Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, , at sacred-texts.com
THE first great event in the life of an Ibibio girl is her entrance into the "Fatting-house," on the occasion of Mbobi--i.e. "The Coming of Small Breasts."
This so-called "Fatting-house" is a room set apart in the home of the parents for the seclusion of daughters while undergoing the process of fattening up, which among West Coast tribes is thought necessary for their well-being. During this time girls are not allowed to go outside the compound walls save on very special and extremely rare occasions. Theoretically they are not supposed to pass the threshold of the "fatting-room." They do no work, and are fed up and pampered on every side.
Before undergoing this seclusion for the first time, young girls are led down to the edge of some sacred pool or stream or that from which the village drinking water is drawn. A sacrifice is offered to the indwelling naiad, and the following prayer recited over each maid:
"Behold! Here comes your child who is about to enter the Fatting-house. Protect her that no evil thing may have power to harm her while she dwells therein."
There is a beautiful appropriateness in this choice of the spirits of streams and pools as the special guardians of maidenhood. So close, indeed, was the tie that among Efiks, and indeed all Ibibios, as well as amid the Ibenos, a small tribe of Ibo race driven by persecution to leave their homes and settle in the southwestern part of the Eket District, a special day in every week was set apart on which none but pure maids might go down to the springs reserved for the drinking water of the village. This day is called in Efik "Akwa Ederi" or "Greater Sunday," to distinguish it from the lesser holiday called "Ekpiri Ederi." Should wives, or those no longer maids, have failed to provide a sufficient supply for the use of their household on the eve of the festival, they must either persuade some maiden to fetch it for them, or thirst till dawn of the following day.
A story in illustration of this ancient tabu was told us first by Mr. David Ekong, son of the former head priest of the chief Ibeno juju, Ainyena, and native minister of the church established by the Kwa Ibo Undenominational Mission in his native town. He stated that he had heard the tale from a very old man of Ibeno. In it the feminine water sprite, a male tree spirit--for among his people the genii of the great trees are thought to be male--and the leopard guardian of sacred spring and grove, all play their part. It was afterwards told us by an Efik woman, the sole difference being that in her account the tree spirit was feminine. It runs as follows:
"There was once a man who had two wives. The daughter of one of them was very sick, and in tending
her the mother, whose name was Adiaha Anaw, forgot to go down to the spring and fetch enough water to last them over the sacred day of Idemm (fresh water). When the child thirsted and begged for a drink, the mother took some water from out a jar provided by her fellow wife, since she had none of her own. When the latter discovered what had been done she was very angry, and ordered the poor woman to go and fetch some with which to repay her; although, by so doing, she knew very well that the law of the juju would be broken. Since there was no other way to provide drink for her child, the poor mother was forced to take her water-jar and go down to the spring on the forbidden day. On the way she passed a place where a great tree stood, and, as she drew near, the spirit of the tree stretched out long branches over the road and blocked it so that she could not pass. In great terror and perplexity she waited a while, and would have gone back home again, but that the need of her child urged her on. Then she made a little song, stating her case before the genius of the tree and entreating help and protection. This was the song that she sang:
"'I know that to-day is the day on which only maids may go to the water;
But yesterday I could fetch me none, because of my small sick daughter.
I begged my friends for even a cup, but none would grant such a thing;
So now, I pray you, open the road, and let me pass to the spring.'
When the tree spirit heard the singing, he swept
his branches aside and allowed her to pass on; but, a little farther along, she met a great leopard, who stood before her, blocking up the road, so that her heart again sank with fear. Indeed, so terrified was she this time, that she turned and ran back along the homeward path, but again the thought of her child gave her courage to face the terrible beast. To him also she sang, in a sweet, soft voice, bemoaning her hard case; and he too, moved with pity, let her go by. At last she came to the spring, and there, at its brink, she lifted up her voice and sang a third time, entreating forgiveness for thus breaking the rule of the juju. As she finished, the naiad rose from out the pool and spoke gently to her, bidding her take what water she needed without fear. Before she left, the spirit also gave her rich gifts to bear home to her child. So with these she came back laden.
"The first thing which she did after her return was to give back the water taken from the other woman. When the latter saw the presents which her fellow wife had brought back, so envious was she of the other's good fortune that she determined to go herself to the spring, although she very well knew that this was forbidden.
"As the second woman walked along no obstacle blocked her road. The tree spirit did not reach out so much as a twig to stay her, while the guardian leopard let her pass unhindered. Only as she stood on the brink of the spring and bent down to fill her jar did the water-sprite call upon the stream to rise around her. Over all the place it swirled, ever higher and higher, till it overflowed the lips of the terrified
woman. In vain did she strive to free herself, for she was held by a force there was no resisting, and at length sank and was drowned in the spring which she had polluted--not, like her fellow wife, from dire need, but only through greed, because she was envious of the rich gifts bestowed upon the other."
It is on account of the cleansing and fertilising powers ascribed to water that maidens are led down to pool or stream before entering the Fatting-house.
In those families which regard a tree as their special guardian, young girls, before entering upon this period of seclusion, are led down to stand beneath the shadow of the mighty trunk while prayers are offered to induce the indwelling Dryad to look favourably upon this "child of the tree" and shed upon her the blessing of strength and fruitfulness, that she may grow up strong and tall, fair to the eye and fitted for motherhood.
As among the Ekoi of the Oban District, so in almost every Ibibio town of any age, there stands a gnarled specimen of Dolichandrone. This was brought as a young sapling and planted when first the town was founded, and ever since its great mauve-pink flowers have showered their fragrant beauty upon generation after generation of sturdy piccans, slender maids, round-limbed young mothers, and aged crones, who have come to pray beneath its shadow. It is called "The Mother of the Town" (i.e. the largest flower).
One of the best examples of such a tree is to be found at Ikotobo, in the midst of the town playground. So old it is, that the trunk is little more than a shell,
though still bearing aloft brave branches of dark waving leaves, and great tufts of blossoms of a tint only to be described by the line in which Dante depicts the apple blooms of his own land:
"Less than of rose and more than violet."
From the gnarled branches of this ancient tree hang great trails of creamy white orchids, the fragrance of which lay like a benediction on the early morning air as we passed by. Within the hollow trunk stood native pots, filled with offerings; for this tree is the "Mother of the Town," and to it come wives, young and old, to pray that "plenty piccans" may be sent to bless their hearths. Hither, too, come ancient women to beg a like boon for their children and grandchildren. Should lightning shiver the aged trunk or tornado strike it down, loud would be the wailing of those who have grown up beneath its shadow.
In most Okkobbor towns stands a great tree, named "Ebiribong," to which offerings are made twice a year--at the planting of new farms, and during the yam harvest. This is done with the special purpose of drawing down the blessing of fertility upon the women of the place, as also upon farm and byre.
That something of the beauty of the nature symbols which they worship enters into the character of the race, however dimly felt or understood, is shown, I venture to think, by many an unexpected trait, and more especially by the touching gratitude evinced by some of the women, as well as by the humbler members of the community generally, at my husband's efforts to soften, as far as may be, the hardness of
their lot and give practical proof that British justice is indeed no respecter of persons. Time after time attempts made upon his life in revenge for the discovery and punishment of evil practices were frustrated by warnings given, at the peril of their own lives, by such humble members of the race. It would be more than ungrateful, too, not to mention here the loyalty shown by some of the principal Oron chiefs, two of whom publicly risked their lives to save ours.
Such actions are beyond praise--especially when one takes into account the underlying antagonism to white rule ever present among peoples where witch-doctor and fetish priest are untiring in their efforts to stem the power of the white man, and prevent the suppression of those hideous rites which still obtain in little-known parts of the earth such as these.
In this part of the world it is easy, for those to whom the secret has been confided, to know how many maidens are undergoing the fattening Process, for, at the entrance to each town, before the market-place, bundles of little frames--such as are used for the carriage of fresh or dried fish--may be found tied together. Each bundle has been placed there by the family of a girl who is just entering the Fatting-house as an intimation to prospective wooers of the number of brides preparing in the town.
Among the Efiks, and those Ibibios rich enough to bear the expense, free-born girls of good family go twice, and sometimes even thrice, into the Fatting-house before the full marriage ceremony is performed. As already mentioned, the first occasion is called Mbobi, "The Coming of Small Breasts." This usually
lasts for three months, during which time the girl undergoes circumcision.
We chanced to be at Adut Nsitt, a town on the upper reaches of the Ubium River, about the time when the daughters of the principal inhabitants were ready to leave the Fatting-house after undergoing this first period of seclusion. One of the chiefs stated that the girls were not due to emerge till a few days later, but that they did so in honour of our presence in the town. Some half-dozen of them came to visit us--the most charming of whom, a small mite of eight summers, unfortunately could not be persuaded to face the perils of the camera.
All wore massive bangles and bracelets of beaten brass or copper, and from a cord round the neck of each dangled a live white chicken, feebly fluttering against the bare brown breast of its bearer. It may be noticed that in the Efik ceremony on the death of a great chief, each of the women is said to wear a similar decoration. 1
The round brown limbs were painted over with elaborate patterns, in black pigment, made either from the fruit of one of the many Randias which abound in this district, or from the rhizome of the little wild hyacinth-like Ibiri Nsi, to be found in great quantities all over the neighbouring district of Oban.
The second time spent in the Fatting-house is the period in the lives of Ibibio women during which they may be looked upon as most indulged--and, indeed, spoiled to the top of their bent. This second seclusion
is fixed at the point where "brook and river meet." For a period varying, according to the wealth of the family, from a few weeks to two years, girls of good position, and even those not "free born" who are looked upon as likely to repay the expenditure--by means of dowry money--are sent once more into the Fatting-house. During this time they again do no work, but are kept in one room, and fed up and pampered in every way. The result is that they emerge, to the admiration of their adoring relatives, and of the townsfolk at large, perfect mountains of flesh--naked, in most parts of the district, save for a few strings of beads and bells, or else decked out with an extravagant array of native ornaments, but always with an air at once arrogant and querulous.
A day is set apart for the first appearance of the girls of each town who are ready to emerge from the Fatting-house. On several occasions we have been present when these swollen specimens of femininity strutted through the market-place enjoying their brief hour of importance; while the men, who at every other period of a woman's existence are looked upon as of superior race, draw back admiringly, to give them passage.
On such occasions the whole charm of these women has temporarily disappeared--at least in the eyes of white people. Of the kindly, gentle air and friendly greeting to be found at all other times, there is no trace in this their little hour of triumph. Only an overweening vanity and bloated self-importance are now manifested.
The wooers, who stand during this parade
praising the merits, and value, of the various débutantes, afterwards hurry to the parents with offers of dowry. A marriage is speedily arranged for each, and the young bride quickly finds her place amid the new surroundings; no longer petted, spoiled and pampered--the centre of attention, for whom her family stint and deny themselves--but, only too often, the slighted, hard-worked drudge of her new lord.
Among most Ibibio tribes all such rites are undergone in order to draw down the blessing of Eka Mbopo, the "Mother of the Fatting-house." Among Efiks, however, this is not the case. The second occasion on which a girl of the last-named tribe enters the Fatting-house is called "Abiana Abiana Nkuawhaw," "The Coming of the Full Breasts." The ceremony is also in preparation for marriage, and, should the girl be already betrothed, as is mostly the case, the bridegroom must now pay the first instalment of dowry, or bride price, called "Nkpaw Nkuawhaw Eyen Owon," i.e. "Small Gifts of Fatting."
About Christmastide an Efik bride usually sallies forth to visit her future husband and all his family. There is said to be a special significance in the time chosen for thus emerging from seclusion. It is just before the planting of new farms, and it is thought that the ceremonies proper to the season, which are offered with the object of drawing down the blessing of fertility upon the new crops, will not be without favourable influence upon the maiden who, in this case, stands with anything but "'reluctant feet,' where the brook and river meet." The great ambition of such a one is to become a mother at the earliest
possible moment. As one of the tribe naively expressed it: "Young girls just out of the Fatting-house are always looking round the corner, eager to see their first babe."
Indeed, the ceremonies carried out throughout the Ibibio country in honour of Abassi Isua, the God of the Year, with the object of inducing the granting of plentiful crops, are so like those resorted to by the Ekoi to ensure fruitfulness in a wife, that the two ideas would seem to be closely connected.
After a short visit to the bridegroom's household the future bride goes back, loaded with gifts, to live in the house of her mother as before. Should the head wife of the prospective husband belong to a great family, rich and powerful, and should she be sufficiently kindly disposed toward the new bride as to invite the latter to stay with her, the invitation may be accepted for two or three days. Among the gifts borne back to the parents' house on return should always be a thousand wires--in value about one pound sterling--given, to use the Efik expression, "To wash juju." This is sent as a sign on the bridegroom's part of his recognition of the marriage tie.
After this visit rich Efik girls often go back to the Fatting-house, sometimes for as long as two years. During this time they never come out at all, but only walk round within the compound walls.
Should the parents notice that the girl is growing so fat as to endanger her health--to quote the words of my native informant--"they slack off with the 'chop,' and afterwards increase the quantity again."
Just before a daughter leaves the Fatting-house, after this third seclusion, the father and bridegroom consult together and fix upon a date, saying:
"We will hold Etuak Ndum (i.e. 'Chalk Ceremony') on such and such a day."
On the date chosen the girl is dressed out in her best, though the robing may seem rather scanty to European eyes, and sits in state in the midst of one of the inner courts of the compound. "Thither great gifts are borne, sometimes as much as one to two hundred pounds in cash, with string upon string of the finest beads, great bars of coral threaded together, and the costliest of native ornaments. Next the bridegroom enters followed by a long stream of servants bearing 'dashes,' which are laid before the bride. Not for herself alone must such be provided, but for every member of the family down to the little maids, who sometimes get a penny only.
"Several moons earlier a fine house has been prepared in the husband's compound. A 'play' is given, and the bride is borne thither, the performers following. Friends and acquaintances stay until midnight, then at the coming of darkness leave her alone with her husband. Only the bride's mother lingers yet a little, trying to make friends with one of the 'big women' of the compound, begging the latter to instruct the new wife in her duty to her husband and in all native customs, teaching her everything that may pleasure their common lord.
"After a good girl has thus been married she will never leave the compound without her husband's permission. Woman friends may enter to visit her,
but no man does so save the male servants sent to clean the rooms or sweep courts."
According to Ibibio ideas the actual marriage tie is entered upon after the payment by the groom to the bride's parents of the major portion of the so-called "dowry money." The first instalment of this constitutes betrothal, and is often paid when the little maid is still very young.
Infant betrothal and marriage are not uncommon. In the latter case the baby bride usually lives with her husband's family; but, save in very rare instances, her youth is respected by him. Should the contrary be proved against a man his conduct is regarded as reprehensible, and the girl's family can claim her back without returning the dowry.
In many cases child betrothal and marriage inflict undoubted hardships upon the unfortunate bride, who thus has no word to say as to her own fate. At the present day many such youthful spouses, on reaching years of discretion, claim the protection of Government to free them from an arrangement in which they had no choice.
A typical case is recorded from Ndun Ukaw town, where a girl, Nko by name, had been betrothed as a very small child. On the day after she came out of the Fatting-house her father said to her:
"The time has now come to carry out the marriage which I arranged for you long ago. Prepare, therefore, to go to the home of the husband to whom I have given you."
The girl pleaded that she did not like the man,
and earnestly begged that she might not be forced to wed him; but the father answered:
"This is the one whom I have chosen for you. I will not allow you to refuse. Him you shall marry, and no other."
To which she replied, "Sooner than wed such a one I would rather die."
On hearing this, the father shouted in great anger, "If you do not accept the man whom I have chosen for you, I wish that you may die."
The daughter replied, very gently and with sad dignity, "I have nothing more to say. By your order, sir, I die."
With that she went quietly out, and next morning was found lying dead by her own hand.
The hardships to which unmarried girls among the Ibibios are sometimes subjected may be illustrated by another case, which was brought up before my husband on his first visit to the Native Court at Awa. On this occasion a young girl, daughter of one of the head chiefs of the town, claimed the Commissioner's protection against her father.
It appeared that two suitors were asking her hand, each of whom was in a position to pay the usual "bride price" or dowry of thirty goats. She herself seemed to have set her affections on a third wooer, whom, from some cause or other, her father did not favour. When, therefore, the latter ordered her to take as husband the man whom he had chosen, she refused, and pleaded that if she might not be given to the man of her choice she should at least not be forced into marriage against her will.
In answer, the chief seized her and said:
"If it were not that this bad Commissioner is always going up and down in his district, appearing at all times when and where he is least wanted, I would kill you at once with my own hands for daring to disobey me"
Perhaps it should be remarked that the adjective "bad" has a secondary meaning of "strong," but in this case the circumstances forbid us to hope that the word might have been intended in the more complimentary sense.
The unnatural father bound the girl and thrust her toward the two suitors whom he favoured, saying:
"Take this woman and do to her whatsoever you may choose, that thus she may learn the penalty for having disobeyed me by refusing the man whom I had chosen for her husband."
Delivered over in this way to the mercy of men furious at her rejection of their suit, the wretched girl was dragged along the road to a waste place in the bush. There she was stripped of every garment, and with arms lashed behind forced to endure indescribable outrage. By a fortunate chance, before the last extremity had been reached, a court messenger happened to appear upon the scene. These men are natives employed by Government to serve summonses, make arrests, and generally assist in the carrying out of law and order. This particular one showed considerable courage, for, when drawn to the spot by the girl's cries, he not only ordered the men to desist from their ill-treatment of her, but arrested them when, on the plea that they were justified by
the father's permission, in all that they had done, they refused to set the girl free.
The court messenger took them, with the girl, before the chief, and asked whether it was true that the latter had intended the men so to maltreat his daughter. On which the cruel father is reported to have said:
"You cannot touch these men. All that they have done was by my authority. May not a father now do as he chooses with a disobedient child?"
When the case was tried in court the advisory council of chiefs agreed that all had been done as stated, and that they were willing, as a concession to white prejudice in such matters, that some punishment should be inflicted upon the two men. When it came, however, to the question of penalising the chief himself, they pleaded, with a mixture of astonishment and indignation, that a father surely had the right to do as he would with his child, and must, therefore, on no account be punished! Later, when it was explained that whatever might have been native custom in such matters, these abuses could not be tolerated under white rule, the spokesman pleaded again and again--long after his request had been declared impossible--first, that an infinitesimal fine, and afterwards a slowly increasing sum, might be inflicted; but no imprisonment.
Another case, brought up before the Native Court at Oyubia in August, 1913, casts further light on Ibibio ideas of marriage.
A man had lately died, and two people came forward to claim his property, the value of which
was computed at about £150. The first of these, Ensinini by name, demanded the whole sum plus the five wives, on the ground that the dead man had not been free born, but was a "member" of the family of which he himself was the head. The second claimant was chief wife of the deceased, and asserted that her late husband had been free born. Since, singularly enough, neither son nor brother of the dead man existed, she demanded that, in default of nearer kin, the goods should come to her. The second wife gave corroborative testimony to the statement that their common husband had been of free birth, and the third was called as a further witness on the matter. In answer a small girl of some eight years appeared. Afterwards the Commissioner asked to see the other two, and a little later a diminutive person of not more than five summers walked shyly up. The chief wife begged to be excused from producing the fifth on the ground that the latter was only just able to walk, and had been presented by herself, after her own payment of dowry, to her late husband only a few weeks before his death.
By native law the whole question turned upon the point as to whether the deceased was free born, or a "member" of the first claimant's family. An equal number of witnesses came forward to swear to positive knowledge as to the truth of each conflicting statement. In the end the bewildered "assessors" suggested that the property should be divided into two equal portions--one for the male claimant and the other to be distributed between the five wives.
Both sides vehemently objected to such an arrangement,
the woman adding, "Why, at any rate, should the other four have a share?" The judgment was, however, upheld by unanimous opinion of the Court, and a long and difficult case seemed at an end, when a chief of great weight rose to propound a question which to native ideas was of first importance, but which, in all probability, would never have struck the white man who was acting as judge.
"To whom," queried the chief, "will the dowry of the five wives be paid on their re-marriage?"
At first sight, to twentieth-century eyes, this question seemed so simple of solution that the Commissioner answered, "Why not to the parents as usual?"
One of the jurors rose, horror visibly struggling with respect, to ejaculate, "Why should the father enjoy a double dowry? Were such a thing allowed the husband's family would lose from both sides!"
By native law in such a case one of two courses was open to the "widows." Either to remain in the family, "bearing children to the dead man's name," as was also decreed by old Jewish custom, or to pay back the dowry, and be free to leave their late husband's family and marry any man whom they might choose.
Although in the case above cited, a member of the Court rose to expostulate against the idea that a father should be allowed to "enjoy" double dowry on account of the same daughter, yet instances axe not unknown in which parents have so arranged matters that the marriage affairs of an only child provided them with a veritable gold mine.
Such was the case of Ama Awsawdi of Okuko,
who, so soon as his daughter had left the Fatting-house, gave her in marriage to Obio Esio of Ubodo, receiving as dowry thirty "articles" and one cow-valued together at about £25. A short time afterwards this unprincipled parent inveigled the girl away. The two went on a journey, in the course of which the father arranged a second wedding with one Ukpon Uwe. From this new son-in-law he received eighty articles and one cow, the total value of which was about £50. After a few days, Ama coaxed the girl to leave her second husband and go away with himself to Calabar. She was undoubtedly attractive, and the father considered that a few shillings laid out on a gown and bead ornaments for her were likely to prove a good investment. For considerably less than one pound sterling he succeeded in attiring the girl so sumptuously that a well-known citizen named Asukwaw Etin was induced to offer a hundred articles and one cow, i.e. about £60, as bride price. Since this third son-in-law was a man of greater weight and position than the others of whom he had so easily rid himself, Ama probably thought it necessary to be a little more careful in his dealings on this occasion. He therefore went to consult one or two friends as to the next step in his career of crime.
"I am thinking of taking away my daughter to a far country," he said, "and there hiding her until I can arrange a fresh marriage. I do not want anyone to know that I am running away with the girl, lest she should be pursued and brought back; so please help me to hide our tracks."
The men consulted were too conservative to receive
such revolutionary ideas with favour. They therefore protested against the plan, but Ama replied:
"I know what I am doing, and would not act thus in defiance of custom without pressing cause; but my debts are really too heavy, and I can see no other way of paying them! That is my reason for wanting to run away with the girl."
Since the friends on whose help he had counted would have none of his plan, Ama shrugged his shoulders and, being an energetic soul, proceeded to carry it out by himself. The daughter was abducted and concealed in what the father thought a safe retreat. Matters were progressing most favourably in the direction of her fourth nuptials when a cruel fate intervened with the news that the three defrauded husbands had joined forces and were on the way to demand a return of their dowries. Such a contingency was unforeseen and unprovided for. The excellent parti with whom the new alliance had been all but arranged, at a higher rate than ever before, had to be abandoned, and the pair disappeared in the direction of Mbukpo, where they were lost sight of, but are still in all probability, pursuing their profitable career amid "fresh woods and pastures new."
Viewed in the light of a provider of dowries, the story of the mother who, when faced by the necessity of giving up one of her children, chose to keep the daughter rather than the son on account of the high bride price promised by the former, becomes quite comprehensible.
83:1 Journal of the African Society, April, 1914, p. 248.