Strictly in Esan custom there were three ways by which a man could come to have a wife: by betrothal, by the dowry system and by inheritance.


This was the commonest, the surest, the supposed cheapest and the cause of all our ills and confusions in the Native and Customary Courts today. A man could 'beg' for the hand of a girl from conception to the age of five. Seeing a woman pregnant the man would send her a log of firewood (for night heating since the mud houses with thatched roofs were very cold), and say, 'may the departed spirits deliver you safely, but if the child should be a girl, I beg for her hand in marriage'. The man might be anything up to sixty years in age.

Should the pregnant woman have a baby girl, he renewed his request with more presents like logs of wood, yams etcThere might be twothree or more prospective suitors asking for THIS FOETUS'S hand! The mother and father at this time usually were quite non-committal. In places like Ebelle, on the hair-washing day that is when the baby is three to four months old, the man invited to help pound the foufou for the ceremony knew he had been accepted, and he could afterwards come to ask for the girl's hand formally. In most other places, by the time the girl was five, it was time to get serious with the request, and one took a calabash of palm winepassed through a middlemanusually the girl's uncle or cousin or godfather and came up to 'salute the father'. A discrete man said nothing on that dayhe was merely on a reconnaissance greetingA few market days afterhe repeated his visitwith perhaps, a bigger keg of palm wineThen with much head-scratching and much speaking in parables and ancient idioms, the 'go-between' informed the father of the object of their mission!

The palm wine was despatched by those present, and the suitor given the usual Esan non-committal answer of I HEAR followed with, the equally non-committal I SHALL CONVEY YOUR REQUESTS TO MY MASTER; the speaker might be the Ominjiogbe, the virtual owner of all in the Uelen! This type of visit was repeated several times, until his tenacity was rewarded he would continue to pay until DEATH DO THEM PART. There was no actual monetary bride price demanded, but ever so often he brought the mother firewood, water during the dry season, yams frequently, and to the fatherpalm wine, often gave free labour in his farm or came to assist during the house building season. The more he made himself useful, the happier the marriage turned out to beThere was no question of whether the poor girl liked her suitor or not, if she understood what all the 'goings-on' meant at all; in fact she was often unaware of the arrangement until she was coming of age. A sensible girl, therefore knowing the odds against her, would as well make up her mind to develop a liking for her husband-to-be, who had virtually become a servant to her family.

Once a year during the community festival special presents were made to the father (a bundle of seven yams and a calabash of palm wine), to the motheryams and a calabash of oiland to the girl, beads, cloth etc. By the time the girl wasten to fifteen, when the intended husband must have been nearly bald from carrying loads to his future father-in-law's house, he must have spent well-over Ebo Isen, a hellish lot of cowries numbering about 94,000 equivalent today to some N3.90! He could then start a gentle agitation for his wife to be sent to him.

On the long run this method of marriage was more expensive but it commended itself to everybody because of easier payments, spread over five to fifteen years, and an Ebee was a tamer, more lovable, more trustworthy and more manageable wife than any other type.


The system of paying bride price was rarer, but was more lucrative system for the father; however only the well-to-do could leave their daughters to grow before marrying them out. The patient father asked and got a heavy sum of money cash down, for his grown up daughter. This was between EBO EA and EBO ISEN, although some shylocks asked for astronomical figure of EBO IHINLON, which was about 130, 666 cowries weighing some 11.6cwt requiring some ten hefty men to carry. 

An Esan bride ready to go to her husband.

Although this system gave the father an avenue for money, it had its drawbacks. The girl who by then was between ten to fifteen years old, had got to the age when, despite her sex, she could express her likes and dis-likes. She could refuse a man despite his bags of cowries because of his ugly one eye, or a limp, habitual drunkenness etc. In practice however, the girl was forced and carried on men's shoulders with fruitless wailing, to the husband's house, and for the next three months the unhappy husband and his relatives had to stand guard over their bride, lest she bolted away! In Ugboha the dreaded juju masquerade was the effective messenger who led the protesting damsel to her unwanted husband.

Instances were many when the confounded husband after trying all methods of bribes and appeasements in vain, resorted to a bestial mode of cohabitation: the strong men of the family gathered, held the girl down and a grotesquely unnatural husband and wife relation was effected. The idea was to consummate the marriage and get the stubborn girl pregnant at all costs. Once so, she would be afraid of offending the departed spirits, as she would surely do, if while carrying a man's child she was thinking of deserting him, which was equivalent to thinking evil of him. Then when she had the baby the chances, in Esan expression, were ELO OLE KI DERE - her eyes would come down! What else could she do?


This was marriage by chance, and was relished only by the poor and primitive, particularly when the woman to be inherited was old or evil looking.

When a man died, the wife, if she was not an Onojie's daughter, was inheritable after due burial of the father by the son. If she was the father's only wife and the heir's mother, then an uncle or Omijiogbe or the nearest patrikin, inherited herIf there were many wives, an heir who might not have been able to marry a single wife of his own, would suddenly find himself the owner of several wives. He could pick the younger and more beautiful ones, ‘dash’ some to his junior brothers and ask those he did not want in the family to refund the dowries on them. Sometimes some of the women who were asked to go and refund dowrywere unwilling to leave their children; in that case if there was no one to inherit them, the Egbele gave them an open license at the ancestral shrine. Such women were free to do whatever they liked as long as they did not bring open dishonour to their children's family.

Until more recently, this system of marriage was not practiced in Ekpoma. As soon as a man died the wives, particularly the childless ones, went to their homes. This Ekpoma custom arose in an attempt to curb the true behaviour of next-of-kin, who used to be more anxious for what was likely to be inherited, rather than do all in their power to save the sick man. I have already described what happened to a wife a man inherited, not from his father but from a brother or other relatives. When the inheritor died, his son and heir was debarred from inheriting this woman; the widow passed to the next senior brother of the deceased.


Although active mourning in Esan custom was over by the fourteenth day, it was against tradition to inherit a woman before the third month. After the woman had ended mourning for her husband, she might go and stay with her parents or may stay in her husband’s place, with her children; however she had to be in her husband's place on the day of inheritance. The Edion of the Egbele were invited by the heir and told he wanted to inherit his father's wife or wives. A goat was slaughtered at the ancestral shrine to formally inform the long line of dead ancestors that from that day on, the woman in question had become his wife. He then stepped across the woman's extended legs, a thing that is adulterous if done to a woman not one's wifeWhether there were two or more wives, it required just one goat to inherit all of them.

Before the formal inheritance, the intending inheritor must have gone to the woman's parents or guardian for ITEKPEN - arrangements to smoothen the way. He went to them with a calabash of palm wine and cash - ELANMEN EA or 2,800 Cowries now equivalent to –N11.70k.

A woman who lost her husband must be inherited in this way within three months or she became a free womanIf there was no one to inherit her and she insisted on staying to look after her childrenthe freedom from Egbele had to be given on the day the other wives were inherited. Any sharing of the wives for the other brothers also had to be done on the same day.

Princesses, whether daughters of ruling or dead Enijie, were not inheritable. The reasons for this were that they were married without any payment of bride price and, secondly, their noble birth made them marry as far as possible, for love. They could not be forced to marry the heirs to their late husband's. Such heirs might be unbefitting. It will be seen later that the Onojie, not taking bride price for his daughters was not particularly magnanimous: he married their mothers without paying a cowrie!


Marriage sometimes followed this system which in the main, was disguised slavery. A person could pawn himself, his son or more often, his daughter to raise funds either when he was in trouble or needed money badly to pay a troublesome creditor. The pawn had to perform any given duties, the services being considered as interest for the Creditor. The person pawned could not be released until the capital had been paid fully. Where a man pawned his daughter for a big amount, he might never be able to redeem her before she came of age. The Creditor might then take the girl as his wife, making appropriate deduction in lieu of this. The poor girl just had no choice in the matter!


Legal decree of annulment of marriage scarcely had a place in pure Esan custom. A woman once married tended to live in that family until death. No one else in a community of same patrilineage could take a wife from another. In fact it was adulterous even to touch the cloth of a married womanNeighbouring villages were likely to be under the Okoven system. Therefore if a woman wanted to leave her husband she might run to her parents, but anyone who married her had virtually declared war on the family of the former husband, in particular, and the whole village in general. A head or two might drop for this careless act of love! No, the consequences were such that a wise woman would think seriously before deserting her lawful husband. For instance, once she left that village it was goodbye for her and her children! She was sure of being seized if she succumbed to the torments of returning to see them, let alone, that it would be tantamount to adultery for her to return to her former husband's compound. To crown the episode that was bound to follow careless switching of husbands, if a life was lost as a result of her desertion, custom decreed that she herself automatically became the Onojie's wife!

The truth then was that divorce was unknownIf a woman bolted and the husband was a weakling or without a family, she was a total loss. If he was bold but without a family, he sought out the whereabouts of his ex-wife and went head-hunting in that village. For example, round about 1890Iyinbothe beloved wife of Akhimie, heir to the renowned Ikhunmun of Imule, Illeh, Ekpomadeserted her husband and went to marry Eroanga, the brother of Okougbo of AkhoIrruaOkougbo himself was an equally valiant man and an Okakulo of his villageOne day while the Illeh Inotu were in a meeting, Okougbo bluffingly walked in with a loaded gun and fired it aside. Someone in the gathering told Ikhunmun that what Okougbo implied was that they had seized his son's wifeand so what! This very much wounded the pride of the great Ikhunmunand that night he and a few dare-devils of Imule went head-hunting in Okougbo's village of Akho. They cut their way into Okougbo's compound and a bloody free-shooting followed. Eroanga, the man who seduced Iyinbo, was shot by a man called Ikpefua, who then fled for his life since he had accomplished the major aim of the expedition; in the excitement, he collided head-on with a palm tree, and passed out, but he recovered in time before he was discovered by the enemies; he then made his way home, but died seven days after, and I can safely say, from cerebral haemorrhage!

The avenging Ikhunmun, now satisfied, also ran for his life but running at night in a strange village infested with gun-toting enemies equally thirsty for -his head; fell into a pond and was picked up next morning drowned! Thus, for the reckless action of one woman, two villages, Illeh and Akho, lost some of their finest head-hunters! The author grew up to find Akhimienheir of the great IkhunmunOdionwele of ImuleIllehThat was not allEromosele's long arm stretched out to fish in troubled watersIyinbo, for whose sake a life had been lost in his domain, automatically, according to Esan custom became the Onojie's property. Such a frivolous woman was not fit as a wife for the great Eromosele and so Iyinbo in trying to have a change of husbands got sold as a slave!

What followed attempt to leave a husband could be more sweeping depending upon the standing of the first husband. Where he was a man of a great affluence, it was war between his people and the village that gave refuge to his wife. The case of OMANMOJEthe mother of the great Eromosele's heir - Momodu or Osobase (Akpakpa Ayonbe) which led to the great Irrua - Uromi war of 1892 makes this point clear.

In Esan of old, divorce was quite uncommon. 
The thoughtless, attempt of a woman to change husband brought the village head hunters into an ominous line!


Omanmoje was a daughter of a Prince of Uromi who was a brother of the then Onojie of Uromi (OKOLO, 1873 -1901).When she had Osobase, the first son of Eromosele, the Onojie inhumanly told her that was enough for her, and she was left to pine away, uncared for in that great harem. Unable to continue suffering in her youth, she fled to her home, Uromi; and to make matters worse for her home, re-married! That was more than a cheek for Eromosele, the man who never drank water unless it was boiling! War broke out between Irrua and Uromi, with Obeidu bearing the brunt of the free shooting. So too was lvue, Uromi; that land of great warriors, was thoroughly outraged and she decided to settle these skirmishes once and for all; she prepared a great army to come and sack Irrua on a certain day. Unfortunately, a traitor came and hinted war leader Eimuhi (after whom Eko Irrua was named). He in turn went and informed his overlord Eromosele. All able-bodied men in Irrua were gathered and before dawn on that day Uromi planned to pay a liquidating surprise attack on Irrua, the Irrua army infested all the bush near Obeidu like driver ants. Then came columns and columns of Uromi warriors sufficient to drop all the heads of Eromosele's subjects before an OGOGO KHO-O could be cried in Eguare square! These were allowed to pass and then Irrua attacked from behind. Realising that it would be foolish to run forwards towards Irrua, Uromi turned backwards only to be mowed down with Matchets and Dane gunsIt was a blood bath for Uromi. The great AKAIKAWO of Uromi was captured by OJEAGA of Eidenu and that very evening he died on the stake in Eguare Irrua.


In July, 1954, an EBHOATO man called Appeal residing in Benin City traced his estranged wife to IDUNSELU-EWATO. In that Village four heads fell and four others were grievously butchered. Akhuemonkhan, the father-in-law's was sacked and burnt.

Realising the gravity of his loss in men and leaders, Okolothe then Onojie, sued for peace. Eromosele agreed to his terms of peace which consisted of a woman to die in place of Princess Omanmojeone of Okolo's daughters, as a wife in lieu of the deserting Omanmoje, the return of Omanmoje herself as well as her son from her present husband-all making four heads in place of one run- away woman!

Eruigbethe woman sent to replace the head of Princess Omanmoje at the executioner's standwas so beautiful that the influential queen Mother Ebuade, successfully begged for her life to be sparedUnuebholo, the Princess Ojiuromi Okolo sentwas of course appropriated as a wife, while both Omanmoje and the son (name withheld) were taken back into the harem. Omanmoje was fully forgiven as evidenced by the fact that she later had a daughter named IKHEILEN (I wouldn't have known)! I have used real names except the Prince to save embarrassment.


This also illustrates why divorce was rather uncommon in Esan. Eiyoko, the wife of the brave EIDENOJIE who became OJIE -UDO in 1865deserted her lawful husband and made for home - Idunsenun in Ewatto. Over confident in himself Eidenojie was reckless though he was followed by twelve armed men. He walked right into the compound where his estranged wife was, an affront to the people of Ewatto! For the sake of one woman the feared Eidenojie escaped with his headshaken though still standing on his shoulders, but his stalwarts' heads rolled on the Ewatto groundand Eiyoko passed into legend!


Morally, the custom was unjust and humanly wicked. The girl in many cases was sent to her husband before she had any sense. In some cases she grew up like the children in the compound, calling her husband ABA (father)! The psychological shock could well be imagined the day she learnt that she was different from the other childrenthis FATHER of hers was her HUSBAND!

Marriage is hard enough with expressed and sincere love – but in infant marriage there was no question of love. She had to take what she was given as husbandand that might be a dumba mutilated man, a tyrant, a Metusellahetc! The man might live with her for sometimes and finding her impossible or as a result of his advanced age, give her in marriage to his son. Complicated relationship?

Child marriage and the system of wife inheritance were the causes of unnatural relationships and confused nomenclatures in Esan. As explained above, a man might have married a girl for himself and after she had a child or two, he handed her over to his son for whom she might bear more children. Now here was a woman who had children that were her husband's brothers or sisters; some were her husband's sons and nephews to their maternal brothers! It all makes one's head reel!

Sometimes the girl grew, lived and grew up at her parent's home, particularly if they were wealthy and influential. When mature, she was kept as a lover by a third party, quite apart from the intending husband. The issues of this association gave justification for the existence of the old native courts now replaced with Customary Courts! Depending upon the mood of the court and the interpretation of the old District Officers, these children could pass as anybody's childrenSometimes they were adjudged as the children of the man who paid the dowry; at other times they were the issues of the natural father. This unfortunately will continue to be the case until the men in charge of our affairs see the stupidity of working on an incongruous mixture of Esan custom and Western juris-prudence.

The latest attempt to right things was that such children were handed over to the man who pregnated the girl, but he had to pay N10.00 for each son or N20.00 for each daughter - and as every educated Esan knows, SLAVERY WAS ABOLISHED IN 1900!

Sometimes, it was the husband that was a child, again commoner in the wealthy families. The supposed wife was allowed to go with any man she pleased and the off-springs of this association were the minor's children, and by the time he came of age, there was a long and entrenched line of bastardy.

There is no mincing words about the system: it was downright slavery. Unfortunately, up to 1954, it was still practiced in Esan: a man is tied up with an expensive court case, he is building a house and he is hard up; his wife is ill and the only thing that could save her life is an expensive operation or he wants to take a costly title etc. What does he do? He takes one of his five-year-olds to a man and says: "Here is my daughter, please lend me N20.00". The man hands him the money and the innocent girl changed hands in the opposite direction of the N20 .00. At first she is a servant, but when she comes of age, she is elevated to the position of a wifeWhat really obtains now is that the father has no intention of marrying out his daughter at all: he goes from house to house with the poor girl in tow, until he finds a man willing to lend him the money he wants. There he leaves his childif he cannot redeem her before she matures, she goes to take an action FOR DIVORCEagainst HER HUSBAND, who really has been nothing but a SLAVE OWNER. If the divorce is granted the father can now collect N80.00 to N100.00 over his grown up daughter, in Bride Price, returns the Creditor's miserable N20.00 and pockets N60.00 to N80.00 - quite a smart deal - what!

With or without the old British Administration, the evilof child marriage over the years had time to grow deep roots, watering itself on illusions of cheaper marriages and hopes of getting more faithful wives.

Prohibit child marriage in all its forms in Esan and the confused and bribe ridden atmosphere of the Native or Customary Courts would clear like magic! Many of the disputed paternity cases particularly from girls yet living with their parents, would disappear. It would cut divorce cases hanging in our Courts like a curse, down to a sane minimumNo one could very well blame a child forced to marry a man, deserting when she came to her senses, and when she did, the avenging husband clinging to his pound of flesh, wanted the Court to record on his behalf that she was two weeks pregnant! And by Jove, if she had a baby within a year of that divorce case, there was bound to be another case of disputed paternity! For the court and court members it was of course, another source of revenue, generally speaking!

6. The Laws Of Marriage As They Affect The ONOJIE: 

As I have said under the laws of inheritance, an Onojie was an institution by himself - a Frankenstein Monster created by the community, it existed to grow and feed upon. He could neither marry by the Ebee system nor take a wife by the dowry method; and yet his harem is full to the brim! He could even marry two sisters, a thing not sanctioned by Esan law and custom. But his chief method of taking wives were:-

(a) BY INHERITANCE: - After due burial ceremonies of his father, he was installed and he inherited everything in the harem minus his mother! That gave him a flying start in a long reign of smash and grab or No Cash And Carry!

(b) BY SEIZURE (BAA IGBEN): - Baa Igben was the privilege that marked him out as the greatest octopus, whose tentacles could reach any woman, married, single, willing or unwilling. Once a while he took a regal" walk or a look round his domainOr favour seekers came to report to him of the presence of a damsel somewhere in his districtAll he did was to send one of his coral bead necklacesOn reaching the abode of the girl, the unsuspecting damsel or woman was called, and before she knew what was on, the bead was round her neck she was then the Onojie's wifea marriage as binding as if it was performed by the Chief Justice of the Federation or the Papal Nuncio in Nigeria! If the former husband in whose house this drama took place, looked at the woman or talked to her once the necklace had been placed round her neck, and she dared not remove it under the pain of death, he had committed adultery with the 'King's wife by look or spoken wordand as far as the Onojie was concerned- adultery was adultery, with no half-way measures, and the method, immaterial. The punishment was death. A wise man, therefore, deprived of his wife and more often, it is the only wife in his life, bore his agonizing sorrow in his heart.

In many cases the result was tragic. An informant came to eulogise a woman he had seen in the village: The insatiable Onojie at once despatched a messenger with beads. The woman came captive but to Onojie, it was hatred at first sight. Well, she had been pronounced Onojie's wife, and so she merely went to swell the myriads of women starving for love, food and freedom in the harem.

The famous story of IHENHENELE which has now gone down in Esan folklore is illustrative. The proverb is OTUOKPA imun ole bhe enan mun ole bhe enan, khe ukpoko ne Ihenhenele gbano je Omoaka (No one can be here and there at the same time is the parcel Ihenhenele sent to Omoaka).

Ihenhenele was the wife of a man in Ibhiolulu, Irrua. Chief Omoaka, one of the men who got on by saying ISE (AMEN) to everything the Onojie said, about 1885 reported to Eromosele of the existence of a stately woman fit only for the King, but at that time, a man was blaspheming nature by calling her his wife. Omoaka himself was despatched immediately to go and Baa ole IgbenWithin five hours he was back with Ihenhenele, stupified and terrified, in town. Either because of this or because Omoaka had over exaggerated her looksshe looked a very ordinary woman to Eromoselewho merely hissed in annoyance and sent her to swell the ranks of the near-slaves in the haremAfter months when this wretched woman had been starving with no food or husband, she made a small corn leaf parcel containing a piece of chalk and a piece of charcoal which she sent through a small girl, Unuizigbeto the man who sold her into her miserable state - Omoaka. Seeing the contents of the small parcel, and sincerely no one till this day can say exactly what she really meant, Omoaka cried in self-remorse, “May be the poor woman was hungry" but unfortunately for him, there were several people who knew how he got on in the palace and were climbing by the same ladder; his junior brother called Obo saw the parcel arrive, heard the name of the sender, Ihenhenele, the Onojie's wife! “O-ho, brother, you are getting high - parcels from the Onojie's wife”! He made a bee-line dive for the palace and told the Onojie that he had just discovered, that his maternal brother was in the habit of having secret dealings with some of his wives, with Ihenhenele in particularThe great Eromosele was stirred and as usual to fury.

Obo was rewarded with a twist of the comer of the mouth, by way of a smile, and for Ihenhenele the women, there were hundreds in the harem, were quickly assembled in the great inner palace square. Eromosele went in brought out a white kolanut and handed it over to Ihenhenele who by now was already on her knees, with her hair standing on end for fear... Greetings to my father"he said, “Tell him I am in full control of ALL this side of heaven. Kha hi!” (Say your last prayers!). In another minute Ihenhenele's head was on the sand!

(c) BY PAWNING: - Many of the Onojie's wives were married in this way, but as the reader would have seen already, he was a class to himself and so he had his own special way of pawning. People pawned themselves or property in lieu of moneyPeople pawned themselves or their daughters or both to the Onojie, FOR FREEDOM!

A man in trouble with the Inotu, a man alleged to have wronged the Onojie, by look, intention but certainly not by the spoken word, was heading for the abyss which was EguareHe sent his daughter to the Onojie, to "please save me"! There went another inhabitant of the harem!


A man having married, he and his wife then thought of settling down to life. They might remain in the man's Ijiogbe or move to a new siteIf the latter, then they were making a home on fresh groundswhich meant the wife must plant an UKHINMIN TREE (Botanical name: Neubodia Leavis) in the space between her house (at the back) and the husband's, in front. This plant in this case is called IHIANLOTO - remember the same plant to mark inter-village boundary constitute the Okoven. When planted in a new farm it goes by the name of UTUN. When planted in front of the street to a compound it goes by the name of UGBIODIN.

First it was considered an act against the departed spirits and a fouling of the fresh grounds to have marital relationship in a new compound before the growth of the IhianlotoSecondly every Esan wife knew she was one of a series and therefore had to make her position secure by doing all that would give her full claim as the First Wife. She who planted the Ihianloto of the compound owns that compound and is the first wife. The first reason obviously made her all the more anxious to fulfil her duty of laying Claim to her first position!

Most wives lived in the back house with the husband in front. The wife went into her husband's house to greet him first thing in the morning, to spend some time in the night, to sweep and rub the house or to pass his meals. The only occasion custom forbade her entering this house was when she was having her monthly period. As far as possible, during this period, she was forbidden to touch any food the husband would eat and entering his apartment. The reason for this was that Esan custom considered a woman unclean at this period. It was a law difficult for an only wife to obey. In that case she cooked the food but got somebody to take it to Odugha – the husband's apartment. She never broke the law of not entering his apartment until she was again clean, usually after SEVEN DAYS.

It was a law every man had to obey under the pains of causing annoyance to his departed spirits, to forget any quarrel he might have got with his wife on the day she 'WASHED', that is, the day following end of her menstruation. Having taken her bath and made up her hair, she came to Odugha, knelt down and greeted her husband after the evening mealThat was a very discrete way of letting the husband know that, that day was the roper day to think of getting an heir.

It was a big crime viewed seriously not only by the dead but by the living, to deny a woman that day, irrespective of whether she and the husband had not been on speaking terms for days.

No matter how anxious a couple might be about raising a family, it was a sin all over Esan to have marital relationship during day time, and for his purpose, DAY meant from cockcrow to sunset! It is true that many people had extra respect for this law as a result of some juju like) OBIENMEN of Irrua, OREIMENUN of Ekpoma, defensive medicines for war etc, but the real aim of the taboo was to discourage laziness (a newly married man for the next three months would not see the road to his farm, otherwise!), and to prevent slackers who stayed at home during the day from committing adultery. This law was particularly strong in Igueben with its industrious farmers.

Now having understood the rules of life, should the woman become pregnant, she was treated with great care. No severe beating and she herself had to avoid unsightly and shocking things like dead babies, ugly and mutilated peopleleopards etc. The reasons are obvious - to avoid shocks which might be followed by abortions, and also it was believed that the child in the womb took semblance to what the pregnant woman saw or ate. Thus, if she ate the flesh of the ever-sleeping Puff Adder, the child would be fat, sleepy and sluggish; if she ate the flesh of a monkey, the baby would tum out to be cunning and ugly etc. So the pregnant woman had to see only good things, though no evil, in fact the idea was to build up a happy and contented mental outlook.

At about the third month of her pregnancy she went to a native doctor who made an anti-abortion string which she wore round her waist more rarely round her neck. Whatever happened, this string was never allowed to fall to the ground, for the day she did that, the foetus would drop before the woman was ready to go into normal labour. This string was called EDAI (A Prop).

Then came the child: as soon as the woman went into labour, the old women of the family were called. They took the woman to the back of the house, where squatting on the ground she gave birth to the child, if she did not die of exhaustion or effects of mis-management. No greeting was allowed the woman until the delivery of the after-birth, then she was showered with AMONGHON! (Congratulations). Unlike the Yorubas, the child was separated as soon as it was born: it was not left on the cold ground waiting for the placenta. But old Esan women had something they insisted upon: the child must cry before they treated it as one! Sometimes they left it on a cold surface until it cried, simply because of the discomfort and cold. Then it was picked up with joy and drummed in with the old women beating some music out of old calabashes and wooden flat mortars.

A big piece of mud or earth was then put into the fire and when it was red-hot, it was taken out, allowed to cool before it was pulverized. The sticky substance covering the body of the new-born (Vernix Caseosa) was removed thoroughly by rubbing the skin with this fine earth, before the baby was given its first bath. It is a belief in Esan that unless this was properly removed the child would stink for the rest of its life. Every morning, using warm oil in a pad, the cord was massaged until it withered away on about seventh to the ninth day of birthThe idea of using red hot earth was commendable but it was all defeated by grinding it on the ground through which new bacterial organisms were introduced to cause the frequent cord infection that is responsible for death of an alarming number of babies within the first two months of birth.

On the day of delivery the husband took a small she-goat (greed is making people demand big ones in modern times), and one yam to the parents-in-law to report the good tidings. The goat referred to as EBHIKPESE, was paid only on the first issue by one's wife. If she remarried, the new husband had to pay Ebhikpese when she had her first baby in her new home. Ebhikpese had its important legal value. It came very useful as a strong evidence in disputed paternity. The man who paid the Ebhikpese was obviously the rather or guardian of the child. Since the goat was paid on the very first day the child was born, the answer to, ‘who paid the Ebhikpese?” was a quick way of knowing who the real father was. To ensure that no father out of austerity, or frivolity failed to pay this Ebhikpese, custom ruled that without sending the goat and yam to the father-in-law, no man could see his first born child!

On the seventh day, particularly if she was the only wife, and not with her own parents, the woman had to begin to fend for herself: she could then go to the pond for water or farm for wood - early ambulation modern doctors preach to quicken involution!

Esan people, happily, had no taboos about MULTIPLE PREGNANCYThey dreaded twins, because right from pregnancy to nursing such pregnancies were followed with more dangers and hard work, than obtained with single births. Apart from this, a woman who had twins and was able to look after them was a respected woman in Esan Community and she ranked with those who had done EMIONKHAE (Acts of Valour).

A mother of triplets, of course, was an individual highly esteemed and if the babies livedshe received rewards not only from her husband, but from the Onojie to whom such births are reported and he had to send three maids to help her during the nursing period.

The only type of baby not liked in Esan was the ALBINO (AYAIN) No mother prayed for one, but if she gave birth to one it was God sent, but no particular attention was paid to it and if it died, mourning was a minimum. In Ugboha, there was a special pond where such babies were drowned as evidenced by the Esan proverb - Akha gbe Ayain Ne Uwolo, o kien ede (when an Albino is slaughtered for a pond, it becomes a stream).


After three months the ceremony of hair-washing was performed. In the olden days this was the ceremony at which the ETO OMON, plaited fourteen days after delivery, was loosened and washed. The men and the women at the place where the child was born and where the mother was still living gathered on the appointed day. They were feasted with much dancing and rejoicing. An animal like a sheep, a pig or a whole carcass of an antelope, was used for the cooking. The mother's hair which had been done up in EKASA - yellow native soap - was ceremoniously washed. The child was allowed its first adornment. The mother gorgeously dressed and with all the people gathered, was ready for the naming ceremony.

In Esan it was unusual for a man to think: of a name before the child was born except in cases where the native doctor had already warned tile parents that the name of the person the baby was reincarnating must be given to it. Esan people, being firm believers in reincarnation, often went to consult the oracle before the actual naming ceremony, either to receive the name of the person being reincarnated or for the child to take up the profession of the man when he was alive. However where this consultation was already made the name was only known to the family and the child still had to go through the naming ceremony.

At the ceremony the baby was taken to the most senior man in the gathering, who throwing it up said “l name you UGHULU (Vulture), which was neither killed nor harmed”! Nobody said anything so that he knew that though this reason for given the name was good, the gathering did not like the name. Then be made another try: I name you ITIKU (Rubbish Dunghill), which is noted for its ability to take insults which only added to its size!" Still no comments, Then he threw the child up for the third time and gave its proposed real name. Then he is greeted with blessings for the baby, O RETO (He will live long with it). All Esan names have meaning and so this day was the appropriate day for relatives and friends or enemies to tell the parents whit they thought of them. Anybody wishing to give a name carried the baby and did so. It was not Esan custom to give monetary presents by those wishing & to give-names; this obviously is a borrowed custom probably from the Yorubas.

If the woman was still living where she delivered, outside her home, it was on this day she returned borne. That night custom decreed that she went to ' greet her husband with the baby' and she slept at Odugha!


Esan had no particular ceremony over male circumcision, which was performed anytime the parents were bold enough to have it done. The more usual thing was for the operation to be delayed till the child could withstand the pain and sure sepsis; this was between five and ten years of age.

CLITORIDECTOMY: This was the female circumcision and had a more regular ceremony. A girl was not circumcised until she was mature and then, within a week or so of her going to her husband's place. The idea was to delay the ceremony because it was not just a disgrace but there were fines to be paid to the Owenan should the girl be found not virtuous on the day of circumcision. On the appointed day the female members of the family gathered in the compound, and before then the girl was examined; if she was found intact, the Owenan sang out her praise and everybody began to sing and dance with the men shooting guns. While the operation was going on, relatives, particularly of the intended husband, began to give presents to the good girl. Presents of money, yams and oil were also made to thank the watchful mother. As soon as the wound healed arrangements were made to send the girl to her husband.

The ceremonies surrounding clitoridectomy are most pronounced even to this day, with the people of Uzea, a further evidence of the fact that the so-called backwardness goes hand in hand with simplicity and virtue.

In Uzea, a girl is mature round about the age of sixteen and the next three to six months forms an exciting period in her simple life. When the family had decided that their daughter has come of age, they inform the intended husband that she is ready for the ceremony of circumcisionOn the appointed day the Owenan (the Surgeon, usually a female in this case) arrives and the girl is led into an AGAA, an open enclosure attached to the house, where all the female membersof the family are assembledThe Owenan then examines the girl and if intact, she declares her virtuous, to the great joy of the family. While the operation of trimming off the clitoris with the upper ends of the Labia Minora is being performed, guns are booming with dancing and singing.

When the wound has healed usually within five days, the girl is ready for the public announcement of her virtue andthe great care her parents had taken over her during the past sixteen years. The special circumcision hair-dresser is sent for and she, for a fee consisting of 7,200 cowries now equivalent of 30k arid a bundle of yams from the intended husband, and 4,800 cowries equal to 20k plus a calabash of palm oil from the girl's mother, gives the girl the traditional. Hair-style exclusive virtuous ones only. This is the OJIETO (The KING OF HAIRS). The next three months is a period of .rejoicing, feasting and a show-off for the girl and her family. The husband spends a lot of money buying beads (APKPONO) which the girl wears round her waist and coral beads round her neck. The girl with the Ojieto and her body decorated with ASUN, a juice that turns black when dry, is followed round the village, wearing no clothes to show that she has nothing to be ashamed of. She calls on relatives and friends who congratulate her with presents. Until the end of the three months, she goes to the market or to village functions stark naked; only sinners have something to hide!

Though she wears no clothes, the Akpono - several strings round her waist - cost the anxious husband-to-be anything up to N30.00 in present day money - not the useless Naira which on September 18, 1993, exchanged at N38.20 to the U.S. dollar! The three to six months wait after the .circumcision is very welcome to the husband, who for the past three months has known nothing but expenses. This period of show-off gives him time to recover, and search for more money to settle the bride price. In the olden days, this was negligible compared with what was actually spent on the girl's hair and beads, since by the time his girl was mature, in services to the parents-in-law, he should have paid the equivalent of the bride in full for EBEE Since the advent of the white man, the husband crushed by the circumcision expenses, still has to pay anything up to N20.00 to the father he has been serving since the day the girl was born!

However, when the husband has fulfilled all he owes to his future wife's family, the girl is sent to himThe husband at a ceremonyunties the first strand of the decorative hair before the whole thing is loosened. After the first night at the husband's place she is considered a woman and must from then on wear clothes.


When the bride price had been paid and the circumcision wound had healed, a date was fixed for the girl to go to her husband. The excited man began to make feverish arrangements, buying new clothes, getting the house ready and buying kolanuts, coconuts and wine. In the evening of the appointed dayselected male and female members of the family accompany the girl to her husband’s village. They must go through a friend or a relative of the family in that village (known as OSUOMAN), and this person was the future guardian. This go-between accompanied the party and by about 8.00p.m. (The husband feeling the time was 11.00 p.m.!), they would reach the street of the husband. A message was sent to the husband that they were coming along with his wife, but unfortunately a tree or a stump had held up their progress; would he care to come and clear the obstacle? The husband: it once sent ‘axes and matchets’ in the form of money and coconuts to remove whatever was causing the barrier. They proceeded along the street and again went another message, that it sounded odd and foolish that on a day such as that day was, he should have allowed trees to block his street. Messengers were hurriedly sent to them with more presents. This went on until by the time they got to the entrance of the house where the biggest obstacle had to be cleared, their bag was full! The party then entered the house and the leader presented the girl in disparaging terms: you asked for the hand of our daughter in marriage; here she is, but we would want you to know right now that she has no training, has no sense, plays like a child, cannot cook and knowing all these, it will be your duty to train and mould her to your taste and satisfaction. After the customary presents to the Egbele and compound women, the girl was counted on the lap of the husband where she took her seat on the ELEVENTH COUNT. Then followed dancing, singing and plenty of gun shooting with the cry of joy, UKU KHU GHU!

This went on for a long time, with the husband wishing someone would come and inform his in-laws that their houses had gone on fire so that they would all race for home Since marital relations were forbidden once the cock crows and Esan cocks crow by 4.00a.m., prudence and kindness demanded that everybody wished the couple well, and departed by 3.00 a.m. latest! Sometimes a kind and wise relative discreetly suggested the bride had a tiring day and was feeling sleepy, a suggestion usually made with much yawning! At this, most people except the more stupid or obviously mischievous ones, left.

The next morning the bride, obviously shaken, bewildered and tired was taken out by the female relatives of the husband to have a wash. For the first seven days she stayed indoors and did not go to fetch water or wood. She went by the name of OBHIOHA (Bride) for the next three months, after which she was given her cooking utensils and had to fend for herself.

Anehita Okojie An Esan Bride steps out!
During the Obhioha period she forbade nothing and behaved like a daughter in the family e.g. she could take her bath in the compound while all married women must have their bath sat the back-house, in fact even pots they used for water must not be brought to the house.

Esan had no special ceremony of sending to the in-laws that the husband found the Obhioha 'AT HOME', since in Esan custom all girls are virtuous. It would be an anti-climax to send such a message, as a non-virtuous girl had already suffered a public disgrace during the circumcision stage. The alleged sending of the white bed sheet (stained with blood) to the parents-in-law is un-Esan. Traditional Esan slept on mats!


In the olden days when a girl came of age, which was just before circumcision, she had to undergo the abdominal tattoo. While this consisted of only three linear marks in men, women had ten: from arms by the side; there was a pair from the part of each shoulder down to the waist line and one such mark running down wards across each breast. That gave six in frontFrom behind there was a pair running to the waist line from each shoulder. From below the navel serrated marks called ABIHIAGHA (this represents the five blades in Benin women, known as ABERHE) were made to add beauty to the full ten marks.

Black pigments were rubbed into the wounds giving a beautiful character, particularly in light coloured women. The ceremony was not so much a test of manhood as it was in men, but it showed that the girl was now fit to be a woman, it mother and of marriageable age. Any man who had a carnal knowledge of a woman who had not yet had this abdominal tattoo had committed a crime equivalent to modern rape.


In the olden days there was no question of disputed paternity as it existed in our Native Courts of the fifties, when there were myriads of bastards in the modern sense. Every woman of child bearing age was covered by certain laws of ownership - hence the Esan proverb, EIMIEN OBHI IDOLO from IDO LU or done secretly, which means that no man can claim the issue of a secret dealing. Therefore the laws guarding paternity were as follows:-


(a) If the woman was an Arebhoa, then the issues were for the woman's father, that meant their natural grandfather was their legal father!

(b) If the woman had an intended husband then the issues belonged to the intended husband who might not be natural father.


(a) If the .bride price was not yet paid back to the husband the issues belonged to the first husband irrespective of who pregnated the woman.

(b) If the dowry had been fully refunded by the woman's father or as sometimes happened by the woman herself, the issues were for the woman's father if he paid the money back; but if the woman refunded the dowry herself, the issues were for the man who put her in the family way if the man later married her; if he did not, the practice was for the suitor who came along later to make arrangements to cover both the mother and her child who then became his child, in order words the woman's father had an extra-large bride price!


All the issues belonged to the lawful husband.


If two kindreds met "and pregnancy followed, the child belonged to the intended husband. If she had none, the child was for the girl's father or for extra large dowry, to the man who came to marry her.


All the children were the lawful children of the minor and they took precedence over the natural children the man would get when be bad overcome his minority. This was not permitted in the case of an Onojie – To be recognized as SON AND HEIR of an Onojie, the child must be fully legitimate.


If the woman was generally known to be pregnant before the husband died, the child when born later was the child of the dead man and such children were usually named UMOERA (You have no father). This must not be mixed up with the name OMOERA (He has a father), which in Esan is the name given to a child whose father was seriously ill when the mother was pregnant, but he lived to see his child.

In certain parts of Esan, the law is EI MIEN OBHI ELINMIN (Dead men cannot have children) hence in such places before the woman delivered she had to be inherited so that the child belong to the inheritor. Sometimes if the pregnancy was very early when the husband diedand by the third month it was still not known generally, the man who inherited her successfully claimed the child. It was immaterial if she gave birth to a child six months after the last husband's death. This should cause no surprise because in certain parts of Esan ‘B’ a man could adopt his father's youngest son from another mother, as his own first son particularly if it is vital for him to perform certain ceremonies like OGBE before he had his own son.

If a man who for one reason or another had been unable to get his wife to be pregnant, had formally given her permission to try her luck outside (strictly as laid down by Esan custom expressed as a A MUN OLE OBO BHE UGHE, the issues were lawful children of the lawful husband.

As already noted under the law of inheritance, OMON – OSHO issues from love affair, had no legal status customarilyHe could not inherit: property and did not appear at ancestral worship, but if a man had kept a girl and she bore him a son while still in her father's house and he later paid the dowry on her (not a refund) he could claim this boy as his first son. If he did not, but married another woman who bore him a son, this particular son would be his heir-that is the child from the lawful wife.


Since Esan people were polygamous and wealth was counted in lives and children, seniority amongst one's own children was very well guarded as it also affected the order and method of inheritance.

(a) FIRST SON: This is the very first male issue by a lawful wife. An OMON OSHO) could only aspire to this unique position in the family when all conditions already enumerated were fulfilled. A man made a public testament of his first son by giving him the hearts of all animals slaughtered in his compound, so that by the time he died all Egbele were aware of who was his heir. There is bound to be trouble if he was giving a favourite the hearts

(b) SECOND SON: For the purpose of inheritance and the sharing of propertyNO ONE WOMAN COULD HAVE FIRST AND SECOND SONS; unless she was the only wifeIf there were several wives and one woman was the mother of the first and second sons, according to age, when the father wanted to share things, he gave the first son his share first, side tracked the second son, and gave the third son who had a different mother, the next share. If the third, and the fourth sons had the same mother, he would miss the fourth son and let the fifth choose next if he too was from another woman. The custom therefore was that property was shared ACCORDING TO DOORS, that is, that the property owner shared whatever he had to give to his children in his lifetime, in such a way that NO MOTHER IN HIS COMPOUND missed a share because her son was very juniorFor example, a man had two wives. The first wife had first, second, third and fourth sons; the second wife then had the fifth son. If the father had just two things to share, the first son chose first and the FIFTH SON then chose the other. Thus, it often happened that while the first son had a wife, the second, third and fourth had none, while the junior, the fifth had.

(c) DAUGHTERS: As already explained, apart from the first daughter EHALE NON ODION)who really held a position of love more than anything elsedaughters had no position of seniority. Things were much worse for them after they had got married and left the family.

(d) AMONGST WOMEN: How seniority was decided amongst the married women of the village had already been describedit was by the system of IREKE.

(e) OMINJIOGBE: While in most places Ominjiogbe was hereditary, passing from father to the son who performed the burial and Ogbe ceremonies, in a few places like Ekpoma, ownership of the family was by age, the oldest man of the Uelen succeeding the last Ominjiogbe. In the Royal Family, of course, the Ominjiogbe is the heir and automatically takes precedence over all his brothers and uncles.

(t) SYSTEM OF SHARING: Having known the custom over seniority, it is easy to talk of how things are shared between two people according to Esan laws. It all actually depends upon what was there to share. In all cases it would be oppression or cheating for the person who did the sharing to choose first.

(1)            FOOD: It is the junior who does the sharingThe elder, by age, then chooses first.

(2)           LABOUR: Now the older one divides the piece of job for the junior one to choose the bit he thinks is lighter.


(1) BY DIVORCE: It has already been made clear that legal annulment of a marriage was practically unknown before the advent of the white man. Heads fell on both sides when a woman bolted from her lawful husband. There was of course, no question of a refund of dowry. Invariably the husband retained the children who had passed the breast feeding age.

(2) BYREFUSAL: There comes in most married couple’s lives. When either thinks life was much happier before they metSuch a time came to our forebears, and if that awful realization came to the woman first, she bolted for freedom with the inevitable slashing of a few throats or overt war! If the man, however, found the woman's cup of sins was full and overflowing, he had a quick remedy; all he did was to get into his room count TWENTY COWRIES which he handed over to his wife and showing her the door! There was the end of an unhappy marriage, the annulment being as binding as if it was a decree by the Supreme Court of Nigeria, with the difference that there was no NISI nonsense about it! Before the eyes of the departed spirits it was DECREE ABSOLUTE!

Sometimes, if the woman was still in love with the man or did not want to leave her children, as she must do if she left the husband, she tried some delaying manoeuvres: she went round showing the twenty cowries to the elders of the Egbele, who, of course came down to the husband with “What is this I hear about you and YOUR SERVANT! “Sometimes the elders succeeded in talking round the angry husband, but since the annulment had been absolute to take back this woman, he had to remarry her by slaughtering a goat the ancestral shrine to tell the spirits that he had recalled all he had said! But if he was a man who had genuinely had enough of a tigress, he merely answered the elders' question with, “what I have given. I have given!” PERIOD!

The case of Princess Fatima, daugbter of Momodu I and junior sister of Princess Imapu, daugbter of Eromosele the Great both daughters of Ehiagbe, happened as recently as mid-September, 1992. The critical time I have described above came to Chief Osolease of Ubaekpen Usugbenu. Feeling he could no longer stand Princess Fatima, although he felt hazy about Esan native laws and custom, be entered his inner room and came out with 50k which he handed over to the Princess who herself was totally ignorant of what that meantShe came to the Palace and showed Momodu II the Ojirrua (her senior brother and the Royal Family Ominjiogbe) the 50kThe king shook his head and said, "Go back to that husband of yours - that is NOT what custom says!" The poor woman trotted back from Eguare to Usugbenu and informed the aggrieved husband what the Onojie had said.

It dawned on him, he might be wrong, quickly sought advicespent a considerable time looking for cowries, counted twenty and gave it to Fatima. The Onojie was satisfied that that marriage had irretrievably hit the rocks!

In some cases, some proud women thought it would be a disgrace going to beg the husband indirectly by showing the cowries round, and so, as soon as the angry husband handed over the cowries to one such woman she made for home as the crow flies! Here comes the rubif within a day or two, flared temper settled, and the man had found that his only wife was gone and so he was face to face, with all the hardships attached to OHALE (Bachelorhood) he went meekly to his wife in the parents' village and made her believe that before her was a penitent and not the devil of yesterday, and as a result the woman followed him back home, in the eyes of his Egbele and the departed ancestors, he had committed a crime worse than adultery. It was as heinous as having anything to do with a widow before formal inheritance! It would cost him a big fat she-goat slaughtered at the ancestral shrine and shared by his Egbele, before he could call the woman his wife again. Also he had some account to settle with his parents-in-law.

(3) BY CONSENT: Sometimes a man feeling he was too old for one of his wivescould slaughter a goat to remove that woman from his list of wives; he could then give her to his son. This was one of the ways by which a brother (same mother) could have a brother as an uncle or a sister as a niece! (Makes the head of a non-Esan reel!)

It sometimes happened that an indulgent father not wanting to expose an erring son who committed adultery with one of his wives, removed such a woman by the same procedure from being his wife and be handed her over to his greedy sonHere, remember the case of Prince Ekute of Ugboha, the inherited wife Oduaki and Ekute's heir lreyokan.

Although this re-marriage by consent was permissible, it was against Esan custom for a man to take the wife of his son, dead or living. No amount of goat flesh or blood could make the living elders or spirits of departed ancestors be a party to this collusionIt was just not done! Similarlyit was not customary for a man to inherit the wives of his junior brother who has a maternal brotherthe right went to this maternal brother.

(4) BY DEATH: This was the more painful way of losing a wife, for it included mental and physical sufferings for the husband. As soon as the wife diedarrangements were made for the return of the dead body to the village of her birth. If she was old and with grown-up children, the body was accompanied in a festive mood by as many people as possible, depending mostly on the popularity of the dead woman and or children. The corpse wrapped in white cloth and resting on a form made from seven palm branch stalks, was carried feet first by two men of Igene rankone at the head and the other at the feet. Depending upon the mood of the man at the head, the corpse bearers walked or ran as if they were strongly under the influence of alcohol. Superstition made many believe that the movements of these carriers were controlled by the dead body! Thus before leaving the husband's villagethe corpse 'paid' courtesy visits to the homes of her friends and 'went' to say goodbye to places she had cherished while alive. With singing and drumming the dead woman was returned to her own village.

If the wife had no children and was young, the body was solemnly returned to her people for burial.


As soon as the body had been returned the husband went into compulsory mourning. He discarded all his clothes, tied a small black or smoked cloth round his loins, smeared the forehead, hands and feet with charcoal and strings of a delicate forest creeper called IRIALOLO were tied round the ankleswrists and neckand for the next seven days he carried a bow and arrows (seven) from which he shot away one every dayIn a broken pot green UKHINMIN leaves were burnt, the smelling fumes being supposed to be capable of driving off the spirit of the dead wife which might be angling to come to the living husband. For these seven days the widow must sleep on the bare ground, never cleaned himself and remained round his house - generally cutting a pitiable figure for himself. On the last day he shot away the last arrow, threw away the .bow and the pot of leaves, discarded black and all the paraphernalia of mourning of which Irialolo is symbolic. He then came home, took a bath and there ended his customary public mourning for his wife.

If he had died the wife was bound to go through a similar period of mourning. She put a small white cloth on the bier with her back turned to the dead body, and after the body had been taken away for burial she discarded her clothes and decked herself in black with Irialolo round her wristsankles and neck. She armed herself with IHINMIN, a many sided fruit from a tree much like oil bean tree (pentaclethra) and believed to be much shunned by spirits! In some places she carried the female blade for cutting yams (ELO), while in others, she also carried the bow and seven arrows, all these being meant to frighten away the spirit of the dead partnerShe wept loudly every day and on the seventh day she went to the husband's farm, wept round it, scratched up seven yams with a stick, tied them up in a bundle (the only time customs permits a woman to carry a bundle of yams)and returned homeShe then discarded her mourning accoutrements; washed and then ended her public mourning. To a woman really, the death of her husband was not only a grievous loss but brought her great and painful humiliation. Under the section on Women Association, it will have been seen that a woman sank in her status like lead in water, on losing her husband in the villageIf she was the most senior woman of the village, she then became the most junior, and to achieve that position, she had to be inheritedif not and she merely stayed with her children, she had no position at all.

Children of a dead father or mother had their hair shaved off and were kept away from farms, markets or going about alone during the seven days of mourning.


Since the smallest Esan Community was a unit organize don kinship, it was very rare for a person to die without a next of kin. As long as he was an accepted member of the village with or without a relative, in health, he was like one of the fingers of a hand, acting in unison with the rest for the common welfare of a village and in death, was a collective liabilityEven in modern times no Doctor just coming into the District would fail to be impressed and sometimes alarmed, by the whole village turning out to accompany one sick man to the hospitalparticularly if it was a case of an accidentThus, when a man died, the whole village mourned him for the customary seven days: they abstained from their usual work, dance and merriment.

(1) A CHILD: A few people usually from the Uelen went to bury itMourning was limited to the immediate relatives.

(2) A YOUNG MAN: He was buried by the Egbonughele and the Igene with no formalities; he was buried as born - naked.

(3) OLD MAN WITHOUT CHILDREN: He was treated like a young man - but in places where the clothing ceremony was customary, and he had performed it, he was given the privilege of a wash and buried with all respects, and clothed.

(4) ELDERLY MAN WITH CHILDREN: He was buried with much feasting and the least sign of mourning. The pre-interment ceremonies are described below. The body was taken to the special burial ground for such respected people.

(5) MARRIED WOMEN: The corpse was returned to her family. The uniformity of this practice is rather surprising. When a man had been accepted as a member of village where he was born, if he died there he was buried there. But in Esan custom marriage does not alter a woman's nationality. If an Uromi woman married an Ekpoma man, lived all her life and died in Ekpoma, she was still an Uromi woman and must be returned to her relatives in Uromi to avoid any suspicion of a foul play. In most villages there were different burial grounds or sections in the same bush. Children and childless people were buried in the same bush and old men with children were buried in different placesEach person had his or her own grave which was about three or four feet deep.

Only an Onojie could be buried in the house or in a special cemetery close to the Palace grounds. All others had to be buried in the bush. Hereditary chiefs and some important men could be buried in their homes, but the children had to bribe the Onojie to obtain permission to bury their fathers outside the usual place. Indiscriminate burial of dead bodies in houses and compounds is an occurrence of recent times. The old custom built up by men who had no knowledge of public health as we know it today, are now made light of, and in several districts the traditional burial grounds have been desecrated and turned into farm lands. The fear of spirits, like the respect of the dead, has vanished with the arrival of westernization. Today there are no more village burial bushes and homes and compounds have become the burial places for the dead. This is not Esan custom.

(6) PRE-INTERMENT RITES: As would have been seen already, Esan of old had a deep respect bordering on superstition and dread for dead bodies, not just because they feared the dead body was that of a person who had joined the world of spirits, but because a dead body was a source of health hazard to the living as in tropical climate bodies decompose at an alarming rate, (it is. .almost complete in four days); relatives, whose duty it was to prevent any disgraceful associations with the body of dead relatives, did all in their power to bury the body as quickly as possible before the slightest onset of putrefaction. Wake keeping therefore was an uncommon thing. There was one general reason when interment had to be postponed, and even in this case it was only for old and respected elders with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, usually described as EYE BII IHIENHIEN. The reason was death such as on a bad or unlucky day such as the rest day – Ede Ezele or Ede Owo and in some districts, also the second day of the farming week was considered as unlucky day to join one's ancestors! If an aged man died on such a day, he had to be buried the next day – but during the night when the dead was amongst the living, only the bravest of the living ventured out. The playful and harmless dotard whose whiskers Eye and Ihienhien pulled fondly a couple of days back, had now become an object of fright!

Before the body was ready for burial, it was washed, a new pot being used for the water. If the dead man was well-to-do the Egbele demanded the slaughtering of a goat called EBHE IHION in honour of the sponge with which the body had been washed. The body was then wrapped in a new mat and brought to the front of the main building, for the ceremony with EMAN ELINMIN, the special foufou prepared simply with fish, or with the goat flesh in the case of a wealthy man. The children assembled round the body that was lying with the head towards the house.

On behalf of the first son one of the IKO EGBELE (Egbele's representatives) blessed the dead and cut some of the foufou at the feet. The children and all the descendants knelt besides the body and were given a bit of the food one by one. With this last sacrament at which the children have  accepted themselves as one before their dead father over, the feet which had been exposed for this ceremony were wrapped properly. The body was then placed on a form made with seven fresh mid-ribs of palm branches in (IKPOGBA IHINLON). The whole corpse is then wrapped with a white piece of cloth, provided by the heir. While this was going on some Igene and Egbonughele had been busy preparing the grave at the appropriate site. The body was then taken on the head by two men, with the feet in front. For an old man with children there was dancing round the village, the places visited depended upon the whims of the carriers although they made the onlookers believe the dead body was directing them! Then they headed for the cemetery with the heir holding the pot that had been used during the washing. When the body had been interred the pot was placed on the tomb and everybody turned for home with the strict injunction that no one must look back or knock each other's heels. The idea was to get out of the burial grounds as quickly as possible. The hoes and cutlasses used were left at a gutter (ULANMEN) in the compound for seven days before they were touched or used again. The Igene and Egbonughele washed their hands and feet in front of the house before they entered their houses.

Where the dead man had no issue but had a godson the god-child) assumed the position of a first son in all the ceremonies - since Esan people believe OMON NA KHA BIE KHE ORO (A child you could have had, is your godson). Eman Elinmin (the last meal) was firmly believed in, since Esan believed that the journey to the world of spirits was long and tedious. Thus any condemned person was also given this simple last meal before execution, to provide energy for the last journey.

Again and again I have stressed the need of our elders and the Enijie being constantly vigilant in the preservation of their custom and laws because of the persistent battering and assault both are receiving in the hands of education, religion, politics, sheer ignorance and modem technological advancements. There is an Esan adage which says, "When you start doing things that were never done before, you start seeing things no one had seen before.” I have written about Esan respect for the dead particularly the elderly. Today when a man dies the children get a sort of embalmment done at a hospital and put away the body in a cold room awaiting the arrival of the children from Europe or America. Sometime it is because they do not consider the period right for the great merriment they are expecting or sometimes the children give as a reason for such postponement wanting to save up for a grand mortuary rite! When finally the funeral rites are to start there is a wake-keeping at which the body is exposed for all and sundry including children to view. Children no longer fear the dead and so respect for dead people is no longer the norm.

There is an incident which illustrates the points I am making beautifullyOn the 13thof April, 1989, a respected old man from a famous family in Benin died. He was Pa Omorogbe Effionayi reported to be 115 years old and a senior brother of our respected Chief (Dr.) Iyayi Efionaye, a timber magnatean acknowledged millionaire and a phillantropistPa Omorogbe's body was deposited in the University of Benin Teaching Hospital Mortuary until the 19th of May, 1989 when the relatives and a gathering of dignitaries came to claim the body for the funeral ceremonies. The body was found missing! It took the tenacity and calibre of members of the Iyayi family to trace the body to Ewohimi in Esanland, some 150km awayburiedCan anyone think of a more disrespectful thing happening to an elder! Obviously an Odionwele of a verile community of Egba in Orhionmwon Local Government Area suffered this indignity because of modernization. Ourculture and tradition teach 'absolute respect for the elderly dead and a minimum exposure. Esan edion were buried as soon as they died - EI MUN YAA! (It is not kept till later!)


The time between death and onset of the burial obsequies depended on wealth and affluence of the dead man and standing of his children. Rich families usually began at once or shortly after the man's death. In the case of the Onojie, it will have been seen already that the ceremonies were so vital that they were soon after the death of the last Onojie.

The funeral ceremonies were performed for one's Egbele and the success of the ceremonies depended upon the satisfaction of the elders and various bodies like the married daughters of the village (Ekhuian), Edowaya (Helpers) etc. The first son of the dead person was the pivot of the whole occasionAll brothers and sisters did their share under him.

(a) UTARE: This was occasion on which the heir made public announcement of the father's or mother's death. It should be a ceremony lasting one day, although to show wealth, some families prolong it. The requirements consisted of a ring of fish and a goat; the goat was slaughtered and like the fish, it was divided into two halves with the celebrant retaining half while the Egbele took the other half. At the end of the ceremony of Utare the day for the actual burial ceremonies was fixed near or put off, depending upon how ready the family was.

The Utare ceremony itself had significant purpose. It was on this day that the wives to be inherited were disposed of. Those who were not going to be inherited began their formal mourning. In the eyes of the Edion if one of their grade died and the heir had not performed the Utare ceremony, that man was still alive and appropriately when they shared

Anything at the Okoughele, they faithfully sent the dead man's own to his house! The children could avoid this respect which is embarrassing for them by at least making a public announcement of their father's death which is known in ESAN custom as UTARE. This custom also laid it down that this ceremony should not be delayed for more than three months. If it was not done after three months, as far as the Edion were concerned, their colleague left the village for a very, very long journeyand he got no more share from their booties!

(b) UHELAMIN: This is the first stage of the burial ceremonies. On the eve of the appointed day, which is customarily EDE EZELE or rest day, and early next morning, the whole village reverberated with the booming of guns and feasting. The evening start of the ceremony usually is around 10.00 p.m. (Ede Izele). In most part of Esan ‘A’ the actual first day of the ceremonies fell on first day of the farming week, that is on Ekpoma, Igueben, Okhuesan, Ekpon or Ugboha market day.

First a she-goat was slaughtered in honour of the parent's waist, that isfor having been able to have children. Dances and friends came to heighten the effects of the daywhile the children all spent freely voluntarily or on demand. On the second day, there was a lull in the activities; on this day came the EDOWAYA who were the celebrant's helpers - they accepted presents and thanked the givers on behalf of the man they were assisting. On this day too, a cow was slaughtered. As soon as the cow was shotthe first person to touch it with a matchet owned the tail, by custom, an obvious incentive our forefathers invented to ensure that the cow shot or wounded was recovered, because without the cow all the ceremonies would be delayedOn the third day foufou in large quantities was prepared. It was shared as follows - thirty foufou balls for the Edion, twenty for Igene and their underlings, the Egbonughelethe rest was shared amongst the visitorsUsing the cow meat of the previous day the soup pots were loaded in such a way that they would be acceptable; the Edion and even the Igene had the knack of refusing their share 00 the ground that it was not sufficient. In such a case, he, (the celebrant) had to use money to bribe the people to accept; therefore he might as well make sure that the foufou and soup were of such quantity that only a gathering of elephants would grumble at the size - hence the cow even till this day, is a MUST for the burial ceremonies, although in some districts like Ugbohaburial ceremonies outside the royal family, were limited to goats. Only a few people in the district were ‘Ogbeminas’ (those who buried their fathers with cows).

The fourth day was the day of IKHUEMIRE. All the men who married the daughters of the man being buried, came down with something like a war dance, shooting guns and praising their parent-in-law. Each son-in-law brought the customary gifts consisting of a goat, a fowl, a piece of white cloth for the celebrant, thirty coconuts and Elanmen Ihinlon (6533 cowries equivalent to 27.2k) for Edion Egbele, twenty coconuts and Elanmen Isen (4666.7 cowries or 19.4k) for the Igene and Okhihinlon (980 cowries or 4k) for the intermediary. A man's greatness in life could be ascertained by the grandness of his burial ceremonies which was also influenced by the number of sons-in-law that came with this type of dance. The wealthy Afua of Ekpoma went down in history when one hundred sons attended his funeral Ceremonies.

The ceremonies of the fourth day dominated by the Ikhuemire were f great significance. The Ikhuemire was an indisputable evidence of lawful marriage. It was only the legally recognized husband that was permitted to attend the father or mother-in-law's funeral ceremonies in this way.

The fourth day ended with ceremonial hair-plaiting called ETO OKUKU, a feature of all really big funeral ceremoniesOn the fifth day, the Edowaya then showed the celebrant the accounts of those who had sent him presents and what had been collected during the ceremonies. He carefully noted these as he would be required by custom to return these presents in greater measure when any of these friends were involved in a similar ceremony. After this the helpers were feasted, thanked and they left.

As soon as possible after this the chief celebrant killed a goat or used a whole carcass of an antelope to end the burial ceremoniesexpressed as Fanon len Uria. This is the final act in a ceremony that left the heir exhausted and broke but he had done all that was necessary to have full right to inheritance of the person-he had just honoured with a most crushing funeral


In most places all that was necessary to have full right to inheritance and the title, if any, of the dead parent was to perform the burial ceremonies strictly according to native laws and custom that is, to the satisfaction of his Egbele. But in Uromi and Ekpomain particular, another ceremony had to follow and this was the OGBE. Like the burial ceremonies it involved the slaughtering of a cow and the spending of a lot of moneythe whole proceedings concluded with the dressing of the cow's head which was tied with some raffia cane and hung up; this part was the most vital for without its being done all the expenses were for nothing.

It was not everybody that was either entitled or required to perform Ogbe. It was usually the first son in a large family or an Ominjiogbe that was required to perform it before he could have legal authority of inheritance of his father's and family property. If a man performed it, it holds good for himself and his children, that is, he had confirmed his own line's right to inheritance: if he died his son must succeed him fully. But should this son now die without performing the Ogbe ceremony the grandson could not inherit the family property, like economic trees, titles etc. Claim to these things then passes to the senior uncle of the loser. This must be very clear: for example, a man had three sons - Uduehi, Itama and Obaedo. On his death, Uduehi, the heir successfully claimed everything after burial ceremonies of his father but without performing OgbeLater he died and his son claimed the family property and family title. He could not get them by native laws and custom. The right person to come forward would be Itama, the boy's uncle, who, if he was wise and proceeded to perform Ogbe would now bring his own line into the right succession line.

In most places in Esan, even amongst the ruling houses, Ogbe has long been considered redundant and claim to inheritance is decided by the burial ceremonies; instead of Onon lu Ogbe na bhe ogbe (be who performs Ogbe owns the family tree), the more constant Esan custom, (after Ogbe was discontinued) came to be Onon ton Olinmin yan Uwa (He who performs the burial ceremonies owns the house and all there-in). In the case of the Onojie, however, the expensive Ogbe is now incorporated into the funeral ceremonies except in Uromi and Ubiaja where it still has to be done separately. 


I have found no uniformity for this ceremony, but all over Esan where it was done, the significance was the same. In places where the ceremony had the greatest significance it was performed by the wealthiest and top ranking people of the communityThis was the case in Igueben, Ugbegun, Ekpoma etcIn Ugboha it was quite a simple ceremony: a man never went in for the ceremony until lie had a child; then he went to the Odion of his family who tied the cloth, a simple hand woven piece of cloth, round his waist with his blessings. Age did not matter. In Ibhole and Ukhun the ceremony was performed in age grades, for example, all Egbonughele could perform it together and then left this rank of scavengers.

In Ewohimi and Ebelle areas it was simpler still and made so cheap that it would be within the reach of every man. It could only be performed by those with children however, but if they had none of their own they could adopt their brother's sons for that purpose. Irma form of Iruen was simple to the point of being ridiculous; all one required was a native tomato (okhokho) and one fluted pumpkin (Umenkhen). At the ancestral shrine his guardian tied a cloth round him, and his wife, who he might have been living with for years, was shown to him! On the contrary, in a place like Ukpenu, Ekpoma, it was a terrifying cere money; cows, goats, sheep must be used. A man might be very rich and might be the oldest man in the village; until he had performed the Iruen ceremony he was of the street sweeper rank!

The Ekpoma or Igueben ceremony was the more customary of the expensive type. All other types were in essence modifications dictated by common hardship and necessity. A ceremony with such great significance ought not to be made so difficult that only the upper segment of the community could perform it. For instancein Ekpoma, it was only the man who had advanced in age with several children and of sufficient financial standing chat could dare embark on the crushing expenses.

Firstly, the man called his Egbele together to consult the oracle as regards who amongest the elders who themselves had performed the Iruen, should tie his cloth. The oracle was consulted four times before a date was fixed. He then got ready two pieces of cloth which must be white, Okhon, - a cloth-like material from Ogolo palm (Raphia) and Ovu-Orele which was the belt. On the appointed day he killed a he-goat with which he prepared foufou. The Egbele was then called together, the white cloth, Okhon and Ow-OreIe in a white-washed calabash container brouhgt out and the celebrant with his wife was then surrounded by the Igene and Egbonughele who spread out their own covering cloths. The man then removed all his clothes and the appointed elder tied the white cloth round his waist and over this, the Okhon. The cloth underneath was tied with the Ovu-OreleThree times the elder called his name but he should not answer until the fourth time when he did so with HE YO -OAGBON TIE MEN O IYE ELINMIN! (Truly, it is the world calling me and not spirits!). He was then covered with chalk and asked to take his wife with whom he had been clothedThe man then went home and danced round the village kneeling at each door to thank the people. He was greeted with U KHI RUIEN NE LINMIN GBE! (May you not be clothed to die at the hands of the spirits!) He was given money or the house owner might shoot a gun in his honour.  On getting back home there was feasting with dancing and the booming of guns. For the next seven days he was strictly forbidden from sleeping on an uncleansed or unrubbed house, sitting on bare ground, eating of a meal without meat and must not sleep alone. On the seventh day he slaughtered a cow; thirty pieces and twenty pieces were used to cook foufou for the Edion and Igene respectively. Only those who had already performed the ceremony could partake of this meat. The remaining meat was used to prepare six calabashes of foufou for his age grade that turned up at night to eat their share. They divided themselves into OkhiodeOberuan and Obiyon, each group taking two calabashes of foufou.


Clothing ceremony was the most authoritative act of a man who desired honour and respect of all in the village. No man who had not performed it could be made Odionwele. While the laws attached to this ceremony conferred honour, distinction and marks of high social standing on the performer, he was strictly guided by certain laws calculated to make him live an honourable life for the rest of his lifeThese laws were:-

a)     He was duty bound to settle any dispute coming to his knowledge between a man and his wife.

b)    He could no longer be called upon to sweep the street or be challenged to a wrestling match or be attacked. Any attacker did so at the risk of having a goat slaughtered against him by the Edion.

c)     As a man of dignity he had to conduct himself honourably at all times and must never again do certain acts of dishonour like kneeling, stooling over paths, yam holes or moats (Iyala) or clean himself after defecation on a kolanut tree, telling lies, abetting crimes etc.

d)    He must not find a tree across the farm path and side-track it saying it was none of his business to help cut it off.

e)     He could no longer sit on bare ground and hence had to carry EKPOKIN about and on this he sat.

f)      If it fell to his tum he could now be made an Odionwele. If he was the oldest man in the village and he had not performed IRUEN he forfeited what his age had brought him.

g)     In death, honour and respect followed him to the grave: with or without children he must be fully clothed before burial. In the olden days a man who had not performed this ceremony was on death, buried as he was born, NAKED! A Khi ruen, ai ye lu okholo ai ye deba eneria (when you have performed this clothing ceremony, you no longer do evil, you no longer associate with evil doers)


The year in Esan was divided into 91½ arming Weeks, consisting of THREE working days and ONE day of rest, every FIFTH DAY. The first day of the farming week fell on Ekpoma, Igueben, Ugboha, Okhuesan, Opoji and Ekpon market day. It was called EDE UGBO NON ODION. The universal day of rest was called EDE OWO or EDE EKEN and farming on that day was tabooed. This day fell on Ewu, Ugbegun, Illushi, Emuhi and Ewatto market day. The fact that none of the big markets was held on this day supports the belief that it was meant to be a proper day of rest.

The year was again divided into nameless moons (UKI) which were tagged with farming stages as moon for bush clearing, moon for sowing yams, moon for tying yams, moon for eating fresh com etc. the year ended in December and particularly in Ekpoma, it ended round about December 24. After harvesting yams, usually between August and October, there were little farming activities and then began a long period of debauchery, relaxation, the yearly village feasts, ceremonies of all types, like burial, clothing etc. and as the devil finds work for the idle hands, this time of the year was the time for 'meetings' and the few agitations that occur in Esan.

Most of the yearly feasts in towns and villages took place between September and DecemberFrom the end of the first week of December, particularly in Ekpoma Area, the ancestral worship ceremonies for ending the year began. All first sons with no father using the central yam (OJIOKPALUNGBO), serve their dead fathers and perform the ceremony of IKUKPE (marking the year) which lasted thirteen days - the end falling round about Christmas EveThis was the traditional end of the yearafter which every man could begin clearing the bush for his new farm.

Every village or town usually had its dance for relaxation for example, AGBENOJIE, AGBEGA, EGBABONELINMIN, OLEKE etc. For the first three days of the 'week' it was all toil, but early the fourth day the street and village square were weeded and swept, the women rubbed the houses and kept the compound clean. One could sense a festive mood in everybody who had a wash and put on his best clothes. By 10 O'clock the village dance was staged and the rest of the day was reserved for feasting friends and drinking - mainly palm wine; pito and burukutu were alien while Ogogoro or Akpeteshi or Kainkain was introduced into Esan land by the Urhobos in the forties even though it was a punishable offence to be found with this drink, the British called 'illicit gin' with a vengeance.

It was after independence in 1960 it became the most popular drink. In places like Ugboha, they celebrate their rest day with Ogolo - palm wine from Raphia palm. The general merriment goes on all day with visits to friends so that the expenditure is shared. To ensure that every one had his own fair share of necessary rest and relaxation there was a strong belief handed down from father to son, that spirits did their farming by wandering round the farms of the living on Ede Izele or Owo or Eken, The lazier ones took an extra day of rest on the town market day – EDE EKIOLELE.

Apart from the weekly day of rest, each village or groups of villages had a period of feasting on a grand scale at about the same period each year. It lasted four days. The period was characteristic for the special clearing of the streets, decorations in the homes, purchase of new clothes with friends and relatives coming from far and near bringing dances and presents. It was an expressed mutual agreement for one to return this type of visits and presents when the villages of these visitors were having their own annual feasts.

These yearly feasts invariably left the celebrants exhausted and broke and by the time they recovered it was time for the next year's feast! Also with so much eating and drinking something near an epidemic of stomach trouble followed!

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