By Azuka Onwuka
Three incidents regarding teenage pregnancy in Yorubaland remain evergreen in my memory. Some 19 years ago, on being told that I was posted to a mixed secondary school in the South-West for the one-year National Youth Service Corps scheme, a relative (born and bred in Yorubaland) warned me with all seriousness: “Be careful! Yoruba girls are very fertile.” I laughed at such a ridiculous statement, asking her if fertility had anything to do with race or ethnicity.
A few months later, while discussing with a Yoruba friend on our small street (a close in which almost all of us knew one another), one of the teenage girls on the street passed by with a protruded stomach. I was shocked that she was pregnant. My friend sneered at her and told me that two other girls of her age on the street were also pregnant. Given my background as someone who grew up in the South-East, it was strange to me, but I kept quiet to avoid being accused of bigotry. The Yoruba friend asked me with surprise: “Why is it that I have never seen a pregnant Igbo girl? Is it that they don’t do what other girls do?” I laughed heartily but knowingly. I explained to her that Igbo girls engage in prenatal sex like girls from mother ethnic groups, but because of the stigma associated with teenage pregnancy, an Igbo girl would do everything to ensure that she is not seen to be pregnant.
Some years later, my landlady at that time sent some snacks to me, saying that her unmarried and unemployed son had had a baby. I was surprised. Shortly after, the young mother arrived with her son. I thought the young man had married her. No. She stayed a few months to nurse the baby, and when the baby was weaned, she departed, leaving the baby behind with his father. I was shocked. But I sought an explanation. I saw myself as a baby in kindergarten, being schooled in a different culture. I learnt that the Yoruba never wish that their unmarried daughters get pregnant, but if such a pregnancy occurs, so long as the man claims responsibility, the parents’ anger and disappointment will be lessened. There is little or no stigma on the girl, the man, the baby, as well as both parents, once the man has claimed responsibility and the child has an identifiable father. No doubt, this worldview has its drawbacks, but that is not our focus now.
Contrast that with the practice in Igboland, where I was born and bred. When a teenage girl gets pregnant, it is most likely that the man or boy responsible will deny ever touching her. He may even disappear from the community, never to be seen again, especially if he is not an indigene. The Igbo tradition holds that the baby belongs to the girl’s family, because no bride price has been paid, even though these days some individuals and families go against that tradition. But the bottom line is that the girl’s parents will feel utterly disappointed and ashamed of her. People will make snide remarks about them not training their daughter properly. Some parents go to the extreme of sending such a girl away. Her school will rusticate her. If she is a member of the church choir, Block Rosary, Girls’ Guide/Brigade, Red Cross, etc, in her local church, other girls will be warned by such a church society never to be like “the prodigal daughter.”
To avoid public odium, she will stay indoors throughout the pregnancy. Her chances of marriage are drastically reduced, as every prospective suitor who hears that she is a single mother will change his mind (unless she becomes successful later in life). If she eventually finds a husband, it may be as a second wife: to a man whose first wife has not had a child or son, a widower, a man her father’s age, or a man below her dreams of a husband. She may never return to school to avoid ridicule, and her dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer dies.
On the contrary, if she miscarries, aborts the pregnancy, or loses her baby during delivery or shortly after, she becomes “a good girl again,” and can walk about with more confidence, even though some may still sneer at her silently for a year or two.
So, in response to my friend who said he had never seen a pregnant Igbo spinster, this is the reason. It has nothing to do with Igbo girls being more chaste than other girls in Nigeria. In the distant past, the Igbo society had no respect for a girl who was not a virgin before marriage. Today, virginity before marriage is no longer an issue. The unspoken law is: Thou shall not be caught pregnant before marriage. An Igbo proverb describes this mindset aptly: All dogs eat faeces, but it is only the one that bears the remnants on its snout that is called Faeces Eater.
Consequently, Igbo girls are more exposed to sex education and contraceptives. When those two fail, they resort to abortion, commonly called D & C (dilatation and curettage). But if the baby is born, some resort to dumping of such babies in a pit toilet or a bush, where they may die or be found by someone else.
However, while teenage girls don’t need their babies, there are some women who need children desperately: Married women with no child or no male child. Such women are most times put under intense pressure by their mothers-in-law or husbands. They are constantly threatened with divorce or a second wife, or they are branded witches or “men”. To make matters worse, there seems to have been a rise in childlessness among married couples in recent times.
Furthermore, in most Igbo communities, adoption still has a stigma. An adopted child is seen as not a “real son/daughter of the soil.” Everyone wants a child that society will believe is a biological child.
And so “demand” meets “supply.” Some smart alecs discovered this and took advantage of the situation by setting up baby factories under different guises. Childless women are given some special “herbs” that make them have a false sense of pregnancy. They look bloated like pregnant women and feel some sensation in their wombs. They are warned never to visit any other hospital or do any scan, to avoid losing the baby. They are told to come in and live in the so-called maternities from the fifth or sixth month of “pregnancy” for special attention. So they travel from the big cities of Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, etc, to these remote villages to “deliver.”
Meanwhile, the so-called midwife that administers the special herbs has a baby factory where pregnant girls are housed. Some of these girls were kicked out by their parents; some ran away from home to avoid the heavy consequences; some are lured in from poor homes with a promise to be handsomely rewarded if they could take in. Any day one of these girls in their custody is delivered of a baby, the woman with a fake pregnancy is given an injection that makes her feel she is in labour. When she wakes up, she is presented with “her” baby. She pays between N400,000 and N600,000, depending on the sex of the child, believing she actually delivered a child, unless a future DNA or blood test comes up. Even if she suspects that she did not actually deliver any child, she keeps it a secret and raises “her child”. She organises a big thanksgiving in her church with a soul-lifting testimony of “divine visitation and favour” after 15 years of marriage, with a lot to eat and drink at home after the church service. The pressure on her from family and society eases off, because now she has a child, who will keep her husband’s lineage alive.
The real teenage mother of the baby is paid off with an amount that is less than N100,000. She is not much bothered because her burden and stigma have been removed. She returns to her family and education and continues her normal life as “a good girl.”
So from one Igbo state to another, baby factories and baby thieves are discovered regularly. During interrogation by the police, one point runs through their stories: they say they are rendering a service to society by ensuring that children are raised by those who have the financial capacity to take care of them. There is no sign of remorse in them for being involved in a heinous crime. As far as they are concerned, they are making the world a happier place.
Therefore, it is not enough for fellow Igbo people to feel mortified that such baby factories and baby-stealing stories are emanating from different parts of Igboland. The time has come for Igbo families and communities to stop treating pregnant teenagers as the worst sinners on earth. Pregnancy before marriage should not be encouraged, but if a girl makes such a mistake, she should not be treated like an outcast for life. Such stigmatisation does not discourage girls from having pre-marital sex. What it does is to make them devise means — no matter how atrocious — to ensure that they are not single mothers.
The sad truth is that most teenagers get pregnant because of naivety rather than promiscuity. The girls who are really sexually hyper-active never get pregnant! And even when they do, such pregnancies are terminated in a matter of weeks before anyone can notice.
In the same vein, the pressure on married women to have children or male children as well as the stigma associated with adoption makes many women undergo emotional trauma and also resort to illegal ways of having children that society will call their biological children. Action usually begets reaction. We must not cling to a vacuous moral high ground that drives people to worse crimes in their bid to be seen as chaste or well-trained.
Published in The Punch on May 28, 2013