by Abigail Anaba
Displayed Image is a file photo of Paul Okoye (Igbo) and Lola Okoye (Yoruba) of the Psquare duo
Lagos – Nigeria: Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual society. These fault-lines are further amplified by religious affiliations characterised by a predominantly Christian South and Muslim North. But in the midst of this heterogeneity, a group of women are spearheading the charge, serving as Ambassadors of Unity and National Integration. They may look to you as ordinary women, but they are doing extra ordinary things and deserve high praise for their role in breaking barriers and destroying myths associated with cultural stereotypes. They are the women that venture into multicultural marriages.
Braving the challenges of culturally divided households, these women have shown that love can transcend biases and prejudices and they are building bridges across the nation and producing offspring that identify more with the communities where they are raised than the state of origin they are forced to fill out in forms.
Ebunoluwa, married for sixteen years and counting, is an Idoma from North-Central Nigeria who is married to a Yoruba from the South West. She admits that she has learnt a lot from marrying outside her culture. “You learn about a different culture and tradition. You also learn how similar we actually are. A lot of cultural bias is actually demystified.”
“An intertribal marriage teaches you about other tribes, other parts of the country you may never have learnt about otherwise,” quips Irene now married for three years. “I’ve been to Oron a few times. If I had not gotten married to a man from Oron, I might not have visited Akwa Ibom,” she adds.
“Being able to first and last names that aren’t from same ethnic group, perhaps” laughs Lolade Nwanze When asked what she likes most of her intercultural marriage. Lolade herself is a product of an intercultural marriage. Her mother is from the Niger Delta while her father is from Lagos State. Coincidentally, she is married to a man from the Nigerian Delta. “For me, it’s just sweet to have family from the South West all the way to the South-South and South-East! I grew up with cousins from Edo, Anambra, Delta, Lagos, and now I have more family members who don’t speak Yoruba as a first language. The second-best thrill, next to the name, is that I now have a village to go to every Christmas! I always wanted that experience while growing up as a Lagosian in Lagos. The culture mix is everything!”
Whether as pioneers or persons with such intercultural marriage as legacies running through generations, these women have a few things in common. Foremost is a sense of exploration and adventure. Sometimes they have to give up proximity to friends and family to move to a new place, learn how to prepare meals they may never have heard of before marriage and dress in ways that have been hitherto strange to them in order to fit in with their new families.
Lucy is from Akwa Ibom State in South-South Nigeria and her husband is from the South-West. The experiences of her mother and elder sister forced to decide intracultural marriage is not for her. Now married for ten years, she explains, “My dad and mum come from the same village. My dad adored her but it wasn’t the same with the in-laws. It was a constant torment and I never wanted to get married. But then I met this Yoruba guy and everything changed.”
Ngozi too had decided from an early age that she will be stepping out of cultural security to find a suitable mate. “I never wanted to get married to an Igbo man. I wanted someone different, from elsewhere. I’m a natural rebel and Igbos have this thing where they stick to their culture and the whole traveling to the village for Christmas thing and belonging to one age group or village meeting or the other. I didn’t want that. I wanted something new and different.” Ngozi did find something new and different. She found it in Edo State, South-South Nigeria but not without sweat, blood and tears. “We were together for eight years before getting married”. During this time Ngozi tried among other things to convince her family that the stereotype of Edo people being diabolic was not true. On his own part, her husband tried to show his family that his wife was not “disrespectful” as Igbos are typically typed to be. The parents eventually caved in. “They had no option,” Ngozi states. “My parents also accepted my husband. The relationship is not so good between my mother-in-law and me. It’s beyond tribe though, but the foundation was that I was Igbo.”
Yes, some of these women have had to endure mistreatment from family members in order to maintain their relationships. Diana, whose mother in-law swore would never marry her son smiles as she tells us how they were eventually won over by the persistence of she and her Igbo husband. “I never knew they would say yes. One time, my husband and I drank rat poison hoping to die together. We didn’t die and they eventually let us have our way.” Diana has now been married for over 18 years and she became her mother in-law’s favourite wife.
Another quality these wives have in common is willingness to overcome the barrier of language. According to ethnologue.com, a resource on world languages, Nigeria has 527 languages, seven of which are extinct. It is not uncommon for neighbouring villages to speak to differ in tongue. The language differences can become a source of insecurity for the newly wedded wives as they often feel left out when they go visiting the in-laws and they launch into conversations in their own tongue.
“Sometimes when I’m at his family house, they speak their language and I’m out of the loop,” says Irene mentioned earlier. “I initially used to feel insecure once I hear my husband’s native language spoken,” admits Ebunoluwa. “I will say my biggest challenge is, not always understanding their language. I mean when I am with my husband’s people and they start discussing, I am lost,” says Vanessa who has been married for eight months. Yet, these women have adopted different strategies to cope with the language barriers. Sometimes, their husbands serve as interpreters. At other times they just accept that this is a limitation they have to endure. A third option is to learn the language. Like Lucy who speaks fluent Yoruba even though she originally speaks Ibibio.
This challenge can also become a positive for the children who may end up being multilingual. “In my home as well as the home I grew up, we speak English. Then either mum or dad or both taught us their language in their spare time,” says Tiana. She adds, “I consider it a richer experience for the kids as well. Exposure to different cultures, food and languages.”
Yet, as these wives admit, the challenges of intercultural marriages often arise from extended families. In Nigeria, extended family bonds are still very strong with parents, brothers and sisters of either party often trying to dictate what happens in the family of their blood relative. “Most complications regarding culture usually come from extended family,” opines Uwana, a mother of two from Northern Nigeria who is married to a man from South Western Nigeria. “My major challenges have to do with coming from really different tribes and background,” says Fatima who is from Adamawa State in Northern Nigeria but is married to a man from the South South. “I can always talk things over with my husband. But I find that in-laws are a different ball game because they tend to view things differently.” Fatima shares her experience. “For example, my mum always buys and sends stuff to her daughters in-law. She can never call them to demand for things. So naturally I assumed that is what every mother in-law does. I found it frustrating when [in my marriage] it was the other way round. I was expected to keep giving and giving without ever getting a single pin.”
For Funmi the cultural diversity between she and her husband presented a challenge even before her marriage took off but not for this resourceful couple. “I am half Igbo – half Yoruba, he is half delta, and a mixture of Igbo and Yoruba (he has 3 ethnic groups). The clash we had was in terms of whose culture to follow as regards planning the wedding. To make sure every was fine I dressed as an Igbo lady, his dressing was a mix of Igbo and delta and we had a Yoruba traditional wedding.”
Lolade, quoted earlier lends further weight to the issue of cultural difference. She speaks of the cultural expectation that Igbo wives need to have a buxom appearance to show that their husbands are up to the task of caring for them. “I joined the fitfam in 2016 and visited the village after shedding 16kg post-baby weight, it was not a very pleasant time. So, from October 2017, I started deliberately gaining weight for the last Christmas visit and it went excellently well. Now back in Lagos, I can resume my routine to lose the 4kg extra I gained for Christmas.”
One thing is sure, multicultural marriages are contributing more than a fair share to creating homogeneity in society one family at a time. The advantages in a country like Nigeria far outweigh the challenges which interestingly, these women have found ways to overcome. The argument that they lead to dearth of culture can be made but how good is culture if it is producing humans that are intolerant and prejudiced? Children from intercultural marriages learn from an early age to have a nationalistic view. As Ebunoluwa puts it, “We are raising them first as Christians, then as global citizens, Nigerians and finally idoma girls. They [also] Yoruba names.
Perhaps, one way the government can show they recognize the contributions of these women to fostering unity in diversity is by revisiting the clause in the Federal Character Act (1997) which states “A married woman shall continue to lay claim to her State of origin for the purpose of implementation of the federal character formulae at the national level.”
A situation where these women are not free to adopt their husband’s State of Origin and their children are forced to choose their father’s State of Origin seems to work against the very principles of national integration and assimilation. In 2012, Justice Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo, was denied an Appeal Court seat due to Federal Character. She had been using her husband’s State of Origin, Imo but lost the slot because she is originally from Abia State. In the words of Lolade, “If we had moved to [my husband’s] State after marriage, and I worked in civil service (State or Federal) this law would limit my career which wouldn’t be fair considering all sacrifices made. Laws must be seen to be fair and this one isn’t.”