Infancy Marriage : Agony of Cross River Community

MUDIAGA AFFE writes about money woman, a marriage culture in Becheve in the Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State, where indebted parents give out their daughters in marriage to creditors

A four-hour lonely walk in the thick forest of one of the mountainous Becheve communities in the Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State is enough to elicit goosebumps on a brave fighter because of the risk of wild animals.

But such couldn’t frighten 14-year-old Rachael Ayan, who, on May 5, this year, fled her husband’s home in Keyi community at an odd hour of 10pm to free herself from the anguish of being a ‘money woman’ having being betrothed to the man at age five.

 Money woman is the term used to describe a girl who is ‘sold’ to a man by the girl’s parents in form of marriage without her consent or knowledge in order to pay a debt, usually borrowed before the unlucky girl was born.

Narrating her story with teary eyes to our correspondent, Ayan said it would be a good thing to end the practice for her to go to school.

She said, “I got to know that I have been sold when I was five. Since then, I have been living with the husband who was about 50 years old then. I have been staying with him and he has been treating me like a slave. He didn’t buy me any clothes. I have been responsible for my own upkeep even in his house.

“I sell banana to raise money. I also have three different cassava farms where I also raise money from. At the end of every planting season, I sometimes make N4, 000 and the man takes N2,000 out of it. The man has refused to take care of me because I believe he does not like me and I also do not like him. Whenever I see other girls in my shoes, I feel sorry for them. I am not a happy person because I ought to be in school.

“About two years ago, he made the first attempt to have carnal knowledge of me but I resisted it and told him bluntly that I was not mature for it. But he insisted and forcefully made love to me. He told me that his brother’s wife, who was my age mate, was already making love.

“I had to run out of his house on May 5, 2018 at about 10pm. I trekked in the forest for about four hours in the midnight and descended the hilltop. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I slept in an unprotected Catholic church from the early hours of the morning till dawn and continued my journey until I got to a mission house for succour. I do not want to go back here. I have a sister, Lovett, who was sold for about N30,000.”

Other helpless Ayans

Another victim, 15-year-old Charity Ajil from Amana community, explained that she dropped out of school when she was sold to a man at age four.

 “I was sold for N2,000. I have not gone to the man’s house because he has not done the other rites for me to move to his place. He is to bring goat, pig and 25 litres of palm oil. But I do not want to marry him,” Ajil stated.

However, Ajil’s elder sister, 20-year-old Patience, who is not a victim of the practice, said she would seek divine intervention to end the practice.

“I am fortunate not to be betrothed because I am the first daughter of my mother and she insisted that she would not give out her first child as ‘money woman.’ But my younger sister is given to a 50-year-old man as wife. He comes to sympathise with the family whenever we lose a relative but he does not take care of her.

“I do not like the culture and I wish it is stopped. Even my late mother was a ‘money woman.’ She was also sold to a man at a tender age. When my father died, my uncle inherited my mother. If my mother was left to make her choice of husband, she would probably still be alive. I feel sorry for those who have been sold,” Patience noted.

Pastor and Mrs. Richards Akonam

Dorothy Obu, 35, from Ugbakoko 1 community is also a victim of the practice. She told our correspondent that she got wind that she had been sold to a man as his wife at age seven.

Obu said, “It was my mother’s family that sold me out to a man against my father’s wish. I resisted it because the man was almost 50 years but they subdued me. Even when they took me to his house, I made attempt to run away, but they used some young boys to track and bring me back.

“My aunty later tricked me to come with her to a town in Boki, where the man was also invited. There, he forcefully opened my legs and had sex with me. I became pregnant afterwards. The man also had another wife. I suffered all through the period of pregnancy until I gave birth. I have given birth to five children so far and the man does not have any obligation to the children.

“I have two girls and three boys. Some of my husband’s family members suggested that he should sell one of our daughters as ‘money woman’, but I vehemently refused. I do not want my children to suffer the same fate. I want my children to be educated.

“I do not want a marriage where a young woman is forced into sex out of her will. This practice must stop in Becheveland. I will fast and pray that this should stop because one is likely to see five-year-old girls that have been married off.

“The men can even kill the children born to him because he feels he already bought their mother.”

Another victim, Dorothy Otekwa, who is 25, told our correspondent that in 2006, her parents forced her to marry an old man. She added that she tried to resist the man to no avail.

Otekwa stated, “It may interest you to know that the old man is my relation. He is my father’s brother. I did not allow him to be called my husband or to sleep on the same bed with me. However, I was warned not to be stubborn to him or they would kill me. They said I would be tied and dried under the sun like wet clothes. They said corn seeds would be thrown towards my private part and fowls led to eat the corn seeds from there.

“All these were said to make me fear so that I would stop resisting him. According to my culture, if a woman is given that kind of treatment she will not be able to bear children and they will finally kill her. When I heard that, I became afraid. At that time, I did not know God.”

She added that she married the old man out of fear and suffered in his hands. “I became pregnant, yet he was cruel to me. He could not even cater for my needs. I lost the pregnancy after sometime,” Otekwa stated.

Creepy marriages in Becheve

Among the Becheve tribe, comprising 17 communities, there are two types of marriages; ‘love marriage’ and ‘money marriage.’

The 17 communities are Katele, Amana, Ogbakoko, Belinge, Ranch, Ikwette (old and New), Imale, Ekor, Kalumo, Yindive, Makambe, Apambu, Belegete, Kajinga, Mangbe, Mbunu and Agusor. The internationally recognised Obudu Cattle Ranch and Resort is located in one of the communities in Becheve.

Sources in the community told our correspondent that in the love marriage, two consenting adults could live together as long as the woman wants or as long as the mother/family of the woman wants. All the children born in the relationship belong to the family of the woman.

Otekwa, Ajil

They call this kind of relationship ‘love or waterproof marriage.’ It is waterproof because the woman can walk out of the union anytime she wishes. The union is also called ‘he-goat’ marriage because the men are not committed to the welfare of the children since they know that the children belong to the lady’s parents.

In the money marriage, a man ‘buys’ a girl child for marriage. The age disparity between the man and the girl does not count. In most cases, a man can borrow money from a friend with a promise that if his pregnant sister gives birth to a girl child, the girl will be given to the lender friend as a wife. This suggests that the girl was betrothed to the creditor before she was born without her knowledge and consent.

The effigy bond

In recent times, a girl child is taken to a man willing to ‘buy’ her for marriage. Once the deal is sealed, the man automatically becomes a potential in-law. In most cases, the would-be in-law buys gifts for the girl’s family and the gifts are recorded in an instrument known as ‘Olambe.’

The Olambe is an effigy used in tracking the girl after the consummation of a marriage. In activating it after a man had taken possession of the ‘money woman’, the girl’s name is mentioned seven times and the Olambe, which is like a cord, is tied. Before the activation, all the gifts to the girl by the would-be husband are recorded through significant knotting of the effigy. There are different knots used to represent different gifts while tying the Olambe.

For instance, when a goat is given to the family by the would-be in-law, there is a way it is tied to represent it. The same is for cow, pig, chicken, palm oil, wrappers and others. If the girl refuses to yield to the man after the tying of the Olambe, the man can decide to harm or kill the girl by invoking the effigy as the tradition allows.

He will insert the Olambe in an open hole in a banana tree. Once he cuts down the tree, it is believed that the girl will die wherever she is. If he wants to punish the girl, he places the Olambe beside the fire and as it is being heated, the girl is believed to undergo severe internal heat wherever she is. If he wants her to get fat before dying, he throws the Olambe into a bowl of water and as it swells, the girl’s body will start swelling physically wherever she is. This is the belief among the tribe.

It was also gathered that some of the betrothed girls ran away because of the juju scare.

It was learnt that in ‘money marriage’, if the woman begins to bear children, it is good business for the man because he can sell the girls to others.

But in waterproof marriage, the man cannot sell the kids for marriage because they don’t belong to him and only the girl’s parents are at liberty to do so.

It was further learnt that these girls were sold at tender ages and in most cases, they grow up in the husbands’ homes.

Our correspondent gathered that the girls were usually denied access to western education by their husbands so that they would not become civilised and denounce the culture. The girls grow up calling their husbands ‘father’ from tender age till when the so-called father assumes the position of a husband.

“If the girl dies without having a baby, the parents of the girl will be forced to bring a replacement even if it takes them 40 years to get a new girl. When the man dies as a result of old age, the girl is transferred to another member of his family,” an indigene added.

Besides, a girl, married to an old man who is unable have sex, is permitted to sleep with other men for pregnancy and the baby returned home after delivery to be the old man’s child.

Practice, status symbol for rich men –Community leader

A 75-year-old community leader in Ugbakoko 1 community, Philip Akpan, described the practice as a status symbol for rich men.

Akpan stated, “In the culture of Becheve, if you do not have a ‘money woman,’ you are not seen as an accomplished man. It is only when you have a money woman that they see you as a married man. In those days, the love marriage was prevalent and the people didn’t like it because the children are not for the man. But in the case of money marriage, the man is in control of the children.

“Before the modern civilisation, we were not concerned about what people thought about the money marriage culture but it is only now that we are beginning to review the practice. We are beginning to embrace the modern style of church marriages in the communities.

Akpan, Rachael

“My mother was a money woman. I have a money woman as wife but we grew up to put the idea behind us. If you come to my home, you will see that we are living in love. My sister was given as a ‘money woman’, but I had to pay back the debt. A girl should be allowed to make her choice.

“Although, we as elders have called for a meeting among the 17 communities of Becheve to stop the practice, but we have not come to an agreement. If you do not sleep with a woman, the Olambe will not work on that woman.”

Opposition to the vile practice

The Founder of FaitHouse Mission, Pastor Richards Akonam, and his wife, Grace, are against the practice and continue to do all within their capacity to draw public attention to it.

Akonam, who has a church in Becheve, said the practice was obsolete in the modern age.

He stated, “The practice is as old as Becheve tribe. The people migrated from Katele in Cameroon. This is 21st century slavery. It is also a way of exposing the girls to prostitution. Any money woman is open to prostitution as she has to cater for herself, children and husband.

“There are instances where they can beat up the woman and insist that she makes her boyfriend known to the family. This is largely because of the age disparity. Since the man is no longer able to perform sexually, she is encouraged to get pregnant outside and bring the children home.

“This is greed on the part of the men who want to use the girls to make money.  Among the tribe, the practice is a status thing because you cannot be a chief if you do not have a ‘money woman’ as wife. A Becheve man will not build a house until he has a ‘money wife.”

He also blamed the state government for ignoring the practice over the years.

“The government has ignored the practice over the years. It is only just now that attention is being focused on it. There is legislation against the practice in Cross River but it has not been enforced,” he added.

Akonam explained that they were in a village, Imale, an eight-hour trek from Amana in the Obanliku LGA for a missionary work when they met an 11-year-old girl who said her husband would not allow her to attend the programme.

He noted, “I wondered if she was truly married. That was how I got to know that she was married to a 68-year-old man. We visited a chief then, who told us that he was married to nine money women. It is an indication that he is a rich man in their culture. Apart from the fact that he bought the girls and also helps their families if need be, the girls are also free to get pregnant outside and bring the children home. They come back with benefits, including proceeds from their outings such as food stuff and money.

“While we count our houses and vehicles as wealth, the Becheve man counts the number of money women he has as wives. When we saw this, we became worried. Most times, I cry when I see the girls because I cannot imagine my daughter of three-year-old being sold for marriage.”

He said God sent them to the area to end the practice and give the people hope.

According to him, whenever they get some of the girls out of the practice, they give them new names and make them renounce the Olambe.

“We break their links with the effigy. In some cases, we had repaid the money placed on their neck and they become free. Others have been sent back to school,” the cleric said.

We’ll do everything to end the practice –Assembly, gov’s wife

Meanwhile, the wife of the Cross River State Governor, Dr. Lynda Ayade, said the practice must stop.

Noting that she found it shocking to hear about the practice, Ayade noted that the local government area was next to hers in the Obudu Local Government Area.

She said, “I only got to know about the practice recently as the wife of the governor. We learnt that one of the victims of the practice was able to run away and found her way to Abuja. The terrain is difficult to access. We have made our findings, holding talks to let them know that what they are doing is illegal. If those practising it are found culpable, they would be prosecuted.

“We would also tell them the value of the girl child. Ultimately, their thinking is that a girl child is meant to be someone whose only purpose is to bear children but a woman can do a lot more. This boils down to poverty. We will also create an enabling environment to improve on their living standard.”

Also, the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Mr. John Gaul-Lebo, insisted that the practice was repugnant to the natural law of justice.

Gaul-Lebo stated, “It is shocking that such a practice still goes on in this age. The culture is repugnant to natural justice of conscience and it has to stop.

“As lawmakers, we are going to get a motion of urgent public importance by carrying out a town hall meeting with the communities. Any culture that violates the human rights of people must end. If this is true, we must stop it.

“The administration of criminal justice that we just passed provides for protection of human rights and the child rights. As politicians and lawmakers, our first responsibility is to do a situation analysis. If it is a practice, we must engage them and take them out of it.”

He added that the Assembly would counsel the residents that human lives, being the greatest asset, should not be mortgaged.


Credits (The Punch)