Before a man can marry an Igbo woman, he must first ask for her hand in marriage from her parents, as well as her Umunna (oo-moon-nah), which is her extended family. The western style of marriage proposals (bending down on one knee) is cute and all, but it doesn’t really count in Naija culture. The prospective bride’s ‘yes’ is not the final say; the groom has to formally ask her parents and her kindred. Marriage is a communal thing in Igboland, so the groom, Igbo or not, is expected to ask for her hand in marriage in accordance with Igbo custom and tradition.
The first visit the groom-to-be is to make to ask for the bride’s hand is called the introduction, which we call Iku Aka and Iku Ese, which translates to ‘to knock on the door’ and ‘to inquire/ask about’. This introduction is where the groom formally introduces himself and his family members to the bride’s family, makes his intentions known for their daughter, and asks for the bride’s parent’s consent. Although not required, it is not a good idea for him to show up empty-handed on the first visit and should bring good, quality gifts, such as bottles of wine (can be non-alcoholic), hot drinks (like Hennessey), kola nuts, palm wine, and anything else. The groom is not to go alone on this Iku Aka visit. He should be accompanied by his father and elderly relatives, and if he wants, a few close friends as well. His father or one of his elderly uncles would be the spokesman at this visit.
The second visit will be made to the bride’s Umunna (extended family). On this visit, the groom should bring more people than he did to the initial introduction – it can be as many as 20 people. This stage is very important because this is when the groom is given consent to move forward with the wedding. Again, it is not wise that he goes empty handed and should prepare to bring gifts of palm wine, beer, kola nuts, soda, a goat, etc.
The next step the groom will take is to revisit the bride’s immediate family to discuss the terms of the bride price arrangement (Ime Ego). Note that the money exchanged during this process is purely symbolic and is not the real amount or value placed on the woman. Before the groom makes the Ime Ego visit, he will need to ask his future in-laws for the customary list of engagement items to bring – this differs from family to family. These gifts would usually be presented on the day of the Wine-Carrying Ceremony (Igba Nkwu). During the Ime Ego, the groom’s father and family elders will present the bride price, after which will typically be followed lengthy negotiations of the “value” of the bride-to-be. These negotiations can be full of arguments and disagreements…even begging. You may ask why this is so. Well, it’s because the bride’s family usually starts by pricing the daughter very high by listing out her accomplishments and values (this can include the bride being a virgin, her being able to cook well, her earning an education/being a degree holder, etc.). The groom’s family will offer a counter-offer and this will go back and forth until the two families come to an agreement. The tradition of paying dowry dates back thousands of years, and is not only maintained in Nigeria. Once the bride price is paid, the groom’s family would then discuss the plans for the Igba Nkwu.