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Some interesting African Taboos
Taboo (also tabu) could be seen as a social or religious custom placing prohibition or restriction on a particular thing or person. It could also be defined as those acts, behaviour or tendency that are prohibited or restricted by social custom. A tabu can also be seen as something that is designated as sacred and prohibited.
In a traditional and culturally minded society like Africa’s, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find out that there are many African taboos which are put in place to control and guide the different individuals in that very community so as to achieve harmony and oneness.
Sometimes these African taboos could be quite ridiculous as you will soon see. Sometimes they really serve as a great lesson because many people who have actually gone against the stated law/s never lived to tell the story.
The unconscious belief and practice of such taboos also stems from the fact that there are many superstitious beliefs associated with Africans. Today, I choose to focus specifically on certain African taboos prevalent in many places in Igbo speaking areas of Nigeria.
Let me first start with the serious ones before I gradually introduce the really ridiculous ones.
It is not a question of this being against the Ten Commandments because it is clearly beyond that. Adultery is seriously frowned at in Igbo land and anybody who is caught in the act is in real serious trouble.
But the ridiculous thing about this very taboo is that it is usually understood as a woman’s defaulting alone. In other words, it is a woman’s crime and that means to stop adultery, you must first stop the woman.
In fact, there is a local community where it is believed that if a husband of an adulterous woman knowingly eats her meal, he will die!
So if the man knows that his wife is “tainted”, he will do everything within his power to save his own neck by avoiding the woman entirely, until she gets cleansed which requires a round of sacrifices to be made.
There is also a local community close to where I live where it is believed that any woman who goes against the laws of the land and commits adultery will run mad instantly. Believe it or not, such is the potency of that belief that today many women [mostly from that area] are held down in fear because of the threat of insanity hanging over them to this day!
What about the men, you may ask? Well, how do they say it again? It’s a man’s world, you know? You see why I said it could be quite ridiculous, these taboos…?
Teenage pregnancy is seriously frowned at due to many reasons.
One, it is one of the easiest ways to identify a very promiscuous and careless girl and no parent wants to be the parent of such a “loose” girl in our Igbo society.
Teenage pregnancy can also cause a lot of hamper for the girl/s involved as regards to her chances of getting married later in life simply because most men will not be so keen to start taking of care of another child whose father is unknown to him. It shows that the girl lacks proper home training which means her mother is at fault for bringing about the devaluation in her bride price.
It can also create serious problems for the unborn child towards inheritance, especially if it turns out to be a boy, because inheritance-wise, there is no way he can become a family member “just like that” since he is NOT a son of the soil.
The stigma associated with teenage pregnancy is quite enough to open any girl’s eyes. The ridiculous thing here is that once again, teenage pregnancy is considered a woman’s problem ALONE!
Marriage blessings from the parents of the girl involved is believed to be a MUST if that very marriage is expected to work and blossom.
Such is the belief in this practice that a father can easily put a stop to any impending marriage of he is not comfortable with the man who is asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
It is generally believed that in marriages whereby there was none of such blessings, marital problem such as barrenness, infidelity, divorce and sometimes, even early death are always bound to occur!
So to avoid any of such trials and tribulations, any sensible girl, no matter what, will surely make sure that her father or her family really sanctions the marriage before she steps into her man’s home as a new bride.
This can also save a lot of problems for the girl in the future because if things turn awry in her marital life, the only place she can safely come back to is her father’s house.
Imagine her situation and the type of welcome she will get, if she did not get that all-important blessing from them, in the first place!
Disrespect for age
Disrespect for age in NOT accepted. In our Igbo society, age is not just a number, it actually means something more. It represents superiority, authority, respect, power and most importantly wisdom.
Do you know my age? Don’t you know that I am your senior? And with those kinds of statements, someone can easily impose or establish his/her authority over you.
Mind you, it doesn’t matter if this person is older than you by just a matter of a few hours or days because your senior is your senior.
Everything is done with age and seniority in perspective. You cannot just walk up and take something that is being shared if you don’t first wait for your elders to take their own share first simply because sharing is done by age. A well brought up African person should not be seated when his or her elders are standing due to lack of seats.
Similarly you are not at liberty to address your elders by their personal names as doing that is just a very clear way of identifying someone who lacks proper home training.
That is one reason why you may never see a true African child from a true African home calling his father or mother by their first name. You must add their title to their names as a mark of respect. It might sound somehow odd to you but then, that’s just the way it is.
Having sexual relations with blood sisters
I don’t know why this is considered a taboo but most likely almost everybody you come across in our own Igbo society and ask them what their opinion on this is, you will most likely get the same answer that it is simply a taboo.
I have even heard people say that it one easy way of attracting all forms to evil such as epilepsy, blindness, poverty, lack of progress or success in life, and in extreme cases, even death into the life of the man who engages himself in such sister-play.
To me, I believe this taboo is nothing but a preemptive measure put in place to avoid the odd situation of causing uncontrollable jealousy, disaffection and bad blood amongst blood sisters, a problem which can easily get out of hand and set the whole house on fire because it can never be easily managed.
Killing and eating of certain animals
When you travel to many parts in Igbo land, you may be astoundingly discover that certain animals are not supposed to be killed or even eaten in such areas.
These animals are highly revered while some other people believe such animals are their ancestors. Killing them is believed to attract a fine or penalty as reparation towards the great evil committed against the ancestors who are also believed to be the protectors of the land.
For example in some places in Anambra State of Nigeria, pythons are not killed and accidental killing of such will call for burial rites similar to that of human as a form of appeasing the gods or else...
Osu - The Igbo caste system
The practice of the caste system is termed Osu in Igbo society. An osu is someone who is considered an outcast simply because s/he is said to be owned by the gods.
As a result, no one is supposed to have any dealings with anybody confirmed to be an osu be it in serious matters like marriage or tradings.
The osu caste system has prevented many prospective marriages from occurring simply because marrying an osu man or woman is also one of the easiest way to become an instant self made outcast who no one will like to deal with or do anything with together with the children produced from such unions since the osu caste system is also generational.
So before people get married, you find their family members making standard undercover background checks works to find out either if the couples are related so as to avoid the issue of taboo of incest or to find out if the other party involved is tagged as an osu family.
Use of the left hand
Left handedness is not an option. You shouldn’t eat with your left hand. You shouldn’t write with your left hand. In fact, you shouldn’t do anything with your left hand.
If you want to give someone something like, let’s say money, and this person is your elder, doing so with your left hand is considered as complete mark of your utter disrespect or disdain for the person.
Children who are left handed are forced to “correct” the anomaly. You should see the type of reprimanding handed over to a child or a junior person who tries to collect something from an elder with the left hand to understand the gravity of that offense.
Till this day, I am bewildered because I don’t know and cannot say why left handedness is still considered a taboo by many people and even amongst the highly educated in our society.