Urhobo Historical Society

A Commentary on the Omonose Saga:


By Onoawarie Edevbie

Are you saying that if I became impotent, you would agree to be given to another man in this family while I am still alive?

This quote, tucked away somewhere towards the end of Professor Ekeh’s narration of The Omonose Saga in Okpara Folk History, reminds me of a telephone call I received from Sapele, Nigeria. My wife  who answered the call, initially could not identify the caller and demanded to know who he was. The caller, a fellow Urhobo and a  good friend of many years, replied: “I am one of your husbands”. My friend, by his response, was not only kind but was also gracious in reminding my wife that she is aye-re-ekru, an enduring concept in the kinship culture of Urhobo people. The quote helps to call attention to the difficulty of dealing with the sensitive issue of eya-re-ekru, a theme that emerges at the heart of the Omonose story. Aye-re-ekru (singular form of eya-re-ekru) is the term used to describe a woman as a wife of the family or a woman married into the family, which in this case can be extended to include grand parents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and perhaps more. The description flows from the perception that in African societies, kinship bond is based on a communal, rather than an individualistic notion of life.

Such bond offers protection against dangers that were felt never to be far away in Urhobo societies of pre-colonial times and that even in modern times makes for cohesion. In other words, the security of the society depends on mutual interdependence of its members. As a result, individual rights or concerns within the kinship group, tend all too often to be submerged into those of the extended family at large. This type of kinship system, unfortunately, can be rigid and has limited capacity to evolve as we learn from the tragic story of Omonose.  We are told that because of his special circumstances, Omonose wanted to grant his wife a divorce, ostensibly to release her from an unhappy situation. The extended family refused to oblige him on the premise that the bride is aye-re-ekru. Therefore the authority to decide the fate of the bride rests with the family elders and not with him. The elders dutifully decided to reassign the bride as a wife to another young man in the family.  Omonose was hurt and unleashed a reign of terror that claimed fourteen lives.

Were the elders justified? On its surface, it would be easy to condemn the elders for their action. One is not so sure when one begins to examine many elements of Urhobo culture that seemed to have guided the decision-making process. As Professor Ekeh indicated early in his narration, the story involves Urhobo concepts of  family, marriage and manhood. The care of an Urhobo family as a kinship group is placed in the hands of the elders who exercise some degree of authority over its members. Judicial powers are however restricted and the power to inflict punishment is also limited since the family unit is mainly interested in maintaining social equilibrium by bringing its members together to understand the custom, and possibly with a little coercion to make them know when and how the equilibrium has been disturbed. The emphasis was therefore always on compensation and reconciliation rather than on punishment.

Marriage in Urhobo, as in many other African societies, has a dual function. It creates a corporate unit of a man and his wife or wives, which is useful for farming and other social functions like funerals, where joint efforts of a man and a woman are considered essential or required. The other function is procreation as a means of propagating and ensuring the survival of the family. The Omonose story helps to highlight the role of procreation or fertility and the value of children in conferring social status in Urhobo society. Individuals with children (the more, the better ) are accorded social status in the society that are higher than those given to persons without children. For the Urhobo, a man was therefore someone who was able to get married, became a good farmer, and was able to bring forth children as his contribution to the growth and survival of the family.

Because of his limitation, ochibe, an impotent man was not in position to meet all these qualifications and was therefore not expected to participate fully in the society. The inequality imposed by the society essentially stripped an impotent man of his manhood and his views could not carry as much weight as others could in family deliberations. Though not as restrictive, the Urhobo situation was similar to that observed among the people of Bali in faraway Indonesia. Many Balinese social activities, including temple worship, hamlet council, irrigation activities and voluntary organizations, are not open to single men but only to married couples who must participate as working teams. The chances that an unmarried man, especially one without children, will be accepted into any of the titled organizations in Urhobo like the Ohonvworen will also be slim.

Under these circumstances, the decision to give Omonose’s bride to another person would be a major blow to a man’s self-esteem and could be considered humiliating especially for a man who had worked hard, hoping to earn his place in society. In fact, it was the practice for able men of Omonose’s times, to demonstrate their eligibility for marriage by rendering services in form of manual labor and offering of financial services to their prospective in-laws. The manual labor could include the tedious task of clearing bush and preparing the land for farming. Even then, one must be careful not to go so far as to characterize the decision to give away Omonose’s bride as a deliberate attempt to transfer the rewards of one man’s hard work to another. The elders wanted the bride to remain in the family to produce children. For a society that believes so much in children, the decision to retain the bride could be considered then to be in the best interest of the family. Omonose was a product of the society and had certainly benefited from the social arrangement that now seemed unfair to him.

Yet, there are other elements of Urhobo culture that frown on sexual permissiveness such as adultery and indiscriminate promiscuous behaviors. In some cultures, it is permissible for family members to exchange wives to meet the needs of procreation or even casual pleasure. If Omonose were to belong to any of such societies, the notion of giving his bride away would not have arisen since it would have been perfectly normal for him to keep his wife. He would find no problem in allowing a younger family member to sleep with his wife to produce children he needed to fulfill his obligations to society. Omonose would be regarded as the father of the children and the younger relative who helped out, would be considered as nothing more than a member of the extended family and would have no direct stake in the children.  Urhobo society, to which Omonose belonged, regards such exchange or swapping of wives between living family members as acts of abomination.

Yes, a woman may be considered aye-re-ekru. But she is not sexually available to anyone else besides the recognized conjugal husband. Any gesture or appearance by any man that remotely suggests an attempt, intended or unintended, to seduce someone else’s wife in Urhoboland, if discovered, can draw the ire of a husband and his relatives. Because of these ‘restrictions’, a man must be very careful not to touch a married woman, make any statements that may be construed as seductive, cast glances or stare at someone else’s wife. Many times, the relatives are known to have approached the offending man and demanded osaye, compensation for infringing on a “husband’s territory”. This was what was said to have happened to a man, a village school teacher who had offered to treat the wife of a local chieftain, for an ailment at a time when the husband was away from home.

The teacher who probably had some medical experience, injected the woman with penicillin, at the buttocks, to help her fight an infection. The woman told her husband when he returned home what the kind teacher did and how grateful she was for the relief she got after the treatment. The husband was not appreciative but was instead furious that his wife had exposed herself to another man. It would not have mattered whether the man knew or did not know that the choice of buttocks as a place to apply the injection is sound medical practice. The buttocks, medical people say, is one area of the body that has no bone but a lot of adipose fats and therefore makes for easy access of the injected material into the blood stream. Medical consideration was certainly not the issue. The right and the privilege to see and touch any part of a woman’s body belongs only to the husband. Buttocks  regarded to be part of private parts was definitely off limit! Some had argued that matters could not have been as  bad as they seemed if the injection was given in the presence of the husband or a close female relative who could be trusted. The help rendered by the teacher, came to be construed as aro-e-eyivwo, an intrusive and disrespectful act, and the teacher had to be dragged before the elders and made to pay osaye.

 The amount of compensation required was entirely up to the ‘whims’ of the elders but was usually taken or accepted in the form of money which could be huge, and kola nuts and the local gin. It could in some serious cases like adultery and other intimate contacts, and perhaps what the teacher did, involve animal sacrifice to appease the deity and to ritually cleanse the woman. This form of attunement is based on a strongly held belief among the Urhobo that Oro gbe egua re erivwi, one who has defiled the ancestors needs ome-evwo-rho, purification to avoid their wrath. It is therefore, not unusual, to find aye-re-ekru come forward to confess to past misdeeds and to seek amends with the ancestors. Many of the women who sought the protection, usually do so when a child is sick  or when they experience complications in a pregnancy, and want to avoid any harm coming to them and their children.

However, Urhobo people, out of concern for the welfare of widows and children of deceased family members, will work hard to retain them in the family to guarantee continued care and protection.  Until Omonose, death was probably the only reason considered appropriate for reassigning someone’s wife to another member of the family. Even then, the transfer was considered a delicate issue to be handled with care in any one of three options. The widow may choose to leave the family and she would normally be expected to return a third of the bride fee paid by her late husband as a compensation for the loss of her services to the family. Another option is for the widow, usually one who has grown-up children, to stay in the family but will ask to be released from conjugal obligations. The elders will go before the family deity to seek the release in some form of agonu  ritual. After the ritual, the woman can remain within the family and will be free to have relationship with other men who may not be members of the family. A widow may also decide to stay and be reassigned as a wife to another man in the family. A woman so assigned is referred to as aye-ru-uku, an inherited wife to distinguish her from other members of eya-re-ekru.

None of these options for transfer of a wife could be applied in the case of Omonose because Omonose at the material time was living and not dead. How then could Omonose’s elders decide to give his wife away?  Given the level of abhorrence that the transfer of wife from one living relative to another evokes in Urhobo culture, many could feel that Omonose had been violated. The elders who gave Omonose’s wife away were not as contemptuous as any one would imagine. They appeared, rather, to be faced with a difficult situation and understandably so, of trying to balance the overall interest of the family against the concerns of Omonose. In the absence of a precedent to follow, they must have made the best decision they could, even though it was unfortunately one that became fatal. Omonose’s anger, though directed to those he felt violated his manhood, was, in fact, aimed at the society at large. Omonose was probably aware of his disability and could have been resentful of the limitations, it placed on him long, before the decision of the elders. The inability to compensate through hard work and attention to civic duties, could have been the final straw that pushed him over the edge.

What role did Omonose’s bride play in the saga? Except for a brief mention of the bride sending word to her mother about her husband’s condition, she was treated as a ‘no person’ in the story. She is portrayed as having no reaction whatsoever to the chain of events that were unfolding around her. One could ascribe this treatment to the fact that Urhobo is considered a male dominated society that relegates women to secondary roles. Nevertheless, many Urhobo women are known to have played major roles in raising or helping their husbands to build their families. There are also many instances in Urhobo history when women were said to have prevailed on men to make changes that were beneficial to the society at large.

Urhobo do appreciate their women, more so an ovwan like Omonose’s wife. An ovwan by definition is a new arrival to a family. For that reason, she is treated with a lot of respect not only by the men of the family but also by her mates, the other wives of the family. Typically, she is served her meals and always seen in clean or new clothes. She spends a lot of time with her husband in much the same way as one would expect in a traditional honeymoon of the Western World. She has little to complain about but even then she is closely watched from a distance particularly by other women who have been in the family longer. She is careful not to say or do anything that might be construed as bad manners by her in-laws or other women in the family as she learns to assume her role as one of the eya-re-ekru. She learns to confide in her husband or a close relative if there is one nearby. The older women are usually resentful of an ovwan who is talkative or garrulous and appears to be too ‘forward’.

It was possible that Omonose’s bride understood her precarious position and chose to keep her cool rather than assert herself. In more recent times, an ovwan in the position of Omonose’s wife would have absconded to return home or eloped with another man. Such decisions to abandon a marriage carry weighty risks that might turn into embarrassment for the girl and her parents who would now be required to return bride fee. No Urhobo family or parent is ever happy to wear the stigma imposed by society, for having daughters who cannot get married or stay married. Yet the story of the ordeal as told, unfortunately, draws a lot of attention to the injustice done to Omonose but ignores the plight of an innocent girl caught in the web of a family feud.

Perhaps, the greater tragedy of the Omonose saga is the impact it brought to bear on the dynamics of the relationship between people in Urhobo society. One of the casualties is the erosion of faith in the decision of elders whose words were once regarded as law. The tragedy also points to the need for caution in dealing with disabilities afflicting others in the society. But the lessons of this case did little to return the society to its usual peace. We now see in the aftermath of  Omonose a transformation in the way violence is used to settle scores during times of disagreement. Candor and civility have been replaced by the lack of respect for one another, and disregard for lives and property.

Before Omonose, the instruments of violence, as Professor Ekeh correctly identified, were cutlasses and perhaps whipping sticks. Now we have in the hands of our people, sophisticated guns and ammunitions which they freely use, not only at the least amount of provocation but also to intimidate and hurt others. These types of weapons had been introduced by the British colonial Administration into Urhoboland in the 1890s during the pacification patrol that was intended to enforce allegiance to colonial rule. Omonose was believed to have acquired his arms from Warri, the new British colonial commercial town. He probably represented the first known instance in Okpara, perhaps in all of Urhobo, in which an indigene used foreign arms to hurt his own people.

In spite of the Omonose tragedy and its consequences for the society, the institution of eye-re-ekru has survived though not without bruises. People are spread out into different cities and countries and no longer live as closely as it was in Omonose times. The opportunity for people to be ‘nosy’ and to interfere in others’ personal business, has been reduced by the intervening distance between them. Some have become critical of the role of eya-re-ekru and would not take part in many of the activities involved.  The result has been devastating for some families in which the wife of a deceased relative had not only turned her back on the family but had also kept the children away. However for most of Urhobo families, the spirit of belonging, including that of eya-re-ekru. is revived whenever a family meets for one reason or the other. The wives are still capable of assembling themselves and operating as eya-re-ekru. Of course, many Urhobo nationals have joined the crusade to revive elements of Urhobo culture that are considered beneficial to the society. The call from Sapele, to me, seems to be a part of efforts to fulfill this mission. My wife, though originally, not an Urhobo, had been raised to understand the concept of aye-re-ekru and she knows her place. In fact, many elements of the concept of aye-re-ekru are also pertinent to her Yoruba roots. But for the caller from Sapele, this would not be enough and hence his friendly reminder.

Onoawarie Edevbie
Detroit, Michigan
March 23, 2001