The Traditions of the Tribe

The Traditions of the Tribe

By Melissa Tawn
The traditions of the tribe must always be obeyed.


The traditions of our tribe are matrilineal. The children of a wedded woman belong primarily to her and not to her husband, and she belongs primarily to her mother and not to her spouse. Should a married woman die, leaving behind small children, and should her mother still be alive, the mother has the right to choose from among the woman’s siblings a “substitute mother”, whom the widower is then obliged to marry, to replace her deceased daughter as mother of the grandchildren.

This tradition is very strong and never to be questioned. And so, when my sister Sidi died suddenly of a fever, leaving behind a two-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, and when my mother came to me and told me that I was chosen to be their substitute mother, I knew that I had no alternative but to obey. Sidi’s husband did protest a bit, questioning whether I was old enough (I had just reached the age of 12) to be a mother and wife, but my mother insisted and so, on the appointed day, I was adorned with the special clothes and jewelry of a bride, and he and I were married according to the tribe’s rites and rituals. That evening, after the ritual feast, I moved into my new husband’s compound.

My husband is a kind and gentle man whom I looked up to ever since he married Sidi. He realized that it would take time for me to learn how to function as a mother and head of household so he did not press himself on me with impossible demands at the onset. The other married women of the tribe were also very kind and helpful; they came to visit me often and helped me learn how to manage the household and my new family, giving me invaluable tips and sage advice, especially on how to feed the children — given that I had no milk in my breasts for them. A few women even took me aside and explained to me how to satisfy my husband when he called me to his bed, for the satisfaction of his desires is part of a grown woman’s job in life.

Slowly I adapted from the role of a child to my new role as a married woman, and before six months were up I, too, sat with the other young married women in the shade of the trees next to the village well, watching the babies play with each other while we gossiped and braided each other’s hair. When one of the women became fat with child, we would all hug her and rub our bellies against hers so that her good fortune would pass into us. We giggled at stories of men who called their wives into their hut, and then were unable to perform, and oohed-and-aahed at tales of extraordinary feats by others.

I am sure my husband loves me, and I have grown to love him very much. I clearly intend to be the best of all wives to him, and the best of all mothers to my adopted children. I know that it will take time, and I know that I have the patience to do it.

My husband, like the other men in the village, tried to work a small plot of land to grow food. But the earth near our village is not very fertile, and the rains have been erratic for the past two years, so his efforts came to naught. In the end he, like most of the other men of the village, went to work for the agents of the British colonial government who were building a road from the capital of Lagos into the interior. They would be gone for two weeks at a time and then return together in a lorry, bringing sacks of corn, yams, and other foodstuffs on which they spent their pay. After two days’ rest, the lorry would come to take them back to the construction site. The night of the men’s return would be celebrated with a singing and dancing until, late into the night, each man would take his wife back to his hut for a private continuation of the festivities.

On one such occasion, my husband brought me a special present. The day before, Mr. Huddleston -- one of the British overseers -- had called him off of the site and told him to go to the overseer’s home. The Huddlestons were returning to England after spending ten years in our country of Nigeria, and Mrs. Huddleston needed help loading the many boxes and packs containing their belongings onto a lorry. At the end of the day’s work, Mrs. Huddleston asked him if he was married and, when he said he was, she gave him a bundle of some of her old clothes which she had decided not to take back with her to Northampton. They were very beautiful, though rather unsuitable for wearing in the village. I therefore selected two of the best-fitting dresses to save for an appropriate occasion, and from the rest I intended to salvage the cloth and sew for myself some garments more fitting for everyday wear.

For many months, there was no occasion for me to wear one of my fancy dresses, though I did show them off to my friends. Then, one day, a missionary couple arrived and settled in a derelict compound on the outskirts of our village, which they repaired and turned into a makeshift church. The missionary’s name was Dr. Horace Humphries (“just call me HoHum,” he used to say when he introduced himself, laughing loudly at his own joke) and he came from the tribe of Nebraska in the country of America, a land of white people even farther away from us than Britain.

Dr. and Mrs. HoHum were very friendly people. They went from compound to compound, introducing themselves and inviting the villagers to come to their church on the following Sunday. Since the men were away working on the road on that day, three of us decided to go, just to see what it was like, and I took the opportunity to wear one of my special dresses. It was long and red and had buttons on the back which I had to ask one of my friends to fasten for me. I felt very much like a grand English lady wearing it, though it would be nicer if I had had shoes to go along with it.

The “service” at the church was interesting, though I did not understand very much about what was going on. Since there were only five people — Dr. and Mrs. HoHum and three villagers, it was very informal. Mrs. HoHum sang several hymns while Dr. HoHum accompanied her on a small musical instrument which he held in his mouth and which, he explained, was called a “harmonica”. Then Dr. HoHum spoke about the baby Jesus and about how he was reborn to bring us love and how he died for our sins. I am not sure I understood much of it, but I felt very pretty in my dress and Mrs. HoHum was very impressed and said that I looked like a very proper married woman. She was rather shocked to hear that I was not yet fourteen years old.

The next day, Mrs. HoHum visited me in my compound to thank me again for coming to church, and brought me a present — a picture of Jesus to hang on the wall. I will place it next to the picture of the British king George, which was distributed to everyone by the colonial authorities a few years ago. Both Jesus and King George have the same pale face and sad eyes.

I proudly showed off my two children and she was very surprised that someone as young as I could already by the mother of two. So I explained to her about my sister Sidi and about the traditions of the tribe which required me to take Sidi’s place as the wife of my husband and mother of the children she left behind when she died. Mrs. HoHum was very sympathetic. She felt that for me to take over the care of my sister’s children and husband was a very Christian thing to do. She said that my children and husband were very lucky indeed that Sidi had a younger sister who could take her place, and was willing to do so.

“You don’t understand.” I told her. “Sidi had no sisters; I am her younger brother.”

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This story is 1457 words long.