WHEN SHE HAS A CHILD OUT OF WEDLOCK
(Ancient Tradition of Igbo People)
— There is a deity in Awkuzu, Anambra State called Nengo. If a maiden gets pregnant and her lover denies the responsibility, the Priest of Nengo — carrying his ‘iyi’: the sacred oath — would approach the young man with a singular question: ‘i laa ka ó na ilaaró?’ (Did you sleep with her or didn’t you?) —
It is almost impossible to find an old man in any community in Igbo land who is a bastard. The truth is that some of your relatives or even you were from a lineage of the ‘Sons Born In The House’ (nwa ime mkpuke) who were not claimed by their biological fathers. The ancient tradition accommodated such children. A child born in a man’s compound automatically became his child – until the biological father came to claim the child.
Those children, if not claimed, lived a normal life, they joined the kindred, and lands were given to them. No one addressed them as ‘Nwa ime mkpuke’. Some of them did not even know the truth for the tradition of the old forbid the stigmatization of those children. That is why there is no word for ‘a Bastard’ in the Igbo language, and also the reason it is impossible to find an old man in any community in Igbo land who was born out of wedlock. They are among us, and your fathers would never tell you about them – until a very serious dispute that requires the tracing of lineage comes up.
In some Igbo communities, a maiden who got pregnant outside wedlock brought shame to her family and lived with the baggage. She could still get married, but her dowry and pots of wine might not be complete; moreover, respectable prospects would not ask for her hand in marriage.
In those days, to avert the shame, the family of the girl would do everything to find out who impregnated their daughter, and if a suspect agreed, they would send the girl to him. But if he denied — in a place like Awkuzu — they would invite Nengo priest for oath swearing and a singular question: ‘did you sleep with her or not?’.
(The Priest is not interested in your excuses, or number of other men that knew the girl, all he wants to know is if you have ever slept with the girl. Once you have ever slept with the girl, you must pay her dowry or face the wrath of the Nengo.)
But there are other parts of Igbo land where women that gave birth out of wedlock got married faster. Their reason was that if a girl gave birth in her father’s house, it meant that she was productive – her husband would be rest assured that the girl is fertile. In those parts of Igbo land, such women (with a child out of wedlock) attracted the most eligible bachelors in the community.
— It is not an abomination in Igbo land for a woman to get pregnant outside wedlock and there were records of abortions – ‘ike ime’ with herbs. —
Fornicators were not stoned to death, and such woman could marry according to her luck. But if the father of the child (born outside wedlock) later changed his mind and came for his child, he must perform every customary rites for marrying a woman before taking the child.
(note that the rites were performed just to take the child only – and not to take a wife also.)
Take for instance, if Obi put Ada in a family way and denied earlier being responsible, the child would become one with Ada’s siblings. If Ada got married to another man, and Obi – having repented – wanted his child back, he must pay Ada’s dowry, bring the pots of wine, and the tubers of yam before he could claim the child; while Ada would still be in her legal husband’s house. If not, the child would remain in Ada’s father’s house, grow there like one of Ada’s siblings.
So, the reason you do not know any of your bastard relatives is because there are no bastards in Igbo land. A child is a child. We do not reject humans or stigmatize them with a title. Children were seen – even in the past – as gifts from the gods. The term, ‘Amaro Afo Ga Amu Eze’ (loosely translated to ‘You Do Not Know The Womb That Would Give Birth To A King’) is normally used when a maiden gave birth in her father’s house. It is more of a consolation or defence mechanism to accept whatever came.
The essence of this essay is not to promote promiscuity but to throw a beam on the traditions of the ancient African community using Igbo as a focal point (we – subsaharans – are somehow connected in our customs and traditions). We need to appreciate that our ancestors were conscientious humans that had laws and orders that governed them.
Permit me to share the powers of an Igbo woman tomorrow – Who decided who she married; If she would stay in a marriage or not; If she was free to have lovers.
Nwamaka is one of the oldest Igbo names meaning ‘A Child Is Beautiful.’ There were no bastards in Igbo land, they were sons and daughters of the soil, until the foreigners invaded.