URHOBO TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE – EMUERUO R’ AYE

Urhobo people have some of the best marriage traditions in the world; Urhobo family values, customs, practices, and attires are on full display.

Marriage is a very important institution for the Urhobo people and the traditional marriage rites embody the unique customs and values handed down from generations before. Fundamentally, the Urhobo people regard marriage as a union, not just between a man (Oshare) and a woman (Aye), but very importantly, binds two families (Ekru) together forever.  The customs and values involved in the traditional marriage practices are fairly standardised across the Kingdoms that make up the Urhobo nation, with minor variations in some aspects of the process.   This article will summarise some of the more standard practices as seen in most Urhobo Traditional Marriages.

You can watch the wedding of Martin and Omamode’s ceremony HERE, a fine balance of the Urhobo traditional practices and the modern experience in the diaspora. Enjoy the beautiful, colourful wedding, bringing two Urhobo families together.

The Urhobo marriage is more akin to a sacrament and not just a social contract. It embodies the spiritual strength and the commitment of a man and a woman to one another to share their lives and to work towards a common goal. It also involves a moral and disciplined lifestyle in which one finds self-control, companionship with the spouse, and good relationship with other members of the family and community as necessary and essential for the stability of society.

In order to preserve family values and to ensure the stability of society, the process of bringing two individuals to live together in marriage is undertaken with care and a great sense of responsibility. Among the Urhobo, the process of bringing a man and a woman together in marriage is elaborate. The parents, guardians, or family elders tend to take a tremendous amount of interest in the selection of mates for their children and younger relatives. When successfully contracted, the marriage becomes a union not only of a man and a woman but also of families, and communities.

Urhobo people practice oral tradition and this puts more emphasis on celebrations such as marriages where the cultural practices, traditions, values, and beliefs of the Urhobo people are laid bare in all aspects of the ceremony.  The process, as a key rite of passage, ensure the participation of everyone, from the young girls and women in the family; young men and adult males; to the extended family and the wider community on both sides.

Pre-Nuptial Activities

The process starts with the suitor or his family using a friend or a family member to help convey interest to the family of the girl being considered for a wife. The friend or family member becomes the intermediary between the families during the pre-nuptials, the ceremony, and the duration of the marriage.

Before an intermediary is engaged, standard practice in Urhobo requires the man’s family to conduct discrete inquiries to first determine whether the couple are related by blood in any way and to rule out any evidence of undesirable hereditary or genetic diseases such as insanity, leprosy and any other debilitating disease in the girl’s family.

Once the man’s relatives are satisfied with the result of the inquiry, a formal approach is made to the girl’s parents through the intermediary. The first meeting with the girl’s family offers the suitor and his family the opportunity to declare their interest and intention to marry officially. This is now commonly known as the ‘introduction’. Usually, no formal response to the marriage proposal is given until after a reasonable length of time and the intermediary may return several times before he receives an answer.

The delay in rendering an answer gives the girl’s parents the time they need to conduct their own inquiries about the family of their prospective son-in-law and to consult and intimate other members of their family about the proposal. If the results of the inquiries are satisfactory, the intermediary is so informed, and it becomes his duty to relay the message to the suitor and his family of the acceptance of the proposal. The meeting after the conclusion of inquiries by the girl’s family sets the stage for preparation for the marriage ceremony.

The Bride’s Price

The marriage ceremony begins with the payment and acceptance of the ‘bride’s price’. The payment is more than financial as it includes some other symbolic presents in the form of kola nuts, bitter kola, and a few bottles of gin or soft drinks. The price being paid is regarded as nothing more than a token of appreciation for all of the efforts expended by a family in raising a girl.

Although the bride’s price is a token, its role in Urhobo traditional wedding is unique as it places a number of obligations, duties, and responsibilities on many of the individuals involved in a series of events as they occur before and during the life of the marriage. One prime reason for the demand for the bride’s price is the need to secure, legitimise and enhance the place of a woman in a home. The proof of payment of the bride’s price remains the sole indicator in Urhobo culture, of the transition from being an unmarried woman to a position of respect and honor in society as a married woman. Without the bride’s price, the place of the woman in Urhobo society is not secure, and neither do women feel obligated to a man who is yet to make the payment. Hence until the payment of the bride’s price is made on her behalf, the woman in Urhobo culture is not regarded as legally married to anyone. Therefore, an essential purpose of the bride’s price is to help put a stamp of approval and legality on the living arrangement between a man and a woman.  A man who has not paid the bride’s price for a woman has no claim under Urhobo traditional laws and custom to being called the husband of the woman even if he lives, or has children, with her.

Urhobo people also believe that the payment of the bride’s price reminds the husband of the need to hold his wife in high regard or esteem. The acknowledgment of a special place for the wife as indicated through the payment is expected to help create a bond that ensures that the husband does not maltreat his wife but appreciates, adores, and loves her. The payment above all ensures that the girl retains linkage and ready access to her own family. The payment and acceptance of the price paid is considered proof that the bride’s family sanctioned or approved her marriage. The bride, therefore, goes into the marriage with the confidence and a high degree of conviction that she can rely on her family back home for support whenever the need arises. Members of the family particularly those who received and accepted portions of the bride fee paid to them are by tradition obligated to the bride and are therefore expected to stand ready and be prepared to intervene and protect her interests during times of difficulties in the marriage. Many marriages are known to have been saved by various levels of intervention including counseling or mediation by family members who are committed to the welfare of their relatives.  In short, the bride price is the seal of the contract between the two families.

Once the bride price is paid, the couple involved is declared husband and wife under Urhobo traditional laws and customs by the Head of the bride’s family. The Head, usually the oldest male in the family, makes the solemn declaration in a spirit of ẹkpẹvwẹ (thanksgiving) to God and in remembrance of the ancestors, whom he calls upon to bless the marriage. The Head in a special wedding prayer invokes the five themes traditionally used in Urhobo prayers, namely ufuoma (peace), omakpokpọ (good health), emọ (children), efe (wealth), and otọvwe (long life).  In the strict sense, it is only from this moment on that a sexual relationship between the couple is allowed or authorised.

Settling and Payment of Bride Price and other Traditional Nuptial fees

Once the bride’s Price is agreed upon, there are a number of other traditional fees that the groom’s family is expected to settle in advance of the wedding ceremony, either by buying the items or by paying the equivalent monetary value. These will vary from community to community but are broadly the same:

  1. Igho-rẹ- erhu, ubiọkpọ vẹ ogbru (fee to honor the bride’s father, usually intended for him to purchase for personal use erhu (hat), ogbru (man’s wrapper) and ubiọkpọ (staff or traditional walking stick)
  2. Igho-ugbe-rha-re (fee to recognize and show appreciation for the mother’s labor pains during the birth of the bride)
  3. Igho-ru-ughwa -raka (fee required to buy a bag of salt for the women of the bride’s family to compensate them for their services)
  4. Emu-ra-aye (bride’s fee negotiated between representatives of the families of the bride and bridegroom’s families and presented by the Head of the bridegroom’s family

Wedding Ceremony

Key People

A number of key individuals play an important role in officiating the wedding ceremony. First is the Ọkpako-ro-orua (Head of the Bride’s family) who represents the bride’s family. Together with the Ọsẹ v’ oni r’ ọpha (Parents/Guardians of the Bride) they form the core of the bride’s family and receive the delegation of the groom, his family, and friends. 

It is important to note that the father of the groom is not expected to attend the ceremony, he sends a delegation led by a senior member of his family along with the mother of the groom.   Both families are represented in the ceremony by spokespersons called ỌtotaBoth Otota’s are responsible for conducting the entire wedding ceremony.

Other key roles include the the‘Usuọvwa’ (Groom’s lead person), and the ‘Ikọpha’ (Traditional bridesmaids).

Traditional proceedings

The ceremony begins with ‘Udede’, an opportunity to welcome and introduce the host family and guests.  The Ọkpako-r’-orua (Head of the bride’s family) and his wife are introduced followed by the Ọsẹ v’ oni r’ ọpha (Parents of the bride). Other members of the bride’s family are also formally recognised.  The Head of Family of the groom’s family and his entourage are also introduced, including the groom’s mother.

Even though this aspect is conducted by the Ọtota, the spokesperson representing the bride’s family, it is at this stage that he is formally introduced as the Otata. Ọtota II, spokesperson for the groom’s family is also introduced.

The Usuọvwa, the bridegroom’s official representative is also introduced alongside other distinguished guests.

‘Udede’ continues with the Otota, speaking on behalf of the bride’s family formally conducting the Urhobo traditional welcome known as the Presentation of Kola-nuts.  The kola nuts are accompanied by drinks, supporting money and an additional amount for the Head of the groom’s family to pray with.  An exciting and interesting part of this cultural process is the ‘Odoma’ tradition where key individuals present are asked to say their ‘nickname’, which is then repeated by the Otota, and then the individual says the meaning of the name which is usually comical and philosophical.

The groom’s family Ọtota accepts what has been presented on behalf of the groom’s family and the Ọkpako-r’-orua, who proceeds to offer prayers, pouring of libation, and the sharing of kola-nuts and drinks.

Declaration of Intent or Purpose of Visit

The next staging post in this great drama that has been played out by generations before is a formal request for the groom’s family to confirm the purpose and intent of the visit.  ‘Why are you here?’ seems a strange question to ask but it’s part of the fun of the ceremony as both families begin to know themselves and bond.  The groom’s family’s Otota responds by directing the Usuọvwa to present the groom as their son who has informed his family that he has seen a ‘flower’ (bride) to his liking within this household; and that he intends to take this flower as his wife.

Presentation of the Bride

The bride’s family presents an eligible girl from the family and the Usuọvwa is asked to confirm if she is the ‘flower’ the groom is concerned with, and the answer is no.  This is usually repeated twice or three times.  Then the bride is present and the answer is finally yes to the jubilation of all present.

The mother of the bride is called forward and asked for her approval for the marriage to be taken forward.  Once she gives her approval, the groom and his entourage shower her with money in appreciation.  The bride is led away to another room where she is joined by her bridesmaid

The bride’s family Ọtota then calls on the bride’s family to go into umẹ (short or impromptu meeting) with him to deliberate further on the proposal and confirm that all necessary actions including payments agreed have been settled.

The Otota returns from the meeting with an answer for the bridegroom and his family and the ceremony can progress to the next phase.

Formalising the Marital Union

The bride is led in surrounded by her bridesmaids to stand before her father or the Ọkpako-r’-orua, the Head of the bride’s family.  The Head of the bride’s family calls on the bride and bridegroom, and both of them move forward and kneel down before him.

The Head of the bride’s family initiates the process of formalising by presenting a brief account of the lineage of the bride.

The Head of the bride’s family now begins the process by holding up a glass of drink and invoking the name of God and the memory of the ancestors in prayers, calling on them to bless the new life now commencing for their descendant or child and the man who has asked for her hand in marriage.

The Head of the bride’s family concludes his prayers by pouring libation (offer of a drink from the glass to God and in remembrance of the ancestors). He leaves some of the drink in the glass which he offers to the groom to drink. The groom after drinking some, in turn, passes the same glass to the bride to drink whatever is left, to signify her consent to the marriage.

Drinking from the same glass is thus the bride’s acknowledgment that the Head of her family has indeed spoken for her, and the signal needed to indicate that members of the groom’s family are now recognized as in-laws. The bride now returns the glass through the groom to her family Head, a process that essentially declares the couple’s willingness and commitment to live together as husband and wife.

The bride is handed over to the Head of the groom’s family, who henceforth assumes responsibility to ensure that the husband and his family will take good care of their new wife. The bride is directed to sit on the lap of her new husband in their first public display of life together as a married couple.

The public reacts to the display by showering gifts on the newlywed as both remain sitting.  Celebrations will normally continue until late hours.  The traditional food of the Urhobo traditional ceremony is Oghwo Evri (Palm Oil Soup) cooked with dry fish and served with starch, yam, and plantain.

Isuo (Escorting)

Isuo is the last rite of the Urhobo Traditional marriage ceremony. Isuo is when the bride is escorted by mainly the women in her family, along with her personal effects to her husband’s family home.  This is accompanied by singing and dancing and tears as the bride displays sorrow at leaving her family home.

On arrival, they will be greeted by the husband’s parents and family and her escorts will be entertained before they depart, leaving her behind.

The marriage has been fully contracted and the couple will officially spend the night together for the first time as husband and wife.

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