History Nigeria

Would your ancestors be shocked by “traditional” marriage?

I saw this post on Cracked; 5 reasons ‘traditional marriage’ would shock your ancestors, and I knew I had to something similar. Nigerians today have ideas on marriage in the past, especially about how women behaved as wives, that may not be the reality. I’ll be focusing on Yoruba people here because that is what I am more familiar with but please note that different cultural practices exist among Yoruba people. So what was commonplace among say the Egba may not have been common among those from Ilorin. Nonetheless, the more I learn from this history hobby of mine the more I am surprised at the how different things apparently were, not only according to historians, scholars etc but also according to my mother and friends with similar interests.

Without further ado here are my reasons as to why your ancestors would be shocked by “traditional” marriage with a Yoruba twist.

“A Yoruba bride and bridegroom”- vintage postcard circa 1910.
“A Yoruba bride and bridegroom”- vintage postcard circa 1910.
People married young
Raise your hand if you believe everyone in the past married young? Well, this was not always the case. From speaking with friends it seems that the age of marriage among some Yoruba in the past was early 20s. Nowadays women are told to marry early because of the biological clock yet when I look at my grandmothers and the space between their children (i.e. my parents, uncles and aunts) it becomes clear that some of them were having children well in their 40s or 50s. So part of me doubts that the concept of a biological clock existed back in the day. Generally speaking the Yoruba did not marry off their children young.

Everyone had arranged marriages
Some did yes, but not as many as you would think. The Yoruba had elaborate courtship practices, which would not be commonplace if all marriages were arranged. I am talking about oja ale, the night market that was often a place where young lovers would meet. A few of us are familiar with the romanticised idea of the stream as a place where lovers would have trysts and nightly rendezvous. I would borrow from the Cracked article and say that similarly in parts of Yorubaland arranged marriages were made by people in power who were more likely to see their children as means to further their interests. It was not uncommon for powerful warlords for instance to be given brides to “appease” them. These are exceptions, in most cases before a man married a woman he would have had her consent first before going to formally seek her family’s approval.

People did not divorce
This one is laughable. If you follow the scholars like Johnson and A.K. Ajisafe, divorce did not exist in Yorubaland traditionally except in rare cases. Divorce is not a new thing, people have been getting divorces in this part of the world for centuries. The truth is that marriage was not necessarily about love, but wait this is not a bad thing, marriage was a contract in which both the husband and the wife would receive mutual benefits. In addition, women married families, not just the man. If the wife was not gaining her benefits, why should she stay in the marriage? Some of us are the grand- or great-grand daughters of women who divorced several times. It was not a taboo and was not treated as something shameful. Apparently no woman getting married believed that it would last a lifetime. Women left their husbands under various pretexts and returned to their parents’ home leaving children with the husband’s family, they would frequently return to continue playing a role in their children’s lives. Women could have several husbands in their lifetime not unlike men who married multiple women.

Wives never had affairs
This is another laughable one. How many of us have heard about the righteous women of the past who always obeyed their husbands and either never had sexual desires or firmly controlled them too? Sex was just a means of procreation. For a lot of these male Afrocentrics their Afrotopia is one in which they have access to as many submissive women as they please while of course the women are shackled to one man for life because this is the African way obviously. When I think about goody-goody wives, I think about magun. Magun is a “charm” that man places upon his wife when he suspects she is having an affair, it can lead to death of whoever the wife is having an affair with. I wonder why something like magun exists if not as a means to control wives and prevent them from having affairs. Would it exist if cheating wasn’t a problem? You decide. Btw I am not saying that every woman had affairs o.

All brides were virgins
*cough cough* How many Yoruba scholars, usually male have written essays on how great importance is placed on the bride being a virgin? And that if she wasn’t, she would be ridiculed by the entire community? Even Samuel Johnson wrote that young unmarried couples would go to the farm (usually located some ways from town) for weeks/months but apparently they would not get freaky because…idk Yoruba people in the past did not have sexual urges. In societies where women were financially independent, not only going to the farm but travelling far and wide in the name of business, would the so-called chastity of the past really stop them from having sexual intrigues? Of course there were certain situations where virgins were preferred, and no I am not referring to human sacrifice, but as above with arranged marriages to powerful warlords the bride would usually be a virgin to “appease” the warlord’s ego. Also, apparently back in the day it was believed that if a man wanted a son, he would need a virgin. There are a good number of Yoruba movies, usually based on folktales, that centre around the difficulty of finding a virgin. Considering this, how can anyone argue that all brides in the past were virgins?

Wives stayed at home
To elaborate this point, I once asked my mum; “Is it true that in the past women stayed at home and in the kitchen?” to which she strongly replied; “No o! that does not apply to Yoruba women at all.”
Despite people trying to create an image that trade did not exist because in pre-colonial Nigeria there was no economy, totally ignoring the fact that for most of us our traditional days of the week centred around the market days doh. Most women engaged in some sort of trade or the other, they did not have time for the kitchen when there was profit to be made. It seems there was a particular amount of wealth that a woman deemed successful would acquire at certain points in her life. Naturally women tried to reach these goals.

Everyone got married
Liieees! Everyone did not get married, yes there are folk songs in which the desire to not live and die alone is expressed the truth of the matter is some people never married or had children. I have noted that the most popular women in Yoruba history who are still remembered today are thought to have never married or had children (starting with Efunsetan). When women divorced, sometimes they would leave their children with their husbands’ families, so blended families always existed too. And there were several reasons people did not marry, sometimes not by choice, for example certain priests/priestesses never married because they were already married to the dieties they worshipped.

It was for the kids!
How many times have I come across article, essay or video talking about how “gay marriage” did not make sense in any African societies because everyone was expected to have kids. I can’t speak authoritatively for every society, but in parts of Yorubaland this love of kids was not limited to ones biological children. It’s interesting that people would say Africans in the past loved kids, but would limit this to biological children. Have we all not heard of the “it takes a whole village to raise a child” thing? Marriage was never for procreation because children were seen as communal. I have learned that adoption was not uncommon among some Yoruba of the past (and in fact among other ethnic groups, remember King Ahebi’s most beloved son was adopted). Usually temporary unlike the Western adoption model today, it was normal for children to live away from their parents. My own parents did not grow up with their parents but with relatives. It was common back in the day to send children to a place where they could learn a trade and work as an apprentice. Basically everyone took care of children.

Marriage was between man and woman
Ugh this so does not apply to us, we’re coming from societies in which different forms of marriage existed. I think a lot of us tend to be ashamed of polygamy when referring to the past but look at it this way; the polygamy of the past existed because people needed to make a living. Again marriage was mutually beneficial. In places where land was usually owned by men, wives would work on land, farm and sell their produce in order to make money for themselves. Also I do not need to go into woman-to-woman marriages, or the fact that subjects of the Oba were usually referred to as his wives (yes even though they were men).

7 Comments

  1. Hi Cosmic Yoruba! It’s Ekuba & my friend & I are still working on the website (it’s up but no article or parts yet). I LOVE this article & will write an equivalent one for Ghana when the blog gets up (hope to do it this month).

    1. Hello Ekuba! I’ve been looking for you lol, got your email from Nana (@mababiom) on Twitter but then thought it would be weird to email you out of the blue 😀 I’m so excited for your site! Please put that blog up this month. Best of luck with it!

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