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Infidelity and cheating in African tradition


PHOTO: Owambe

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 population 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 of African 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 statements like my boyfriend or girlfriend “he is cheating on me” have 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 a 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 in Ibo (mgaba), Ijaw (ilogbo) 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. 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 then began into the history of both families.

Thereafter, there is consent and the exchange of presents or what is now called dowry. Among the Ibos when the bride price has been paid, there is a period the girl lives in the family of her intended to learn their ways and for the families to observe the bride to be.

Among the Idomas a boyfriend is described by the lady as “my man” again clearly a term leading to further relationship, that is, marriage. 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 Ika Ibo, he can have a lover, Mgaba. In Ijaw, that lover is described as ilogbo, my lover. Among the Itsekiris, the system is slightly different since the main aim of a woman is to produce children even if with different men. Among the Ijaws, a woman is allowed if she sees another woman she thinks will suit her husband (especially if she is getting old) 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 would 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 youths 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 fragrant 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, etc.

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 ball-crushing people when they get married. Is it possible that these people in a few short years have forgotten what they did while at university? These are the people on whom the Nollywood comperes, directors; producers build an emotional structure of infidelity. Is it their past coming to hunt 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” in 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. The Ijaws and Itsekiris have a word for “lover” since both societies put a very high premium on children and have no word for illegitimacy.

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