There is a scene from Nnedi Okarafor’s Who Fears Death, where Onyesonwu, on her journey to find and kill her father, is swallowed by a traveling desert storm. On the inside of the storm she meets a civilization that has no fixed husbands or wives. Children recognize their birth parents, but hold no affiliation to them. In Elliot Laurence’s Motherland: Fort Salem, we witness a United States army led by Salem witches. In this older-newer matriarchal America, husbands are betrothed to women for five years and rotate on a contractual basis. The Old Kanye West raps in No Church in the Wild, “We formed a new religion. No sins as long as there’s permission. And deception is the only felony so never f** nobody without tellin’ me.” These are all pieces of fiction. Sometimes it’s useful to think about your culture as if it were a piece of fiction. It gives you space to look at it with some form of objectivity. It allows you to explore questions like this one:
Why do cultures create restrictive marriage customs?
Marriage is not about marriage – it is about power. It is about who is considered valuable, and what human interactions are sanctioned by society. This is what I am going to discuss here—value systems that are upheld and reproduced through marriage rituals.
Ijuese – To inquire
Ijuese is a marriage custom central to Igbo culture. It is designed to protect a family from bad health, bad fortune, disgraceful affiliation, and the challenges that come with unscrupulous in-laws. Put simply, ijusese is a pre-marriage custom where the grandmother or the highest-ranking woman employs the services of a private investigator to dig up dirt on the family of their child’s intended.
There is a general list that signals red flags that private investigator looks out for. On the top of the list is “madness” or occurrences of severe mental illness in the intended’s family. The engagement is almost always called off by the matriarch if she learns there is “madness in their family.” Their child may decide to continue with the marriage, but will go without the blessing of the matriarch. As a result, the child will not have the blessings of the family. The matriarch is so powerful in this ceremony that the intended’s father or the eldest ranking man of the family cannot overrule her. In all, this is the type of wedding drama is avoided at all cost, and the child is asked to “come back home” and break off the engagement.
There are other criteria for calling off an engagement if bad reports come back to the matriarch. If the intended is from a disreputable family, or has a family who has a reputation for unscrupulous behavior, the engagement cannot continue. In an Igbo society that is deeply connected by kin and clan, and as marriage is a union between families, one cannot afford to be connected to a family that is dishonest and unscrupulous. But this family avoidance principle is not always tied to scruples.
A match is highly favoured if the intended is also Igbo, or from a preferable community. There are often villages who are known to “marry from each other.” Traditionally, and sometimes today, when a man is of-age, he is asked to go to a certain village to “find a wife” If he comes back with a woman who is not from that village, but is Igbo, accommodations can be made as different Igbo communities have different reputations. Villages are dense clusters of kinship ties, and most people in an Igbo village can trace their lineage back to a common set of ancestors. Marrying “out of your village” is a way to safeguard against marrying your relative. Sometimes advice is given to man not to marry from a certain village based on recent or ancient grievances like a village’s role in facilitating slave trade, or ancient battles and rivalries. Some clans also look to spiritual or metaphysical justifications for why one must not marry from a certain village.
Generally speaking, Igbos marrying other Igbos are preferred. As Igbos are largely Catholics, an Igbo-Catholic is preferred. Things get tricky when the intended is from a different tribe. This prejudice is equally informed by a deep desire for cultural preservation and discriminatory cultural and political beliefs.
These rules do not apply to everyone equally. These rules are most strictly applied to the eldest sons and daughters of a family and a clan. As they are highest ranked in a family, and are seen as cultural stewards, they and are held to the most stringent standards. Men and women are treated differently. Generally speaking, women should always marry up. This means they should never marry into a lower social status, lower family reputation, or lower wealth status than her family. Men are allowed more liberty, as they are perceived to marry a woman “out” of her family.
Of all the red flags a matriarch looks out for, one of the most consequential is that their child can not be engaged to anyone who is an Osu.
Osu are outcasts dedicated to Alusi and considered an inferior caste in Igboland. The caste system originates from an era where the Igbo were governed by Odinani—the rule of the earth. The deity known as Ala (earth spirit) provided rules that all Igbo must obey in order to receive blessings, prosperity and peace in the land. Anyone who was found guilty of great abominations against Ala and soiling the earth were cast out of society. This was done to avoid repercussions from Ala and to avoid the spread of such abominations amongst the citizenry. These outcasts, and their descendants were identified as Osu.
Osu are treated as unclean, are not allowed to participate in holy Igbo rituals like breaking kola. They are stigmatized, ostracized, and treated as people with a contagious disease and avoided. Osu who are looking to marry a non-Osu can often be met with violent disruptions at their weddings and denial of social privileges, titles and recognitions. They often live in deep poverty, and are left in deeply precarious situations if their non-Osu spouse unexpectedly passes away.
Many Igbo nations have moved to reform these deeply discriminatory practises. Of note, Igbo legislators in the Eastern House of Assembly in Enugu, repealed the then-common practice of referring people to as osu. They imposed fines on those who public express the word osu, but social stigmatization and ostracization continues. A matriarch may decide to dissolve the engagement of her child and their intended if the child is an Osu, from a non-desirable family, or has incidents of mental illness in their family.
Who is of value, and why ?
Colonization is the imposition of the will of one group over another. It is about power, and the ability for the dominant group to control and limit the realities of the subjugated group. Marriage is a site of power and families with power dictate the grounds for engagement and personally define what is deemed valuable. Marriage must be decolonized in a way that gives Osu people, people from different social classes, and people who have histories of mental illness full access to the institutions of marriage if they so desire it.
I will not be so prescriptive to say that this site of power must be completely abolished and everyone should be able to marry anyone–and maybe I should. But I will highlight some elements of this Ijuese ritual that may be useful as well.
One of the modern adaptions of this ritual is to inquire of the blood types of the intended. Now the grandmother does not hire a PI to get information of the blood type, but inquires the information to be provided. This is done to ensure the engaged have blood types that are compatible and reduce the chances of a child having sickle cell anemia. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited red blood cell disorder in which there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.
Couples with an AS and AS genotype, or AS and SS genotype are strongly discouraged from getting married as they stand a high chance of passing the sickle cell expression to their child. These type of marriages may not be sanctioned by the matriarch to protect her children from the heartbreak of the potential death or grave illness of a future child.
It is true, and in some cases respectable, when people consensually terminate a relationship because of foreseen complications with conception, childbirth and the overall health of potential children. But what is deeply troubling, is how Igbos make hierarchies for, and stigmatize, diseases. Obesity, arthritis, cancer, are common occurrences in families but mental illness is especially stigmatized and guarded against. We further punish and stigmatize families with mental illnesses above all. This stigma is woven deeply into our cultural tapestry and there is an added shame that is associated to being affiliated with someone who has a mental illness. It also begs a question when does preventive care become social eugenics – picking and choosing what traits are desirable in a child and making matches to that effect ?
This question is deeply urgent. Because at its core is a question about who is valued in society and why and how that person becomes valued. If you are an Osu, or have history of mental illness in your family, you receive the most violent social treatment out of no fault of your own.
Let’s be clear. This is not an Igbo problem, this is just an Igbo example of a more human problem. Marriage is a site where power is exercised, where the dominant seek to control the desires and the freedoms of a group they consider undesirable. These traits are found in many peoples across the world. They are also play out in contemporary questions around same sex marriage, interracial marriage, Black love, and disability rights to name a few. Who is considered of value, what bodies are considered healthy, who should gain access to the rights and privileges of marriage, who is from a good family?
Is there a line where caring for the health of your grandchild perpetuates and reproduces a deeply insidious form of discrimination ? Is it possible to consider an understanding of the diversity of human bodies and mind that account for the dignity of them all? Where does the line between self-preservation stop, and discrimination start – if at all?
It’s about values, and the type of societies we want to live in.
Marriage is a site of power, and families and institutions with power dictate the grounds for engagement and define according to them what is valuable. Every society creates the upper and lower limits of the value they place on human life. It is not an arbitrary rule, it is a decision that is reinforced through traditions like marriage customs and rituals like ijuese.
We can choose to value that bodies come in many shapes, and move, walk, crawl, and think in many ways. We can embrace that some lives are shorter, some lives are longer, and all life is deserving of dignity nurturing and stewardship, and foster a social system that embraces these values.
What should we do with our cultural past ?
Marriages can be the source of joy and support, but they can cause a pain so deep, the heart never fully heals. It breaks people. A thing that ought to cause the deepest joy, can cause the deepest sorrow. If you enjoy the power of belonging to a dominant traditional class and you fully enjoy the institutions of marriage, it is useful to actively to investigate your relationship with this power. The thing that gives you joy, may also cause other great suffering.
Marriage is a source of power and politics and ought to be investigated, ridiculed, flipped upside down and exposed to ensure the values embedded in it are still useful and serve to promote and protect human dignity. If you are unsure about how to do this, it may be useful to think about your culture as if it were a piece of fiction. Think about these rituals like a scene out of a Nnedi Okarafor novel, or Elliot Laurence tv show. The fantastical and the mundane share more in common than what meets the eye. And the distance fantasy provides is the perfect vantage point to wrestle with reality as we know it.
Sometimes these marriage rituals are systems of preserving against illness, and sometimes they are just flat out discriminatory – sometimes they are both at the same time. When I take a step back from the deep affinity I have for Igbo culture, I realize that my culture is deeply beautiful but it also often a source of self-inflicted pain caused to members of our community—our fellow humans—in the name of cultural and self-preservation.
Our cultures are one out of a universe of cultures that have existed or will ever exist. Men on contracted marriages, children belonging to everyone, marriages between castes, these are just stories that can be rewritten. They all elucidate the limits of human value, morality, lawfulness, and decency. It is useful to think about your culture as if it were a piece of fiction, our cultures are just scenes on the page of a book, and eventually the pages will be flipped.