Just beyond the famous Obudu hills, a stone throw from the famous Obudu Mountain Resort, on the hilly stretches of Obanliku Local Government Area of Cross River State, one would find the Becheve community nestled in the chilly haze that is typical of these parts.
The Becheve are a group of about 100, 000 people who speak 17 dialects of the same language and are spread into Benue State and the Republic of Cameroon, between which Obalinku is squeezed.
But borders and dialects aside, the Becheve people are tied by a shadowy culture that has put them in uncomfortable limelight recently. It is a culture that allows the use of women and girls to pay debts or procure favours in what has become known as “money wives.” These money wives could be women, young girls or even the unborn. In reality, they are more of slave wives than anything else.
According to this practice, a man whose wife is pregnant and is having financial issues could decide to take a loan which he would pay with the daughter by giver her out as a wife to the loan shark. Such arrangements are entered into even before the sex of the child is known.
Once the agreement is entered into, the father could make demands of food or money from the moneylender.
The lender would keep records of how much he is owed, often converting gifts given to the girl’s parents into monetary terms and noting them down as part of the debt. Even the girl’s mother is entitled to show up at the lender’s house to receive gifts of money or other items. In the end, the debt is written off as the bride price.
The girl is surrendered to the lender as a wife to put to use as he pleases.
The girl will have no rights and her opinion is never sought in the matter as she is practically enslaved. Such women are put to work on farms which they cultivate for their husbands. She is left to fend for herself, as the husband is not obligated to care for her. He may sleep with her or pass her on to his relatives for sex or hire her as a farmhand, our correspondent reports.
The men in Becheve cherish this practice as a status symbol as it earns them acclaim amongst their peers. No surprise then that many of them go out of their ways to acquire money wives.
However, recent attention on the practice from outside the community is threatening the men’s desires. Our correspondent, who visited this community, reports that the men are unhappy with the attention as it might scuttle their age-old practice.
While it may be bliss for the men, for the women, it is hell. One of these women is Dorathy Etagwa, 27. She became a money wife at 5.
“My husband is still alive. He should be 75 or more. I am one of the money wives,” she said. “I am not happy at all in this forced marriage yet I cannot leave him. I cannot leave the marriage because I have now delivered five children for him. I was forced to marry him. I was not allowed to come of age to know what true love is or to decide who I want to marry. This man is not in my age range. When I see my age mates choose their husbands, I shed tears uncontrollably. I have never experienced love. My age mates are in schools but here I am in a forced marriage – more like slavery. I suffer to feed him and my children,” she said.
After 22 years in the practice, Dorathy knows the intricacies of the system.
“The practice is that I have to work and feed the family. I have suffered so much to cultivate many farms from dawn til dusk, some for people and yet I am not allowed to use the proceeds to cater for myself. I am 27 but don’t I look like one in her late 40s? I am the man’s property, and whatever he likes to do with me, I can never argue. If I try to run away, which I cannot contemplate because my five children will end up in the same situation I am, they will kill me. They will sell off my children, especially the female ones. But as I am here, I can never agree that my female children be taken for money marriage, except they kill me.
“I don’t want them to experience what I am passing through. If I run they will use spiritual means called ‘Olambe’ to arrest and kill me and my children. It has happened to many who attempted. This is why I am forced to stay in this marriage. It is very sad and traumatic that girls as young as one year are sold into marriage.
“I appeal very strongly to government, religious organisations, groups and law enforcement agencies to intervene and stop this practice otherwise it will become more entrenched. What the chiefs have told the world that the practice has stopped is not true. However, it is not true that every woman in Becheve is a money wife,” she said.
Faith Ago, 17, is a shy teenager. She became a money wife at 3 but is now widowed because her husband was advanced in age and died two years ago.
Before she could be transferred to the man’s next of kin for the same kind of marriage, as is the practice, an evangelical group came to her rescue.
“The man used to sleep with me but luckily I did not get pregnant,” she said. “He died two years ago. While with him, he never permitted me to go to school like his own children. I was forced to do all the farm work every day so that he and his children can feed and buy clothes. I was like a slave.”
She feels indebted to her rescuer, one Pastor Richards Akonam.
“Now, I am going to school because of his help. I want the government to stop this practice and free many girls in Becheve trapped in money marriage to go to school,” she said.
Another victim, a girl, who gave her name simply as Gift said she does not know how old she is or when she became a money wife. All she knows is what her husband told her.
“My father was a gambler. While others went out to work to feed their families, my father preferred to go gambling, thinking it was the easy way to make money. He would leave home early and return very late from his gambling. One day, the game did not favour him. He often lost money. My father was beaten three times in a row. And lost N4,500.
“My father had borrowed more money to play on but still suffered defeats. My father did not want to surrender despite persuasions. How would he refund all the sums of money he borrowed to play? He sent for me. I arrived without knowing what was at stake. He then asked me to stand beside the man who beat him and told the man. ‘She will be your wife to enable me to repay all that I borrowed.’ But other men raised objection yet my father stuck to his gun, saying I am his