Urhobo Traditional Marriage and Modern Influences upon Its Institution By Ms Janet Oromafuru Eruvbetere, LLB (Hons.)

Urhobo Historical Society

Official Logo of Urhobo Historical Society

London, England
October 31 - November 2, 2003



By  Ms Janet Oromafuru Eruvbetere, LLB (Hons.)

Being the text of a lecture given by  Ms Janet Oromafuru Eruvbetere, LLB (Hons.) at the Cultural Session of the Fourth Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society in the evening of November 1, 2003, at
Old Hall, All Saints Centre, Monson Road, London SE14. (Behind: All Saints Church, New Cross Road, London, SE14).

1.         Introduction.


1.1: Collins Concise English Dictionary defines the word `marriage` as: “the state or relationship of being husband and wife.”


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary also defines `marriage` as “the union of a man and a woman in order to live together and often to have children.”


I am reasonably certain that if we were to consult many more dictionaries, their definitions would be relatively similar but with minor variances. Their central theme would be on the state / relationship or union between man and woman. From the above brief review of the term marriage, I believe we can safely deduce that the concept of marriage in historical terms is based on the relationship between man and woman.


          From a Christian perspective, the Holy Bible proffers that when God created the world, He first created a man called Adam, and seeing that Adam would need companionship, God created a woman called Eve to be Adam’s wife. From thence on, the concept of marriage between a man and a woman was born. However, God made man the head of the family and the wife or woman as his helper, and God blessed them, and commanded them to go forth and multiply. Therefore, there is no leadership contest between the husband and the wife. God made the pronouncement that the man is the head and leader of the family. And then, Christ our Lord commanded that as He loved the Church and died for it, so must the man love his wife and die for her .

2.       Who are the Urhobo?


The Urhobo are one of the many Nigerian tribes, and are the largest single tribe in the present Delta State of Nigeria. They are geographically located within the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, and have an estimated population of 2 million. They have as neighbours, the Ijaw and the Isoko to the east, the Ukwuani to the North, the Itshekiri s to the South, and the Bini to the west. Due to their close geographical location and historical connections over the centuries, there have been intermarriage relationships amongst themselves.  The main occupations of the Urhobo people have been predominantly farming, trading and fishing. The emergence of oil exploration has made them to diversify into the petrochemical industries, education, engineering, legal and other forms of occupations, to name a few .

3.     What Do We Mean By Urhobo Traditional Marriage?


Urhobo traditional marriage by definition bears some semblance to the above definitions in paragraph one. The similarity is only as far as the process of marriage revolves around man and woman.


Urhobo traditional marriage is unique to Urhobo culture and traditions. Indeed, marriage in Urhobo worldview is an enduring institution. It is sacred. It looms large enough to tie two independent families together forever. When blessed with offsprings, especially male offsprings, the nuptial knot is wedded with a cord that neither death nor divorce is able to unlock or separate.


I will like to state from the very onset that the principal and most central difference between our marriage system and that in western cultures (particularly the European based cultures) -- is the fact that Urhobo marriage extends beyond the couples directly involved; it embraces the extended families of the spouses. Indeed, Urhobo marriage is a marriage of two families. This is so because the families play very central roles in ensuring the success of the marital relationships from the time of courtship through the marriage negotiations to the contracting of the marriage. Divorce is rare; Urhobo traditional marriage endures beyond the life of the husband. In fact, it is the wife’s life span. This is due to the fact that on the death of the husband, the wife is passed on to a member of the husband’s family for continued marriage. This custom provides emotional and financial stability, and continuity of the marriage. The families are also expected to intervene or mediate when there are problems or conflicts between husband and wife, and when the marriage relationship is threatened in any way – this is in total contrast to the western marriage system where family intervention is seen as interference.


       The nucleus of Urhobo traditional marriage takes various forms. From time, there have been some distinct processes of marriage proposals or types of traditional marriages. Any of these marriage forms are recognised by our society, as they form key aspects of our customs and traditions. These are :

3.1    "Esavwijotor:”


Esavwijotor occurs when parents propose marriage on behalf of their son or daughter at an early age. Pledges of this nature are also made and redeemed, as a result of observed exemplary character of a young girl or boy. It could be made as a reward for exceptional valour. The uses or instances of this concept are infinite. Normally, with this type of marriage, love develops between the couple only after marriage has been officially contracted .

3.1    "Ose:”


This is akin to concubine. Admitting language limitations in describing one concept by another language, ose is a form of marriage recognised as binding, but in which the traditional dowry has not been paid and accepted as prescribed. Couples may live together or apart, but enjoy full de facto conjugal rights and exclusiveness but limited customary (legal) rights of husband and wife. Some notable distinctions of this type of marriage are that such husband will not be allowed to bury and mourn his would-be parents in law, like a fully married man.


         4.  Arranged Marriage in absentia


In this case, the male who is usually abroad or outside the Urhoboland, would request his parents or family to marry a wife of their choice for him. Both potential husband and wife may not have seen or met each other previously.


During the marriage ceremony of this type of marriage, the man’s brother or a nominated relative would represent him as husband of the bride.


The wife may be required to spend some time with the absent husband’s family before being despatched to her new husband. Love may, or may not develop when they meet for the first time. If they like each other, the marriage may be consummated, and is likely to survive. In some cases, either party may refuse to go ahead with the marriage, and call it off.             


      5. Boy-Meets-Girl and Modern Courtship.


This is more or less a modern concept and is not unique or particular to Urhobo culture or tradition of marriage terms.


     However, I need to state in passing that this process has become one of the current approaches used by modern day boys and girls. In most cases, the parents may not know of the initial courtship until their son or daughter informs them. Both families then get involved. If they agree, marriage plans are then made. The process may first be to do the traditional marriage rites, before proceedings to either the Church marriage or the Registry .

6.  The Marriage Process.


This is the final stage of the traditional marriage arrangements. Whichever of the above routes the process of courtship or engagement may have taken, family consent is imperative before the marriage process is finalised.


The marriage ceremony follows the meeting of both families. Both families would meet at the bride’s home. An advance notice is given to the bride`s family for the visit. On the said day, the groom’s family will arrive at the bride’s home. First the bride’s family will welcome them. Drinks and kola nuts supported with some money will be offered to the visiting family, as is customary in Urhobo tradition. A spokesman for the bride’s family will make the presentation of the drinks and kola nuts with the money to the visiting family. The visitor’s spokesman will accept the presentation on behalf of the groom’s family. After this initial customary entertainment, the visitors are asked the purpose of their visit.


The visitors would inform the bride’s family that they have come to marry their daughter for their son, who may or may not be present at this protocol.


If the bride’s family accepts this explanation, they would go through a process of the identification of the bride they wish to marry. The visitors would be told that the family has many daughters; as such, its members do not know which of their daughters their son would like to marry. The bride’s family would then bring out a girl who is not the bride, and parade this girl in front of the groom’s family. The groom would reject this girl saying that she was not the one he wants. This formality would be repeated about three times. Each time a girl is paraded and rejected, the groom’s family would be asked to pay the rejected girl some money. Finally, the bride is presented to the groom to confirm the true identity of his chosen bride. 


Once this process is concluded, the bride’s consent would then be obtained. That is, she will be asked if she is willing to marry the groom.  The family of the bride can only receive the dowry if she consents to marry the groom. This process is only a formality on the day because in most cases, the dowry amount and all arrangements would normally have been agreed upon. That is, both families would have reached some understanding. The groom or his family would pay a dowry to the bride’s family. The dowry is the price money paid to the bride’s family on account of the bride.


It is worth mentioning here that, it is customary that before the stage of pouring the libation is reached, that the potential husband and his family would pay several visits to the family of the bride to be. The purpose of these visits is to negotiate and to meet certain pre-marriage requirements stipulated by the bride’s family. For example: the dowry would be negotiated and agreed beforehand; the bride’s uncles, aunts and the bride’s father and mother would be bought several gift items, such as walking stick and hat, etc, for the bride’s father; wrapper, tobacco, etc., for her mother, and other items for her uncles, aunts, and other relatives.


Upon acceptance of the dowry, the bride’s father pours a libation. The libation is poured using a native gin (ogogoro) or may be represented by Gordon gin and kola nuts.  The bride’s father offers a prayer / blessing for the couple. At this point, the bride sits on the husband’s lap. The blessed drink is handed to the husband who drinks first; he then hands it to his wife to drink. The wife would drink and pass it back to her husband to finish, as a sign of respect. Then only are they declared husband and wife. Both family members present at the ceremony, would then shower the couple with money as gifts.

7.  "


This term describes the final stage of a full marriage according to Urhobo custom. It denotes the completion of all antecedent requirements necessary on the part of the husband. It is the escorting of the bride by her family with her properties, goodwill, to the head of the husband’s family, and handing over until death of the bride as wife to the groom’s family. A special ceremony is usually performed to invoke the husband’s ancestors to also receive her, and bind her over in fidelity to their son – the husband. The entire women receive the bride, eat and dance in the special room prepared for her till dawn of the following day

7.1     Polygamy.

          Urhobo traditional marriage is a polygamous institution. It allows the husband to marry as many wives as he can afford.


7.2   Implications of Polygamous Marriage.

It provides the man with a variety and diverse sexual choice or satisfaction.

It provides prestige to the husband – more wives mean wealth and honour.

Generally, it provides more children – also seen as wealth.

The Urhobo traditional marriage system is actually based on the husband’s financial ability rather than true love.

Relationship amongst the wives involves living in close quarters – same compound and different apartments, sort of communal living.

This causes tension and often affects any form of cordial relationships being formed between the wives.

There is bitter rivalry and envy/jealousy, which leads to fights and conflicts.

Polygamy creates a hierarchical order within the household or family. The first and most senior wife often rules the day.

Sleeping arrangements between the wives and the husband are also programmed. This too often creates conflicts, frustrations and anger.

The wife or wives are seen as part of the husband’s chattel, and thus the wives have no property rights of their own, irrespective of the wives’ contributions to his wealth creation.
8.    Modern Influences on Urhobo Marriage Institutions. <> 

8.1  R
eligious Marriage and Western / State or Legal Forms.

The Western marriage system brought in by missionaries into the Urhobo homeland has impacted upon the Urhobo traditional marriage. This is so because the Western system of marriage is based on the doctrine of monogamy, which is alien to traditional Urhobo culture.

The Church and the State, through its legal systems/courts, uphold the western system of marriage.

Monogamous marriage consists of the exchange of mutual vows by the couple at the exclusion of other women.

This has implications for the traditional concept of Urhobo marriage that allows the husband taking other wives.

The marriage is terminated on death of either of the partners. This system of marriage confers property rights upon the woman in the event of the husband’s death, as his next of kin. This is contrary to polygamous traditional Urhobo marriage system.

The wife becomes the chief mourner and the next of kin to her late husband.

The couple’s estate automatically reverts to the wife, thus offering her maximum protection regardless of the marriage being childless or not.

In this system, the woman’s contribution to the creation of her husband’s estate is acknowledged, and she is entitled to his Pension rights. It therefore means that the woman enjoys the fruits of her labour during and after her husband’s life.

In contrast, Urhobo polygamous marriage offers no such protection or rights after the husband’s death. Consequently, Urhobo women now prefer and welcome this Western influence upon the Urhobo traditional marriage system.

The Western influence enables the couple to see and love themselves before and during the marriage.

The new generation of Urhobo women now insist on having both forms of marriage, i.e., the traditional marriage (as a loyalty to their parents to enable them obtain the father’s blessings, and yet not accepting the polygamous practices of such marriage). They now go on to contract the western marriage which excludes polygamy. This is because they now wish to enjoy a system of marriage in which each will be the only wife.
<>Implications for Polygamy – This has led to an increased level of divorces due to financial independence brought about by educational opportunities open to the Urhobo woman, freedom and low level of tolerance by modern consciousness, and enlightenment.

Awareness of marriage rights provided by law leads to women’s ability to exercise their fundamental human rights more easily than in previous times, e.g., women evicting their husbands on account of domestic violence, and any unreasonable behaviour.

In contrast, polygamous marriage allows for family intervention or mediation, and hence minimising the level of divorce and eviction of the husband.


9.   The Male’s Perspective.


    The Urhobo male finds the Western system of marriage as a gross and unwanted interference upon their cherished tradition. They see it as a restriction, and an infringement of what they have come to believe as their natural right to enjoy the marriage of many wives as they choose .

10.    General Enlightenment / Education.


With more women being more educated, this brings about economic and financial independence. As such, women can afford to pay off their dowry, acquire their own property, which they can retain in their own rights.


11. Conclusion.


As a conclusion, I would like to suggest that both polygamous marriage (Urhobo) and monogamy (Western) have their merits and demerits, as contained in the body of this paper. However, it is my opinion that our daughters have come to reject Urhobo traditional marriage.


This is because of the implications of the polygamous practice connected with the Urhobo traditional marriage. Our mothers of old only married once in the traditional way, and were contented with it. Modern Urhobo women can no longer tolerate the practice of polygamy, hence their preference for the Western marriage which excludes the marriage of other wives.


They also cherish the fundamental marital rights, which the western marriage offers the woman, e.g., property rights. Ultimately, I believe that there ought not to be any provision for the continuity of polygamous marriage in modern day Urhobo society, particularly when today’s fathers give their daughters away in a church or registry marriage ceremonies, having themselves performed the traditional Urhobo (polygamous) marriage. Have the men stopped to question why their daughters now prefer the western type of marriage to the traditional Urhobo marriage?


If modern Urhobo fathers, who ought to be the custodians of our customs and traditions, now encourage the practice of giving away their daughters in marriage at the Church or registry; knowing that this excludes Urhobo polygamous practice, does this not mean that they now give greater credence to the Western form of marriage than to Urhobo traditional marriage?