By Reuben Abati (Guardian, Lagos)
To be so bent on marriage, to pursue a man merely for the sake of situation, is a sort of thing that shocks me: I cannot understand it. Poverty is a great evil: but to a woman of education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest -Jane Austen, The Watsons (c.1804).
HAVE you seen the announcement by the elders of Ekpeye Clan in Ahoada Local Government Area of Rivers State? If you are a bachelor in search of a wife, or a married man in search of a second wife (for whatever reasons whatsoever), please start heading towards Ahoada, where the elders in deference to the pull of market forces, are offering a generous discount on bride price. According to their announcement, anyone who wants a wife can now get one from Ahoada with a smile! Ekpeye Women for Sale!. We offer good bride price! Enjoy the discount while it lasts! Offer is on first come, first served basis!
Lest you think I am making this up, then please read The Vanguard newspaper of January 24, 2006, p.8. The relevant story is titled "Community woos suitors for "overripe" spinsters - slashes bride price to N15,000". The traditional ruler of the Ugboji Clan of Ekpeye Eze Innocent Odum, concerned that his kingdom is littered with grown-up girls of marriageable age, who in spite of their beauty, education and good breeding, could not find anyone to marry them, decided to set up a committee titled "The Bride Price Committee". Its term of reference was to investigate the immediate and remote causes of the seeming inability of Ekpeye babes to attract men and to make appropriate recommendations to correct the situation.
The Committee headed by a certain Chief Joel Obee, held meetings and arrived at the conclusion that men of marriage age are fleeing from Ekpeye girls because of the high bride price charged by families in the area. Ekpeye clan has a large population of female University graduates. I am told that the clan is truly blessed with young women of Heavenly beauty: ranging from those with assets in the frontal territory to tested acrobats in the chamber of desire. But to marry these ladies, you have to pay through the nose. Families practically ask the suitor to pick up every penny that had been spent on the lady from maternity ward to the exact moment. Understandably, since this is a commercial transaction, it is to be expected that a percentage of profit may also be added. The would-be husband may be required to pay a percentage of Value Added Tax (VAT) with a promise to remain generous thereafter. A community leader in Ekpeye is quoted by Vanguard in the following instructive words. Hear him: "...parents actually prepare their children for prices that they (parents) consider as compensation for every kobo spent and drop of water the girl drank from childhood to marriage age... The girls themselves are not finding the situation funny, in fact they started grumbling aloud for not finding suitors..."
Poor ladies of Ekpeye... Even the young men of Ekpeye clan prefer to marry from outside. They look at the beautiful flowers in their own environment and the families behaving like usurers at the hall of marriage and they just turn to other communities where it is cheaper to "buy" a woman. The Eze Ekpeye-in-Council, having considered all these facts has now mercifully brought down bride price to N15, 000 only. Every family has been so advised. The elders want their daughters to get husbands. What is at play here is a simple principle of economics. This is a question of Marriage as Economics where excess supply in the face of the law of demand is forcing down prices.
The elders of Ekpeye should be praised for their pragmatism and common sense. But I doubt if the pegging of the bride price at N15, 000 would solve the problem that their community faces. The elders would need to offer suitors more detailed information lest the N15, 000 consideration turns out to be a trap. Is the Eze-in-Council saying that should a brother of mine choose to marry an Ekpeye lady, the consolidated price that will be paid is N15, 000? In many communities, the N15,000 bride price is an independent item on the list of demands by a lady's family. So apart from the statutory, communally-sanctioned N15, 000, would the prospective husband also need to bring gifts, pay other fees, accept to build a house for the in-laws etc, as is done in parts of Nigeria? These other items on the list of demands by in-laws are far more expensive than the actual bride price. Are there sanctions for any family that contravenes the communal directive?
The leaders of Ekpeye clan are trying to respond to competition on behalf of their daughters. The competition in the marriage market today is so serious that in many Nigerian communities, parents are in fact no longer asking for bride prices. They give out their daughters at zero Naira rates. What most families ask for is a responsible man, who has a regular source of income (he could be a 419, no problem), and who can take care of their daughter. The truth is that the economic situation has disrupted the marriage institution. In traditional societies of old, women were given out in marriage to men who could look after them. A woman was treated as a chattel to be bought by her husband and maintained. A mixture of education, modernisation and the crisis of economic dispossession has robbed the local menfolk of this ascribed superiority that was based originally on the symbolism of the phallus as an instrument of authority and domination. The socio-economics of male-female relationships has since been transformed in such a fashion that there are many female heads of households today with men as dependants.
This role reversal simply makes nonsense of the idea of bride price in the traditional sense of the purchase of a woman from her family. There are more men today who would prefer to be "bought". Indeed, there are more Nigerian men today than at any other time in history who are fed, clothed and maintained by their wives. If you doubt this, then ask rich families. Girls from rich homes are never in short supply of suitors. The desperation to capture a rich girl is so much that Nigerian parents now ask a future son-in-law to sign an undertaking that he would not go anywhere near the family wealth. In comparison, girls from terribly poor backgrounds whose parents see the entire exercise as a commercial transaction find it difficult to encourage men beyond the bedroom to the altar. Most Nigerian men, especially the up-coming Yahoo generation, are not excited by the old idea of the man as the provider in a family.
There is also the moral question. Girls do not necessarily attract suitors because they are beautiful, educated, and cheap to marry. Women in the olden days were seen as assets by those who sought to marry them. The families that charged heavy bride prices did so because they were marrying off virgins; well brought up girls who had been taught the values of discipline and loyalty. The women of today are different. Those who should marry them know them. Women of marriage age in Nigeria carry special baggage.
We are in the season of young girls who function as part-time prostitutes. They keep a chain of boyfriends. They are perpetually asking for money. Their philosophy is simple: "No Romance without Finance." In terms of morals, they are unimpressive. No man still searches for a virgin these days. Every young girl with an attractive chest and torso is no different from a maternity ward returnee. These are playthings in the neighbourhood and toys in the hands of lecherous men. Parents have abdicated their responsibilities as female adolescent sexuality remains a major public health crisis. So, who would pay so much for these over-sexed, second-hand girls with the morals of party boosters?
In essence, the pegging of bride price at N15,000 by the elders of Ekpeye Clan does not address the changing complexities of the marriage institution in Nigeria. Besides, could there be other reasons why men run away from Ekpeye ladies? There are more than a thousand myths about Nigerian women in relation to their backgrounds. With due respect, women from Agbor, Owerri, Ijebu, Abeokuta, Calabar, Ogoja, Benue and Itsekiri are particular subjects of popular mythology.
What exactly is the reputation of Ekpeye women as wives? Do they have a reputation for dominating their men? Are they associated with witchcraft? Are they poor cooks? Did the "Bride Price Committee" consider these other issues? This is an important point, even if based on myth and suspicion but clearly, Ekpeye is not the only community that charges high bride prices. Why do men prefer to marry other women who are no less expensive? Bride price is quite high in Mbaise, Imo state, for example but the elders of that community are not as desperate as Ekpeye leaders. N15,000? Should a family decide to marry more than a woman from Ekpeye, would the elders offer a discount?
In the long run, what is being advertised in this instance is the surviving traditional view of women as property to be auctioned off to the highest bidder as soon as they mature to be acquired and treated by a so-called husband, as chattel. Thus, a young girl of marriage age is meant to be a source of instant wealth to her family. This notion of marriage as a business transaction poses the biggest threat to the human rights of women; it provides the strongest explanation for all forms of violence against women including cultural and physical.
It is for this reason that it should be deplored. It removes the accent on marriage as relationship, marriage as partnership and paints the picture of in-laws as parasites. The result is that many young men are looking for wives in communities with liberal traditions; they are running away from the Ekpeye syndrome in the context of which marriage is a form of commerce and bondage. Marriage is in the end, a personal thing. A good girl will "sell" herself. Even then, the assumption that a woman's chief mission is to end up as someone's wife serves no purpose other than that of phallocentric chauvinism.