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Religion, Marriage, Family and Values in Africa Modernity and the Face of Marriage and Family in Africa: Niger Delta Experience


Israel Ndu. Johnson Department Of Religious And Cultural Studies, Ignatius Ajuru University Of Education, Rumuolumeni, Port Harcourt, Rivers State GSM: 08033387975 Email: 


Marriage and Family are very important social institutions that encourage and stabilize value system in Africa anytime, even in the midst of ravaging influence of modernity. Marriage is very much revered in Africa and its social values are often attached to religious myths and eschatological fantasies of African Indigenous Religious’ belief and practices to show its originality and divine sanction. Every man is seen having the right to procreation. This right gives him responsibilities, which he joyfully assumes and hopes to reap fruits of his labour later in life. So a man looks forward to marriage and family responsibilities. However recent events in Africa continent, because of globalization and technology, marriage and family values are experiencing ethnocentric malady- influence of multicultural and pluralism. The Niger Delta experience is colourful became, of its multicultural background within a homogeneous community. The paper examines marriage and family as social institutions, and relates them as control agents to moral and ethical values in African society, and showcase Niger Delta experiences in marriage and family in the midst of modernity. 


I remember my grandfather large compound with many huts (houses) around his own hut and each for his numerous wives and children. My father’s house is outside my grandfather’s enclave. Although my father was his first son and his house was separate from my grandfather’s indicating that my father was another family unit and supposed to live with his wife and make their own family. The children in the big compound look unto the grandfather as source of strength and guide anytime, in spite having different fathers and mothers. Moral instruction and daily action stream down from the chains of an “ordained” source: the grandfather’s principle on how his compound should be run, my father’s guideline for the day, my mother’s family routine work and my elder brothers’ and sisters’ daily assignment of compound cleaning. Everyone in the home knows what to do in the morning, afternoon and evening. The night is often time to cherish, more over when the grand papa decides to spend some valuable time with his grand children. Moon light stories were given with the aim to still obedience and moral integrity into the children. The children look forward to the beginning of another day, in spite the quarreling, fighting, and shouting that had taken place in the day time. Such was the picture of an African family and extended family system in the good old days. 

Marriage and family is an old institution which the Bible tells us that God instituted to continue procreation and sustenance of mankind in the world (Gene 1:27-28). The Africans also believe that God supports and protects marriage and family. The Ikwerre believe that no woman should “uselessly” die for marrying a man or loving a man. It is within the consciousness of the Ikwerre that a woman should marry and help to produce children that can sustain a man’s lineage. So a woman that has taken such enterprise should not be made to suffer and die miserably. For this reason she is honoured and respected. However, if the otherwise is the case and she passes through untold hardship in course of marriage, probably the hardship is cause by the husband or husband’s people and peradventure she cries and raises a curse, the effect, it is feared, is more dangerous than offending any god of the land. Hence the saying among the Ikwerre, “Olulu ndi gbuo nwokori”. Metaphorically “A woman should not die for the sake of marriage” or else a catastrophe will ensue. 

Family is recognized as a small unit of a large community, that is, a nuclear of society, a wherein mother, father and children live and socialize. In African context its goes beyond the nuclear restriction of modern family of father, mother and children. The extended family system practice in African includes other relations who may naturally be under one’s responsibility, like grandfather and grandmother, uncles, aunties. This never the less obliterate the knowledge and responsibility given to a man and his wife in a family. Right there in the marriage ceremony, different Niger Delta communities have ways of establishing this fact. 

Among the Ususu Joinkrama in Ahoada West, Rivers State. The gift items given to the wife by the mother include big mortar and pistle, big pot, broom, foam etc. the items gives her the responsibility of taking care of her husband and children (when they come). The pot is for cooking, broom is to sweep the house and foam is for husband and wife to sleep as one and also as sign of unity. The Kalabari ties the wife with raffle cloth signifying that the woman belongs to the man for life. The Ikwerre father would give his daughter way in marriage with a blessing “you will be a mother of hundreds, and your children shall be great and a nation…” 

The twenty first century Africa is rapidly drifting away from the traditional African custom and practices of marriage system and hallowed family values of yesterday years. The modernization of this century is affecting virtually every cherished values of the Africans. Marriage and family are not less affected. This paper will look at the marriage and family as social institution and examines its values as stabilizing agents’ in the African society. Modernity in the Niger Delta and how it has coloured marriage and family in the region. To achieve this goal set out by the work, sociological and descriptive approaches are used. 

Marriage and Family Institution Marriage: 

Marriage is principally an institution in which inter-personal relationship are acknowledged. It is a union where the members are often different from each other, in terms of social background, blood relationship, religion, education class, etc but they agreed to live together and enjoy the benefit the union and as well as any adversity that may come out of it. Therefore marriage could be regarded as a social union legal contract between (two) people that agreed to live together, thereby obey laws and obligation that establishes the institution which may vary according to different cultures of the world. Wikipedia simply says it is “a social union or legal contract between people that create kinship” (Wikipedia 2016). Kore describing marriage, having Christian marriage in view said “the highest happiness on earth is in marriage union”, because it provides intimate fellowship, loving affection, encouragement and service between husband and wife. In such union equality is emphasized and the combined strength is the beauty of marriage (2009 23). 

In another vain Dan Fulani explaining marriage in Movaghauul, Plateau State, Nigeria said “marriage (dyik) was the union between a man and a woman from the different clans or villages who were known not to have any close blood ties”. Marriage as the names goes (dyik) is to “build” unity, that is “fosters unity and solidarity” (2015 205). 

Marriage is a universal social institution found in every society. Each society may have its kind and type of marriage according to its customs, practices and value system. Some of these types of marriage may be in a religious sacrament and social contract. Again types of marriage may be determined by the mates involved. 

a. Monogamy 

Is a kind of marriage that involves one man and one woman. It is practiced worldwide. It is common among the Europeans and they encourage its spread among the Africans through colonization and western education. It is becoming a common practice among the Africans. People freely accept monogamy as a system of marriage because it reduces stress of multiply wives and palaver of marriage. 

b. Polygamy: 

This is a type of marriage where a man marries more than one wife at a time. Each wife is supported by the man and encouraged to live her separate household and the man (husband) visit them in turn. It is a preferred form of marriage in Africa. It is practiced in Africa and other continents of the world. The environment and economy of Africa encourage this type of marriage. The number of wives and children in a family gives a man enough and large man-power to till the ground and produce high quality and plenty food for the community. The more a man is blessed with wives and children, the more his fame and prosperity is acknowledge in land. The moral sanctity of the African society does not encourage promiscuity and adultery and so for a man to satisfy his vain glory-man taste for variety of woman-avoid bareness of woman and other miscellaneous in marriage enterprise, a man is allowed to have the number of wives he can offered to maintain. 

c. Endogamy: 

It is a marriage, where a group of men marry a group of women at a time. Every woman for every man belonging to that group. This type of marriage is found in New Guinea and may be in Africa. 

Niger Delta region of Nigeria is heterogeneous culturally with a homogeneous topography that binds them together. There are rivers and water tributaries that criss-cross the region with mixture of me-shy land and mangrove found virtually in the whole area. The nature boundaries created by the network of rivers crossing each other and empting themselves in the Atlantic Ocean brought about the multiple culture and languages. The people have different cultures that are similar in identification and classification. They are aquatic and anthropocentric in feature. Sometimes the languages are difficult to be communicated among them. Marriage in the region is celebrated according to the culture and taste of the people. There are different styles of marriage but with almost the same system of marriage, because the essence of marriage is one: coming together of two or more, as the case may be of different and identical man and woman to form a union with one purpose of living and co-existing to produce children. 

Marriage in the Niger Delta is very festive and colourful and also involves complexities of social, political, religious and economic issues. It embraces diverse aspects of the society, family, community, sex, inheritance and political power. In the past a ruler does not just marry any woman; the secular and religious peculiarities of the woman in question must be specified for the continuation of “blue blood” to be guaranteed. Slaves are not married to the kings and nobles. Marriage is not an individual affair neither is it a day programmes, but it is an enterprise that involves the families of would-be couples and sometimes the whole communities of the would-be couples. The process of coming together of the world-be couples seems the same in all almost communities of the region. It is a private affair in the beginning: a man decides to marry or his parents feel he is able to live with a woman and go out to get him a wife. The process of executive this intention may differ but one fact remains, that at the day of consummation of the marriage, a celebration that would involve the whole village or town would be organized. 

The pre-requisites for a valid customary marriage in many communities in Niger Delta vary according to the tradition of the people. However, with modern trend and multicultural activities in the region a common feature is emerging: a boy sees a girl he fancy and after familiarization, inform his parents who in turns initiate the process of marriage ceremony which comes in stages. Virtually all boys and girls interviewed use a common language- “knocking of the door” as the first stage. In Ikwerre it is “Oku aka nu oro”, the Ibibio calls “Ndidians ufok” literally meaning “to know the house” or sometimes Nkong Undok/Nkong Usong that is “knocking of the door”. 

The first stage leads to the next and so on. The requirement at each stage is documented and lists of items needed for each ceremony given to the male party. These stages take time to elapse into the next stage according to the custom of the people. In some community you do not just take their daughter for marriage within a space of few months. It is a taboo. It looks as if the girl into the marriage is being rushed for sale. However with the trend of list-given for marriage ceremony there is the tendency to collect the lists and speed up the marriage within a period of one week. With the money bag politicians and oil company workers abound in the region what matters is the consummation of the ceremony, when virtually everyone in town or in the state is invited to witness the traditional wedding ceremony. Many things come to play. There is a mixture of culture, probably as a result of nolly wood films which show case certain pattern of marriage trend or because of digitalization of the region through multi-companies activities. One marriage ceremony never remains the same, because the next one will borrow and add certain features that may bring glamour and colour to the present. Therefore marriage ceremony has gone digital in the Niger Delta competiting with modern trend encouraged by information communication technology. 2. Family

From the ongoing description of marriage in Niger Delta, family is an out-come of a long process that started when the groom would- be meet the bride would-be probably at the instance of the parents, friends or at his own initiation. Family in the Niger Delta goes beyond the nuclear unit of father, mother and children as the European styles bequeathed to us. Family includes almost all the relationship in both divide of the marriage. The mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers and even grandparents are members of a family. A family includes the ancestors, known by scholars as living dead (Mbiti 1969:107). A dead member, especially the elderly one who died honourable and is given a descent burial is remembered often and is believed to be around the family to defend them and participate in the family discussion. Hence at one of the Ikwerre marriage ceremony stages (perhaps the final stage), in case the bride would-be father is dead, the community elders would pour libation at the dead man’s grave inviting his spirit to partake in the marriage ceremony. This single act also includes the unborn into the family. The prayer the elders make at the grave says “… please permit this marriage and bless them with children, which you will be happy to be a member…”. “Happy to be a member” means the reincarnation of the dead father into the family of the newly marring couple. Therefore the act of libation at the grave brings the living-dead and the whole family together. 

In a true sense, a household in the context of Niger Delta anthropological pregnancy is the smallest unit of family (Mbiti 107). A man may marry more than one wife and each wife lives in a hut or house with her children. The man controls his family and visits each house anytime he wants and often gathers them together. But after the general meeting of the man’s family, each wife gathers her house hold at night for discussion, where further instructions and moral lessons are strengthened. The household may include grandparents, brother or sister from the woman’s (wife’s) end or the fathers’. This explains further illustration at the introduction of the work. The concept of marriage and family in Africa is wider than what the Europeans and Americans may have. The Europeans love exclusive marriage system, where in restricted nuclear members are involved, while the Africans love inclusive system where every blood relation is regarded as one family. 

The beauty of this system of marriage and family in Africa, mostly among the Niger Deltans, is that the value of intimacy and strong bond of husband and wife and children is not neglected hence the household, “the family at night”. Outside the inclusive family, the household still have time to socialize and also satisfy their emotional and spiritual needs. Generally, family “is a kinship group arising from marriage blood relationship, or adoption” (FAN 2003 36). It is a social group in which members interact with each other, see themselves as one and also by others as such. In it responsibilities are allotted and they obey rules and norms set by family. There are certain privileges enjoy in the family, which includes emotional, psychological and economic security. These securities are important for each member of the family. In Africa no one lives alone, everyone is important because others exist. When one suffers, every member of the family suffers, also when one rejoices he does that with his kinsmen (Mbiti 107). The family is a bond of unity in the African society and also a means of transmitting social and religious values. These values transmitted by the family’s invariables become the value system of the society. 

Marriage and Family as Social Control Agent 

Social control is sociological concept and jargon popularized by Edward A. Ross in his book, “Social Control” where in certain social institutions are termed regulative and function to bring individual behaviour in conformity with group demands. Individual behaviour is checked to conform to the accepted standard and norms of the society. Therefore “social control is the prevention and unmaking of deviance” (FAN 2002 106). There are mechanisms which a society use to exercise its authority over its member and thereby enforces everyone to conform. There are informal and formal means or agents of exercising social control. The formal are the prisons, the court and the police and while the informal includes the family, peer group, the play group and the age grade. The interest of this work is in the family, therefore the family shall be examined here as social control agent. He age grade had been discussed in a previous work Religion and Traditional Education. Ikwerre perspective family use mechanisms that are familiar and reachable to control social deviant. Among African families Folkways, songs with taunting lyrics and Taboos and sanctions are often used to control excessive behaviour of a few individuals who are not willing to conform to the norms and conventions of the society. Family is the beginning of any community or society and it is expected that every individual must pass through the tutelage of parents, who are worthy members of the society. In it is the duty of the parents to groom the children in norms of the society by internalizing the traditions and customs of the lands. Folkways are old customs which the people had known from age, to age which their origins are lost in antiquity. Why must a community avoid or refuse to eat a kind of fish or an animal, or women carry lead on their shoulders, types of dress to wear on certain ceremony or festival. Family helps to prevent children from behaving otherwise. In Niger Delta families have used this social control to regulate marriage from falling into abysmal level in the twenty first century. At any pressure to alter the set down rules, norms and convention, the people resort to the popular adage, “this is not our culture”. 

The use of taunting songs as a means of controlling social deviant is as old as African society. An offender is ridiculed through short songs sometimes with accompany retrain. In the family either the parents or siblings would make fun of the deviant or constantly reminds him how the society would sing of him. The mechanisms had work in the old good days, but it reverence in the modern time, which internet and social media has taken over the village (global) gossips is worth studying and re-examing. 

Taboos and sanctions (as noted elsewhere) are the religious and social means of getting the African society working and especially in harmony” (Johnson 2013:38). They are forbidden actions or practices a society outlaw its citizens or members from engaging themselves in. There are types of taboos: private and public taboo. Private are personal taboos that deals with the individual, do not touch a man’s cutlass or a women’s cooking pot. They keep away invention of privacy. The public taboos include some social actions and secret relationships between human beings (man and woman), the god and men also. Taboos are seen virtually in everything the Africans do in the society. There are taboos on the way the children speak, how adults should interact in the family yard or in the public. The family plays an important role here controlling the moral and social lives of its members. It is a taboo for a girl to go about soliciting men for marriage. It is a man who will propose marriage to a girl. The opposite is not done, because it is a taboo. I we sees taboos “as in dispensable agent of social control” (2000 36) in building of public moralities. 

Modernity and Marriage in Niger Delta 

The industrialization that came as a result of science and technology brought about modernism. Modernism became a movement in the 19th century with a philosophical idea that stretched into twentieth century rejecting traditional way of handling issues or any form of arts, religious faith and even science that do not support progress and change. Any tradition that does not give society a chance to move progressively should be rejected. “Modernity is then an outcome of modernism and it is also the process of modernism. It is a movement from old to new, a period mankind asked questions and rejection of tradition. Modernity is a period rejection of religion and the pursuit of secularism were involved”, (Johnson 2016). In summary modernity is the whole experience and impacted changed caused by modern time on existence, which includes culture, politics, economy etc. Danfulani and Atowoju advising the youth on restiveness say: 

Living in modernity does not mean living in an age that is intrinsically evil because it is modern, but it does mean that we have to understand that we are living in a fallen culture: a culture whose people and institutions and social habits need to be redeemed (2012 194). 

Modernity has affected many social institutions and religious principles and tradition of the people living in the Niger Delta region. If the saying is true that African traditional institutions have eroded gradually by the influence of modernity, it is better understood the degree of erosion in the Niger Delta. A region that produces over 80% of Nigerian income and wealth (petroleum and gas) and a place that accommodates a high number of oil companies and expatriates with the attendant migration. The Niger Delta is a microcosm of Nigerian complexes and multiplicity politics, culture, language, religion etc. Modernity is surely going to be at its peak in Niger Delta, whenever a general survey is examined to estimate its impact in Africa. No known institution in the region is not affected positively or negatively by modernity. The coming of information technology and globalization, which are parts of modernity, has increased the rate of erosion of traditional institution like marriage and family. 

Marriage ceremony has gone digital, the institution has added incremental peripheries on the essence that shaded the original Africa traditional marriage form total obliteration. By this we mean that modernity add and abstract from African marriage institution. It takes away some crude seemingly practices and brings in modern things that adds glamour to the institution. In the beginning it was the prerogative of the parents to choose a wife for their sons and initiative the processes. Nowadays no youth believes in the principle, talkless taking a spectacle marriage ceremony with such a wife. The “Journey” of marriage starts in the nights and ends in the night. The popular “knock of the door” usually take place at the night and the final stage of marriage rites (payment of bride price) often starts in the evening and ends in the night. We have earlier noted that the stages of marriage rites take months and sometimes years. However, the glamour now is if you have the money and can gather who is who in your marriage ceremony, you can waste the valuable time of the long traditional stages. You can start the process toady and finish it within a week. Most elders are interested in what they currently get out of the marriage ceremony, like food items and money than sustaining the long age tradition. 

The giving of marriage list for the suitor to study is the important issue among the youth. Once a marriage proposal is proclaimed by the father of the bride would-be the youth of the compound or clan will dust off a list of marriage rites prepared long before the proclamation although, with the permission and input of the elders. These lists are never permanent because it is always adjusted to accommodate new items by what they see in another clan or tribes or even in reaction to what they experienced when marrying a wife from another clan or tribe. So the issue of marriage rite list is ever current and has changed from a private family affair to tribal and state affairs. The Ibo and Yoruba marriage rites have crept into Niger Delta marriage ceremony. This is facilitated through the Nolly wood home films that are very much available for every home to watch. People copy things they see in the marriage ceremonies in the home films. A look at an average traditional marriage in the Niger Delta will bring you face to face with “Ada Ada”-a marriage rites song popularized by flaviuor, a Nigerian Hip-Pop singer; and any other marriage rites televised in the Nigerian movies. 

Family is the immediate bearer of the cost of the glamour of marriage ceremony. After the ceremony the couple starts their family and home, and having imbibed the Western monogamy type of marriage, the man bears the expenses and weight of running the family. In some cases the couple starts the family in debts incurred at the wedding ceremony. Take note this paper carefully avoided church marriage, court marriage and other marriage ceremonies. Going into that will increase the volume of the paper and make it runs outside its scope. Many couples in Niger Delta includes the above mentioned marriages in their wedlock and each takes a stage and attract crowd and so gulp a huge sum of money. Family is a place where economic, emotional and psychological security should be guaranteed for the incoming child or children. But when insecurity is laid at the inception of the home what does the future hold for the children. Modern family is burdened with problems: the desire to meet the taste and demand of your in-laws, who you have given a wrong impression of your wealth at the marriage ceremony, the demand of children school fees that is on increase every term, the landlord who increases his house rentage almost every year because he wants to take part in the oil money in the region etc. It is also the duty of a couple to teach discipline and good moral to the children through the tradition of the society and religious moral instruction of Christian or Muslim, whatever religion they are involved. Meanwhile many families are at dilemma which right way to bring up a child; is it through the old African way of pragmatic involvement of the child in the parents chosen career or let the child follow his instinct as dictates by freedom of choice encourage by modernity. 

In conclusion Niger Delta region is probably passing through a new phase of cultural identity. The interaction among the people of the region and the imported way of life of migrants is encouraging an emergence culture that looks indigenous and acceptable to the once heterogeneous culture. If marriage and family is enormously affected by the emerging culture, be it negative or positively, the value system of the people will equally be twisted to follow the trend of cosmological view prevalent at a period. The trend may look beautify and modern but does it has the moral and religious sanction that will sustain it at the moment of life vicissitude and transitory tendencies of human life? For the moment marriage and family are glamorous and beautiful social institutions in the Niger Delta. Every youth, if not everyone, wants to take part in the euphoria while it lasts. It is our prayer that the emerging new culture will sustain and survive the high and expensive taste of life in the region. 

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