able to provide and care for his new family. It is only after the two families were satisfied with the results of the background checks that the family of the man will formally arranged for a special ceremonial visit to the woman's home to inform her family of their interest in her and their desire to court her as a wife for their son. If the answer is yes, then, courtship starts, and again, it is between the two families. How long it lasts before engagement and marriage is decided by the two families.
I have read some commentators who said that marriage among Africans is like going to the slave market to buy a slave, which is why African men treat their wives as slaves. This is baloney! Though some families demand and receive bride-price for their daughters, I don't think this is enough reason or excuse to say that Africans treat their women as slaves or property. If some people do this, that is not because any culture or tradition expects them to do that. The exaggerated slave's mentality portrayed by such writers is not only a lie, but it is a generalization that amounts to a crime against the whole Black Race. Since I have said I would only speak for the Yoruba, then let me categorically state that Yoruba people do not buy their women at marriage or do not treat them as slaves.
Though some families may traditionally exchange the symbolic bride-price, this does not amount to the purchasing price of their daughter. In many families or lineages like mine; usually, after the offer and acceptance of the pride-price, the same amount is immediately returned to the groom's family with an emphatic statement that their daughter is not for sale but for care. That what they demand, want, and expect is a man and home that will nurse, nurture, and take good care of their daughter as a wife. Again, let me state here that this may not be a general representation of how bride-price is exchange in all the African cultures and the subcultures including the Yoruba, yet, I can safely say that there is no culture that wittingly or unwittingly condone mal-treatment of women.
Let me again comment here, on how many writers and commentators often misuse the concept of pride-price and dowry in marriage; in the same way they misuse the concept of polygamy and polygyny in the family structure. Pride-price is a payment by or in behalf of a prospective husband to the bride's family as in many cultures in Africa like the Yoruba. Dowry on the other hand is the whole system of money, property or estate or payment which a woman brings to her husband in marriage. It is also a gift of money or property of choice, which a man brings to or for his bride. While pride-price is traditionally or culturally required of a man for the woman, dowry is traditionally or culturally required of a woman for the man.
Another area often commented on but which has also drawn a lot of misrepresentations is the system of polygyny which allows a man to have more than one wife in many African cultures including Yoruba. This is not without their reasons. The typical traditional African economy is agrarian. They live on the land either as farmers or as Shepherds. The wealth of an average African then was measured in the acres of land under cultivation or the numbers of heads of cattle he has in the pasture. In those good old days, there were no hired labors as everybody in the community was busy managing his own economy. Also and most importantly, the man as the head of the home is the only bread baker and not just a bread winner. He is the only provider, the woman is a helper. In many of the cultures, the women were stay-home mothers especially in Yoruba (this may not be for all cultures or sub-cultures). They did not farm the land, though they help during planting or harvesting seasons or on occasions when the works on the farm were light.
Now, it means the man alone is left to work the land and provide for the family. The only available source of additional hand for labor was the sons of the man. It follows therefore, that the more sons that are in the home, the more available extra hands to help on the farms or on the fields. Remember I say sons and not daughters, because women (including wives and daughters) were generally exempted from labor. Therefore, to have more labor, they needed more sons, to have more sons, they needed more wives. This also accounted for the prime positions given to male-born children in the family. Also, this is why a man whose wife continuously gave birth to only female children would marry another woman; hoping that the new wife will give him a male child who not only would work on the land with him but will also inherit the land after him. Women are not generally allowed to inherit landed property because lands were family owned, and a woman at marriage permanently belongs to her husband's family as divorce was equally never thought of. To inherit a land on her father's side would therefore mean transferring that piece of land for ever to another family - her husband's. Africans, especially men, are not the "sex-machine" or the male chauvinists that many writers and commentators have portrayed them to be in their condemnation of polygyny.
Let me conclude this part by saying that the effects of industrial revolution, introduction of Christianity, and the western education, which brought the school system and the western culture also seriously affected or influenced the traditional virtues, values, homes, and family dynamics in many African cultures. Among the Yoruba in particular, fathers started sending their children to schools, many embraced Christianity and its "One Man one Wife doctrine." There were also the trades and the apprenticeship system and the monetized economy, all of which have very positive effects on the culture and tradition of the Yoruba people especially in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many men started limiting their children to numbers they could care for or send to school within their available resources, and therefore limit the numbers of wife they have. I see this as a positive acculturation since no culture is static but all are dynamic and subject to change. The facts remains however that the basis and fabrics of our culture were never taken away or destroyed, otherwise, we would not be Yoruba anymore.
Without been unnecessarily ethnocentric, I would say that Yoruba in Nigeria is one of the most culturally conscious, schooled, active, and responsive people. Yet, none of the allegations, misconceptions, and misapplications of its culture by these writers and commentators applied to most of the people, even without their western education. For instance, my father, not a "born again" Christian as many would say today, in the early 1940s had just only one wife, my mother; and five children all of whom are university graduates today. My mother was never bought as or used like a slave by my father. I never saw him raised his voice or his hand on her, yet none of them was part of the so-called modern culture or civilization, which many are advocating we should imbibe today; at either own perils or at the perils of their homes and families. The simple secret for marital bliss then was that both husband and wife knew and honored their roles and responsibilities in the home, without one trying to usurp the roles of other. They never compete with one another but they compliment one another. This was not an exception then but a general value and virtue among Yoruba, and especially the Ekitis. We will come back to this later.