Traditional marriage in Igboland: The original cultural way

What I noticed was some of the changes in contracting traditional marriage and I fully understand that the changes were made for convenience.

Article Outline

Why I decided to write this post on traditional marriage in Igboland

I decided to write this article as far back as early January this year after I attended some marriages during the 2019 Christmas holiday. If you read my article on why I love Christmas, you may recall that I mentioned that many people decide to fix their marriages and weddings during the period. I also mentioned that I was invited to a number of weddings last Christmas holiday.

What I noticed was some of the changes in contracting traditional marriage and I fully understand that the changes were made for convenience. I had no problem with that. However, I contrasted it with what I remembered of the way traditional marriage was carried out while I was growing up. The differences seem quite significant although not necessarily in essence. So I decided to write this post about traditional marriage in Igboland, the original way.

To help me in getting the facts straight, I talked to an elderly relative who lives in the village to explain to me, exactly how marriage was contracted in the past. The result of our conversation is the topic of this post and is presented below.


How Igbo traditional marriage is carried out

1. Knocking (Iku aka )

This is the first process of traditional marriage in Igboland. During the time, the intending groom and a few members of his family will visit the family of his intending bride. Here, an elder in the visiting group, usually the groom’s father or the most elderly person in the party will use flowery marriage to express the purpose of their visit. They can say something along the line of, they’ve seen a beautiful puppy and will like to receive it as a gift. Or they’ve seen a beautiful flower and will like to pluck it.

Of course, the elders understand the language although they may try to mess with the people a bit. They may say, “but we have so many of them, we don’t know which one you are referring to.”

The visitors may or may not play along depending on their sense of humour. They might just mention the name of the lady they are interested in or they might start to flatter her physical and other attributes. “She has the most beautiful smile like the sun, her waist can carry triplets, she is the tallest among her age group,” etc.

Finally, of course, the family will be, “a ha, you mean Chidinma our daughter? You should have said so immediately instead of going round and round.”

The visitors will smile sheepishly and nod their head. Everyone knows the routine.

Chidinmma will be called by her father to see their visitors. She will be asked if she knew them. If she says “yes”. She will be told (as if she doesn’t already know) that they have come for her hand in marriage. She will be asked if she is interested in the said marriage. If Chidinma answers “yes” everybody will smile, some will laugh and Obinna, the intending groom, will heave a sigh of relieve – the first hurdle has been crossed.

At this point, Obinna’s family will present the keg of palm wine they brought along with them and that will be shared by those present. The guests will be told that they will be informed about the date for the formal introduction.

Note that in most cases, the groom and the bride knew each other and have agreed to get married. Their families may have also known each other. So, this ‘Knocking’ stage is a way of formalising the marriage intention.

However, in some cases, the groom may have not proposed to his intended bride and this may equally be the first time the lady is knowing about his existence. It is also possible that families don’t know each other. In that case, Chidinma’s family may not ask her if she is interested in the marriage. They will most likely inform Obinna and his family that they’ve heard their request and will get back to them.


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2. Investigation

This stage in the Igbo traditional marriage rites is very critical, especially where the two families do not know each other very well. It is undertaken by the family of the lady. The point is to determine chances that their daughter will be happy in the family she will be marrying into. This is because, among the Igbos, marriage is regarded as a union of two families, not just two persons. The intended bride’s family, therefore, wants to evaluate the probability that their daughter will be happy in her marriage. Some of the things they look out for include:

Osu (outcast)

The Osu caste was very discriminatory and those who belonged in the caste did not associate freely with the freeborn. Members of the caste system were considered to have been dedicated to the gods and were avoided by others. They were treated as inferior humans. A daughter who marries into an Osu family automatically becomes an Osu, Therefore, families investigate to be sure that the intending groom is not an Osu. Fortunately, the caste system has been done away with civilisation and hardly exists anymore. In Anambra state, for example, the practice has been abolished by law although a fragment of people still insists on maintaining it.

History of madness and other serious diseases

That is correct. A family with known frequent diseases is usually avoided. So the bride’s family want to know about the general health of Obinna’s family. If there is a long history of sickness and diseases in the family, the marriage probably won’t go ahead. That’s because of a belief that their daughter may become a young widow or that her children may inherit the disease.

Character of the family

Families want to be sure that the family of the intending groom are generally people of good character, integrity and upright moral standing. This will generally ensure that their daughter is treated fairly. No one wants to associate with people of dubious character because chances are that they will maltreat their wife and make her unhappy. Don’t forget that in the old days, extended families live together. So, a good family name enhances the chance that the marriage will go ahead.


3. Formal marriage introduction

Once the family of the bride has concluded their investigation and are happy with the outcome, the next stage in the Igbo traditional marriage custom can start. The family of the bride will send words to the groom’s family that they can come for a formal introduction. The groom comes with a bigger party, which may be up to 10 people. It is important that some women in the groom’s family join as well to show that they are in support of the marriage. After all, the bride will likely interact with them more outside her husband. Their support is a good signal for the bride’s eventual happiness in her new home.

Again, the groom’s family will state their intention again, which ostensibly is a marriage between their son, Obinna, and Chidimma, the supple, juicy orange fruit, they’ve been admiring from afar. Chidinma will be asked again if she was still interested in the marriage. If she answers “yes”. The marriage rites can proceed to the next stage.

The groom’s party will offer some small gifts for the bride and her mother as well as some kegs of palm wine. This time, the bride’s family will offer some kola nut and some light refreshment. At the end of the visit, Chidinma will go with Obinna’s family, in what is called, mmayi uje an una.


4. Visiting groom’s family (Mmayi uje an una)

This stage in the Igbo f traditional marriage step is not universal among all Igbo people. Remember that at the community level, that there are granular differences in culture among the Igbo people. This is one of such differences. It is common in much of Anambra state and the Ideato parts of Imo state.

During this stage of Igbo traditional marriage, the bride goes home with the intending groom’s family. She will stay with them for a complete Igbo week, which is four days.

Note that Obinna and Chidinma are not married at this stage, although she has been spoken for. In other words, she is not expected to sleep with her future husband. She either sleeps alone or with a female member of her soon-to-be husband’s family.

The point of this stage is for the bride to know more about the family she will be marrying into. She will meet ndi uyomona (other women married into the family), umu ada (daughters of the family, both married and unmarried), umu nna (her husband’s kinsmen) and her husband’s friends. In fact, all these people will make it a point to visit her, maybe to satiate their curiosity, maybe to make her feel welcome or maybe to just gossip.

At the same time, they are observing her: her mannerism, manner of speaking, what she says, how she says it, how she carries herself, what and how she eats, whether she appears to be hardworking, amongst a minutia of inconsequential details. How she’s perceived at this time will set the tone of how they regard her going forward. She can either be judged as a worthy addition or not.

At the same time, a savvy bride is also observing and calculating whether or not she wants to join the family. In fact, the marriage can be cancelled at this point by either party if they think the other party is not up to par.

At the end of four days, the bride will return to her family. If Obinna is still interested in the marriage, he will give Chidinma a keg of palm wine and a cup. The bride will also be given a new attire, the type normally worn by married women. The palm wine signifies that the marriage can continue and her acceptance means she is in agreement. The bride will be sent to her family with a female member of her future husband’s family. Anyone who meets her on the way will know she was performing mmayi uje na una. They will congratulate her and she will offer some drinks to them. Usually, the drink will be finished by strangers before she gets home.


5. Negotiating the bride price (Ika akirika)

When the bride arrives home, she informs her family that she wants to go ahead with the marriage. The family will then send words to the intending groom’s family to come for negotiation of the bride price. On the agreed date, the groom arrives with some men of his own family. They may be prepared to pay the bride price on the day of negotiation or they may just come for negotiation.

Only the men are involved in the negotiation of the bride price. The family of the bride will present a list of the marriage requirements. Some people call it bride price list. For example, there are gifts for umu ada and umu nna, ndi uyom ona, mother of the bride, father of the bride and anyone who played a vital role in her upbringing. In most cases, the family of the bride cannot influence what the gifts are as they are set by the traditional marriage laws of the community.

The father of the bride can, however, exert some influence on the amount of money asked for as bride price for his daughter’s hand in marriage. It is customary to haggle the price but generally, the parties will arrive at an agreed amount. Only the men are involved in this process. A bride may never know how much the bride price was. In some cases, her own mother may never be told if her husband is ultra-conservative.


6. Paying bride price / Igbo traditional marriage (Ime ego / Igba nkwu)

It is the culmination of the traditional marriage rites in Igboland. Once completed, the groom and the bride are officially married.

A marriage is completed in Igboland after the groom and his family pay the bride price.

Igba nkwu or Igbo traditional wedding can be a private affair or it can be carried out with guests in attendance but Ime ego or paying bride price is conducted privately.

Paying the bride price is preceded by Igba nkwu. In fact, most people call it Igba nkwu or Igbo traditional wedding because that is the part the public sees. However, the Igbankwu is just a preliminary part, it is only after it has been completed that the Ime Ego, in other words, the marriage can finally take place. And as stated above, this is a private matter.

During Igba nkwu, the bride is given a cup of palm wine to offer to her fiance, She goes among the guests looking for him, while some music plays. People will ask if they were the person she was looking for, and of, course, Chidinma ignores them. She deliberately goes all around the venue and finally stops in front of Obinna, She kneels before him and offers him the drink. Obinna raises her up, accepts the drink. Some may dramatically drink the whole wine and pretend to belch. The couple will then proceed to meet the bride’s father and other elders. Prayers will be offered on their behalf.

At this point, the bride can then go and sit beside her almost-husband, while the men retire to conclude the marriage rites. And the guests are served food and drinks.

Note that in Igbo traditional marriage, there is always an intermediary for the marriage, also known as onye aka ebe (a witness). The intermediary is a trusted friend or family member of the groom. In the private chamber, the family of the groom will give the agreed bride price in a pouch to the intermediary. The intermediary or onye aka ebe will offer the bride price in a small pouch to the bride’s father or an appointed representative. Once they confirm that the money is complete, the marriage has been successfully contracted. The groom and the bride are now officially married and the bride will go home with the groom’s family.


Final thoughts…

It’s kind of an anticlimax that the two people who got married are not present in the very rite that confirms their marriage (that is when the bride price was paid). This illustrates why marriage in Igboland, and in fact, in much of Africa is regarded as the union of two families and transcends the couple involved. This also explains why many people regard Igba nkwu as the actual marriage. But the fact of the matter is that until the bride price is offered and accepted, a valid marriage has not been contracted as far as the Igbo traditional marriage culture is concerned. That is also why in Igbo culture, a divorce becomes final only after the family of the bride has returned her bride price to the groom and his family.

It is my hope that you enjoyed reading this piece on traditional marriage in Igboland. Share your thoughts in the comment section.

In a follow-up article, I will highlight some of the changes that are commonly observed in traditional Igbo marriage in the 21st century.

I hope you enjoyed reading the article. Share your reaction in the comment form and don’t forget to check my previous articles for something that may be of interest.



  • The Critic_
    The Critic_
    22 April 2024 at 11:58 pm

    I love it
    Enjoyed reading every bit of it.
    Beautifully shows the essence of people’s culture which says a lot about who they are. Splendid must say!

    • The Amaks
      The Amaks
      23 April 2024 at 7:23 am

      Thank you. I appreciate your reading the piece and comment. Our culture is indeed very rich. We must do all we can to preserve it.


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