Kalabari, an Eastern Ijaw group in Rivers State, Nigeria are spread over several islands in the delta of the Niger River. Critical to their involvement in the internal and overseas trades was the canoe house system. The canoe house (Warri) was the most characteristic political and social institution of the Eastern Niger Delta states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The canoe house was made up of a man and his extended family members, trading assistants, slaves, and servants. Because of the need to maintain an adequate labor supply for their burgeoning trade and because the definition of wealth was the number of persons in a canoe house, leaders of the houses absorbed a great number of non-Kalabari into their houses. Every member who was not born Kalabari was carefully assimilated.
Traditional marriages in Kalabari society occur in three forms: Iya, Igwa, and Waribiobesime. Iya is the most lawful and highest form of Kalabari marriages and that’s what we will be dwelling on.
The Iya marriage – In this marriage, divorce is not permitted and the offspring belong to the man's house. In Igwa (a lesser form of marriage than the Iya), the children belong to the woman's house and divorce is permitted. While an Igwa marriage can be converted into Iya, the reverse is not permissible. Waribiobesime is the marriage between members of the same house who are not blood relations.
Much as men regard the chieftaincy title as the crowning glory of a Kalabari man's achievement, their female counterparts consider the Iya marriage the apex of a woman's success - moreso if she is an Iya-marriage wife of a chief.
Apart from child bearing and rearing, Iya women are practically idle and carry themselves with a great deal of pride, behaving like the aristocratic ladies of Victorian England. They exercise a lot of influence in their husbands’ houses, controlling servants, adopted children, and lesser wives of their husbands. They occupy an acknowledged superior position in the society, conferred on them by their husbands’ wealth and their conspicuous idleness. In a society where everybody has to work much distinction is gained by conspicuous idleness, which is evidence of leisure.
*The picture above is the way the children are adorned for weddings or festivals*
An Iya marriage is not complete until the bibife ceremony (literally "buying of mouth") is undertaken. Bibife signifies three things. First, it signifies a stage in a lawful or full marriage which gives the bride the right to eat in the husband's house.
In the traditional Kalabari towns, a wife for whom the bibife has not been done can cook for her husband, but will have to take her meals and snacks to her parent’s house or a house other than her husband's or his relatives to eat. Second, bibife signifies the man's responsibility towards the wife and his capability and willingness to feed her for the rest of her life. Finally, it signifies and crowns the new communion between the two families.
The bibife ceremony involves serving the bride with innumerable courses of food. At the appointed time, usually in the evening, the bride is taken to the bridegroom's home and presented with different varieties of food. She is given the choice to taste and even eat them, after a member of her family has examined the foods and certified that they have all been well prepared and contain all the right ingredients.
To dramatize the fact that she has a choice to eat from all bowls of food placed before her, she will be given water to wash her mouth, next she is given water, soap and a hand towel to wash and clean her hands. Then a woman from her family takes items from each bowl and enticingly presents them to her to eat. The bride turns her face away from the direction of the enticing food. This offer and refusal ritual is repeated several times. On each occasion, the bride refuses the offer because she knows that the whole set of food belongs to her and the man who ordered their preparation is her husband. She equally knows that the choice to taste and eat is a counterfoil choice. She has the man, his wealth, and his promise to feed her for life, and she must bring off this success without any appearance of concern. She must carry herself with grace and style, self-control, restraint and dignity. Part of the aristocratic idea is nonchalance in the face of a test and "knowing oneself" (bu’nimi).
The aroma of the foods and the incessant prodding to eat must be distracting to the bride, but all through the ceremony she maintains her sense of balance, dignity and self-control in order not to fall for the food, not to grab what is already hers.
As much as bibife is "distracting," it does not compare with the "distraction and drama" of parading the bride to the bridegroom's home. It is quite a spectacle to watch a Kalabari bride being escorted to the bridegroom's place. In the early hours of the evening, she is gorgeously dressed and taken to her groom's house with a gas lamp and many praise songs. During the ceremony there will be an open dance floor and dancers who exhibit high performance can be recognized by having money put on them by their admirers. Notes are the only effective mechanism to participate in this activity so it is typical for guests to obtain lower denomination of naira notes in order to keep costs under control! The money is usually placed on the forehead of the dancer while they are dancing and they will pick the money up themselves or will have delegated people pick up the money for them.
Women supporters escorting her make jokes and do everything to make her laugh. Single men who are watching from the sides as she is being paraded hurl insults and scoff at her. Some of them say they had slept with her and she is no good. They do not mean all that they say, the insults are all part of the fun of the evening designed to make her laugh or lose her temper. All through the evening, jeering, singing and praises, she keeps a tight upper lip. Although, she has the option to laugh or frown, it is not exercisable. Laughing, frowning, and verbal responses are only the counterfoil to the real choice of keeping a tight upper lip. Self-control, dignity, decorum and nonchalance are what are expected of a Kalabari woman in this counterfoil choice situation.
Before this fateful evening, during the period of courtship, the woman would also have been faced with several instances of counterfoil choice. When a Kalabari woman visits her prospective parents-in-law, she will be offered food and advised to eat. The proper thing for her to do is to reject the food and ask for water to drink. When the bibife ceremony has not been done, it is considered a serious breach of etiquette for a bride to eat in her prospective parents-in-law's house.
*The customary practice is for the Kalabari woman to be buried by her father's house *