Africa History Nigeria

Life in a polygynous home…where the head of the household is the wife

Imagine a home where one man has several wives. You’d be mistaken to think that the man is the “head” of the household if this home was among the Ekoi/Ejagham. Historically, the head of the household is the chief wife among the Ekoi, she called the shots and encouraged her husband to marry more women so she could make them do things.

And believe me it wasn’t only about having more wives to work, husband had to work too. All quotes below are from In The Shadow of the Bush (1912). It was written by P. Amaury Talbot “of the Nigerian political service”, a colonial anthropologist who lived and travelled in southern Nigeria

The Ekoi are a polygamous people, but till several years after my arrival, the chief wife, not the husband, was regarded as head of the house. This is still true to a great extent, but there are indications that native customs in this, as with children, property, &c., are beginning to be influenced by those of white men…Each wife has complete control over her children and the latter invariably go with her if she leaves her husband (p. 97)

There are folktales that highlight why men should serve women. One tells of a man who chose death rather than displease his wife. Talbot lists these to stress how women’s rights were important to the Ekoi. Apparently back in the day, a wife could drag her husband to court for using her property without permission.

Paintings on the wall of a fattening room. The circles indicate the amount of time (“moons”) spent there. Women were expected to go to the fattening room before marriage, length of stay depended on her family’s finances. While in seclusion she would be fed, massaged and (may) go through clitoridectomy.

Love, marriage and “juju”

By native custom a man who wishes to marry an Ekoi maiden must serve her people for some considerable time, usually from two to three years. His work mostly consists in helping to clear bush for the next season’s farms, but other services may be required of him. (p. 105)

In addition to serving his future wife’s people, the man was also expected to give gifts to his future in-laws as well as to his wife. Of course this depended on his means but a typical list of gifts offered included palm oil, plantains, dried meat, rum and tobacco.

According to Talbot virginity wasn’t prized in a bride but this depended on the family. He writes that, “in some cases girls are not allowed to go out alone.” With marriage too comes “jujus” invoking faithfulness so apparently women typically didn’t have affairs. In the notes I took while reading In the Shadow of the Bush, I noted that the existence of these “jujus” suggested that women’s sexuality was still controlled despite the lack of importance given to virginity. Afterall, the man who made a blood oath (where each party sucked a little blood from the other’s wrist) swearing death if his wife was unfaithful had many wives.

While marriages didn’t have a religious element, afterwards the husband and wife would have a “juju” ceremony with the aim of preventing the wife from having lovers after marriage. One such ceremony mentioned by Talbot involved Njomm Ekatt who would send sickness to cheating wives “from which they can only recover after confessing to their husbands and inducing these to revoke the Juju”.

Life in the husband’s compound

As this is a patrilocal society, the wife becomes a member of her husband’s family and moves in with him after marriage. If any woman wanted to be the head of the household, she had to aim to be the first wife. Younger wives obey and consider the first wife in everything. She is also in charge of the household’s property so many more hands are needed to grow the family’s wealth.

Talbot wrote that one wife took her husband to court for cruelty because he didn’t want to marry any other women. Here’s something I found hilarious, if a woman found out that her husband had lovers, she would object. Not because he was sleeping around but  because a woman was receiving his attentions and “ought to do [her] share of house and farm work for his family”.

On the subject of divorce, if you’ve read the folktale, you know that divorce was easy among these people (Talbot writes “extremely easy”).

The most common rite for freeing a wife is to rub white chalk on both her hands. If a woman wishes to free herself without the consent of her husband, she usually rakes out the fire and pours water on the embers till they die out. She then cuts her hair and covers herself with white paint. After this, even if both parties wished it, she could never return to her husband. (p. 113)

All images from P. Amaury Talbot (1912), In the Shadow of the Bush.


  1. This type of information makes me laugh at Black men who call for the reintroduction of ‘traditional’ patriarchy. Even in a patrilocal culture we have depictions of women with importance and overt power. Even Ibn Battuta considered the women that he saw in his African travels as being “more important than men” (though, to be honest, a woman showing her damn ankle in those times in his culture would be a sign of women’s dominance lol). You do such good work at choosing sources and picking out the best information within. I even like the pictures you chose. That bedroom pic looked very interesting along with the pic before it which to me is proof of literacy in this particular culture. Plus I really like symbology and that “salamander” or “lizard” sign showed up in both pics and is very popular in western Africa.

    Now the question remains and will be most likely unanswerable is how universal was this type of mindset on the continent before all of the…lets call them ‘disruptive’…factors entered the equation?

    1. I’m laughing at them right along with you. Indeed ibn Battuta considered the women he saw as being more important that men, IIRC he was also scandalised by how “free” they were. I recall reading something about how women would have close male friends.

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I found the keeping of time to be very interesting…even though the author didn’t really dwell on it (which I understand as he’s a man and may not have been allowed to witness the feminine aspects of Ekoi culture, I’ve got the book his wife wrote which I hope will provide more detail on this). I believe in this part of West Africa, the lizard may have been considered sacred.

      Re: the universality of this type of mindset. I guess it depends. The Ibibio who historically share similar practices with the Ekoi were not so “liberal” (for lack of a better word) towards women and marriage. Talbot also wrote about their customs and practices and what stood out was how it was the complete opposite as among them the head of the household is the man and IIRC marriages were arranged. I now believe that cultures may have moved towards a stricter patriarchy before the ‘disruptive’ factors entered the equation but I need to read up on that more.

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