In Igboland, marriage engagement has never been a surprise game and should not be.
Every culture or traditional practices all over the world has its root in the wisdom of the old and wise, and so also is the Igbo process of marriage proposal. And no civilization, till today, jokes with their traditions.
In the olden days, when a young man takes his father’s kegs of palmwine or mother’s goats to sale in the market and see a young girl of marriage age, who, say, also in the market to sale her mothers cakes or fruits, and fall for her, what the young man would do, if he intends to marry and may never even have met her beforehand will be to trace the girl to her father’s compound. But if the young man had known the girl or knows someone who knows her, good and fine.
Now, the first thing would be for the young man to tell his father
or guardian that he’s seen the person he want to marry. Father will ask who her father was to first ascertain whether marriage is possible. If yes, father will take son to the girl’s father even before the girl was approached. That is called ‘Iku aka n’uzo’. (You’d see the reasonable ones amongst Igbo ladies, even till today, usually say; “ Íchò inum, je fu ndi be ayi”.)
There, after the pleasantries and some cups of the palmwine they came with, the son’s father will present their reason for the visit. If the girl’s father is receptive to the idea he will then summons for the girl’s mother or all his wives where there are multiple wives to inform her or them of the reason for the visit and asked that they invite all his daughters (where the young man doesn’t know the name of the particular girl).
The girls would lineup, of course, shy, suspecting what’s going on. Then the young man will point out the one he want to marry -anyone, even if it’s not the girl he meant or where there’s confusion or change of mind. Having identified or pointed out the girl he want to marry all the girls and their mother(s) would be asked to take their leaves as discussion and the palmy drinking continue. Before the visitors would go the girl’s father of course will be noncommittal but ask that they repeat the visit after some time to enable him make some enquiries.
After they left the girl’s father will summon the girl and her mother again to tell them what’s on board’. The next day the girl’s father would commence his enquiries to be sure they and the visitors have no close blood relation, that the visitors were of no lineage that they are forbidden to marry into or that they don’t have some hereditary maladies that could complicate the wisdom in such union. If everything come out fine he will await their next visit.
Suffice here to say that the young man’s father must have done his own enquiries if needed before taking his son to that visit.
When next the visitors come again the girl’s father may have one or two of his male relatives present. And visitors must come with a witness (onye ndu-uzó) – someone the girl’s family knows very well and who would serve as a guarantor.
Then the girl will be produced by her mother for her to consent to the marriage proposal. After this is done, a date will be chosen for the visitors to come and see the girls father’s close family or Umunna where the engagement will be done -(Ígbaye nwanyi ihie). In my place Akokwa-Ideato, one Coconut from the boy to the girl is enough. The moment the young lady takes the coconut from the young man in the presence of her father she’s engaged. Every othe gifts are secondary.
I went this way to show the importance Igbo attaches to marriage engagement. It’s never a chewing gum thing. And before our ‘ndi oyibo way kamma’ come to voice some narrow views of our beautiful traditions, I must point out that the visitors, having gone through this rigorous process, would have had it imbued in them that it was a human, valued young girl they are asking to be surrendered’ to them. Never as if you are buying a fowl. It’s preposterous for an Igbo family to have their daughter engaged in palmy joints or in market squares. And same goes for a young man getting himself a wife before first informing his family and having their consent. Igbos take marriage institution and in this case engagement, very serious because it’s a proceeding that demand that they transfer certain rights over their loved ones to another family-in a traditional ritual that even the ancestors must also be involved in.
Overtime, some of these rituals have been modified to accommodate certain complexes and in consideration of the modern time. But there are some cultural ideas and practices that defines a people. Those are sacrosanct! Attempts to have such be done away with simply because some far-off civilizations are doing them differently would amount to erasing your unique identity. And that is stupid.
To see a young Igboman kneeling down on the streets or in shopping malls to engage a girl for marriage akin to a ‘wiseman’ pointing at his father’s house with the left hand.
So when you see an Igbo lady say; “If you want to marry me, first go see my parents”, respect her. Maka na o’ ńuru mmiri ara nne ya.