Why the Word “Bastard” Does not Exist in most Igbo Dialects 

Why the Word “Bastard” Does not Exist in most Igbo Dialects 

By Azuka Onwuka

In most traditional Igbo societies, the word bastard does not exist. It can only be described. It came in after British colonisation.

In most Igbo communities, a child is a child. Even though marriage is cherished, a child born out of wedlock is not allowed to suffer stigmatisation and rejection because of the indiscretion of its parents. So the word “bastard” is alien in most (if not all) traditional Igbo communities. Every child has a “father” – fatherhood does not necessarily have to be biological. Getting a woman pregnant does not mean the child is yours. If the girl is not your wife, you have no right over the child.

Because there are variations in cultures from town to town, let me use Nnewi as a case study.

Westernisation and external influences have affected our culture so much that a lot has changed in recent times. As recent as 1985, a man had no claims over a child he fathered outside wedlock. The seal of wedlock was the bride price. If a man got a girl pregnant without marriage, the baby therefrom belonged to the father of the girl and bore his name. The child would be treated like every other member of the family. If he was male, he would get his land inheritance from the ancestral land. He would belong to the clan as a full member.

The only inhibition was that if he lived to become the oldest member of his big family called the ụmụnna, he would not be the custodian of the ọfọ, which is the symbol of truth and purity held in trust by the oldest man for his people.

The reasoning behind the acceptance of a child born out of wedlock was that the child should not be made to bear the brunt of the indiscretion of two adults who could not control their libido.

Secondly, the child was made to belong to the girl’s father to discourage men from going about impregnating girls and claiming to be fathers without responsibility. A he-goat could get a she-goat pregnant too, but fatherhood comes with some responsibilities and decorum. If you wanted to be a father, you must get a wife.

There was an interesting angle to this. If a man got a woman pregnant and came to marry her to make her an honest woman, as the English would say, it was seen as a good thing. But there was a caveat. The man would be asked if he wanted to marry the woman or the baby in her womb. He would say he came to marry the woman. He would be told to wait until after her delivery, because two people would not be given out in lieu of one person.

The child delivered by the girl would belong to her father and be seen as one of “her brothers”. If the man was still keen on marrying her, he would then marry her after she had weaned the child. She would not take the child to her husband’s house.

If the man was no longer interested in marriage, the woman would remain in her father’s house until another person came. The snag was that she would not be seen as a premium bride anymore, but because she had proved to be fertile and it was the era of polygamy, it would not be too hard for a suitor to come.

When a man refused his daughter marriage

If a man had no male child, he could officially keep one of his daughters back to ensure that the homestead did not close. The society was hinged on a big family unit called the ụmụnna. Ụmụnna literally means “children of a father”. The ụmụnna is made up of descendants of one man over many generations. Members of one ụmụnna cannot marry one another. Members of the ụmụnna usually lived together in one part of the community. Land was seen as ancestral property handed over from father to son. So because a girl must marry out of her ụmụnna, she could not inherit her father’s homestead or land, because that would mean that her husband (a member of another ụmụnna or village) would inherit the ancestral land of her ụmụnna.

So in the event of a man getting old or terminally ill without having a son, a daughter would be officially kept back to bear children without marriage and keep the family alive in a tradition called “ịhachi nwanyị”. Once the ceremony was completed, the girl was seen as a “son” of her father. She would get pregnant and bear children officially for her father. She was not expected to marry afterwards, but in some cases, after bearing some sons and daughters for her parents,  she would leave the children for her mother to take care of and still get married later, if she so wished. Those sons would become the heirs of her father.

When a married woman took in for another man

Adultery was seriously frowned at. If a married woman got pregnant through infidelity, she would face some harsh consequences, but the baby belonged to her husband. Even if the baby was a carbon copy of the man who got the woman pregnant, the baby’s father was the husband of the woman. The reason was that fatherhood was seen as only possible through marriage.

If a man sent his wife away or the woman left her marriage and the matter had not been resolved, but within this period she got pregnant, her baby belonged to her husband. The reason was still because she was officially the wife of the man. They had not been divorced. Divorce is not complete if the bride price has not been returned.

If a man and a woman got married in a law court or church outside the community and had children; if the man died and his body was brought back home for burial, the ụmụnna would not accept the  woman and her children, for she was never married to the man, in the eyes of his kinsmen.

If the woman died first, the man was in trouble. The family of the woman would refuse to be present at the burial of their daughter. And if they were not present, their daughter would not be buried, for they could come back afterwards and ask for their daughter. If the man failed to produce her alive, they would accuse him of killing their daughter. The man would be made to “see his ears with his eyes” without the help of a mirror.

The ụmụnna of the woman would not attend the burial because the man did not marry their daughter. As far as they were concerned, he kidnapped their daughter. Taking away a girl and “marrying her” without the ụmụnna handing over the girl to you was an insult to the ụmụnna.

Marriage was not seen as a transaction between a man and a woman or even between the man’s parents and the woman’s parents. No. Marriage was seen as a transaction between one ụmụnna and another. It is said that one man does not give out a woman  in marriage.

When a man could not father a child

If a man was sterile, his homestead would not be allowed to close. Based on consent of the man, his chosen kinsman would secretly take over the duty of getting his wife pregnant. The kinsman was seen as carrying out a critical service for both his “brother” and community. In some cases, the infertile or sterile man would have to approach his kinsman with a keg of palm-wine to carry out this onerous task. But such an arrangement was kept secret. The children belonged to the husband of the woman (or women, if the man was polygamous). That was the people’s concept of IVF.

When a woman took a wife

If a woman could not have a child for her husband, she could marry a wife to have children for her. Well-to-do women did that. She would be accompanied like a man to get a wife. The wife so married was not her co-wife. She was “her wife”, owing allegiance to her. Her husband would be taking her to bed. But all the children born by the young wife belonged to the senior woman who paid her bride price. The children would call her “nnukwu nne” (big mother). This was the people’s own idea of surrogacy.

The bottom line was that as much as humanly possible, it was a society that did not want any married person to be childless. That was why a name like Nwakaego (a child is greater than money) was common. It was a society that cherished marriage and wanted children to be born only within matrimony. It was a society that believed that fatherhood came with enormous responsibilities and that getting a woman pregnant was not the yardstick for determining fatherhood. It was a society that did not want any child to suffer any stigma because of the actions of its parents. It was a society that wanted the lineage of every man to continue ad infinitum. That was why names like Amaechina, Obiefuna (may the homestead never close) was a common name among boys, for once a male child was born, it was believed that the homestead would not close.

However, in recent times these traditions have almost been entirely eroded. Marriage is increasingly seen as a personal affair between two people. Most members of the ụmụnna or community don’t even know when their kinsman or kinswoman gets married or who the spouse is. The couple decide what happens within their family. DNA test has even become a factor in marriage.

9 Comments

  1. Ogundimu Olayinka July 4, 2017 Reply
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  3. Obi Emekekwue July 11, 2017 Reply
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