December 2015: CONCUBINAGE (See Caution under ANNOUNCEMENTS: Delicate Topics)

This is about a quaint, but in its day very strong, tradition of Igbos intended to infuse some fairness and order in the marital family. It is a delicate topic. Like Westerners who always deny and condemn any suggestion that their own ancestors engaged in such practices as will be described here, some of us Igbos may be in denial over these things. But they are true, nevertheless.

The names that Igbo parents give their children names carry meanings, each name specifying some factors peculiar to the child or the circumstances of his/her birth. Sometimes you need to study the name carefully, break it down to its syllables and savor them in detail for the meaning to come into focus. Among the most charming names I came across during my sojourn among my people during the 1980s is Ikonne. Mr Ikonne was a Commissioner in the Imo State government during our second Republic.

Iko-nne is a special term of endearment meaning literally, “Momma’s lover.” Just as a man would call his dear son Enyinna (‘Friend of the father’) or Ogbonna (“Father’s colleague”) a woman might show a special affection for a son, perhaps a precious only son, by naming him Ikonne. The connotation is really “mother’s own darling.” That is because in ancient times, an Igbo wife’s most dearly beloved person was her iko: her concubine, not her husband. Indeed, Igbos have a saying that underscores that practice of concubinage: “When a child is asked to name someone he/she knows, the child is likely to name the mother’s iko.” In other words, a child got to know its mother’s iko perhaps more closely than other grown males.

The reason for that association needs explaining. Like most societies before the “Age of Reason,” Igbos were polygamous: a man married as many wives as he could support and defend. That was a universal practice in nearly all societies everywhere, and one might excuse it on the grounds of a man’s need for children (if his wife turned out childless) or a male child (in case his wife bore him only daughters); or just for the sake of ‘variety.’ That begs the question: What of the needs of his wife or wives; how were they accommodated?

That, of course, has been a universal problem. The opposite arrangement for women would be polyandry (the taking of multiple husbands); but it is not at all practical because a woman married into a man’s homestead and also was economically dependent on the man. Hence, she was totally subordinate to the man and dependent on him for stature and support. In our modern societies that problem is better accommodated because women, especially city-dwelling women, have sufficient independence and mobility to conduct their affairs independent of their husbands. In Igbo societies of old a married woman was allowed to take a concubine who came to visit her as often as possible both for intimacy and to run a man’s errands for her. Indeed, if a woman bugged her husband to climb a palm tree for her (to cut down the fruit) he might, if he was in a cantankerous mood, ask her why her iko could not do it.

Dwelling arrangements in typical Igbo homesteads of olden times eased the discreet comings and goings of the concubine. The centerpiece of the household of a man of substance was his Obi (which served as a forum or main lounge for adult males he received in audience). Walls arcing from the obi enclosed his intimate domain, consisting of the huts of his various wives, usually arrayed in order of their marriage or ascendancy; the huts were really houses that included a frontal cooking and eating area as well as inner rooms for sleeping, privacy, etc. The man’s obi was for lounging, not sleeping in; it was understood that he would rotate his sleeping quarters between his wives. Arrayed along the arcing wall were his wives’ huts, all of which looked out onto the enclosed courtyard as some family commons. Each such hut had a frontal entrance facing the courtyard, as well as a rear egress for privacy.

The iko typically came in at the rear by pre-arrangement. A responsible husband knew not to barge in on his wives (or he might get surprised!); he usually knocked at the front door for permission to enter. I had it on authority of some of my village-dwelling classmates in high school that if a man intruded on an intimate moment between his wife and her concubine, he did not make a scene but withdrew discreetly from embarrassing confrontation.

Now, the key point, the main reason why that custom was tolerated, indeed proliferated, was that a woman had no choice in the husband she married (it was always an arranged marriage) but she had the only say concerning the iko that she chose; he was the man she liked or loved.

The only issue that might inject controversy in such an arrangement was the matter of which child was fathered by the man and which by the concubine. Fortunately, Igbos took care of that problem with an elegant, little maxim: ‘Onye new aku new nwa’: literary, whichever man paid the bride price on the wife ‘owned’ all children arising by issue in that marriage. In other words, all children born to your wife were yours, be they white skinned or yellow or black. That maxim really spoke to a highly liberal lack of jealousy and possessiveness, the two sentiments that often induced parricide! The man could not really protest because he too was ‘doing his thing.’ But if the wife chose an objectionable concubine (such as a fellow from a family feuding with yours) she was quietly dissuaded.

So, who needed divorce when you had polygamy and concubinage?