Nigerian marriage customs
Dr. Chidubem Keshi
In Nigeria, the family is extremely important. The family in a typical Nigerian home consists of the father, his wife, [or wives in polygamous homes] and their children.
The concept of the extended family means all the relatives. Nigerians believe in having many children, but this idea is fading away now because of economic realities. Marriage is therefore taken very serious.
While dating and selecting one’s spouse occurs mainly in urban areas, arranged marriages are still frequent in Nigeria. Polygamy is legal in Nigeria for the male, but not in the Christian religion. In our traditional beliefs, a man is allowed to have as many wives as he wants. The first wife by tradition has the greatest status, but the newest wife is usually considered the ‘favourite’. However, polygamy is becoming less common now because of present economic realities of our time.
Nigeria with a population of about 160 million, has many tribes with different cultures and traditions. However, there are three main tribes in Nigeria; namely the Hausa from the northern part of the country, the Ibos, and the Yorubas from the southern part of the country. Despite these differences, marriage traditions vary slightly.
Formal meetings between the couple’s families, the offer of a dowry, and an engagement ceremony make up the traditional aspects. For events prior to a wedding ceremony, such as the church wedding; this is more like what happens in the western world in that the bride dresses in a white gown, the groom being in a suit, accompanied by some entourage [from both families, friends and relatives]. This is followed by a reception, usually in the groom’s compound and during this time, the couple usually wears traditional attire. There is usually plenty to eat and drink and also music [traditional and foreign].
Some weddings also take place in the courtroom called court wedding. Those who are Muslims have their weddings in the mosque. Inter-tribal marriage is not very common in Nigeria.
Traditional wedding process: This usually involves the following stages
Here the groom’s family introduces themselves to the bride’s family and asks for their daughter’s hand in marriage to their son. This takes place before the engagement ceremony or church wedding.
The Onye-edu [someone hired by the groom’s family and who knows the bride’s family very well] does the introduction. Present for the ceremony are the groom and his family, the bride and her family and other relatives if the families so chooses. This part of the process takes place in the bride’s home and her family is responsible for the preparations and costs.
Dress code is traditional. The Onye-edu introduces the groom and his family to the bride and her family and explains the reason for their visit. Following this, and no objections, a prayer is said and kola nut is shared and also drinks are served. Some may serve food. A list of items to buy is usually given to the groom’s family by the bride’s family.
This can run into thousands of dollars. At the end, a day is set for the engagement and church wedding for the Christians.
Sometimes the engagement takes place a few days before the church or same day as the church or court wedding, depending on the economic muscle of both parties. This engagement takes place in the bride’s home and the dressing is traditional. Both families and friends are present and it is a big occasion. What happens here is that the dowry [bride price] payment is settled here. In most cases, the amount paid depends on the quality of the bride; that is if she comes from an influential family, is a high school, or university graduate or an illiterate.
In my home town for example, if the groom is a native, a standard fee is paid irrespective of the bride’s quality. However, if the groom is from another town, the dowry paid will depend on the quality of the bride as explained above. Another thing that happens is that the Onye-edu holds a cup of palm wine, gives it to the bride to go and give it to her husband to be [this serves as the bride introducing her husband to everybody present and both drink from the same cup signaling to all present that both parties have agreed to live as husband and wife.
That is not all. After the couple drink the palm wine, the Onye-edu will ask the bride this question: by this drinking, are you now asking the rest of us present here to drink to a happy married life? Of course the bride will answer YES and then the merrymaking will then take place.
The couple will now be prayed for by the groom and bride’s parents.
Traditionally, a couple is married after the engagement ceremony.
When the ceremony ends, the bride remains at her father’s house to prepare for the wedding ceremony.
WEDDING DAY: A party takes place in the groom’s home after the church wedding with plenty to eat and drink. A live band is usually in attendance depending on the cash flow. After the party, the bride returns to her father’s house where the umu-ada[married women from her family] will now escort her with her belongings to her husband’s house and the couple will now begin their new life together.
Customs that used to take place in some of the Nigerian cultures:
The bride-to-be was kept in a ‘fattening room’ for a period of time up to three months. During this period, she is well fed, and taught how to be a good wife. She would usually come out of the room fatter than before.
• The bride-to-be is ‘cleansed’ by taking a special bath before going to her husband.
• Shortly after the wedding ceremony, the bride will have her feet washed; the idea is that she is going to her husband ‘clean’.
• At the engagement ceremony, another woman disguised as the bride comes out as the bride to see if the groom is able to tell the difference.