Revue:I’m Trying To Put The ‘HER’ In ‘HIStory’


Nwando-Achebe in class with her students

Two books, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland and The Female King of Colonial Nigeria by Nwando Achebe presented at the Thought Pyramid Arts Centre, Abuja, represent a culmination of over 20 years of research on the Nsukka Igbo.

Her first book, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900-1960, explores the politics of gender and the evolution of female power and authority over the first six decades of the 20th century. Excerpts:

Why the history of Nsukka women?
The Igbo people have a saying that a child who is carried on the back does not realize that walking is a painful activity. Farmers, Traders, Warriors and Kings was borne out of a desire to see myself in history. I was incensed by the ever-present negative image of African women in our so-called African history texts. Could I possibly be the “beast of burden” that these western historians were writing about? Why was my interpretation of the historical evidence used by these scholars so different from their own analyses?

Why were African women not being presented as active players in the making of their cultures and histories? I was eager to present another interpretation, call it rewriting history if you like, to ‘talk back’ to these scholars and say that African women with all their imperfections were definitely not “beasts of burden” nor women who were sold to the highest bidder for their productive and reproductive labor!

I decided to focus on Nsukka women’s history because it represented the familiar, yet different. Nsukka Division boasted a complex and diverse gender dynamic, which allowed women to become kings, and men, priestesses. A history of Nsukka women therefore promised to yield important results for both African history and women’s studies. I had thus carved out my niche.

The Female King of Colonial Nigeria…
In The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Nwando Achebe presents the fascinating history of an Igbo woman, Ahebi Ugbabe, who became king in colonial Nigeria. Ugbabe was exiled from Igboland, became a prostitute, traveled widely, and learned to speak many languages.

She became a close companion of Igala kings and the British officers who supported her claim to the office of headman, warrant chief, and later, king. In this unique biography, Achebe traces the roots of Ugbabe’s rise to fame and fortune. While providing critical perspectives on women, gender, sex and sexuality, and the colonial encounter, she also considers how it was possible for this woman to take on the office and responsibilities of a traditionally male role.

In 1918, a woman by the name of Ahebi Ugbabe was made warrant chief by the British in colonial Nigeria. This decision would represent a departure from British colonial practice, for they had never before offered a warrant chief position to a Nigerian woman or any indigenous woman from British Africa, for that matter. Ahebi Ugbabe would be the first and last woman to hold this office. But her position as warrant chief had been earned. Presented to her in “recognition of past services,” Ahebi had worked herself up from the British imposed rank of Headman.

Chief Ahebi would eventually be crowned king by an Igala monarch—her third in a series of gendered transformations. However, these gendered transformations would not be enough for the ambitious and talented Ahebi. In her attempt to achieve ‘full’ manhood, she would invade and violate the ultimate sanctuary of men – the masquerade cult.

The masquerade cult in West Africa was constructed as that which separated men from women, and men from ‘full’ men. The Female King of Colonial Nigeria… explores the case study of this extraordinary woman, revealing much about the shifting bases of gendered power under British indirect rule and the ways in which Igbo women and men negotiated and shaped the colonial environment.

Tucked away in the first paragraph of the 158 page of C.K. Meek’s Law and Authority in a Nigerian Tribe introduced me, and of course, the rest of Meek’s readers, to a nameless king of female persuasion. It read: “The village-group of Ogurte is distinguished by having a female Eze.” It was this remarkable woman who had transformed herself into a man that would from that point on, consume many of my waking thoughts. It was this Eze on whom my critical biography is based.

The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe focuses on the life and times of Ahebi Ugbabe, the only female warrant chief and king in colonial Nigeria, and arguably British Africa. It fills a considerable gap in African gender studies scholarship by introducing readers to critical perspectives on women, gender, sex, and sexuality, and the colonial encounter.

innovatively, this biography seeks to encourage new ways of seeing, reading, and interpreting African worlds beyond received categories of analysis. In important ways, it complicates, problematizes, and challenges presumptions of a homogeneity within the category of ‘woman,’ “prostitute’ and ‘slave.’ It does this by offering new theories that recognize a multiplicity of African female masculinities—female headman, female warrant chief, female king and female husband – while delineating the limitations of such gendered transformations.

IN 1996, I was granted a Ford Foundation pre-dissertation grant to go to Nigeria to conduct research for three months. My first port of call was the Nigerian National Archives at Enugu. Much like the journey of “discovery” that my mentor started me on, I was again in search of a female voice—any information that I could locate on women in old Nsukka Division.

The dissertation that I had conceived was going to explore the politics of gender and the evolution of women’s power over the first six decades of the 20th century. However, I soon came to the realization that I needed to “tweak” my topic. I decided, for instance, that it made the most sense to focus on female power—something that I termed the ‘female principle’— instead of women. This expansion of my research topic would enable me consider all expressions—human and spiritual—of female manifestations in Nsukka Division.

This expansion of the research focus notwithstanding, after a month and a half at the archives, I had not uncovered anything substantial about Nsukka women, or the ‘female principle,’ for that matter. Moreover, the only mention of the female king, Ahebi Ugbabe, I could find at the time was a relatively short section in V.K. Johnson’s “Intelligence Report on the Peoples of Enugu-Ezike.”

This particular document, although thin on evidence about Ahebi, confirmed two important facts I had already garnered from A.E. Afigbo’s short treatment of the female king; namely, that Ahebi had been made warrant chief by the British; and the year in which it had occurred. Giddy with excitement at being able to corroborate Afigbo’s assertions with primary evidence, I decided that it was time to make my way into Ahebi’s community of Enugu-Ezike.

However, something had gotten in the way of my information gathering. It seemed as though the community either would not, or could not, tell me all that I needed to know. They seemed to have constructed a barrier that, try as I may, I could not penetrate. The community had a secret, a secret that they were not about to let me in on, at least not during this particular research trip. They would make me wait two more years, as though insisting that I earn the right to know.

In 1998 I was back in Enugu-Ezike. The Fulbright-Hays dissertation fellowship I had secured allowed me a year to attempt to gain the trust and confidence of individual collaborators. I hoped that somewhere along the way I would be able to make a breakthrough. And breakthrough I did: on September 26, 1998—the day I became Nwada (daughter).

AchebeIT started like any other interview, my conversation with Abodo Nwa Idoko. There I was sitting across from one of the most powerful dibias (medicine men) in the community. Something about his persona, the way he carried himself, made me pose yet again the question that the people of Ahebi’s town had been having difficulty answering:
“Nnaanyi [our father]… Since1996, I have been going around this village, talking to people who knew Ahebi. They have told me many things about Ahebi. They have told me that when she was young that she got lost. And when I have asked, how a young girl gets lost, they have shrugged their shoulders in uncertainty. And if pushed harder, they have said that she became a prostitute after she ran away. This, still not answered my “how did she get lost question.”

Because of this, I have become frustrated. Do you happen to know how Ahebi got lost? Abodo Nwa Idoko looked me straight in the eye, cleared his throat loudly, and chuckled. It was a dry chuckle. When he later spoke, he said this to me: “I see that our people have been giving you the run around. Did you say you were here in 1996?” I nodded. “Wonderful! You’ve tried oh! [pause] Well, they have done so because they are afraid to tell you the truth.”

He reached into the pocket of his shirt and brought out a small round tin container of utaba (snuff), which he opened with much drama and lifted a finger-full of brown, almost black, ground substance into his left nostril. He then closed the container, tapped on it with his index and middle fingers, reopened it and lifted another finger-full of snuff into his right nostril.
“Ehh… ehh… ehh…” he cleared his throat and let out a sneeze. Then with as much drama as before, he pulled out a handkerchief and nosily blew at his nose. He continued: “I am not afraid. No one and nothing can harm me. I am a powerful medicine man.”

He then paused for dramatic effect.
“Ahebi did not get lost. Ahebi did not get lost. Do you hear what I am saying to you? If anyone asks you, tell them that I, Abodo Nwa Idoko, said it. She did not get lost. [pause] She ran away.”

Idoko then told me in no uncertain terms why Ahebi had run away, ogbakpu—a detail discussed at length in Chapter 1. In the final analysis, it had taken a fearless individual, a powerful dibia (medicine man) and herbalist, to reveal society’s secret; and from that point on, collaborator after collaborator wasted no time in not only corroborating his assertion, but confiding other “unsavory” facts—often times in whispered tones— about the female king that I was researching.

My relationship with the community had indeed changed. I was no longer a stranger, visitor, or guest, onyeoba; I had become nwada—a daughter of Enugu Ezike who could be trusted with every, and all, information.

It was as a result of this earned change in my position that I was granted the wherewithal to piece together—through community memory—the life story of this remarkable woman, Ahebi Ugbabe. And I am most appreciative to the Enugu-Ezike community for this opportunity.

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