Eighty-three-year old Nwanyidinma looked disconsolate as she sat in front of her thatched, mud house. There was no one to keep her company apart from her little ‘bingo’ dog and a host of chicken strolling round her premises. Occasionally, she used the horsetail in her hands to chase the dog away from the chicken. In the animal world, it would not be out of place to conclude that the animals were playing hide and seek in this peaceful environment. That, however, is not for Nwanyidinma.
The weather was cool and breezy and so she was just out there watching the movement of the leafy orange trees and palm trees in her neighbourhood.
Beyond this natural scene, Nwanyidinma has a heavy heart. Not that she has lost anybody in recent times, but she has a bigger burden occupying her inner recess as she watches the dog, the chicken and the trees.
But Nwanyidinma’s three remaining children (all females) and those close to the octogenarian know too well her challenge. Her bigger headache borders on what happens to her late husband’s property if she passes on. Her husband had died several years ago. Her only son had also passed on. In fact, her son died in his early 20s; unmarried.
As the tradition in her Mbaise community demands, women have no right to inheritance of property, especially landed property. And here lies the octogenarian’s headache. Her three daughters are living happily with their husbands and children. So who takes over all her husband’s landed property? Who takes over the pear trees, palm trees and other natural inheritance belonging to her husband? Will her husband’s brothers/relations inherit all the wealth and property, things she and her husband laboured strenuously to acquire?
By the way, before her husband died, there was an estranged relationship between him and his brothers, an action that further severed their relationship. Will these ‘enemies’, as it were, now take over all the wealth?
For Nwanyidinma, this dilemma, more than any other thing, occupied her mind. However, from a neighbouring village, information has it that a young unmarried girl had been impregnated. The person who she claimed got her pregnant had denied paternity and her parents were on the verge of disowning her for ‘shaming’ them.
So as the octogenarian relaxed in front of her house, she was thinking of how she would send a delegation to the young girl’s family to seek her hand in marriage. If the girl’s family agreed, she would bring her and her unborn child to her home. The overall game plan is perhaps that if she puts to bed and the child is a boy, he will naturally belong to the family.
Few weeks later, Nwanyidinma did just that. She went and married the pregnant young lady, whose unborn child, she believed, would automatically become her grandchild and a bona fide heir of her property.
Indeed, there are so many likes of Nwanyidinma in some Igbo communities, especially in Mbaise, who ‘marry’ other women in order to have male children in their homes.
These ‘female husbands’ as they are known, are practising a tradition that is long accepted in the communities and which has gone a long way to solve a need, a need to perpetuate a family name.
Charity Igbokwe, from Ahiazu Mbaise is another typical example of a ‘female husband’. The 68-year-old widow had an only son, Donald Igbokwe, who had died in an accident over 30 years ago. He was unmarried.
But Donald’s name has not gone into extinct. His aged mother made sure she married a woman for him ten years ago and the young lady has had four children –three boys and a girl- for the deceased.
Igbokwe, while speaking to our correspondent, said it was necessary she married a woman for her late child in order to keep his name alive.
“What I did was just the normal thing anybody in my place would do. My child died tragically. He was my only son. My husband had died many years ago. So I had to marry a woman for my late son. My son’s wife now has four children. The children of course, answer Donald’s name.”
Social but not sexual marriage
Granted, in Igbo land, marriage is basically between a man and woman. However, there are cases where marriage between a woman and another woman is permissible.
It is important to note at this point that in this case, it is not in any way, lesbian marriage even though it is same gender marriage. The marriage is traditionally and socially acceptable but it is not sexual. There is certainly no sexual attraction between the ‘female husband’ and the person being married for either late husband or son, as the case may be.
Explaining more on this issue, a community leader in Onicha, a community in Ezinihitte Mbaise, Nze Ebere Iwuagwu, told Saturday Punch, that the females in question do not really go to a lady’s family and seek her hand in marriage.
However, he said, the woman goes out, looks for the wife, makes the necessary enquiry about the person and then provides the bride price and other necessary stuff required for the marriage to hold.
Iwuagwu said the female husbands are always accompanied by male relatives who would be the ones to actually ask for the lady’s hand in marriage from her family.
“In our community, women don’t really ask for the hands of the women in marriage, traditionally. But everybody knows the new wife belongs to the female husbands, but during the course of marriage rites, the ‘female husband’ stays at the background.
“In a case where the woman’s husband is dead, then her late husband’s male relatives will accompany her and would even be the one to marry the wife in his name. A woman can’t just get up and go to a family and say she wants to marry another woman from that family, it is not done! However, after the marriage ceremony, when they get home, everybody knows that the new wife is the ‘property’ of the aged woman and she would live in her domain,” he said.
Iwuagwu said this tradition which is almost as old as forever, has become the norm and both parties – the female husband and the wife- are not stigmatised in any way.”
‘Why we marry wives into our homes’
Most of the women who marry wives are usually elderly and have passed the age of child bearing. In most cases, the woman may have been childless or had just female children. The women just want heirs who would take over their property and wealth when they are gone.
Explaining why she had to marry a wife for her late husband, 70-year-old Adanma Ikem from Ezinihitte Mbaise, said she had had four children, two males, but her sons had died tragically even before they could get married.
“Two of my sons died when they were in their 20s. Their death was so painful. I cried my heart out. I cried not only because I lost my children, of course, it was a painful experience, but I cried because I just thought of how my husband’s name would just die like that. Who would perpetuate the name? Our lineage would just be forgotten. My husband had died earlier on. My daughters had married. So I was left with no other choice.
“I went to a neighbouring village and I was lucky, I found a girl who was pregnant and she was willing to be a part of my family. I and my relatives went and paid her bride price. She has been living with me for many years now and she has five children, three boys. The children are mine now and at least, our family name will not just die like that,” she said.
In other scenario, a woman who didn’t have a son could actually ‘marry’ a wife for her ‘fictitious’ son for the same reason as procreation.
Madam Angela Ugwuani, 75, is one of such women who didn’t want her family name to go into extinction.
Ugwuani who had five daughters, didn’t marry the young wife for her husband, rather, she got a wife for a son she never really had.
“I didn’t have a male child. I know that. But I still couldn’t allow my family name to die. Somebody told me about this girl who just had an unwanted pregnancy and I enquired about her. I and my husband’s relatives married her under our native law,” she said.
Ugwuani’s case is similar to that of 62-year-old Sabina Njoku, a retired primary school teacher.
In Njoku’s case, she is childless and she needed her home to be alive with children.
“I wasn’t blessed with a child in my marriage and back then, adopting a child wasn’t fashionable. In fact, in my village, it was more acceptable to go and marry a wife that would have children for you than to even adopt a baby. So, I had to (with my husband’s relatives of course) marry a wife into my husband’s home. She has been delivered of so many children,” she said.
Biological fathers just ‘sperm donors’
Interestingly, even after the woman (new wife) starts procreating and giving births to children, the kids would automatically bear her surname (expectedly, she would have changed her maiden name to that of the family that married her) regardless of who the biological father of the child/children may be.
Nobody actually remembers the biological fathers of these children. In fact, they could best be described as sperm donors; they certainly do not have any other responsibility on the woman or the child she eventually gives birth to.
Iwuagwu explained that there will never be any point where the man would come out and claim he is the father of any of the children the woman eventually gives birth to.
“It is never done! The man doesn’t come into the picture at all. There is no way the man would come out and claim paternity of the children. Nobody will even listen to him. He doesn’t have any parental right to the children. The children conceived in this kind of arrangement would bear the late man’s name even if their biological father does exist.
“Even if the children become governors or presidents tomorrow, their biological father can never come out to claim them as his. There is nothing like paternity test. Don’t be surprised, the woman may not necessarily inform the man about her pregnancy. Even if the child ends up having a striking resemblance with the biological father, nobody would relate them openly in any way,” he said.
Saturday Punch findings revealed that most of the men who impregnate these women are usually married men who wouldn’t want to expose their escapades.
“The woman can even go as far as sleeping with men from neighbouring village. Smarter ones go far away to have relationships and consequent pregnancies. But then, in all, both parties know the reason for the relationship. The man will not come to claim the child and the woman will not go to him for any financial help towards raising the child,” said Uduma Ike, a village head in a community in Aboh Mbaise.
Ike also said that the ‘female husband’ takes care of the children and sees to their financial needs.
“It is the female husband who is now the head of the home that takes care of the wife and the children that she will have in that family. Nobody expects the biological fathers of the children to contribute to their welfare. Even if the fathers would help, they wouldn’t do so openly. If the child is sick, there is no way the woman will take the child to the man and ask for money for hospital bills even if he was the one that got her pregnant. She dared not even tell anybody in the village that it was this or that man that got her pregnant,” Ikem said.
‘We are married women in every sense’
Cynthia Obiajulu, (not real names) 26, got married five years ago, to a man she never met or heard of. Her supposed husband had died so many years ago and his first wife, Udoka, who didn’t have any male child, had married her into the family.
Obiajulu, who now has three kids, all boys, refused to tell our correspondent who the biological father of her kids is but insisted that she is ‘legally’ married.
“I don’t think it is proper to ask me who the father of my children is. It is private. But the truth of the matter is that I am a married woman and my husband is late. Whether my late husband is the father of my children, it is not anybody’s business. But my children are answering their father’s name and nobody would claim that he fathered them; that is absurd.”
Obiajulu, who said she has a fantastic relationship with her older co wife and the person who ‘married’ her, said she also has strong respect for her.
“She is my mother. My children call her ‘Mama’. They regard her as the mother and not grandmother. My kids even see me as a big sister and not their mother. I have a great relationship with mama. It was through her that I came to live here.
“Even though I am traditionally married into this home, I have my place. I don’t disrespect mama. We don’t have equal rights in this house. She is my benefactor and she would be the one that takes care of us,” she said.
Uchechi Eziudo, from Ahiara Mbaise is another example of a woman married to a ‘female husband’. Eziudo, in her early 30s, said she was raped at an early age of seventeen and she got pregnant thereafter.
“Nobody could touch me with a long spoon. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with me. Even my parents were so embarrassed of me as if I wanted or enjoyed to be raped.
“So when this family from a neighbouring community came to marry me for an aged man who was more than 60 years older than me, I had to accept. It wasn’t as if I jumped at it but I had no choice.
“It was actually his wife who initiated the plans of bringing another wife to the family since she was childless and since the man was very old. She wanted somebody who would have kids so that the family name would not die.
“Our husband died just two years after I was married. But I have had four kids since then. Nobody worries me or asks me who got me pregnant each time. I am a married woman and nobody feels I am doing anything morally wrong,” she said.
No stigma attached
As much as some people may feel it is adultery/ fornication, but in these communities, it is not regarded as such! There is no way the offspring that come from this arrangement would be seen as bastards.
Mrs. Edith Azuka, a native of Aumuariam, Obowo, in a chat with Saturday Punch on the issue, said there is no Igbo man that would find such a union distasteful.
“I doubt if there is anybody that would condemn this act. It has been traditionally and socially accepted in these communities. There is nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make the women less moral. It doesn’t mean they are prostitutes. The children conceived in this process are not bastards and nobody would dare to ask them ‘who is your father?’ Of course, we all know that question is the highest insult you can give to any Igbo man or woman.”
‘I am not a bastard, I know my father’
Because of its sensitive nature, getting children conceived in such arrangement to open up was not so easy as most of them threatened to deal with our correspondent for asking such question.
Ebenezer Azu, (not real name), a third year student of Imo State University, who decided to talk to our correspondent after being promised that his identity would be protected, said he knew about his history but doesn’t have the powers to do anything about it.
“I am not stupid. When I became an adult, I learnt my father had died so many years ago, even before I was born. Curiosity made me to ask questions. I asked and persisted before my mother had to open up to tell me the whole story.
“She refused to tell me who my biological father is. But then, I will not call myself a bastard. I know my father. He is late. Even though I never met him, I still believe he was my father. I cannot allow myself to worry over things and circumstances that are beyond my powers. Since nobody has tried to insult me, there is no reason for me to feel bad about it,” he said.
Also, a lawyer, Ndidi Osigwe (not real names) said she found out much later in life about her history but still believes that she has one father and not even the person whose genes she carries.
“Our mother had five of us. It got to a stage when I was much older, I had to wonder why most of us don’t look like her or like the picture of the person they said was our father. It aroused my curiosity and I had to ask my grandma who I am close to. She was the one that told me the circumstances surrounding our birth. I am not worried. All I know is that I have a father, I cannot say that I am a bastard, never!”
From a sociologist point of view
Giving more insight on same gender marriage, a sociologist, Mr. Monday Ahibogwu, said the issue is a prevalent one and has been in practice for a long time.
“It has been there and there are some reasons for this. If the man in the family is not mentally balanced and he is the only progenitor in that family, a woman in the family can decide to marry a wife on behalf of their brother who is deranged. The new wife would be excused to have male friends who would get her pregnant and then, her children will still bear the name of the man who is not mentally balanced. This is culturally acceptable.
“Also, in a family where all the children are females and they are all grown up and married, one of them can decide to marry a wife in their late father’s name. The sons the woman will have will be for her father. She has her own children but she marries a wife for her father in order to be children in her father’s house.
“Then again, there are also women who marry wives for their husbands because they couldn’t conceive. These are the reasons why some of these things happen.”
Anibogwu reiterated that children conceived in such arrangement are usually not stigmatised.
“You cannot stigmatise them; it is even forbidden to stigmatise them. You may even be ostracised by the community if you try to stigmatise them. They are part and parcel of the community. The reason they are brought into this world was to fill a gap. If a child feels bad that he is conceived in such arrangement, then that is his personal feeling and not the feeling of the society.”
Anibogwu also added there is no way the biological father would try to claim the children.
“Remember, in Igbo land, if you have not paid the bride price of a woman and she has kids for you, no matter what, the children belong to her family and not yours. You are just a sperm donor. Unless the bride price has been paid, the children belong legally and culturally to her parents.
“If a widow has sexual relationship and she gets pregnant in the process, the children still remain those of the dead and have the same inheritance. The person who got her pregnant cannot come to claim them.”
While agreeing that the children may not have the same characters especially if the woman gets pregnant for different men, Anibogwu said usually, characters of children are determined by the way they are brought up.
“The children may not have the same character because of their DNA but don’t forget that most times, character is usually a product of upbringing and not necessarily DNA.”