Ikwe-Ezi Mgbidi; The Sacred Passage Into Womanhood In Imo State
When a tradition defeats all forces of civilization and religious indoctrination, it is no longer a mere tradition, but a part of the people; a solid mirror on whose surface you can see the beauty of a people.
Mgbidi, popular for the famous Ikwe-Ezi rite is the headquarters of Oru-west Local government area of IMO, a state in southeastern Nigeria. Comprises of eleven villages -( indigenes of the villages in Mgbidi, consider it a mild insult to refer to their homeland as a village; they think, that given the level of development and modernization, the place had better be called a town.)
Being one of the oldest towns in Imo State, it is bounded in the North by Ibi-Asoegbe and Aji, on the east by Amiri and Otulu, in the West by Ozara and in the South by Oguta LGA and Awo-omamma.
The township of Mgbidi is known for a number of formidable things, amongst which is the tradition of not being seen or heard to have killed sacred Python (Eke Mgbidi). Anyone who does this must-have to bury the python completely as you do a human being, because to them, you have killed a father of the village.
Then we have the eminent tradition of Ikwe-ezi (the passage into womanhood rite). The said tradition is performed only by young girls who are indigenes of the town; who becomes ripe for the rite once they experience their first-ever menstruation.
In Igbo, the native dialect of the people of Eastern Nigeria, the tradition is called Ikwe-ezi. Regarding opinions from a red-cap chief and who is an indigene of the town, on having an English coined name for the tradition, there is a no-no-no outburst. “You are excepted to say it as it is: Ikwe-Ezi Mgbidi.” He said dismissively.
The Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi Rite
The Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi history started after the daughter of a peasant named Emegwamma was banished. In anger, he involved all Mgbidi deities to avenge for him. He had a beautiful daughter who was approached by a wealthy ozo titled man for marriage, but was turned down. Unknown to her, the man took it as a slight on his person.
The consequences of Emegwamma’s action were that he had put a curse on the entire community and failure to treat the family of an Mgbidi girl in future who gets pregnant like his daughter the way his family was treated will attract the wrath of these gods.
After the last exercise undergone for banishment, the elders had to gather at Eke Obana (Eke Mgbidi) and decided to streamline the community girl’s behavior. In this meeting, the elders decided to institute Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi as a ceremony girls must perform after seeing their first menstruation before getting pregnant or married, just to avoid the punishment of banishment and Emegwamma’s curse.
The celebration of this rite usually takes a course for a period of twelve days. During those days, the young girl(s) who has just reached puberty and has confirmed her womanhood with the knowledge of her first-ever menstruation. Stays in the thatched hut made for her by male relatives and well-wishers from fresh fronds of a palm tree( Ulo Akirika)-giving the thatch such a brilliant green look presents nature and tranquillity.
She is expected to stay in there resting, eating food brought to her daily by members of her family, and welcoming visitors who have come to wish you well. The rationale behind this is that she does not have to perform any menial labour, to fatten up during this period.
She is to adorn her body with a powder gotten from the grounded chunks of a felled camwood tree, the powder is reddish and has some scientifically proven benefits to the skin, with includes: Clearing of acne, lightening of the skin, reduction of wrinkles and fine lines.
The idea is to make her look as beautiful as possible during this stay. The thatched hut already prevents her from the direct heat of sunlight, so at the end… that skin must pop!
On the first day of the rite, the family of the celebrant is bound to fire some gunshots to announce their daughter’s readiness to become a woman by performing the rite. The gunshot also serves as an announcement for the sake of records, that so and so maiden from so and so family, on so and so day partook the Ikwe-ezi tradition.
On the other days of the rite, nothing spectacular happens, the girl just sits idle and is pampered. She serves her visitors with Coconut and fish. The tradition is particular with these two items, and it is gathered, that no matter the financial status of the celebrant’s family or the economic situation at the time. There must be at least one ball of coconut and a sizeable quantity of fish.
On the final day, which is the twelfth day, the girl ought to go very early in the morning to the river called, ‘mmiri nwata oma’(river of the beautiful child), to dip her bare feet into the river thrice as an oath of innocence on her presumed virginity.
If any girl tries as much as undergoing the feet-dipping part of the rite without being a virgin; she would have to face the wrath of the river goddess, Obana, which is, Barrenness or, at severe cases: death!
The Ikwe-Ezi Mgbidi is, however, a period of anxiety for many families whose daughters are ripe for the ceremony, because they have seen and heard of how many families in the land have had their daughters publicly embarrassed and even banished from the community for not being faithful to the rules of the tradition. Most times, the thought of the grave consequence sends shivers down the spines of parents and wards of the ripe aged girls who ought to partake in the ceremony.
Detailed History Behind Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi Rite
There once lived a peasant farmer whose daughter was the village’s most beautiful who was approached by a wealthy titled man for marriage and she had kindly declined.
Before now, ambits of history tell that there was an existing tradition ( also for young girls) to rest and perform no strenuous task for a stipulated short period of time. In order for them to appear supple, healthy, and nourished on the final day of the said tradition. They will dance half-naked( covering only their waist region, leaving the whole breast area bare).
The idea of this is to afford onlookers an opportunity to ascertain by mere looking over the girl(s) body, whether or not she was chaste-( the women present, particularly, could tell when a girl from the circle was or has been pregnant)- so that willing young men from the crowd could make a pick for a possible wife.
It was on one such day that the titled man secured the opportunity to retaliate because the girl is pregnant and had no identified husband.
The elders, therefore, decided that it was indeed an abomination in the clan. As penance, she was banished for life. The elders in a bid to prevent future occurrences decided on a new atonement that would be called, the Ikwe-ezi, tradition.
So, this tradition is a reaction to the spate of pregnancies out of wedlock, for it is considered a grievous sin against the goddess, Obana. This tradition stands on to this day and does not exclude any group or class of indigenes. Girls who are elsewhere will have their family perform theirs in absentia.
Participants of The Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi Rite
Their name was derived from the duties they perform as usual to fetch water needed for everything during the celebration, cooking, and run errands.
Members of the male age grade, responsible for organizing the Udu Ego and collecting the necessary items due to them by right over a certain period.
Summary of the processes Ikwe Ezi Mgbidi
There are several steps involved in planning and executing the Ikwe Eze Mgbidi rites. These steps are the guidelines to ensure a smooth sail of the ceremony. Missing any of the steps interprets as failure to complete the process of the ceremony.
Similarly, the uniqueness of this culture is embedded in the process of the rite. This is where you get to see the colorful event on display.
The process is listed below;
Igu Afa: The priest comes to enquire from the ancestors who actually incarnated the celebrant.
Igba Egbe Ezi: The father of the girl or either of her parents or guardian alive will release two cammon shots to announce that their daughter is about to commence her Ezi rite.
Iru Ulo Akirika: Shed will be made within the main building with palm fronds.
Iba na Ulo Akirika: The celebrant stays in the Ulo Akirika together with Umu-mmiri who runs errands. Because in this period, she is not expected to do a thing.
Ikpoba Ali Udu Ego: It is the first occasion for the celebrant, where she shows herself to the people, distributes coconuts, dried fish, and dances in the presence of guests.
Ibu Oyo: Initially, it’s the day the husband to provide a large pounded yam that fills the mortar and provides a huge pot of rich soup.
Igbasa Ulo Akirika: It is a day to demolish the palm shed. This is done on the Orie market day. Two cammon shots will be released to signify the end of Ezi rite.
Igba Uhie: Basically beautification of the entire body of the celebrant with Camwood.
Ihu ji: After Igba Uhie, celebrants take a tuber of yam marked with native chalk, an iron staff, a clay pot accompanied by a little girl, and then proceeds to the shrine of Obana to deposit the tuber of yam.
Imanye Ukwu na Mmiri: The girl on getting to Mmiri Nwataoma, will dip her two big toes, then using a clay pot, fetch water from the stream and goes home; usually accompanied by a little girl.
Izu Ahia ezi: The girl, together with other girls from different parts of the community who perform the rite at the same time will assemble at the Eke market square and dance; where well-wishers give them gift items or money.
What Indigenes Gain Complying With The Rite
- It discourages promiscuity amongst the indigenes
- This practice is a thing of pride and joy for the girl to have finally become a woman.
- During the public dance on the rite’s last day, girls receive valuable gift items.
- It helps reduces truancy in the town by stopping the births of children without identified fathers.
Possible Cons Of The Ikwe-Ezi Mgbidi Rite
- It is a thing that some young girls once after the rite, see it as a time to become promiscuous.
- In modern times, people rebuked the dipping of feet part as demonic.
- A girl who gets pregnant from other ways aside consensual sex is not pitied with the punishment.
With the growth and process of civilization and Christianity, a certain degree of change was made, thus, most of the traditional rites associated with Ikwezi festival are no longer observed as it used to be. Women that now observe the festival no longer visit the river, no longer dance half-naked in the market square, and no longer observe fetish things considered not Christian like.
Notwithstanding, the Ikwe-ezi tradition remains one of the oldest and most unique traditions of the Mgbidi people and it has remained unaffected by civilization or the advent of Christianity; the tradition, unlike others, is here to stay.
Nnamdi Vin -Anuonye is a freelance writer. His works cut across themes exploring issues like discrimination on the basis of sex, depression, and general issues affecting fundamental Human Rights. He is currently pursuing an LLB from Anambra state university. In his free time, he likes to google writers and watch talks videos and interviews on YouTube until his eyes hurt.