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Infidelity and cheating in African tradition


One of the most common central themes of Nollywood film and music is the love between men and women; the interplay of generational forces, the abuse of women and children. Dead centre of this popular motif is the concept of unfaithfulness or cheating between men and women: especially films and songs which play on these inter-relationships and their consequences – illegitimacies, marriage break-ups and so forth.

Let’s put all of these in some sociological context. The normal African male is polygamous. I do not know many Africans, especially Nigerians, who do not have half brothers and sisters. Nor am I aware of any old African traditional culture in which a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship occurs or is allowed. The word adultery exists in many African languages, mainly because the concept had been translated into African languages by Christianity and Islam. But adultery is a clearly defined commandment in Christianity, as a sin, something against the commandment of God if one is married. The concept of cheating between boyfriend and girlfriend has no translation in any African language I know. So a statement like my boyfriend or girlfriend “Is cheating on me” has no translation. It is an unknown concept because the idea of boyfriend and girlfriend cannot be translated into any African language I know.

Indeed, in many languages, the word used in such a relationship is wife or husband. There are few exceptions, especially in matrilineal societies or societies which put a premium on children, especially male children. An older man or widower may have a woman companion or vice versa but the word used to describe this relationship in Ibo is (mgaba), Ijaw (olobo) the relationship is as near to husband and wife as possible: meaning that there are a few traditional rites that the couple have to do to attain full membership or status as husband and wife.

In Yoruba, during courtship, you may designate the intended as a wife or afesona. Usually, this happens during negotiations between the family of the man and the woman. Once the consent has been obtained, then arrangements for wedlock take place. Today in modern Yoruba, some attempts have been made to accommodate the concept of boyfriend and girlfriend. There is the word “ale”, but again refers more to a relationship between an older married man and another woman. But there are other words in today Yoruba especially, among the Ekiti, Ijesha and Ondo. The new word is too graphic and literal that I cannot write it because they are literarily too graphic for it to have been anything but a modern term describing the sex act.

In Ibo, a boyfriend or girlfriend is a literal translation of “my friend who is a girl or my friend who is a boy.” It presupposes that marriage will eventuate in such a relationship. Inquiries would then begin into the history of both families. Thereafter, there is consent and the exchange of presents or what is now called dowry. Among the Igbos, when the bride price has been paid, there is a period the girl lives with the family of her husband to learn their ways and for the family to observe the bride more closely.

Among the Idomas a boyfriend is described by the lady as my man (oyam) again clearly a term leading to further relationship, that is, marriage (onyam).If the society is polygamous, then men and women have to meet either by introduction or by his choice. The man, if he is older in Igbo or an Ijaw, can have a lover.Among the Itsekiri the system is slightly different since the main aim of a woman is to produce children even if it is with different men, especially if he is a Whiteman.

The Itsekiri woman may have up to four or more children with different fathers. On Sunday she would come out in her finest and the children beautifully dressed and would easily tell anyone who is curious who the fathers are. Some part of Ijaw, the Ndoki in Etsako and Delta North may have the same attitude.

Among the Ijaw, a woman is allowed if she sees another woman she thinks will suit her husband (especially if she is getting old) and she can marry a younger person for her husband. I am told that this was precisely what my grandmother did for her husband.These variations have now been taken by Nollywood to mean that once you have a fiancée then it is alright for the intended couple to live together. I think this is a misinterpretation. I will never allow my daughter to move into a man’s house before marriage or for sons to bring their girlfriends to my house to live there before marriage.

Our youth today are blissfully unaware of these restrictions and have gone on to build a whole structure of relationships – cheating and otherwise – which did not really exist. In most societies, sleeping with someone’s wife gives the husband the right to kill either or both but definitely the man. (He may spare his wife because of other considerations such as children and the intercession of her family).

But in Africa today, the absence of the suitable word for boy/girl romance and consequential infidelity does not mean that these relationships do not exist. In Nigeria, especially among the educated classes, it is generally practised. In fact, at the university level, some flagrant promiscuity is the norm. Girls and boys go on “runs” – money making expeditions where they hunt for men and women in packs. It is a rite of passage, something you are expected to do to make a few Naira while at school. These hunting packs are usually friends; know one another and troll together to Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Warri, Abeokuta, Makurdi, Kano, Kaduna, Jos and others.

Which begs the question: how can young men and women who had done these “runs”, on getting married or have serious relationships, graduate into the wife-beating, husband’s ball-crushing people when they get married? Is it possible that these people in a few short years have forgotten what they did while in university? These are the people on whom the Nollywood comperes, directors and producers build an emotional structure of infidelity. Is their past coming to haunt them? Or is it a case of the artist, taking a small slice of life, and following where the emotions lead in the expression of drama?

How do you translate “dating “or “we are going out on a date” or “I am dating him” into any Nigerian or African language? Even in English, the word, “dating” is an ambiguous one covering a multitude of sins. There is no way to translate that concept into any Nigerian language I know.

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