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Nhachi Nwanyị Custom in Igboland: A Relevant Practice or a Stronghold for Patriarchy?

Nhachi Nwanyị Custom in Igboland: A Relevant Practice or a Stronghold for Patriarchy?

Nhachi Nwanyị Custom in Igboland - Afrocritik

The question that often opens up during these conversations is whether or not these women are forced to do Nhachi. The answer to the question is rather very complicated, for even though these women mostly choose to do it of their own choice, the informed mind cannot overlook the role that male succession plays in these matters…

By Chimezie Chika 

Nhachi: Continuing a Lineage or an Absurd Custom? 

Years after her husband died, and her first two daughters had married, Ngozi Eme (my mother’s kinswoman in my maternal hometown of Omogho, in Orumba North LGA, Anambra State) called her last daughter, Eugenia, one night and made a strange request: Eugenia, she begged, should consider staying at home instead of marrying to give birth to male offspring. She reminded Eugenia that as a widow, the ground under her feet was rather shaky as far as her husband’s family was concerned, and this was because of all her three children, none was male.

It came to be that Eugenia, on seeing her mother’s distress, agreed to stay home and give birth to a son who would carry on their father’s name and inherit his properties. As the years passed, Eugenia took on different lovers and had three sons and a daughter so the Eme family — her father’s side — was not obliterated. Or so we are made to believe. 

The Igbo custom that Eugenia Eme decided to undergo is called Nhachi Nwaanyị, and it is as old as the Igbo nation. The nomenclature may differ according to the dialects of the different Igbo tribes, but the practice remains the same. At its core, the Nhachi tradition is an intensely patriarchal worldview that privileges male inheritance. The greatest fear of the traditional Igbo man, as is often implied in idioms, is found in the metaphor of weed overgrowing his homestead — a reference to the fact that strong hands ( a man’s hands in this context) were not available to keep the compound clean. The legacy of name, lineage, and succession in Igbo culture is tied to the idea of a male heir. 

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A son inherits his father’s homestead and farmlands and continues the family lineage by marrying a woman who in turn gives birth to sons. A problem then arises in the seemingly natural order of the male inheritance if no son is born to a man; when he envisions the nightmare scenario of weed overrunning his compound, his worry mounts. Desperation might drive him to marry more women. In situations where a man already has a daughter or daughters by his wife or wives and either sees no need to marry any more women or is physically incapable of adding another woman to his family, the Nhachi tradition becomes a welcome panacea. 

In some cases, when a woman accepts to do Nhachi, a small private ceremony is done to usher the woman into that peculiarly cloistered life and to acknowledge before gods and men that her impending single parenthood is sanctioned by her family. Her parent might choose a lover for her, but in most cases she is given the free will to choose her lover who is expected to be a man of good lineage and character, to make sure that the children would be of good stock. A certain level of scientific precision is applied in vetting eligible men who would become the woman’s sexual partner. A shortlist of qualified men is made and then a family member is appointed to look into their personal and family histories. After that, the shortlist is narrowed down further until the most suitable candidate is agreed upon.  In most cases, her partner’s identity is kept hidden except within a closed circle of elderly family members. 

This is why Chibueze Ibegbu (not his real name), a relative of mine from my hometown of Umuaka in Imo State, does not know his father. His mother Ahunwa Ibegbu (not her real name) decided to do the Nhachi as the only child of her very poor widowed father. Her father died shortly after she took her first lover. After the birth of her first child (a girl), she abandoned the lover for a reason that remains unclear and took on another lover by which she had a further three children: a boy and two girls, with Chibueze being the only boy and her second child. Growing up, I had always suspected that Ahunwa’s situation was peculiar, for I found the absence of a husband rather strange in a way that did not suggest that she was a widow. 

Realising that Chibueze never talked about memories of his father as recalled by him or his mother, it slowly dawned on me as I grew into adulthood that Chibueze’s mother had done Nhachi. Ahunwa had a very difficult life raising her children on her own. When I think of Ahunwa’s life and the way in which she finally died of high blood pressure, I wonder if she regretted the immense burden of bringing up children in a family where she was the only surviving member with no inheritance to fall on, her only motivating factor being the uncertain privilege of keeping her lineage alive.

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A Relevant Culture or Patriarchy at Play?

Judging from the fine details of its practice, Nhachi is a custom that is carried out with great delicacy and sensitivity, for it involves the life of a human being and the dilemma of choice. Most people in the villages and many parts of Igboland today agree that it has great benefits for families that decide to do it. But in my investigations, there are people who hold strongly that it is an unfair practice. While one group argues that it impugns women’s rights and independence, another — an overtly puritan view — expresses misgivings about the morality of such practice. 

The truth of the accusation of moral compromise is that it does not consider the fact that Igbo culture has always been accepting of children born outside wedlock. Premarital sex is largely not encouraged, but when such sexual couplings lead to the birth of offspring, the children are integrated into the girl’s family and take on the surname. In such cases, it is even impossible for an outsider to determine who was born within or outside the confines of wedlock. “Why would anybody say that Nhachi is evil when it has been helping NdịIgbo for centuries?” Iruoma Uzoegwu, a female dibịa at Nkpor asked when I told her that there are people who say the custom is unfair to women. “Besides,” she added, “the woman can still go ahead and marry once she gives birth to a male child.”

I have found that the crucial disconnect between Uzoegwu’s opinion and that of several young women I spoke to hovers somewhere between an adherence to tradition and a vehement opposition to it. Ogoo, whom I met at the Asaba Mall, was forthright with her opinion. “Don’t tell me these women are doing it of their own volition, as if they have any choice in it,” she said. “This is a culture that places a premium on male inheritance. If women were inheriting their fathers’ house(s), would the custom be possible in the first place?” Another young woman, Chidimma Nwankwo, asked angrily: “Can you honestly tell me why a woman has to take such responsibility? It worries me that these women give up their dreams to indulge their father’s fantasies”. I tried to point out that it is not just their fathers, to which she replied: “The mothers who force their daughters don’t know better. They don’t know the deep level where this patriarchal manipulation happens.”

Nhachi Nwanyị Custom in Igboland - afrocritik
Young Igbo maiden surrounded children. Photo credit: Obiindigbo

The question that often opens up during these conversations is whether or not these women are forced to do Nhachi. The answer to the question is rather very complicated, for even though these women mostly choose to do it of their own choice, the informed mind cannot overlook the role that male succession plays in these matters. When I asked Uzoegwu what she thought of this dilemma, she replied simplistically that male succession does not stop women from anything. “Women marry out. They do not stay in their father’s house.” When I asked my mother about it, she was more circumspect: “Women are not forced to do Nhachi. Many women I know did it to help their families. Some of them marry and leave after giving birth to a male child. But things are changing now. I don’t know… I think there are other ways to tackle the issue these days, especially if you have money.”

Ultra-Christian views on the Nhachi custom are belaboured with rhetoric about moral laxity. Pastor Godwin, who heads a small church branch in Ogidi, a town on the outskirts of Onitsha, told me that it was a real shame that the Igbo have a custom that encourages promiscuity. What is his opinion on the fact that women are the vessels of this tradition? I asked. Instead of answering, Pastor Godwin launched into a jeremiad about how no one listens to the word of God these days and how women should be God’s foot soldiers. Confounded, I said a quick goodbye and left.

 Choice, Family, and Acceptable Customs 

In contemporary reckoning, women’s range of choices has increased with relative increased independence and prosperity. Whether it goes down well with certain conservatives or not, questions of birth and reproduction are extremely important, and certain women, even without the bog of traditional customs, are choosing to be single parents by choice. However, certain cultures in Africa still prefer to keep the family name rooted in the institution of marriage. In Yoruba culture, for example, having children outside wedlock is unacceptable. According to Dolapo Tajudeen, a Nigerian poet, unwed mothers “are called ‘Adelebo’ to show that they could not give their child the protection of a father. In some cases, their family might reject them.”

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Such unsupportive environments, it seems to me, create a great deal of harm, especially where it concerns the children. As I will directly find out, the situation does not change much anywhere in Africa. Yet in these same cultures, no such mark is put on unmarried single fathers. Lucille Mudenda, a baker who comes from the Tonga people of Zambia, was quick to point this out. “Unwed mothers in my culture are treated as loose women. Although things are changing a little, they fetch a very low bride price if they want to get married.” Wasn’t the whole situation surrounding how these women were treated based on the singular institution of marriage? I asked. If marriage were to be taken out of the picture, would they still be treated with so much contempt? Mudenda agreed that marriage was at the centre of the discrimination.

It is true that there is hardly any culture in Africa where the value of a woman is not related to her suitability for marriage and procreation; but there are also cultures, like the Igbo, that offer certain kinds of reprieve for unwed mothers, even if in the views of many, it still does not completely serve the interests of women. Frank Njugi, a writer from the Kikuyu people of Kenya, told me that such a reprieve exists in his culture. The Kikuyu are essentially matrilineal, he told me. This singular quality puts the Kikuyu society in a unique position. “Traditionally, Kikuyu women were valued. This can be seen in the great influence Kikuyu grandmothers had. In the modern era the Kikuyu man has become a bit misogynistic,” he said. This situation, he points out, is largely due to the coming Christianity with its own different set of values.

Even though unwed mothers are not exactly treated with open arms, there are customs that make allowances for them among the Kikuyu. “There is a concept called ‘Kwigura’ whereby a woman stable enough is allowed to pay a dowry for herself and basically ‘marry herself.’ The ceremony is similar to ‘mburi ya ihaki,’ which is the normal ceremony in which a man pays dowry for a woman,” Njugi said. But there is a caveat if the woman seeking to do Kwigura is not financially stable enough. “She might join hands with other women in similar circumstances and do something we call a ‘Kamweretho.’ This allows them to receive dowry for their own children as well when they grow up because in Kikuyu culture a parent can’t receive dowry if none was paid for her. But through ‘Kwigura,’ single women are taken with the same value as their married counterparts.”

Kikuyu marriage ceremony - afrocritik
Kikuyu marriage ceremony

As Njugi explains, Kamweretho is another ceremony which is a form of Kwigura  where several Kikuyu women join hands and help each other (maybe financially because to the Kikuyu wealth is everything and each ceremony must showcase splendour ) to make sure they receive dowry as well through ‘marrying themselves.’ 

The general feeling from much of my investigations is that even though unwed mothers are not treated well within the many entrenched patriarchal cultures in Africa, there is a greater understanding, in the present reality of the modern world, that motherhood will not always happen through marriage. The best solution, Uzoegwu tells me in her home at Nkpor, is “to find a way to make it part of a ‘reasonable’ custom in order give these women dignity and well-being. Cultures like the Igbo and the Kikuyu have found a way to legitimise something that may be stigmatised in other cultures. For the Igbo, the consensus is that even though Nhachi has its flaws, this ability to give dignity to these women and provide a legal situation where the idea of a ‘bastard’ does not exist makes it remarkable and relevant in the current scheme of things. The practice of Nhachi can be better, as Ogoo and Chidimma pointed out, especially in how these women can be given more free will over the idea of continuing a lineage. One thing that can be said for Nhachi is that it offers a means through which single motherhood is accepted. 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1

 

Cover Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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