Idoma marriage rites: the death of “Oji”, the confession tradition

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Marriage in Idoma land is highly revered as a sacred union where it is widely believed to be a sign of responsibility.  The expected age of marriage for women in Idoma land is 18 to 28 while for the men, it is 25 to 38. Polygamy, with its attendant traditions such as “Oji”, was the most popular form of marriage but the influence of Christianity and western civilisation has led to monogamy taking centre stage.

Idoma Ladies
The Confession Tradition

Oji is the tradition of confessing promiscuity by a bride or a widow. There are two forms of Oji; the first form is the confession of pre-marital sexual engagements by a bride before the payment of her bride price by the groom. The second form of Oji is the confession of adultery by a widow whose alleged affair is being blamed for husband’s death and the widow is usually coerced to make a public confession. In this write-up, which is based on my research of marriage rites in Idoma land between 1995 and 2020, I will focus on the first form of Oji, the confession of promiscuity by brides. 

Oji was instituted as a way of preserving the chastity and sanctity of marriage in Idoma land with virginity considered a precious gift from the bride to the groom. Prior to formal marriage proposal to any young lady, the potential groom’s family carryout a thorough investigation of the perceived characteristic tendencies common to women in the prospective bride’s family. The investigation usually looks for history of the following traits within the bride’s family; death of expectant mothers during childbirth, stillbirth, being respectful of husbands and in-laws, having male offspring, adultery or witchcraft.

But the most significant probe is to determine if a potential bride has lost her virginity. A young lady suspected of having a boyfriend or known to dress provocatively is deemed to portend danger in a man’s life and therefore is not considered marriage worthy within the community. Where the virginity of a potential bride cannot be ascertained from investigations, the prospective groom’s family revert to Oji. This tradition is a double-edged sword capable of consolidating the love between a prospective bride and groom or terminating the entire marriage process and rites.

In 19th to mid-20th century Idoma land, a bride who had lost her virginity before marriage was considered a disgrace to her family and was usually ostracised by the community with her so-called sexual transgressions becoming public knowledge’ within her community and its environs. How did these alleged promiscuities become public knowledge? And how did prospective grooms react to finding out that their chosen bride was not a virgin? These questions informed the research that formed the basis of this article.

Tell everyone about it

Growing up as an adolescent in my community in Idoma land, the most inquisitive moment in marriage rites was the time for Oji. Both the young and the old would look forward to the time when the bride-to-be would confess her improprieties, especially immoral affairs at the foot of a shrine, a microcosm of Alekwu. Items required by the Alekwu for it to ‘listen’ to the confession at dusk, of the prospective bride in the presence of members of the community are: a hen, kola nuts, bowl of water, palm oil and palm wine. During Oji, she will be on her knees, carrying the hen in one hand and kola nuts inside the bowl of water in another, before proceeding to confess to any sexually relationships. 

In one of the confessions I witnessed, the bride-to-be said her secondary school classmate inadvertently touched her breast when she was fighting him for tearing her notebook. Another prospective bride confessed to having being approached for sexual relationship but she turned the man down. These types of misbehaviours are quickly forgiven and discarded by the elders with the prospective groom’s family proceeding with payment of the bride price. 

There was once, a prospective bride who confessed to having intercourse with the same man twice. The negative reactions of the groom’s family to this confession were unimaginable. The most nervous part of the confession tradition, is that a lady must give the name of any man she has had intercourse with however, there is no any stipulated punishment for that man.  Rather, it is a thing of pride for the man having “had” a virgin and left the “dross” of lady for an uninformed or weak man to pay her bride price. In some instances, the lady might never find a single man wanting her after her confession. Only married men will usually ask for her hands in marriage, no matter how young she is and when that happens, her family will hurriedly give her out as second or third wife to avert more ridicule and shame of having an unmarried daughter.

Idoma Women Dancing
The Verification Process

Every confession is subject to verification through the spiritual medium with the hen being covered with a woven basket placed at the foot of the shrine overnight. At the break of dawn, the elders will storm the foot of the shrine to uncover the basket, and if the hen is found dead, it is believed that the bride-to-be lied or refused to confess some of her sexual escapades. The groom’s family will be informed and the marriage ceremony that was to hold at noon of that day will be suspended. The prospective bride will be compelled to make another confession.

In several cases where the hen was found dead, the groom’s family discontinued the marriage process and rites, alleging that the bride-to-be could not be trusted. In such instances, the engagement price (the real bride price is not paid until after a confession is verified) is refunded to the groom’s family. The young woman will be mocked, stigmatised and ostracised by her family for bringing their integrity to disrepute within the community. 
Most of the ladies who have had these experiences usually relocate out of their communities to towns and cities in other parts of Nigeria and sometimes get married to men from other tribes or to Idoma men who are not from their community.

The Protests against Oji

In the late 20th century Idoma land; there were massive protests against Oji tradition by feminist Idoma people, Christian groups and western civilisation advocates.  Let’s look at points of protests from these three categories of people.

Feminist Group and Women’s Rights Advocates:

These groups of people were against the confession tradition because they saw it as patriarchal and gender biased. They accused the Idoma traditional god (Alekwu) of institutionalising customs and traditions aimed at protecting and promoting male chauvinism and feminine subjugation. 

They asked the custodians of the customs within communities to justify why it was mandatory for the ladies to confess to pre-marital sexual encounters while the men who lured them into such affairs were protected by the same tradition with no punishments meted out to men. The usual hackneyed response to this query was that, Alekwu permits polygamy but forbids polyandry; therefore men were permitted to have sexual affairs with different women even before marriage, provided these women were not married women.

The feminist group’s agitation for an egalitarian Idoma society which promoted gender equality and fairness was one of the strokes that made the confession tradition moribund. 

Christian Groups

Christianity which has grown to become the dominant religion in Idoma land, is vehemently against pagan traditions, especially marriage-related confession of ‘sins’ to Alekwu for the entertainment of members of a community. Most Christian leaders argued that Oji was not an Idoma culture; rather it was an idol practice that only the adherents of idols can be obliged to do.

They opined that a Christian who had sinned and had been forgiven by God had no need to confess same sins to an idol that had no powers to forgive. These Christian groups usually quoted several Bible verses to corroborate their submissions. When I was in JSS 3 (class 3 in junior secondary school), a Christian leader within my Idoma community banned all members of his denomination from attending marriage ceremonies and burial interments of non-Christians, because he believed that attending such events amounted to “glorification of evil practices”.

The mass conversion of the Idoma people in traditional communities in the early 21st century from paganism to Christianity also pushed the confession tradition into oblivion in most villages. Even in the villages heavily populated by pagans, most of parents no longer want to subject their daughters to traditions that might cause discord within their family. 

Several Idoma ladies and young women, including non-Christians now make it a condition for accepting marriage proposals; that there will be no form of confession, neither at a shrine nor before people. It is common to find young ladies, whose parents are pagans converting to Christianity to ‘escape’ a tradition they consider archaic and dehumanising.

These days, most ladies and their parents profess Christian faith and vehemently oppose every vestiges of pagan tradition. However, a good number of them clandestinely visit pagan traditional diviners, native doctors and magicians to seek for all kinds of ‘helps’, including ways to harm other ladies. 

Western Civilisation

The influence of western civilisation has seen Idoma traditional values become eroded and replaced with modern culture. Virginity, which was a treasured virtue in 18th to 20th century Idoma land, has become a thing of ridicule in the 21st century.  A teenage girl who promotes abstinence and chastity is usually taunted and regarded as local and uncivilised by her peers for not engaging in pre-marital sex. Pre-marital sex is now a norm; therefore, there is no room for confession (Oji) of an ‘acceptable’ lifestyle as an ‘immoral affair’. Even young men these days are against the abstinence because they believe sex is a big part of marriage and therefore, they need to marry experienced ladies to keep them happy. 

Conclusion

The Oji or confession tradition in Idoma land which was instituted by Idoma ancestors to preserve the chastity and sanctity of marriage has become a dying practice due to the influence of feminism, Christianity and western civilisation. Despite the death of Oji, marriage is still highly regarded as a sacred union in Idoma land with adultery heavily frowned at and prohibited.

References
  1. Anama, E. Oral interview with Late Pa Chief Enenche Anama (1901 – 2010). Interviewed by Ugwu Lawrence Enenche, over numerous years