In most traditional Igbo societies, the word bastard does not exist.
It can only be described. It came in after British colonisation.
In most Igbo communities, a child is a child. Even though marriage
is cherished, a child born out of wedlock is not allowed to suffer
stigmatisation and rejection because of the indiscretion of its
parents. So the word “bastard” is alien in most (if not all)
traditional Igbo communities. The dream of every man and his wife
is for their daughter to marry before bearing children. Marriage is
celebrated. Having a baby out of marriage is frowned at and seen
as a thing of shame. But if a girl has a baby out of marriage, the
baby is accepted by her parents as theirs.
Every child has a “father” – fatherhood does not necessarily have
to be biological. Getting a woman pregnant does not mean the
child is yours. If the girl is not your wife, you have no right over the
Because there are variations in cultures from town to town, let me
use Nnewi as a case study.
Westernisation and external influences have affected our culture so
much that a lot has changed in recent times. As recent as 1985, a
man had no claims over a child he fathered outside wedlock. The
seal of wedlock was the bride price. If a man got a girl pregnant
without marriage, the baby therefrom belonged to the father of the
girl and bore his name. The child would be treated like every other
member of the family. If he was male, he would get his land
inheritance from the ancestral land. He would belong to the clan as
a full member.
The only inhibition was that if he lived to become the oldest
member of his big family called the ụmụnna, he would not be the
custodian of the ọfọ, which is the symbol of truth and purity held in
trust by the oldest man for his people.
The reasoning behind the acceptance of a child born out of
wedlock was that the child should not be made to bear the brunt of
the indiscretion of two adults who could not control their libido.
Secondly, the child was made to belong to the girl’s father to
discourage men from going about impregnating girls and claiming
to be fathers without responsibility. A he-goat could get a she-goat
pregnant too, but fatherhood comes with some responsibilities and
decorum. If you wanted to be a father, you must get a wife.
There was an interesting angle to this. If a man got a woman
pregnant and came to marry her to make her an honest woman, as
the English would say, it was seen as a good thing. But there was
a caveat. The man would be asked if he wanted to marry the
woman or the baby in her womb. He would say he came to marry
the woman. He would be told to wait until after her delivery,
because two people would not be given out in lieu of one person.
The child delivered by the girl would belong to her father and be
seen as one of “her brothers”. If the man was still keen on
marrying her, he would then marry her after she had weaned the
child. She would not take the child to her husband’s house.
If the man was no longer interested in marriage, the woman would
remain in her father’s house until another person came. The snag
was that she would not be seen as a premium bride anymore, but
because she had proved to be fertile and it was the era of
polygamy, it would not be too hard for a suitor to come.
When a man refused his daughter marriage
If a man had no male child, he could officially keep one of his
daughters back to ensure that the homestead did not close. The
society was hinged on a big family unit called the ụmụnna.
Ụmụnna literally means “children of a father”. The ụmụnna is
made up of descendants of one man over many generations.
Members of one ụmụnna cannot marry one another. Members of
the ụmụnna usually lived together in one part of the community.
Land was seen as ancestral property handed over from father to
son. So because a girl must marry out of her ụmụnna, she could
not inherit her father’s homestead or land, because that would
mean that her husband (a member of another ụmụnna or village)
would inherit the ancestral land of her ụmụnna.
So in the event of a man getting old or terminally ill without having
a son, a daughter would be officially kept back to bear children
without marriage and keep the family alive in a tradition called
“ịhachi nwanyị”. Once the ceremony was completed, the girl was
seen as a “son” of her father. She would get pregnant and bear
children officially for her father. She was not expected to marry
afterwards, but in some cases, after bearing some sons and
daughters for her parents, she would leave the children for her
mother to take care of and still get married later, if she so wished.
Those sons would become the heirs of her father.
When a married woman took in for another man.
Adultery was seriously frowned at. If a married woman got
pregnant through infidelity, she would face some harsh
consequences, but the baby belonged to her husband. Even if the
baby was a carbon copy of the man who got the woman pregnant,
the baby’s father was the husband of the woman. The reason was
that fatherhood was seen as only possible through marriage.
If a man sent his wife away or the woman left her marriage and
the matter had not been resolved, but within this period she got
pregnant, her baby belonged to her husband. The reason was still
because she was officially the wife of the man. They had not been
divorced. Divorce is not complete if the bride price has not been
If a man and a woman got married in a law court or church outside
the community and had children; if the man died and his body was
brought back home for burial, the ụmụnna would not accept the
woman and her children, for she was never married to the man, in
the eyes of his kinsmen.
If the woman died first, the man was in trouble. The family of the
woman would refuse to be present at the burial of their daughter.
And if they were not present, their daughter would not be buried,
for they could come back afterwards and ask for their daughter. If
the man failed to produce her alive, they would accuse him of
killing their daughter. The man would be made to “see his ears with
his eyes” without the help of a mirror.
The ụmụnna of the woman would not attend the burial because the
man did not marry their daughter. As far as they were concerned,
he kidnapped their daughter. Taking away a girl and “marrying
her” without the ụmụnna handing over the girl to you was an insult
to the ụmụnna.
Marriage was not seen as a transaction between a man and a
woman or even between the man’s parents and the woman’s
parents. No. Marriage was seen as a transaction between one
ụmụnna and another. It is said that one man does not give out a
woman in marriage.
When a man could not father a child
If a man was sterile, his homestead would not be allowed to close.
Based on consent of the man, his chosen kinsman would secretly
take over the duty of getting his wife pregnant. The kinsman was
seen as carrying out a critical service for both his “brother” and
community. In some cases, the infertile or sterile man would have
to approach his kinsman with a keg of palm-wine to carry out this
onerous task. But such an arrangement was kept secret. The
children belonged to the husband of the woman (or women, if the
man was polygamous). That was the people’s concept of IVF.
When a woman took a wife
If a woman could not have a child for her husband, she could
marry a wife to have children for her. Well-to-do women did that.
She would be accompanied like a man to get a wife. The wife so
married was not her co-wife. She was “her wife”, owing allegiance
to her. Her husband would be taking her to bed. But all the
children born by the young wife belonged to the senior woman who
paid her bride price. The children would call her “nnukwu nne” (big
mother). This was the people’s own idea of surrogacy.
The bottom line was that as much as humanly possible, it was a
society that did not want any married person to be childless. That
was why a name like Nwakaego (a child is greater than money)
was common. It was a society that cherished marriage and
wanted children to be born only within matrimony. It was a society
that believed that fatherhood came with enormous responsibilities
and that getting a woman pregnant was not the yardstick for
determining fatherhood. It was a society that did not want any
child to suffer any stigma because of the actions of its parents. It
was a society that wanted the lineage of every man to continue ad
infinitum. That was why names like Amaechina, Obiefuna (may the
homestead never close) was a common name among boys, for
once a male child was born, it was believed that the homestead
would not close.
However, in recent times these traditions have almost been
entirely eroded. Marriage is increasingly seen as a personal affair
between two people. Most members of the ụmụnna or community
don’t even know when their kinsman or kinswoman gets married or
who the spouse is. The couple decide what happens within their
family. DNA test has even become a factor in marriage.
In most traditional Igbo societies, the word bastard does not exist.