Pre-colonial Igboland: Sex work

As can be expected with most things related to African history there is extremely little information on sex work in pre-colonial African societies out there. It is for this reason that I was doubly excited that Nwando Achebe dedicated part of her research to revealing the intricacies of sex work in Igboland (particularly among the Nsukka Igbo) and Igalaland in her book The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe.

Sex work as we know it today, in modern Africa, is a vestige of colonialism. As Luise White, who wrote about sex work in colonial Nairobi put it “sex work as a full-time form of labour was invented during the colonial period”. This is not to say that there was no sex work in the pre-colonial period, only that it was entirely different from how we know it today.

Sex work existed in Africa in the pre-colonial era. Back in the day, the female sex worker worked out of the house she was born in. She was a single woman, a woman who was never going to marry, and her clients were usually men who wanted to have affairs (as in most communities, and all but a few situations, it was taboo for a man to have sex with a married woman).

With the advent of European colonialism, sex workers in Igbo- and Igala- lands had to transform their labours as well and became more organised so as to earn more money. Colonialism brought about increased competition among sex workers who grew to become more aggressive. There was a time when sex work in Nigeria was a serious thriving industry, some may argue that it still is. A colonial British officer described sex work in Nigerian cities as extremely profitable with Nigerian sex workers being literal “gold mines”.

We know the words in our different languages that are ascribed to sex workers or “free women”. Achebe uses Igbo words to draw images of the various kinds of sex work that existed in pre-colonial and colonial Igboland*.
One such word is mgboto which apparently means “a person who goes naked”. In precolonial Igboland, girls and adolescents usually walked around naked. Older and married women however did not. The Nsukka people referred to sex workers as “mgboto” because sex workers apparently took off their clothes very easily. The mgboto worked from her home, and is believed to have been the earliest known form of sex work in Igboland.

During the colonial period, the mgboto became the adana. Adana also worked from her home, providing services to a few loyal clients. The adana would serve their clients palm wine, other forms of alcohol and cigarettes. Some adana opened businesses in front of their homes, maintaining palm-wine parlours or restaurants. The adana managed long-term relationships with her client(s), she also had children from these unions. She was paid in money sometimes, at other times the adana’s client would work on her farm, buy her foodstuff, or help in maintaining her home.

As competition grew among sex work due to the urbanisation brought in by colonialism, sex workers became know as ikweli or okuenu, words that described the newly gained feisty attitudes they adopted. The ikweli and okuenu were different from the adana and mgboto because they were so aggressive, this was something they needed to be in order to draw more attention to themselves.

Among the Nsukka Igbo of the time, the “free woman” was viewed as independent, assertive, bold, and was admired by the community. She was not marginalised by society and had access to forms of power. According to Achebe, the members of society realised that sex work was integral to the life of society, this lead to them respecting sex workers. In some places, the adana’s home was popular throughout the village as a place where men went to in order to relax. This was in no way strange because in early Igbo society, sex was not viewed negatively and a woman had a right to her own body and was generally expected to use her body as she pleased before marriage. A woman was expected to have engaged in sexual activities and have as many boyfriends as she wanted. In a society that was so sex positive, it is not surprising that sex workers in pre-colonial Igboland had full control of their bodies and the money they gained from their work.

However in Igalaland which shares a border with Igboland in the north, things were very different for women. Women in Igalaland had their sexuality kept under a tight leash by society as there were many restrictions on chastity before marriage. While in Igboland, a young bride-to-be would could tell her mother and aunts how many boyfriends she had slept with, in Igalaland a bride-to-be had to swear before an oracle that she was a virgin or face death if she was lying. Parents controlled the sexuality of their daughters by employing powerful deities to ensure that they remained chaste. This is not to suggest that there were no sex workers or “unchaste” women in Igalaland, there were but this was all kept private and was viewed with disdain (unless they were concubines).

To conclude this section, in Igalaland, prostitutes were known by Igala, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo words and the Igbo word used for prostitute in Igala country was agalacha, “someone will lick” or “someone will be licked” I’m just going to leave this here and let your imagination take you wherever.

*The exact time span would be from 1895 to 1916 when Ahebi left her hometown for Igalaland where she worked as a sex worker, her clients included the Igala kings and aspiring European colonists.

21 responses

  1. I really enjoyed this piece as I’m from Nsukka. Please tell me what bookstore you bought the book from; I’m terribly interested in reading it as well.

  2. This is really interesting, there are lot of things about precolonial history that isn’t known. It’s so interesting that they had different words and in some cases there was respect for sex work.

  3. There’s a double meaning to “Agalacha” . In Igbo, like in Japanese, the R and L sounds are interchangeable. This means that Agalacha is also read as Agaracha.

    There are two possible interpretations and both point to prostitution.

    If you take the operative verb in Agalacha / Agaracha to be “ga” – to walk, and the cha to be the “cha” suffix which denotes completeness or thoroughness, then the first meaning of Agaracha / Agalacha is “someone who has gone around”

    The second meaning is a little trickier. I think Achebe made a mistake in her translation of Agalacha. It’s a very easy mistake to make but it’s significant.

    The verb “lacha” means to lick.

    The verb “la” means to have sex.

    The problem is, in Igbo there is a verb suffix called “cha” which I mentioned above.

    When you combine the verb “la” with the suffix “cha” you get “lacha” which is identical to the verb “lacha” although the two words have very different meanings.

    A lot of people don’t notice that the first “lacha” means to lick while the second “lacha” means to thoroughly fuck or to finish having sex with because the only real way to differentiate between the two verbs in this situation is to add the cha suffix to BOTH verbs.

    If you do this, to lick thoroughly would be lachacha ( although because of euphony most Igbos would prefer to say lachasia or lachasigo and not bite their tongues )

    Whereas to fuck or to sex thoroughly would be simply lacha since the root of to have sex is only la while the root of to lick is lacha.

    If you take the operative verb in Agaracha / Agalacha to be “la” as in to have sex and add the cha suffix then the second meaning of Agaracha or Agalacha is someone that will be thoroughly had sex with or had sex with completely (i.e. with many people)

    The third interpretation of someone to be licked is also technically grammatically possible, but I think it’s unlikely.

    But all in all, yay for this post!!!!

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if the “lick” etymology is not where it came from, but is a play on words people found amusing anyway. Languages do that a lot, especially where things like sex are concerned.

      • Hello Marie,
        I just have to ask if you read sugabelly’s wonderful comment? She brought in much needed light as an Igbo speaker. Nwando Achebe only mentioned “licking” in her book and mentioned that in the context (sex work), it could really only mean one thing.

        • I did read it, yes, and found it very valuable. I was just thinking of the ways in which people will (to use some English examples) make the “X her? I hardly even know her!” joke for words ending in “-er,” or other jokes about guys named Richard/Dick. There doesn’t have to be a valid etymological connection for people to make dirty puns (some of them grammatically plausible, others not so much). I only wanted to observe that I wouldn’t be surprised if people did the same thing with “agalacha.”

          • Thank you very for elaborating and sharing.

            I initially just took the meaning of ‘agalacha’ that Nwando Achebe put forth as a non-Igbo speaker, so it is interesting to see the ways in which the etymology may vary.

            ETA: I did not realise your initial comment was in reply to Sugabelly’s *facepalm* So sorry if my reply seemed silly, I did it from my wordpress dashboard.

  4. I’m SO grateful for this post! Now, I have to go find and read this book. Thank you so much for the summary. @sugabelly, as an Igbo woman I was drooling over your offered interpretations based on language translation. I’m currently writing a post about heritage, history, and identity as it pertains to African languages, especially minority ethnic groups in the context of who the colonialists left in power. Would be so curious to know the history of sex work among Yoruba communities, and if there’s nuance. But this is just me being a history geek. This was really refreshing to read. Thank you!

  5. Oh my goodness, this is so informative and exciting and marvelous. I’m thinking of the new films, or genre of films, that could arise from this. Thanks for sharing this information, it’s nice to know we were also ‘bad’ (in the good old school way).

    What kind of career does this kind of work? I am seriously interested in this. You have no idea how happy I am to read this, and with the amount of research, time and effort you must have put into it, thank you. I am definitely gonna purchase Achebe’s book. We need more people like her in Naija. I wonder is she taking on interns?

    • Tunmi, I am right beside you on this I’m thinking of the new films, or genre of films, that could arise from this. We really need to go there. I’m sure Kiru Taye will not disappoint us with her writing, but we need more people that show Nigerian and African history in a more realistic/positive light.

      I’m not sure if Achebe is based in Nigeria to be honest. She lectures at a university in the USA.

      Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  6. I have Achebe’s book and have read it about halfway. Quite an interesting perspective on Nigerian history especially as regards Ahebi and her life.

    From my experience of Agaracha, I think I go with Sugabelly’s interpretation, the licking could be a pun.

    • Hello Myne,

      I hope you enjoy reading Achebe’s book, it is indeed an interesting perspective on Nigerian history. I loved it so much too for opening up my interest in Igbo history (this interest has always been there though, thanks to Sugabelly)

  7. nice write up, d rate of prostitution has kept on being on d increase especially with d youths n adults n all of that results in d excuse d make up saying poverty is d reason.

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