The rites that usher in marriage come in two main, and other minor stages. The betrothal is the first stage, and the celebration is the second. The betrothal which can be initiated when a girl child is born culminates in a ceremony called ‘ime ego’ in my Ozubulu clan of the Igbo people. Ime ego usually takes place after the girl has reached 16 years, so that she could give her consent, which must be obtained. The celebration is the second main rite. In my clan Ozubulu it is called ‘ima ogodo.’ Ima ogodo is paired with the ritual of ‘igba nkwu.’………After all the requirements that must be met before the final rite of betrothal, ‘ime ego’, is performed, have been met, and ‘ime ego’ itself is performed, the maiden, and the man are viewed as man and wife, i.e., a contract of marriage is deemed to exist between them. This contract is as binding as the full contract which the fulfillment of the full marriage requirements is. It is at the betrothal the girl gives her consent, which is a prerequisite, and which must be obtained.
The following is a description of the main rituals in the final rite of betrothal. During ‘ime ego’ wine is poured into a cup, and handed to the maiden by her father, and she is asked to search out her groom. If she ‘searches’ and does not find the groom who would be in the vicinity, i.e., inside the ‘obi’ (enclosure where the family meets), it is taken as evidence that she has not given her consent, and the visiting family will leave with grace. But if she finds him, draws close to him, genuflects slightly and hands him the wine, that signifies consent. When that happens, everybody present will heave a sigh of relief. Some would even clap. After this the price of the bride, which gives the betrothal its name ‘ime ego’ is paid. As all these are going on, attendees who are usually made up of members of both families (the prospective groom’s and the bride’s) will be drinking palm wine. At the end of the day she would return with the groom to his own family’s homestead, and if she is at least sixteen years they can consummate the marriage. But if she is not, and has not passed through the coming of age rite called ‘iru mgbe’, there must be no sexual intercourse. The maiden must sleep in the house of the mother-in-law. And she must not be harassed by the groom for sex, which must wait till she is at least sixteen. However if she has passed through ‘iru mgbe’, she could sleep in the house of the man, and they could consummate the marriage. Traditionally a piece of white cloth is spread on the marital couch to test the bride’s virginal status. If she’s found to be a virgin, a party is thrown for her at her parents homestead the next day, and her parents are showered with gifts. If she was found to have engaged in sexual activities, the groom and his family are displeased.”
Rafael Jason Rafi Hecht: “Interesting. I have heard others state that Rivka might have come into the family at 3 years when she was betrothed with jewelry, but got “married” at 14 when she was old enough to give her consent. The one hole in this opinion is, if at the age of three she was betrothed, a) why would her family asked her opinion on if she wanted to stay or go, b) why would Bethuel demand that he sleep with his 3 year old daughter, and c) what about her physical strength in drawing well water at that age to feed the camels, which would have been a physically draining process?
As an aside, we also have a tradition that there were multiple parts to a marriage in ancient times: a) the “Tenaim” ceremony which states the conditions of marriage, b) the betrothal (Qiddushin) which was the act of acquiring the girl through either money, a document or “physical relations,” then c) the marriage ceremony (Airusin). Back then b) and c) used to take a year apart from each other. Today the whole thing is lumped into one, but some Chassidic Jews split the Tennaim (a) from b) and c).
Rafael Jason Rafi Hecht: “The white cloth was confirmed in ancient Jewish times as well. This is nuts!”
Remy Ilona: “Nuts????You mean like crazy?”
Rafael Jason Rafi Hecht: “Remy Ilona in a good way.”
Onyebuchi James Ile: “I know of imara uno (familiarization visit), after which the bride goes home with a keg of palm-wine. If she returns the empty keg after some days or so, then she has accepted to marry the groom. She is not expected to sleep over during imara uno; if she must, she sleeps with the intended mother in-law. These are accompanied with light rituals!”
Remy Ilona: “First hint that she may accept…is what you described. Her family must have given a hint that they might accept, even before-after the first two visits if they send word that the groom’s family can pay more visits, that is the hint that they could accept……when they come, the girl goes with them, fee ana (investigates them), and has an opportunity to still accept or reject when handed the mmanya (wine).”
Onyebuchi James Ile: “Correct.”
Remy Ilona: For me there two constants in both the Igbo and the Jewish experiences that nailed it: (1.)the marriage process can be initiated even when the girl is an infant, (2.)but her consent must be obtained, before the marriage takes off .
Remy Ilona is a lawyer, scholar, head of Igbo chapter of Herut, member of its Unity Think Tank, Secretary-General of Hebrew-Igbo Nation, Nigerian Liaison of Kulanu Inc, Adjunct Instructor Florida International University, Miami, and author of the influential “The Igbos And Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Largest Jewish Diaspora”, and nine other books.
Rafael Jason Rafi Hecht is a Canadian Jewish scholar, a colleague of Remy.
Onyebuchi James Ile is an Igbo professor of Literature at one of Nigeria’s important universities.