Imo community where pregnant girls are BANISHED for life




Maidens must walk to the market with bare breasts for initiation into womanhood

Young female indigenes protest practice, say it’s initiation into marine kingdom

Osu (caste system) is an ancient Igbo traditional practice that is well known within and outside the country but often condemned because of its perceived infringement on the fundamental rights of the affected people. But not many people are aware of Ikwe-ezi, a traditional festival in Mgbidi area of Imo State, which requires young girls to maintain a high level of morality before they perform the rites which are compulsory for every female indigene of the area. From the stone-age when the practice began till date, hordes of young girls who failed to keep to the rules of the tradition were said to have been publicly humiliated and banished from the community. INNOCENT DURU reports.

THIS, obviously, is a season of celebration and anxiety for many families in Mgbidi, the headquarters of Oru Local Government Area, Imo State. It is a joyous moment for the entire community because it is the period when the people celebrate the Ikwe-ezi, a ceremony that is akin to what is commonly known as rite of passage. It is a huge celebration that draws indigenes of the community in other parts of the country and beyond home to take part, just the way many Igbo people travel home during the Yuletide season.

The Ikwe-ezi is, however, a period of anxiety for many families whose daughters are ripe for the ceremony, because they have seen and heard of how many families in the land have had their daughters publicly embarrassed and even banished from the community for not being faithful to the rules of the tradition. The Nation gathered that the thought of the grave consequence sends shivers down the spines of parents whose daughters are old enough to take part in the ceremony.

The Principal Palace Secretary to the traditional ruler, Chief Festus Orji Achonu, who spoke with our correspondent, said: “When a girl has attained maturity but has not performed the rites, her parents must guard her jealously to prevent her from becoming pregnant. If she becomes pregnant before performing the rites, she will be banished from Mgbidi and certain cleansing rites will be done for the family she comes from. The banished girl will never step into the community again. If for any reason she enters the community, the male children in the family will have to perform some cleansing rites in order not to attract the wrath of the gods of the land.”

Some other respondents said the girl in question risks being lynched if she steps into the community after she has been banished.

“When a girl has been banished from the community, on no account must she return. She can pass through the land in a vehicle, but she must not step on the soil. If she attempts it, she will be lynched and the family will pay dearly for it,“ a respondent said.

Giving background information about the ceremony, Chief Achonu said: “Ikwe-ezi is a unique culture in Mgbidi which has not been affected by civilisation or Christianity. A young girl must have reached maturity age to qualify for participation. If you have not reached the age, you are not qualified to do it. It is a sort of check and balance on our young girls. It begins from January and ends in June annually.

“The practice started from time immemorial with the daughter of a peasant. She was so beautiful that people became jealous of her. She eventually became pregnant, making the elders to gather and declare the development as a taboo. They consequently said she should be banished from the town. The helpless, poor father cried and swore that nothing would ever put an end to the practice in the land. That is why nothing has been able to stop this since then.

“Every girl that performs the tradition will go to a river we call Nmiri nwata oma (water of a beautiful child) with a small yam that is thrown inside the shrine of the goddess of the river called Obana. That is the tradition we got from our forefathers. When she does this, it means she has done the Ikwe-ezi ceremony, and that signifies that she is now pure.

“Every girl going through the rites makes use of large quantities of coconut and fish which she distributes to the guests that come to celebrate with her. There are two nights that they will come and perform the ceremony. The first is done on the Orie market day called Ikpoba ali udu ego. The second ceremony is done on Eke market day and it is called ibu oyo. On these two days, a coconut and a fish is given by the celebrant to as many people as come to congratulate her. In appreciation, you can give her money.

“The Ikwe-ezi ceremony starts after a ceremony we call Chioha here in Mgbidi. Every parent whose daughter is ready will fire two gunshots on Eke day to inform the entire community that their child is ready for the ceremony. On the second day, which is Orie, they will perform the ikpoba ali udu ego. They will come to congratulate the family and take part in the ceremony.

“There would be traditional folk music for the celebrant to dance to on these two days. On those days, the celebrant gets a lot of gifts. The ceremony lasts for two weeks during which she will not do anything. For a period of time, the celebrant will be in a hut grinding local chalk that she would rub on her body. During this period, they would be cooking delicious meals for her to eat.

“On the final day, she would go to Eke Mgbidi Market to do izu ahia ezi, tying only wrapper and leaving their breasts open to go to the market. They will go round the market and people will see her that she did it without any blemish. If she is pregnant before entering the fat room, on the day she goes to the market with her breasts open, some old women will notice it and drive her out of the market. She would then be banished from the community.”

Concerned parents

The fear of falling victim of the unpleasant picture painted by Chief Achonu and other respondents was apparent when our correspondent visited the community. A mother, who gave her name simply as Elizabeth, said she had been seriously troubled since last year when her daughter started seeing her menstrual period. She said she had to keep a close watch on her to prevent her from getting into sexual relationships that could lead to pregnancy.

Elizabeth said: “I have never kept a close watch on my daughter the way I have been doing since she started seeing her menstrual cycle late last year. I developed goose pimples the very day she told me that she had seen her period. Frightened, I exclaimed, ‘isi gini’ (what did you just say)? Have you been seeing any man?

“Confused, she said, ‘Mummy, what do you mean? I see men everywhere.’

“Mba (no)! I mean has any man ever touched you?

“She looked more confused and said yes. Many males touch me now.

“At that point, I said you seem not to understand. Has any man made love to you before?

“She looked astounded as I bombarded her with unusual questions that thoroughly embarrassed the young girl.

“I have never stopped asking the same question every day, no matter how embarrassed she feels. I will not rest until she has performed the ceremony and come out clean. The devil is always bringing temptations to the girls when they are approaching the time, just to humiliate them and their families. I pray that, that will never be my portion. During our time, there was no need for such because you could be naked and no man would touch you. But now, a baby that wears diaper is not spared by sexual perverts.”

If Elizabeth was worried because of her only girl, Ada has more reasons to be worried as a good number of her children are females.

She said: “I constantly suffer serious headache policing my daughters so that they don’t have anything to do with men, especially before they perform the ceremony. As a parent, I cherish and preach morality to my children. But the Ikwe-ezi ceremony requires one to be more than just a morality preacher.

“I follow my daughters, especially the matured ones, bumper to bumper, because any slight mistake may lead to a lifetime regret. If I see any male around them, you will see me barking like a mad dog. If they go to school and have not returned at the time they are supposed to, my heart will be up.

“At times, I kneel to beg my daughters to keep themselves pure. I would take time to narrate the consequence of not doing so and ask them if they would want to be banished to an unknown place where they would not see me again. It is tasking, especially for mothers, because if anything goes wrong, it is the women that would be at the receiving end.”

Equally worried is Nneamaka, who is greatly haunted by stories of girls that have been banished. The fair-complexioned woman said apart from hearing that people were banished, she had seen it happen. The experience, according to her, reverberates in her memory, especially now that one of her daughters is getting ready to perform the rite.

She said: “I enjoyed the ceremony before now and had no reason to be scared because I hadn’t any child old enough to take part in it. I am feeling the heat now that my child is ready for it. I am tensed up because I don’t want any unpalatable story. It could be entertaining to watch another woman’s child banished, but one would never pray to be a victim.

“I know of a woman whose child was banished, and I can tell you that her life has never been the same since then. I don’t want to experience that, and that is why I would not sleep or slumber until my daughter has scaled the hurdle.

“The shame and stigmatisation that come with one’s daughter being banished is too much. When a girl goes to the market half naked, some old women will conduct a check on her to see if she has violated the rules. If she has, they will make her sit down and paint her with charcoal. After that, she will be banished. As they are sending her out of the town, some people will be flogging her, others will be spitting on her, while some others will use brooms to sweep her feet away as she leaves. Immediately they drive her out, you will see men from other communities coming to take her as a wife without paying any bride price to the family.

“There are so many of them in places like Izombe, Otulu and and neighbouring communities. When a young girl is taken away like that, anything can happen to her. She can be maltreated, used for rituals or any other terrible thing. I will not live for another 24 hours if such fate befalls my daughter. That is why I am doing everything possible to monitor them.”

Young girls kick

Some young girls who spoke with our correspondent expressed reservations with the practice, which they said is a subtle way of initiating them into occultism.

One of them, who identified herself simply as Amarachi, said: “I have not done it because it is against my religious belief. I don’t need to do the ceremony to live a chaste life. What is my connection with the lady from which the problem began and why would I have to go to the river to dip my leg into the water and also drop yam and fowl in the shrine? It is nothing but an initiation and I will never take part in it.”

For Onyinye, the practice has outlived its usefulness. She said: “Of what relevance is the ceremony in the modern time? I wonder why our people are holding on to the practice when many other communities have long jettisoned such primitive practices.

“Some of my friends and I have vowed that we would not take part in it. There are some men of God that are also kicking against it. They have been organising prayers for young girls like us to break the curses and other evils attached to performing or not performing the ceremony. We say no to barbaric traditional practices that humiliate the female folk. All you have are cultural practices about females. Why are there none for males?”

Different strokes for different folks

It was, however, a different story with some people who had undergone the rite. Some of them said they actually relished the occasion and wish they could do it all over.

Franca Ekwueme, who was filled with joy when our correspondent asked her about the practice, said: “This is a big festival here in Mgbidi. It is done in the Christmas period. I did mine and I was very happy about it. I feel like doing it again because it is a thing of pride.

“It is always fun because many people will come and celebrate with you. When you are in the hut grinding the local chalk that you rub on your body, your skin will be glowing and you will come out looking robust. If you do it without any blemish, your parents are proud of you for not bringing them shame.

“If you don’t perform the ceremony, nobody will marry you because you will be seen as a cursed person. Many people have been banished for not keeping to the rules of the rites.

“When going to the river, you will go with a yam and a fowl. When you get to the river, you will put your toes in the river. There are some changes that will happen to the river if you are not pure. After dipping your toes in the river, you will take the fowl and fling it across your neck three times and throw the yam at a designated place.”

Franca also shared the shocking fate that befell a girl who performed the rites while she was pregnant. She said: “There are grave consequences for those that succeed in doing it while they are pregnant. I know of somebody who succeeded in doing it while she was pregnant. But when she later got married, the husband developed mental challenges. She later remarried and stayed for a very long time before she got pregnant again.

“When it was time for her to give birth, it was a bunch of hair attachment that came out of her instead of a baby. She died and later on, the husband died too.

“It is better for one to keep herself pure and honourably observe the rites instead of trying to be smart and ending up in shame and lifetime regrets. The tradition is not treated with levity by our people. Even if you are resident in other states or outside the country, when the time comes, you must come and do it. Once the time to do it is announced, you will see many parents rushing back home with their qualified daughters from different parts of the country and beyond to observe the rites. Once a girl is banished, she would not be allowed to come back to the community again.”

Another lover of the practice, Ngozi Emmanuel, says she wants her children to observe it without leaving out any aspect.

She said: “I did full Ikwe-ezi and I will gladly want my children to do same. I enjoyed it so much because it was one moment in my life that people celebrated with me. There was no reason for me to be shy for leaving my breasts open. It was a thing of pride to show that you are pure and that your breasts are standing firmly.

“When you are walking from your house to the market, your breasts will be bouncing in confirmation of your purity. I wish I could do it all over again. The distance you will trek could be far or short. It all depends on the distance from your house to the market. It is always fun.”

Ngozi noted that there had always been attempts by Christians to put an end to the practice but the efforts always failed.

“There was a time a Catholic priest tried to abolish it, but before you know it, many people started dying or having mental challenges. It later became a legal issue because the custodians of the tradition didn’t want it abolished. The priest eventually left the community,” she recalled.

For the men, a piece of entertainment

It is, however, not only the females that enjoy the ceremony. Chats with some males showed that it serves as a piece of entertainment for them too.

One of the men who gave his name as Uzoma said: “We eagerly look forward to the ceremony. It entertains us very well as it gives you the opportunity of seeing maidens in their natural state. Apart from that, it gives us the opportunity of eating free coconut and fish provided by the celebrants. We don’t joke with the ceremony here. There was a pastor that vowed that he would not do it for his children. But the mother who knows the implication secretly did it for them.”

Enumerating the benefits of the ceremony to the community, Chief Achonu said the elders had modified the ceremony to some extent.

According to him: “The benefit is that it is a sort of checks and balances for our young girls. Anyone that has not performed it must be very careful to avoid the grave consequences. Nobody will like herself or her family members to be sent out of the community. That is why they need to be very careful so that such a nasty story does not come up. Many people have been banished.

“The modification we have done is that they don’t go to the market anymore leaving their breasts open. Some people don’t even go to the market again. The ceremony can even be performed now by proxy, especially for those who are abroad, as long as the person is pure.

“Those who fail the test are forever banished and will never step into the community again. If for any reason she enters the community, the male members of the family will be affected. They will have to perform the cleansing again to be free from attracting the wrath of the gods of the land.”

His assertion was, however, denied by some of the community members who claimed that some groups still go to the market with their breasts totally open.

“It is not true that no one goes half naked to the market anymore. Some groups, especially those who are devotees of the water goddess, still do it. There was a family that did that recently and we all saw it,” a community member said.

Knocks for practice

The practice, like the Osu (caste system), has also attracted severe condemnation from religious leaders and gender activists. In a chat with our correspondent, the General Overseer of Living Souls Pentecostal Ministry, in Mgbidi, Bishop Paul Chukwu, said he does not support the Ikwe -ezi ceremony because “it causes the girls to be messed up.”

The cleric, who did not hide his disdain for the practice, said: “They are always asked to go to the river to place their legs there and perform some rituals. They will strip themselves naked along the road and do all sorts of things in the public glare. After the whole exercise, the young girls would be told to go and have the freedom to fornicate. It is hard to bring the indigenes of this place into Pentecostal churches.

“I have been speaking to the custodians of the tradition on the need to abolish it, but they are tightly holding on to it. At times, when you mention it to them, they will be harassing you. When you dare say anything that is against the practice, they will tell you it is a no-go area.”

He dismissed the claims that the ceremony attracts a lot of benefits to the community, saying: “Forget their argument that the practice is aimed at making the girls to keep their virginity. We are here seeing everything that is happening. All the people that have gone through the ritual that I know of become promiscuous after doing it. Look around and you will see that this particular city is filled with touts and prostitutes even in residential buildings.

“The name of the community is one of its undoing. Mgbidi means barrier, and everywhere you go and say that you are from Mgbidi, the next thing people will do is to scream. I have seen many girls that were banished because they became pregnant before going through the ritual. It is an abomination for anybody to banish fellow human beings. Did God ask us to kill or destroy another person? There are many things that I have seen here that are reprehensible.”

On her part, the Executive Director of Project Alert, a non-governmental organisation based in Lagos, Dr Josephine Effah Chukwuma, said: “It is a discriminatory practice and very much out of line with the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It is discriminatory because they do not banish the boys/men who impregnate them. Did the young girls get pregnant on their own? Why do we keep holding on to cultural practices that are harmful and discriminatory to women and girls?

In her remark, the Executive Director, Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE), Betty Abah, said: “My view of it is that this is a cultural thing and cultures, traditions and norms should have a place in our society. That is what gives colour, candour and character to a society or a micro-society in this instance. We can’t throw the baby away with the bath water.

“I suspect that this is a sort of rite of passage or coming of age ceremony, which applies in many indigenous societies with the various rites and ceremonies. What we should examine is the crude aspect of it so as to do away with it. And typically, as I can glean from this, the odds are against the womenfolk. First, does she really have to go half-naked in this age? To prove what point exactly?

“Again, very importantly, what are the methods of ascertaining whether she is pregnant or not? Are those methods medically ethical or healthy? Are they done by a medical professional or a crude method that may pose the risk of infection or contamination all in the name of sustaining a tradition?

“Ultimately, I would like to ask the elders, the custodians of this age-long tradition a quiet question: why should the girl be the only one to be banished? Does it no longer take two to tangle or did she somehow impregnate herself? What happens to her partner in crime? Leave him to continue impregnating more girls and then getting those girls banished?

“While I do not condone extra-marital sex, I believe it will be great if both are punished. It can only be fair that way. Generally, I think the practice should be scrutinised and ‘polished’ in light of modern realities.”

Taking a legal look at the practice, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Ladi Williams, said the idea of banishing defaulters is out of place.

He said: “Freedom of movement in any part of the country is a constitutional right which cannot be abrogated. The community has no right to do that. Any customary law that says that they have such powers to the extent that it is consistent with the constitution is null and void. If a customary court supports that, then it is nonsense.

“The affected persons should proceed to the magistrate court. Such case can even go on up to the Supreme Court. The banished persons can sue for enforcement of human rights and also claim damages for preventing them from going to her primary place of abode.”