Nigeria, one of the most populated countries in Africa, has so many cultural practices. Practicing some of these cultures, societies inflict psychological and physical pains on women. Most times the practices unconsciously promote violence against women and also place women in sub-standard positions.
Among the Efik and Ibibio peoples of Cross Rivers state-- a state located on the south eastern part of Nigeria, mbodi (bride fattening) is a cutural practice. Mbodi is a rite of passage which subject women of marriageable age to undergo the process of body fattening. In most cases, mbodi goes with circumcision. The fattening process involves the forceful feeding of would-be brides to make them fat.
In these cultural communities a fat woman is considered beautiful and presentable to the husband. Bride fattening is done despite the impacts Mbodi practice has on the health of these women. It usually leads to obesity and put women in other dangerous health conditions. “I didn’t want to go through the confining and fattening process but my uncle forced me to do it, I cried all through. The circumcision was particularly painful. If I didn’t obey, I will be ex-communicated by the family,” says a 44 year-old Patience.
The would-be brides are taken into fatting huts completely cut off from the rest of the society. They are made to eat, sleep and avoid moving their bodies as much as possible. This confinement usually lasts for six weeks. Mbodi is a rite of passage which prepares a young woman for marriage and is done when the bride price has been paid. Mbodi is usually done along-side circumcision (Female Genital Mutilation).
Among the Efik and Ibibio tribes, popularly referred to as the Calabar people of Nigeria, it is a pride for parents to give their daughters into marriage. The joy is made complete when the prospective wife is fattened and declared a virgin. They believe fattening brides prior to marriage makes them healthy and presentable to the husband and at the same time portrays her family as wealthy. It is common belief among both the Calabar men and women that a fat woman makes a healthy wife. The husband derives pleasure if the wife is fat; and the bride feels honored and respected when she is fat. The strong belief is that a woman’s beauty is in her big size.
According to Emmanuel, a native of Ibiono-Ibom, “women of marriageable age in my area go through the mbodi process so that they will be fattened and look healthy and attractive to their husbands. If a woman is not fat, how will the husband know that she is healthy?” It is believed that a woman who is preparing for marriage must look fat and healthy and also be groomed in house-keeping and cooking. These are the areas believed to be women's sphere. Mbodi provides opportunity for the would-be bride to be inculcated with such qualities. During the process, she is also taught how to satisfy her husband sexually.
Emmanuel says Mbodi encourages young ladies to keep their virginity-- a virgin bride is seen as an asset. During the Mbodi rite, the girl`s virginity is checked and it is a taboo and disgrace for her family if she is not found a virgin.
In some cases, more than one person can be kept in a fattening room. The expenses of cooking and other costs related to accomplishing the fattening of the bride is not necessarily the sole responsibility of the bride`s parents. The would-be husband shares the financial burden.
While in the fattening room, the bride is fed on special delicacies such as ekpankuko (combination of slice unripe plantain, vegetable, fish and oil) and other special foods. She is forced to take so much garri (ground cassava soaked in water) and made to drink a lot of water. She is forced to eat more than her system can carry, after which she goes to sleep.
Bride fattening does not entail feeding only. It goes with body massaging. An older matron does a lot of work massaging the body of the bride. The matron uses local chalk on the entire body of the bride during the massage. The older woman first applies palm oil on the body of the bride before massaging with local chalk. She then uses a local herb called ’nsang’ on the palm and feet of the bride. After the massaging, ’akukin’, a body smoothener is used to smoothen the body. The 'akukin' is also used to make colorful designs on the bride’s body.
At the elapse of six weeks, the bride is paraded in the market square. She is placed on a horse or carried by able-bodied men. She wears ‘ireke’ (beads), which are wrapped around her waist. Her chest is exposed and her breasts are kept bare. She wears precious jewels called ‘ntong’ on her wrists and legs. At some points she is brought down to dance and as she dances people shower her with gifts.
Circumcision of women who go through the mbodi cultural rite can take place during the fattening process when the bride is still confined, or shortly before the delivery of her first baby. The myth remains that the woman must be circumcised before the delivery of her first baby to prevent the head of the baby from hitting her uncut clitoris. It is believed that if the baby`s head comes in contact with the uncut clitoris the baby will die.
Although the practiced has been curbed in most of these localities, it is still highly practiced in the Annang community of Cross Rivers state, Nigeria. The economic hardship in Nigeria coupled with the campaign against Female Genital Mutilation by some Organizations and United Nations agencies have helped to discourage the practice. The government of Cross River State is said to have placed a ban on the practice but the Annang community still upholds bribe fattening.
Mr. Saviour who hails from Ibiono-Ibom, one of the communities where the fattening is no longer practiced prior to the passing of the law in 2015 says doing away with the Mbodi is not in the best interest of their culture. He says that abolition of mbodi and the Female Genital Mutilation promotes promiscuity among girls. “How can the society prove that the girl is still a virgin? Let me tell you, these girls who go about with the uncut clitoris are sexually uncontrollable.”
Mama Ekaete is 74 years old. She passed through the mbodi rite before she got married. She laments that the dying down of the mbodi rite is a major cause of problems in marital homes. A bride who is not circumcised is bound to be promiscuous and infidelity on the part of women breaks homes. A man can be allowed to have concubines, but it is not culturally allowed and will not be the same with women. Mama Ekaete also maintains that with the abolition of mbodi, brides may not want to retain their virginity until marriage because they have no cultural obligation to do so. This is different from men.
However, this is high time African women stand up to reject cultural practices which promote violence against them. It is very crucial that we scale up efforts to change traditional cultural views that underpin violence against women. Women deserve the rights to choose to participate in practices which promote their interest and not those to please the society. A lot of campaigns by organizations and activists in the country have been carried out against female genital mutilation. On 5 May 2015, the federal government of Nigeria passed a law abolishing the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As it is now, Nigeria’s decision carries significant weight and would need to be implemented effectively.
Now that the federal government has outlawed the female genital mutilation in the country what would be the fate of bride fattening-- a cultural practice that work hand in hand with the women’s genital mutilation? A 29 year old Ekaete from Calabar, a colleague of mine answers thus: “actually these days, no young man would want to marry an overblown lady, men prefer slim girls, so these days no bride would like to be fattened.”