By Perez Brisibe
According to Chapter 220, section 15 of the Matrimonial Cause Act of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990, death is one factor that leads to the dissolution of marriage if there is a pursuant for such dissolution. But for the Okrika people of Rivers State, South-South Nigeria, brides who are married according to the “Iya” tradition, are married to their husbands even in death unless she is “released” by the family of her late husband after some rituals would have been performed.
“Till death do us part” is a phrase used in marriages worldwide implying that with the demise of one of the couple, the other partner is free to remarry if he/she feels the need to, but with the Iya marital rite involving the “Ohurikaka” practice of the Okrika people, the “Till death do us part” cliché does not hold water.
Made up of15 villages, the Okrika people occupy the present day Okrika, Port Harcourt and Ogu/Bolo Local Government Areas of Rivers State, and practice the Ohurikaka ritual via the Iya marital rite in variations.
Gotten from two words, “Ohuri” meaning raffia and “kaka” meaning tie, Ohurikaka is the practice involved in the symbolic tying of raffia around the waist of a bride flanked by her groom implying the total bonding of the couple for eternity.
For the Okrika people, Iya is the climax of all marital rites and its practice differs among the various Okrika clans in the State.
Origin of Iya
According to Dason Minieboka, a public commentator and indigene of Ogu/Bolo, the Iya custom dates back to the pre-colonial era when husbands and sons embark on fishing expedition (which used to be the major source of income) and return home months or years after while residing at different fishing settlements deep down the sea. Before leaving or while away, the intending groom make a little statutory deposit after seeing the parents of the groom, take her away, and come back later in the future (at this level, it is called Iguwha) to conclude the marital rites which formalizes the complete marital rites.
Over the years, because it has helped in checkmating the cases of infidelity and divorces, the culture has been transmitted from one generation to another and has become the custom and tradition of the Okrika people.
Shedding light on the tradition, Chief Tamuno Ajubo, an indigene of Wakirike clan stated that, in performing the Ohurikaka, though in variation amongst the various Okrika clans, the groom is required to produce three to five pieces of kano cloth or Ikpo, one piece of real India cloth, or injiri, four yards of raffia palm cloth sewn together (Okuru), and another separate yard of the same material.
Other items are four large pots of palm wine, twenty-four manilas and various food items.
These offerings are placed in the shrine of the family ancestors, with the bride and groom standing side by side in front of the shrine.
An elderly person in the family takes up the single yard of raffia cloth and ties the knot round the waist of the wife seven times, each time uttering some incantations that invoke blessings on the couple.
After this, palm wine is poured in a cup for both the bride and groom to drink from simultaneously, all these signals a virtually impossible room for divorce as the single yard of raffia cloth is the essential thing to make the marriage binding. The marriage once bound can never be withdrawn, though the chances for divorce are slim, if there is room for such without “release”, any child the woman gives birth to by another man, belongs to her former husband who performed the Iya on her and he (the Iya husband) has every right to lay claims to such child(ren).
In case of unavoidable divorce, the parents of the wife are bound to return double the cumulative expenses of the husband which must be willingly accepted by the family of the man. This is followed by some rituals at the family shrine were the marriage was originally consummated and this is aimed at “releasing” the woman from the spiritual grips of her husband.
Even with the demise of the man who performed the Iya on her, she is still married to him; unless the ritual is performed free her from the marital covenant.
Implications of the Iya Marriage
One of the major implications of the Iya marital rites, is that children given birth to by the couple that fail to perform such rites, belong to the family of the woman and this is one of the reasons why virtually every Okrika man ensures that he performs the Iya marital rite.
In a situation where the woman has been married according to other marital rites but not the Iya, whoever performs her Iya in the future as her husband, automatically becomes the father of her children.
Hire and Purchase marriage
Speaking further on the intricacies of Iya, Mr. Minieboka likened it to a hire purchase contract, saying; “If you do not complete payment of the lease, the property reverts to the original owner. With all of these, you are allowed to take her but, if you do not do the second, at death of the woman, you are not allowed to bury her as the husband. Her people would take her for burial without your permission or involvement in the funeral rites and her people would take her children, with them having no rite in their father’s place.
“They might stay with him or see him whenever they feel like as the case might be, but they would not have rites in their father’s place especially with considerations like chieftaincy titles, family heads, lands etc and they would have little or no say when it comes to family issues.
“As a man, you lose some ego because your children would not be counted as yours in your family resulting to them being adopted by the family of your wife. In avoiding this, the groom struggle to meet up with it in making themselves and family relevant.”
According to the practice, the rite creates that ownership mentality of the women to the man. As an owner, he has to release his property for her to stop being his property.
In the time of old (and in most cases till date), the Iya was performed in the family shrine which is owned by every family. The ritual is witnessed by the oracle and the gods (ancestors), where the spirit, body and soul of the bride are given to the groom.
In case of unavoidable divorce, the parents of the wife are bound to return double the cumulative expenses of the husband.
Pending when Iya is performed on the bride, all her children (even though she might be married according to the Nigerian customary rite or before a priest) belong not to the biological father but to her brothers or her paternal family as the case might be.
Am stuck to my husband in death –widow
Speaking on her plight as an Iya widow as they are referred to, 43years old Mrs. Tamuno Sodienye lamented the inability of her and her immediate family to return the Iya expenses and the refusal of her husband’s family to “release” her of the Ohurikaka rites.
“I can’t marry another man even if I want to and I can’t afford to take the risk, for now, I bury myself with taking care of my children and ensuring that they become persons of repute in the society in the future,” she said.
In a chat with Mr. Akin Ayodele, counsel to Madam Sodienye, said; “Speaking from the legal angle, according to the Nigerian Matrimonial Cause Act, following the death of her husband, she is free to remarry if she so decides but, the constitution also gives credence to traditional institutions; this is where we have breeches.
“She would get respite from the court but might fallout with her folks back at home having gone against an age long tradition; this is where we have the crux of the matter.”
Debunking the assertion of counsel to Madam Danagogo, Chief George Emar’Otua, an indigene of Port Harcourt Local council said; “No amount of legal action can change the position of things as regards the Iya tradition, the law respects the custom and tradition of the people as they have been existing ages before the enactment of such laws, so she has no option than to abide by the tenets and tradition guiding the Iya ritual.”
I would give an arm to be Iyaed -Bride
While Mrs. Sodienye is lamenting her being Iyaed by her husband before he died, Mrs. Ibiene Dayokanu said she has not been accorded the respect she deserves from her peers if her husband had performed her Iya.
She said: “Right now, my husband can’t lay claim to our children and my children can’t stand up to other children whose mothers have been Iyaed, no thanks to the harsh economic situation of the country but personally as an Okrika woman, I would give an arm to be Iyaed.”
It is my pride to Iya my wife
Though it could not be ascertained the direct benefit of husbands who performed the Iya rites on their wife, Chief George Emar’Otua, says apart from him having total custody of his wife and children, the custom as a married man, is a thing of pride and ego for husbands.
He said: “My children are not denied their privileges, it gives me my pride as an Okrika man amongst other men and I get the privilege of total marriage to my wife.”
Matrimonial Cause Act
Contrary to the marital rites of the Okrika people, Chapter 220, section 15 of the Matrimonial Cause Act of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990 states that “for the dissolution of marriage, a decree made pursuant to the petition shall be in the form of a decree of dissolution of marriage by reason of presumption of death.”
Citing death as a ground for dissolution of marriage according to the Matrimonial Cause Act, Barr Finidi Adamagu, describe the marriage in death of brides to their late husbands, as practiced by the Okrika people as barbaric and a slight on the Nigeria matrimonial laws.
He said: “Though the law does not govern marriages conducted under customary and traditional laws, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1970 lays down grounds which may make a marriage void ab initio.”
Shedding light on the legal implications, Mr. Minieboka said, “There is no custom, tradition or rites that are not anchored on the constitution, but if anyone is aggrieved, they can seek redress in the court of law. When dealing with family and traditional issues, it is not always what the law says that holds, implementation is not always in tune in the norms of tradition and is not always a convenient thing to do.”
Exploitation of the Iya tradition
Regarding the exploitation of Iya as one of the effects of development and modernization, Chief Emar’Otua said most young husbands for the fear of their wives getting married to another man after their demise; exploit the Iya custom by performing the rite immediately they perform the first stage of marriage.
For Boma Souwari who Iyaed his wife at an early stage, he said “I decided to Iya my wife immediately we got married to avoid any form of complicity with my family in the future. Though I do not pray for the worse, but with this, I am sure she has no option than to stay devoted to me and my family by taking care of my children if am no more.”