Abenmire Adi Williams, in this piece, shares her experience about the “money woman” culture in one of Cross River’s communities, where girls are forcefully married off, even serving as collateral for money borrowed and ‘owned’ when debtor parents are unable to pay the creditor.
Fear lives on in Cross River’s Becheve community, Obanliku Local Government Area. In May of this year, I and a group of women journalists went to the community which plays host to the once famous Obudu Mountain Resort in Cross River State. This community had come alive for its obnoxious “money woman” culture and we were here to see it for ourselves.
Groups of people littered the roads and street corners as we entemost old men drinking local spirits and palm wine, women surrounding another as she plaits her hair and young men talking. Quite unexpectedly, children are running around, chasing one another, hiding behind trees and throwing stones. It looks happier than we expect because of what we’ve heard. A small distance from the main road, the Igbo missionary, Richard Akonam who has lived here for twenty years, welcomes us to his house and plays the guitar after we have prayed with him. His wife offers us oranges before we go into the community.
We meet the people already sitting and waiting for us.
We’re late, they’re disappointed and they show it. We apologize. At first, we pretend not to know, we tell them we have only come into the community to know if they have any problems, to know if we can help them. They talk about public power supply, schools, employmen, etc. Finally, one person mentions the money marriage issue and then another does, and then another.
Dorathy, a short, dark skinned lady who had obviously once been fair talks first. She had been married from the age of five and now, about twenty-six, has five kids. It is the short lanky man walking right across from us that she tells us is her husband. He’s at least seven times her age, old enough to be her grandfather she tells us. She tells us he’s her uncle, her father’s brother. At first, she would try to run away but ends up chased and held down by other women while her husband raped her, ugly episodes that resulted in five children she single-handedly caters to with the proceeds from her farm. She had been warned to stop trying to run or he would kill her by tying and drying her under the sun and then throw corn seeds at her private part so birds could eat from there, pecking at her private part. She spoke bitterly, referring to her husband with unhidden contempt and swears at him.
There’s Faith, a stout teenage girl who had been given out in marriage to pay a debt her grandfather owed the man she was given to. It is a small debt of about 2000NGN (two thousand naira) but prevalent poverty makes it hard to pay up these debts and young girls are therefore, given in exchange. She tells us she’s been trying to go to school. She sells items to raise money and buy her books but when these books are found, her husband burns them, tells her she’s going to “tear eye” (become enlightened) if she keeps reading. It means he fears she’ll get too wise.
The night we’re in Becheve, she hangs around us and refuses to leave. She is stubborn and has made up her mind she is not going back to her husband. “Even if they’re going to kill me,” she says, “anything they like, let them do.” She tells us the next morning that her sisters had mercilessly beaten her the previous night for running away from her husband and for telling us her story. They won’t take her back in because when a ‘money woman’ is given out, she belongs to her husband and should cut ties with her family. She is not going back, she swears, she is not. After we leave, the Igbo missionary tells us she spent the last night at a drug store.
Another girl we meet had been given out, to pay for her father’s debt, incurred in a gambling game he lost. Yet another, Glory is the ‘money woman’ who replaces her sister after she dies without a child. When a ‘money woman’ gives birth to girls, it is good business for her husband who can sell the girls off for money and so if she dies or never gives births, her family gets someone else to take her place. They all live the same reality, married to way older men they do not even like, living like slaves and having no choice.
With the ‘money woman’ culture, girls, most times even less than the age of twelve, are given out by their families to men for various reasons. These reasons often are hinged on debts and credits ranging from the inability to pay for goods taken to the inability to pay back borrowed money, even exchanging these girls for paltry sums in order to cater to an immediate need. And the girls cannot leave. The reason they cannot, is woven around a dreaded supposedly potent deity called Olambe.
If a ‘money woman’ dares to escape from her husband, the effect of this magic makes her family pay. Members of her family either dry up or swell up and die, they tell us. Even she is sometimes, not spared and it is believed among them, that the Olambe can be easily invoked to make the escaping woman and her family pay.
Besides the traumatizing and dehumanizing circumstances which these girls and women have to endure, there is an abundance of sexually transmitted diseases as well as an excruciatingly high risk of Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF) seeing as these girls are married off so early with most of them becoming sexually active even before they turn teenagers.
The absence of adequate education, lack of good medical care and ultimately powerlessness would be among a string of factors contributing to high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in these women.
However, a lot of public attention has been drawn, in recent times, to the situation and widespread condemnation has come the way of this community for propagating slavery in 2018. While we can all work and hope that the end of this ugly culture is very near, we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal until real life opportunities return to these girls, something they strongly are waiting for.
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