<< >> Title Contents

Chapter III Widows in Domestic and Affinal Relationship


Societies differ in formal options available to widows. In some African societies such as the Beti, the Nandi and the Luo, Potash (1986:17) has recorded that widows generally have little choice but to remain in their husbands' community. In this chapter, we shall look at the widow's position in terms of domestic and affinal relationship. This will include an examination of the widows options regarding remarriage and widow inheritance/levirate relationship. We shall examine also the structural complexes in Igbo society which sustained widow inheritance and remarriage in the past and what impact changing economic and social forces have had on the practice.

To understand how this apply to the Igbo, it will be necessary to review the Igbo marriage system. This will enable us understand the widow remarriage pattern, levirate rules and how it forms an integral part of the overall social force which determine what the widow can do.

3.1 Igbo Marriage System: An Overview.

There are two types of valid marriage among the Igbo and the principles of law applicable to each of these types of marriage differ considerably. These are statutory law marriage and customary law marriage.

Statutory Law Marriage

This is a monogamous type of marriage. The majority of my respondents are statutory law marriage widows. The incidents which govern the celebration and validity of monogamous marriage herein referred to as statutory marriage, are found mainly in the Customs Law, Equity and Relevant Statutes of General Application received into Nigeria from the British legal system during the colonial era. Others are the Nigerian Marriage Act, 1914 and the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1970.

Customary Law Marriage

This system permits the practice of polygamy whereby a man may legally marry as many wives as possible. The main difference between a marriage under customary law and a mere concubine is the money paid by the husband as bridewealth. Under this system of marriage not only can a widow not inherit from the deceased husband but she herself is an inheritable property.

3.2 Marriage Among the Igbo: Rationale.

The women members of an Igbo village are of two categories: the umuokpu[71], who may be married, unmarried, divorced or widowed women who belong to the village by descent, and the ndom alu alu who belong to the village by marriage. The rule that a woman should always be married gives marriage the precedence over descent. The relationships between these two classes of women according to Uchendu (1965:49) is one of "potential" conflict covertly expressed in the joking relationships between them and overtly manifested in the institutionalised authority of the umuokpu over the ndom alu alu during the mourning rites marking the latter's widowhood. In western industrialised societies, about 40% of new marriages end in a divorce, about 75% of the divorced males remarry as against 66% females who do so[72]. Comparative figures are not available for the Igbo. But as Entwistle and Cole (1990:259) noted:

Like other West African women, virtually all Nigerian women marry at least once and most spend a large portion of their life married. Their experience of marriage is different from that of men-frequently shaped by early marriage to an older male, polygamy, extended periods of sexual abstinence after child birth and widowhood remarriage when the older spouse dies[73]

The primary item in the concept of family is that marriage is essential for completeness of the mature human being. There is no Igbo myth similar to the Bible one which indicates that a woman was made from the man's rib and that therefore the unmarried person is incomplete. Igbo mythology however, still gives support to this concept of the incompleteness of the unmarried. In Igbo pantheon, notes Nwoga, (1980) there is no male god who has no wife or female who has no husband. Onyirioha, the protective deity of Oru-Mbaise, has a wife from Obohia Mbaise and their first son opara nzege is the protective deity of Lude Mbaise. In addition, of course, he has all things a man of standing should have - slaves, children, Ikenga[74], Ekwensu[75], Agwu[76] etc. Iyi of Opkonkume-Mbaise, a river god, has his wife lolo wiyi, has his sons like wiyi of Umuchieze-Mbaise and duru ugo of Alike, Etiti; in his house (which these days is roofed with zinc) has his warriors - ojimma and others. As a diviner/priest said, Nga nwoko no, nwanyi no ya wu nwunye ya (wherever there is a man there is also a woman who is his wife)[77].

This belief in complementary duality is so strong among the Igbo that quite a few satirical songs arise from youths-boys or girls- who will not marry in time. An Abigbo[78] group satirised such a girl in a song in which they impersonated the girl as sending a message to her parents to find her somebody to marry, just anybody, even the old ofo[79] holder (pagan old), even Edembe (known in the town as a half-wit moron)

Ziere m papa m gbo, mama m gbo - Give a message to my father, my mother

Ya chotara mu di a huna m uwa - To find me a husband, I have suffered

Ya wuru Edembe ekwerele m - If it is Edembe I have agreed.

O wubela oke mmadu ji isi ofo - Even if it is the old man holding the ofo,

Ekwerele m - I have agreed.

(Recorded in Mbaise in 1965)

Some Igbo names shows the importance attached to the institution of marriage. Women have names like:

Di wu ugwu- A husband is prestige.

Mma nwanyi bu di- A woman's beauty is a husband.

In traditional Igbo society therefore, marriage was important to fulfil these social needs.

A young man who will not marry is equally satirised as foolish and unsatisfactory in maturity. In another Abigbo song, it is said that a young man not married, yet not looking flashy and well fed is like a counterfeit money. Among the Igbo therefore, married life according to Uchendu is the normal condition for both men and women; polygamy a symbol of high status is the ideal (1968:49).

Among certain parts of the Igbo society as is the case in Mbaise, endogamy, or the rule which prohibits a person from marring outside his own social group, exists only in one form, namely that the class of slaves known as Osu,80 must intermarry among themselves. Exogamy, or the rule prohibiting the marriage of an individual to any person belonging to the same social and local group as himself, is in some degree or the other almost universal throughout Igboland[81]. Field work in Mbaise area shows that the social group described as an extended family is almost invariably an exogenous unit and applies to the larger group which is regarded as kin. It even extends to the village level composed of unrelated kin. Marriage is prohibited between members of a sub-group.

A person therefore may not marry within the segment of his or her mother's or father's mother's patrilinage. The purpose of the initial inquiry conducted by families at the earliest point of the marriage negotiation is to ensure that this rule is not broken. The Igbo men acquire rights in women in many ways, but all must be validated by the payment of bridewealth[82].

Until it was legally abolished in 1956, child marriage was the most common way of acquiring rights in women. In traditional society, the prospective husband sent gifts to the girl and her mother, and sometimes helped the prospective in-law in farm work. The bride wealth payment is usually deferred till the girl becomes of age. This is now effectively restricted by socio-cultural changes rather that legal sanctions. The changes are growing demand for formal education for both sexes; the attraction of new symbols of wealth and new ways of validating status, and the changing attitude towards gender equality.

3.3 Igbo Traditional Forms of Marriage

The degree of family involvement was one variable in the range of Igbo traditional marriage forms. The standard form of marriage required the consent of the two families. Very many girls were not asked about their consent[83]. The agreement was symbolised by several stages of negotiation culminating in a final presentation of drinks and a nominal sum of money[84] paid by the man's family to the woman's family. This legitimised the marriage, gave the husband legal rights to all the children of his wife. Marriage in Igboland is therefore an alliance between two families as opposed to a contract between two individuals as is the case in Western culture. The philosophy and ideology associated with marriage in the traditional sense obviously will have implication for a widow. It may therefore limit the chances of remarriage outside the husband's family since it may be viewed as breaking such bonds.

Uchendu identified a marriage type associated with the Ahiajoku[85] cult. He observed that in traditional Igbo society, there is a prescribed status-linked marriage between "yam oriented" male and female children called Njoku (Ahiajoku), and Mmaji respectively. These children are usually born to members of the yam title called Eze ji (yam king). As the human representatives of the yam deity, these children are entitled to privileges. Mmaji must be the first wife of Njoku as well as the only wife with Mmaji status[86] .

Women-marriages (marriage of two women) is a recognised Igbo institution[87] by which women can validate status in the society. In my study area, I did not identify any incident of women-marriage in recent times. Women in this regard marry in their own right by paying the bride-wealth and have the right to dispose of their rights in their brides. A woman allows her husband to exercise her right and she accepts her bride as co-wife. The woman is also free to take a lover. The children from this marriage belong to the husband no matter who their biological father may be. Women marriages is strictly a patrilineal institution, inherent in the logic of the transfer of the woman's reproductive capacities to her husband.

Women marriages gives an important insight into the gender issues in marriage. Once the right in marriage can be analytically distinguished, the confusion as to which gender should do the marrying, be the husband, for instance, and whether marriage is conterminous with sex or not, becomes irrelevant[88]. In this type of marriage, the genitor is different from the genetrix and the social father. The Judaeo-Christian tradition of marriage treats all the rights in a woman as a bundle. Other civilisations like the Igbo do not. Before science advanced the stage that yielded the test-tube babies and gave us surrogate mothers, Igbo cultural inventions had made it possible for wealthy and able Igbo women to play a husband role, not as a legal fiction but as a social and legal reality. There may be very few instances in contemporary Igbo society where women who could not have children marry other women to have children in their husband's name. Women could also marry other women to raise children in their fathers name if the man had no male children. This is to keep the family alive and preserve family property.

This discussion on marriage shows that marriage, like all other social institutions occur within the context of society and culture. To appreciate Igbo marriage systems, and its impact on the women members of the society, we have to bear in mind that "marriage, like birth, death, or initiation at puberty is essentially a re-arrangement of social structure" (Radcliffe Brown 1975:43). By a marriage certain existing relationships particularly those of the bride and bridegroom's family, are changed; new social relations and bonds are created; and through the offspring of the marriage, the corporate character of the social system is strengthened. The structural changes brought about by a marriage tend to have important value contents. It is the value content rather than the structure of the changes brought about by a marriage that is the true measure of the value system (Uchendu 1991).

The Igbo world view and their social structure are two elements of the socio-cultural system, and they play a pervasive role in the marriage system. This world view shapes the social structure, the body of rule which governs society and gives it direction. On the other hand, the marriage rules re-enforce the social structure and re-affirm the world view. Igbo marriage rules make a statement on the social structure and help us to understand the world view of the people. This includes the basic notions underlying cultural activities, the definition of cultural goals and social relations. This of course extends throughout the life of each of the marriage partner and sometimes influence what options are available to a woman on the death of her husband. Drawing from Uchendu's The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, we summarise Igbo world view on marriage as follows;

First, the Igbo world brings the living and the dead into a system of inter- relationship in which lineage continuity is a co-operative enterprise between the two and the marriage system the chief institution to bring it about (1965:11).

The various forms of marriage described so far are therefore part of the Igbo social and structural system which can influence the widow option in her domestic and affinal relationships. Ideally, according to Igbo customs and tradition, a woman should always be under the guardianship and protection of a man. In the subsequent section, I shall discuss widow inheritance and remarriage explaining how far they are a viable alternative for the widow and far they can satisfy this need to be under a man.

3.3.1 Widow Inheritance (Levirate)-Nkushi

Like many other African peoples, the pre-colonial Igbo required that a widow be inherited by her deceased husband's kinsman. In Igbo customs, it means for a widow to be "taken over[89]" or "to be inherited" in a more general sense by a brother of the deceased. For example by the son or brother of her deceased husband. The levir's normative role is to sire children, if the widow's family is not already considered complete; to manage the property held in trust for her minor son's; to assist her by providing labour for clearing, ploughing, planting and harvesting and to contribute to the maintenance of her household. In traditional Igbo society when levirate was more frequent, a young widow is typically more likely to choose the levitate for several reasons;

She was under considerable pressure to have more children as quickly as possible particularly if she has no sons[90].

Young widows also may value the advice of an older man in managing her property 91

She needs the services of a man to cut her palm fruits for her and help in farm work[92]

She needs assistance in farm work, mending the house and a guardian for her children[93]

A widow in Igbo society is not compelled to become involved in a levirate arrangement. Although the levirate was common in traditional society, it is unlikely that a widow with a grown son would enter into such a relationship. With an adult male heir for her house, such a woman will not be under pressure to continue bearing children. She would probably depend on her sons to perform the male role in the gendered division of labour and give her other assistance that otherwise might be provided by a levir. If such a woman has a lover, it is a man of her choice and generally unrelated to her late husband. I do not have statistical data on the incidence of the levirate; only two case came directly to my attention during field work. However, I think that the levirate would not ordinarily be obvious to an outsider in an Igbo community unless cases were actively sought. For this reason, I conclude that the practice is very uncommon among the Igbo today. Levirate relationships according to my informants is not common today. They attribute this decline to the following reasons;

Resources are scarce and men no longer want to waste their resources to cater for a woman and children who do not belong to him legally[94];

A widow and her children in the past increased a man's pool of labour for farm work. Farming is increasingly becoming less important as a measure of wealth and status symbol[95];

Theoretically a widow and her children are not the levir's property. So people are no longer willing to raise children which they may not benefit from in feature[96]

It brings problems in the family[97]

It is against Christian ethics[98];

My children will not like it[99]

A young widow is expected to go on bearing children especially if she does not already have a large family. The children she bears will belong to her "house" and they are considered descendants of her first (and only) husband, irrespective of whoever their genitor may be. Sons of a levirate relationship have inheritance rights as those born by the mother's deceased husband. They have no right of inheritance in the house of their genitor.

In an answer to "Why did you not take a levir?", Most of the widows answered that they have children (65). Many said they were not approached (50). 48 widows said they could take care of themselves and their children. 15 of the widows said that the practice is no longer popular while 5 widows said they had lovers. Only 3 of the respondents said that they were old.

Langely (1979:73) speaking of the Nandi of Kenya of the 1970s, says that "the levirate is looked upon with distaste and is resorted to only in secret." It is my impression that this was not the case in pre-colonial Igbo society. But the situation is different today. The impact of Christianity can not be ignored. My impression of a 1969 widow's reason for keeping her lover secret justifies Langley's opinion:

I was married in the church. When my husband died during the war, I had only two children. His only brother was married already. My father in-law encouraged me to raise more children in my husband's name. It was frowned upon by the church. I did not take communion for a long time. I did not want him to have the same problem.

There is marked discrepancy between reports of male and female informants about what usually happens when a young widow is left with minor children. Male informants generally report that the dead man's brother in traditional society took the widow in the levirate, managed the house property including land and palm trees, and provided for the children by giving the widow cash to buy their needs. Female informants tend to report that widows manage their own property and provide for their children themselves. In general my observation and discussion with informants led me to believe that a brother's voice in property management is nominal unless he is also an active levir. The extent to which the widow rather than the brother manages the property, as well as the amount of help provided to a widow by a levir, is flexible and depends on individual circumstances. In Igbo society today, there is greater tendency towards individualism. This has affected to a large extent kinship and group relationships as well as property management. Educated, independent and self reliant widows have greater control over their resources and its management than was the case in traditional Igbo society.

In traditional Igbo society, levirate was viewed positively, rather than with distaste. Although a lot of women are widowed at a relatively young age, they are becoming more self reliant. Moreover, marriage confers upon a woman with male children some access in a definite estate (her husband's) and these rights are held independently of any on going relationship with a living man. Today, a widow does not either need remarriage (which in any case is not forbidden to her) or a levir to have access to property through her children. This applies also to communal property irrespective of who the biological father of such children may be. A child born by a married woman among the Igbo cannot be illegitimate. It can be argued that the levirate is not in essence an institution designed to tie a woman and her children to her dead husband's family. It is rather an institution designed to provide for the woman and children. The levir has a responsibility to take care of his dead brother's dependants who cannot get along without male assistance.

For older widows, assistance in the form of labour may be provided by adult sons. Further, because of the general level of economic up-liftment for some widows, the argument that a widow should have a levir's help to meet her economic need does not apply to the Igbo society today. Income from other sources can be used to hire labour. In this case the widow will not need the assistance that the levir might otherwise provide. In most families today, a widows house property may be sufficient to support her and her children. This provides some insight into why this practice has been on the declined. She is freer than a widow in most other African societies to form a liaison with a man or not, wholly on the basis of her own personal preference. In pre-monetary Igbo economy, widows were presumably less able to replace the labour and other kinds of assistance that is theoretically the levir's responsibility to provide.

The practice of levirate was seen as an expression a of single underlying social principle, the social identification of the kin with one another. It can as well be seen as a means of reproducing structural relations across the vicissitudes of the human life cycle. Writing on widow inheritance and the levirate, Radcliffe-Brown (1950:64) notes that "all these customs of preferential marriage can be seen to be continuations or renewals of the existing structure of social relations. All of them are also examples of the unity of the sibling group since brother replaces brother".

The historical analysis of the system lends little support to such a simple interpretation. The search for "primary functions" of marital institutions places in the background precisely what ought to be in the foreground. These include the variable ways in which ideologies about social relations have been implicated in processes of change (Ogbu 1978). In the pre-colonial Igbo society, widow inheritance may have corresponded to Redcliffe-Browns interpretation. By the end of the nineteenth century however, such important political and economic assets were implicated in the transaction of marriage that widow inheritance is hardly comprehensible as simply an element in position replacement. It was a crucial aspect of inheritance in general at a time when the nature and value of assets at stake were changing rapidly. It may therefore be understood in relation to accumulation and resource control by men. By the late twentieth century the relationship between widowhood and processes in the economic and social field had shifted again, bringing to the fore those elements of widow inheritance that define women's access to the most basic of resources for making a living.

All in all we found that many women now do not like the idea of being turned over from one man to the other as a levir. Men as well do not like the practice anymore. I might re-emphasise one more point here. That is, this practice became more disused because some men began to experience despair when the widow's children grow up. She may inform those children that the man they are living with is not their father. If the children follow their mother or their mother dies before the levir husband, they may give no support to the now helpless old man who spent his life bringing up the woman and his brother's children.

Likewise, this analysis shows that there is a decline in what can legitimately be considered widow inheritance that coincides with a growth in the importance given to patrilineal descent. Both processes result from changes in the ideological and economic system. The patterns of widow inheritance that developed at one period in Igbo history were not only a matter of communal support for widows. Rather, women were also an important means of obtaining political and economic power. As trade with Europeans replaced farming as the major means for accumulation of wealth, "wealth in people" became less important as a means of obtaining political and economic status, and widows lost their value as resources and were no longer wanted[100]. To a great degree, production of palm products which replaced subsistence and tuber cultivation was less labour intensive. But on the other hand, the decline in widow inheritance to a large extent has strengthened the independence rather than the inter-dependence of spouses in property acquisition. These changes in terms of resources control, access to productive resources and greater tendency towards accumulation of private wealth by women may provide some answer to the reasons for the decline in levirate marriages.

3.3.2 Widow Remarriage

While statistical evidence of the frequency of widow remarriage is not available to me, oral information confirmed that more than half of widows were inherited while few remarried in the traditional Igbo society. This was the case if the widow was young or of child bearing age. This pattern has changed and certain reasons will be advanced for this change later in this section. Two of my informants were remarried and have been widowed twice.

In terms of social constraints, a married women in Igbo society is primarily regarded as wife to the whole family. Hence most women will be called "my wife" by adult males in the family and community at large. Marriage is exogamous and builds a lot of ties between families and communities. Remarriage will mean breaking existing ties. It will mean breaking ties with the widow's children since they may not be allowed to follow their mother to a new home. A widow's remarriage in these circumstances may not be her best option.

Another important determining factor among the Igbo is the presence or otherwise of children from the previous marriage. Most of the Igbo widows will elect to remain outside of another marriage especially if they have male children. The sex of the children will thus inform the widows decision to stay out of another marriage or remarry. The field work indicated that the present trend is widows' determination to stay in their former husband's home even when they have only female children. For the widow children, are a guarantee for a permanent stay in the husband's family. Children act as a social insurance against any discrimination in their husband's family. Male children in particular guarantees the widow access to the productive resources of her dead husband. The determining factor in the past must have been the need for economic support from the second husband. Today widows are becoming more self reliant and economically independent.

Cultural practices which determine inheritance and the right to use community property also make it less attractive for widows to remarry. In one of the villages where field work was carried out, one widow had two children from a previous marriage including a boy. When her husband died she remarried in 1958 with her two young children who were then three and two years respectively. She returned to her former husband's village in 1990 because her son was not allowed to build a house in the village of her second husband. For in the Igbo cultural context the children from the former marriage are stranger elements who are not entitled to inherit any land. This to a large extent may determine why women who already have children may prefer not to remarry. In the view of some of them, it is better to wait for their children to grow up than to make them strangers in some other place[101].

Age may appear to be a determining factor in some African societies such as the Hausa of Northern Nigeria[102]. This does not appear to be a determining factor in widow remarriage among the Igbo. A widow aged 30, told the researcher that she was unlikely to consider remarriage because she had four children still at home. Her youngest of the four was 4 years old, she also had full responsibility for these children. In this family there were few other relatives who could be expected to take care of the children, and the widow said it would be virtually impossible to find a prospective husband who could assume such a burden. The statistics in this study show that a lot of widows are of child-bearing age. 24 of the eighty widows interviewed were under 40 years while about 42 were between 40 and 49 years. Some of my informants did not reconsider another marriage(see table2). These are their views;

I did not remarry because I do not want to give birth to children at two different places[103]

I have grown up children. More so, I did not want to leave them for another place[104]

My children will suffer since the whole village has been against me[105]

Emphasis is on first marriage. I spoke to a young widow in one of the villages. She told me that she would have preferred to remarry since she is still young and had only a child. But in her view;

who will prefer a second hand woman to a new maid. Men will prefer a virgin for a first wife. You are a man and you know that[106].

This explains why men want to marry once and would prefer a virgin.

Widow remarriage has also been less popular among the Igbo because widows who remained in their husband's houses or who live with their children carry on income-producing activities. But generally, they have greater financial responsibility for themselves and their children than they did as wives. An informant who lost his father in 1932 noted that a man's kin do have some obligation to support his orphaned children. Sometimes the children as was the case with him and his siblings live with members of the extended family to reduce the burden on the widow. They, of course, provide essential services including farm work for their benefactor. His mother did not remarry though, having a concubine was acceptable, and she preferred it. Remarriage while not forbidden, has social constraints which limited its choice by widows.

3.4 Widowhood and Polygamous Marriage

Polygamy, or the taking of more than one wife, was commonly practised among the Igbo. It had both an important practical function in cementing alliances in many villages and economic functions of increasing a man's available labour. It was also a social status symbol.

Basden (1965:97) noted that this institution is inseparably bound up with the family and the social life of the Igbo, and without exception, touches the lives of every man and woman in the country. In his view, polygamy is favoured and fostered equally by men and women. In some respects the latter are the chief supporters of the system. The ambition of every Igbo man he noted was to become a polygamist, and he adds to the number of his wives as circumstances permit. They are an indication of social standing and a signs of affluence. In any case, they are counted as sound economic and social investment. Uchendu (1965:86) agrees with the above assertion and further notes:

Married life is the normal condition for adults, and polygamy for the men is the ideal being an important status indicators...Polygamy has obvious status implications for the common husband and his co-wives. Igbo women supported and often even finance polygamy because it enhances their social status and lightens their domestic chores, thus giving them the much needed leisure to do their private trading. With a co-wives, the first wife assumes the coveted status of neeukwu (the big mother). Other co-wives are ranked in seniority according to their marriage order to the common husband .

Another aspect of the case for polygamy as indicated by Basden (1966:99) states that a woman is not content to remain the sole wife of a man. An only wife he observed considers herself placed in an unenviable and humiliating position. It is also lonely, as the sexes are not companions to one another. Again, as the sole wife she has to bear the whole of the domestic burdens of the household, a prospect that does not appeal to her.

While polygamy is recognised as an integral part of the social life of the Igbo, yet in actual fact one wife is specifically acknowledged. Customarily, the first wife alone is granted the position and right of a legal wife. However the economic obligations entailed by taking more than one wife could operate to curtail the degree to which polygamy was actually practised. But since women also produced wealth, through trade, agricultural activities, and production of crafts, as well as by exchange of bride wealth, it was often true that polygamy could be economically advantageous to men (Johnson-Odin & Strobel 1988:14).

The structural conditions supporting large scale polygamy broke down during the colonial period and have been superseded between the 1920s and mid 1930s. Levels of bride-wealth required offer a particularly important reason of this shift.

The introduction of a monetary economy, commerce and trade made polygamy less economically viable and expensive. Polygamy is now relatively infrequent and rarely involve more than two women married to the same man. In the four villages studied, six of the informants were from polygamous families. The contrast with pre-colonial Igbo society and its universal marriage for women of all ages is striking. A male informant noted that by the 1920s, nearly every man was a polygamist. Large scale polygamy has disappeared completely and women are no longer transacted as primary valuable good. However, many aspects of kinship ideology and customary practices have been retained, reworked and validated by local courts as the basis for family law in general and inheritance rights in particular.

What are the implications of polygamy for widows? If a deceased man was a polygamist, his widows may continue to reside in the same compound, but each will be attached to a different man as levir in traditional society. Each woman manages her own affairs. Some of the widows I spoke to stated that in a polygamous family, every widow controls her own life from the resources available to her. In this circumstance there is no rivalry between a widow and her co-wives. There is also no rivalry between a widow and her levir's wife, since they are not in competition for resources and do not share the same house.

Polygamy has further implications for the widow. The rules of levirate will suggest a lateral inheritance to a junior brother. In this situation how many wives in the polygamous marriage should a man inherit? I do not find any rule that suggest that a man should inherit all the wives of the deceased. An informant suggests that this became problematic especially with the introduction of Christianity in the late nineteenth century. Some widows in this circumstance may have some advantages over others because a widow may be inherited while others are not.

Inheritance of the deceased man's property follows what is known as the "house property system". This is perhaps where polygamy has greater implication for the widows. Among the patrilineal descent Igbo communities, the regulation of property use and inheritance within the family follows the above pattern. This has been studied by Gluckman 1950, Gray and Gulliver 1964, Scneider 1979 and Hakansson 1989 for some societies in East Africa. In traditional Igbo society, the extended family constitute a property owning group which holds exclusive rights of use of land and economic trees in it. The extended family itself is divided into more or less independent units called a house (ulo)107. This consists of a man, his wife or wives and his children. Property is allocated to men within the extended family in a more or less equal ratio irrespective of the number of wives.

The ownership system is more or less centralised. Ownership and control of family resources is usually allocated to men on marriage. But this property is protected by customary law and cannot be alienated by the family head. The head of the house has a right to alienate his personal property. His sons have a right to inherit as well as alienate property. With this arrangement, a childless widow in a polygamous marriage may be only allocated a potion of land for agricultural purposes. But she cannot dispose of such land since, theoretically such land belongs to the sons of the deceased husband. The land she is entitled to use reverts to the extended family for redistribution on her death. As mother to sons however, she can use land belonging to the house and her sons retain tenancy right for such portions of land.

Each house is allocated land and the woman holds such land in trust for their sons. Sons inherit those lands belonging to their own house, but sons of an extended family cannot inherit a common land as a single group. When unallocated land is inherited, it is divided equally between houses (usekwu)108 irrespective of the number of sons in each house. This system of resource allocation makes it possible for a widow with fewer sons to have more land available to her sons unlike the widow with more sons. Apart from allocation of resources, widows in either a monogamous or polygamous family face similar social and economic situations. Practices observed on the death of the common husband are the same for all widows and their survival strategies are similar.

From our analysis, we can conclude that marriage for the Igbo is to a large extent a social bond between two families, their kin and their communities at large. In this situation, divorce, remarriage and levirate relationships affects the whole social structure if not properly executed. Marriage in Igbo society therefore cannot be understood outside the socio-cultural institutions in which it is inter-bedded and which correspondingly shape its structure and give it content. The Igbo have a common world view but evidence would suggest that there are different marriage patterns in a society that subscribe to such a common world-view. (cf. Igbo cultural areas).

To a large extent however, we can state that the options open to the Igbo widow are not as limited as is the case in some African societies. They are open to remarriage. They can also take a levir or lover. They have a greater independence and more control over their lives as widows than as wives. However, although this freedom exists for the Igbo widow, we equally recognise the social and economic constraints which make them less attractive. Parts of these constraints will be elaborated when we examine the widow and the economy.


<< >> Title Contents