The entire social structure is based on KINSHIP. The smallest social unit being UELEN which consists of a man, his wives, children, junior brothers, his yet unmarried sisters and any other such persons as his mother and servants. When the junior brothers grow up and get married, they build their own houses round their senior brother’s which was their father’s house before his death. This man is the king post of the whole structure and I name him outright for easy reference: he is the OMINJIOGBE (AKHEOA in Esan ‘B’). As the brothers’ own families start to multiply it is easy to see this man’s position as head of the family increasing in importance. He speaks for his unit and takes charge of the Ancestral Shrine.
Several such units form an IDUNMUN and many of these or a large Idunmun forms as EGBELE. It is unsafe to translate EGBELE as a QUARTER because an Idunmun could also correctly mean a Quarter. The important thing to note is that all members of an Egbele descend from a common father or ancestor. Depending on the size and genealogy of an Idunmun, lovers are not permissible. In both Egbele and Idunmun intermarriage is not allowed.
Many Egbeles make a village and where they are not members of a single patritineage, marriage is permissible. Strangers cause the greatest complications in this system. They are admitted as residents but not assimilated so that as their own families start to grow within a small unit as Uelen, one might be surprised after all I have said above, to find members of an Idunmun marrying each other. On close study however, it will be seen that the marrying sets are not patrons. The standing law is that NO COUPLE WHO CAN TRACE ANY RELATIONSHIP PATERNALLY OR MATERNALLY TO AN OMINJIOGBE CAN MARRY despite the loose talk ‘that things are not forbidden towards a mother’s origin’.
The head of the village is the ODIONWELE, the oldest man in the village. This needs qualification. If a stranger comes to settle in a village and in his life time comes to be the oldest man in that village he could not be the Odionwele. His family must have existed long enough in that village to lose all the identities of a stranger which is even culturally undesirable. This has caused some commotion and disruption since the abolition of slave trade dating from 1900. In pure ESAN CUSTOM NO STRANGER CAN BECOME AN ODIONWELE. What is more, such a long-staying stranger cannot handle the village OKPO or Shrine Worship. The Odionwele needs not be an Ominjiogbe.
In a typical Esan village the social system tries to regulate, sometimes in a manner which to a stranger may appear puzzling, the physical and spiritual needs of the whole community. An Esan person is more of a part of the whole and less a mere member.
- a) Age Grades and Sets:
Under the Odionwele is a tripartite division of the male members of the village. These are:-
- The EDION (The Elders) – these are men over 45 in ages.
- IGENE – men of 25 – 45. In some parts this age is known as IGBAMA or OBOIGBAOTO or OKUOKHIMIOTO or OKHIRARE or All these names appropriately mean that this grade consists of men beyond the age of being frightened, but not too old to be physically handicapped by senility: in other words they were the men of war. Appropriately since they fully support and protect the Edion grade, in many areas they go by the name UJIAGBEDION.
(iii) EGBONUGHELE – males of 12 – 25.
A political group – the Ekhaemon or men given titles by the Enijie, was in the senior grade, but in the village they have no direct voice at the Edion’s deliberation.
The Odionwele is the supreme head, socially and religiously in all matters affecting the -village. He with the next three Edion form EDIONENEN. Meetings affecting the elders alone are held in the Odionwele’s house usually, but bigger meetings are held in the village square at the OKOUGHELE (village hut).
Each grade has its own meetings and even where a matter is so serious as to merit a general meeting, each grade sits and deliberates apart. The Iko or messengers of each grade make reports to the senior grade. Thus in a big village meeting the Edion and all those entitled to sit with them like Ekhaemon and Ominjiogbe, sit together – but neither the Okhaemon nor Ominjiogbe who is there merely by virtue of his family importance only, can initiate a discussion. The Igene sit apart from the Egbonughele. The Edion then give their decision after everybody has had the liberty of shouting himself hoarse or until believed; this decision is conveyed by the Iko to the Igene, who, in turn, give their own decision based on that received from the senior grade to the street sweepers. These may revolt against the Igene if they feel unfairly treated and report the matter to the Edion for a final ruling.
3. Women Association:
Without self-deceit Esan people in every sphere of life maintain that there is no place for the woman in society. Thus women have no recognized associations. Even if there is a meeting of women in the village only the recognized married women attend. To be recognized as a wife in the village (Okhuo – Idunmun) on arrival in the village she must have other women in the compound perform the ceremony of getting her cooking place “registered’. The women, after a simple feasting, make the new wife (Obhioha) cook in a newly built cooking place (Eriu – u), and the ceremony in Ekpoma area is called IREKE (To prop up your cooking pot). After this, any new wife coming to the village, whether she is grown up already or not, is junior to this woman. Thus the seniority of women in the community is not by birth age, not even by age of arrival in the village but by the order in which they performed the Ireke ceremony.
Should a woman lose her husband by death and she should re-marry by inheritance in the same village she loses her rank. Even if she was the most senior she now becomes the most junior woman of the village, thus satisfying the idea in Esan Custom that it is the sacred duty of every woman to ensure that her husband lives as long as possible: while praying for long life she does not pray that her husband should die before her!
Women usually meet to plan the digging of the village pond, to punish an adulterous woman or to curse round the town usually with the name of their genitals, when there is an epidemic or frequent deaths particularly of children. The use of this part of the body to curse someone is very much dreaded and is strictly forbidden for a woman to direct such a curse to her husband.
The cursing of the people who may have hands in the spread of diseases and deaths is done at night with all married women of the village stripped naked and all the men shut up in their houses. After hearing the songs and noises of the women any man foolish enough to be caught outside must jump into the bush to let the women pass. No man has any business outside when he hears the loud and sonorous refrain – EKPELEGBE – EE!