How single unmarried women thrived in one pre-colonial West African society

I have spent a considerable amount of time wondering how single women could have made do in West African history. The non-existent yet much spoken of “African culture” of today paints a picture that such things never happened even though there are several renowned women who we remember today that never married, whether it is Queen Amina of Zaria, or Sarrounia, or Pa Sini Jobu, or even King Ahebi Ugbabe. Yet, most of us believe that independent minded women who are not interested in marriage only came to be so due to colonial European influence. Or assume that it must have been hard for unmarried women back when. In this post, I use Baule women of Ivory Coast as an example to show that it was not impossible to be unmarried and childless in a pre-colonial West African society.

It was a great pleasure coming across Mona Etienne’s “Gender Relations and Conjugality among the Baule”, in Christine Oppong’s Female and Male in West Africa. In a chapter, Etienne begins by mentioning that modern Baule women are known for being independent, noting that many middle aged and elderly Baule women who live in towns are unmarried yet acquire enough wealth to support those that are dependent on them and to maintain social networks. Some of these women have educated adult children or foster children who earn high salaries and are thus able to support their incomes, ensure that the women are taken care of in old age, and that they will have a “presitgious” funeral when they die. Young women holding these older women as role models, view marriage as “incompatible” with their personal goals of becoming wealth, or view marriage as a means through which they can get wealth as “a generous husband may help them attain wealth and success”.

Etienne boldly states that “this type of situation is not unusual in Africa, especially in West Africa”, and I believe that she means among modern West African women in urban environments. However among Baule women, even those in rural areas resist marriage despite pressure and the limited economic opportunities available to single women in the village, putting marriage aside because they want to go to the city or wanting to escape to the city because they do not want to marry. Both in the urban cities and rural villages, there are Baule women who are more concerned with achieving economic autonomy. Etienne traces this reluctance to marry, and this view of marriage as an unwanted convenience or “as an outright exploitation” to pre-colonial Baule society. Baule society has always placed premium in personal autonomy and individual freedom of choice for women and men.

Early European observers remarked on the high positions Baule women held. They had a voice in the decision making process in affairs that concerned the village. Furthermore all adult women were part of a secret society whose rituals were forbidden for men to see/watch. As part of this society, women defended the interests of the community against foreign threats, they also defended the interests of women against women although Etienne states that the more import role was safeguarding the community interests in times of illness and warfare. The support of women was absolutely crucial in affairs concerning the community, for example it was believed that men who went to war without the support of women would surely meet defeat and death. It should be noted that men also had their own secret society that women could not be part of.

It seems it was only in ritual that Baule women and men were divided as there was hardly any other case of separation between the sexes, and gender attributes were not rigidly defined. The division of labour in which men and women were assigned different tasks were apparently upheld due to efficiency in production and were not enforced by supernatural or civil sanctions. Deviations were acceptable when necessary or convenient meaning that men could perform women’s labour tasks when the situation called for it and vice versa. Finding a partner of the opposite sex to aid with labour did not necessarily mean finding a husband or wife, but could mean finding a “sister” or a “brother”. Deviations were only rare in the cases of apprenticeship though healers and diviners could be men or women.

Women chiefs were important, although they grew less in number at the time of colonisation. Women could attract vast amounts of wealth and dependants (both men and women), they played their role in trading and gold prospecting expeditions, and acquired domestic slaves in their own rights. Etienne mentions the traditions and histories contemporary women have of business minded grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and guesses that these women may have been encouraged by their own mothers hinting at a chain of enterprising Baule women who inspired their daughters over time. So Baule women’s search for independence and wealth is not new but rooted in history and traditional models.

Among the Baule, early stages of marriage were marked by long periods of duolocality, that is the wife continued to live with her kin and the husband did the same. Marriage was not thought to be complete until the wife took up residence with her husband. It is due to this that noble women, women who belong to families that held high political office, are said to not marry. Such women could not be expected to move and take residence with their husbands if they did marry because they had a chance at a political office. And apparently the same thing happens today, even though the traditional political office does not hold as much important in this post-colonial age. Yet there are women who refuse marriage because they are heirs to a political seat, or whose families oppose their marriages for the same reason. Etienne states that these cases must be less frequent that in the past, because colonial and post-colonial administrations does not encourage women holding traditional political positions. In pre-colonial times when this discrimination was non-existent, there would have been more noble women refusing to marry or whose families refused their marriages. There would have also been noble women who married but did not live with their husbands as they did not want to risk losing their chance at a political seat. Thus for politically ambitious women, marriage was a constraint and noble women were not anxious to married, or if they did get married often divorced to claim their political office with their kin.

Baule women retain economic rights in their own kin group. They have rights to the labour of a brother or any other kinsman with whom they could launch an economic partnership similar to that between spouses. Basically, unmarried women could form ‘marriage-like” partnerships with their kinsmen on solely economic grounds. Kinship relations among the Baule are traced from both parents, rather from either a father and a mother, with succession and inheritance being generally matrilineal. In this cognatic system, people continually sought to attract dependants from all sides of the family tree that they could rely on, and who could rely on them in turn. Elders looked to attract dependants in order to increase their own wealth while juniors wanted to establish ties with elders who were rich enough to finance entrepreneurial undertakings and who were generous enough to offer dependants a share in the profits. Kin group membership was not rigidly ascribed and there was less gerontocracy or autocracy. Elders did demand respect and had some authority, however rigidly enforcing authority could led to the departure of dependants and even the eventual dying out of a kin group due to all the members leaving.

Riches came from having a large number of dependants to contribute to one’s revenue. No elders or chiefs could completely take the labour or revenue of their dependants, meaning that dependants always could keep a little something to themselves. The elders held on to a bonus which increased their own wealth. People acquired wealth and personal property either from their labour and also from estates inherited matrilineally. Relationships of dependency were flexible, all adults had the possibility of building their own group of personal dependants. A son who remained with his father’s kin was a “child of male” and could not inherit there, and neither could his children unless he married a woman in the same kin group as his father. In order to inherit, one had to be a “child of a female”. A man could return to his maternal kin in order to inherit there. Or he could build his own group, with his sisters, or his sister’s children, or by attracting maternal kin unrelated to his father. These people would show allegiance only to their “brother” and contribute their labour to his estate while receiving some revenue for themselves.

A women who chose to live with their husband had access to similar opportunities. She could create her own group by holding on to her unmarried or divorced daughters. These would be joined by her dependants unrelated to her husband, her domestic slaves, and younger members of her own kin group. By fostering and adopting children, a married woman could grow the number of people who depended on her. Usually when a woman took up residence with her husband, she was given a child in adoption and would adopt other children as time went on. Junior dependants would join her group if she had a reputation of wealth and generosity. All a married woman’s dependants owed allegiance to her alone, and respect to her husband. Through this, a married woman essentially she aided the people in her own kin group and maintained ties with them even though she now lived with her husband.

Etienne argues that marriage in Baule society was more of an “association of a woman and man for purposes of reproduction and production with shared rights in both children and products”. Children owed labour and allegiance to both parents, but this could be circumstantial depending on the child’s desires and ambitions. A married woman controlled the products of her labour and gained new wealth from surplus production. Gender equality was so that the two most important products in pre-colonial Baule society were controlled by men and women; yam for men and cloth for women. Division of labour meant that both men and women contributed to the production of both. Women and men controlled surplus production by controlling the labour of their dependants, domestic slaves, children and junior kin. And by controlling male dependants who worked in yam farming for example, a woman could use her surplus production to fund other opportunities such as long-distance trade and gold prospecting.

Of course colonialism changed things considerably. The introduction of cash crop lead to Baule women losing control over production. And losing control over production lead to losing control over dependants, as reduced productivity reduced a woman’s ability to attract dependants, and less dependants reduced a woman’s productive capacity. There is more to be said on how Baule gender relations and marriages were affected by colonialism and urban migration, however that is not the purpose of this post so I will end things here hoping that those who read this post have a clearer idea of how single unmarried women thrived in pre-colonial Baule society.

What I read
Etienne Mona, “Gender Relations and Conjugality among the Baule”, pp. 309-319 in Female and Male in West Africa (1983) edited by Christine Oppong

Sex work among the pre-colonial Akan

Since I wrote this post on sex work in pre-colonial Igboland, my interest in sex work as it exists (or not) in the history of West African peoples grew immensely. I was especially pleased to come across, Emmanuel Akyeampong’s research on sexuality and prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast, looking through the years from 1650-1950. Akyeampong examines prostitution and the politics of sex among the Akan in the pre-colonial era and then goes on to note how this changed with colonialism.

The “public women”
Like Igboland, sex work in the pre-colonial Gold Coast did not involve male pimps. Pre-colonially, there were public women, as Akyeampong refers to them, slaves bought by the political elite of Akan villages and towns that were compelled to provide sexual services for local bachelors. The presence of these public women was well noted by Europeans who lived and travelled among the south-west Akan groups of Esuma, Nzima, Evalue and Ahanta between the 17th and 19th centuries.

The institution of public women was created to cater to the sexual needs of unmarried men. Society clearly recognised their sexuality while simultaneously controlling the sexuality of women, especially married women, public women existed so that bachelors would have no excuses to engage in sexual relations with “free” women thus leading to adultery fines. Akyeampong mentioned the Twi proverb “mmarima ni ho a, mmaa basia yi won ho kyere” (when men are absent, women expose their nudity) to illustrate that the Akan believed female sexuality must always be controlled by male and female elders. Women were expected to fulfil sexual desires in marriage, which was monogamous for them. Fidelity was stressed for women, who were expected to marry though not all did. In my understanding, these Akan societies practised polygamy, and some individuals betrothed their daughters when they were still children, leading to a shortage of unmarried women that the bachelors could “alleviate” their sexual pressures with. Furthermore sex with married women if discovered lead to adultery fines at the least. The public women were essentially the “wives” of all bachelors in a given community, and if a married man was caught soliciting a public woman he would be fined for adultery.

The imbalance in sex ratios caused by polygamy threatened to disrupt relations between young men and the elders who controlled all the land and agricultural production. It was the male elders that also granted land to young men who they deemed fit to be independent, as well as wives. By installing the institution of public women, elders ensured that tensions were reduced with young bachelors while reinforcing existing structures of gerontocracy and patriarchy. Akyeampong argues that public women were actually public servants, as older public women in Assini received pensions from the King.

Public women became pawns in trading relations between Europeans and the Akan, as Europeans would kidnap and hold public women when they had disputes with locals according to Bosman. This would lead to the bachelors petitioning the elders to listen to the Europeans in order to get their public women back. The institution of public women apparently disappeared in the 19th century.

European observers
Olfret Dapper the Dutch physician and author of the book, Description of Africa (1668), visited Axim in the 1660s, when the town had a population of about 500. Dapper wrote about villages maintaing “two or three whores whom they called Abrakees“. Abrakees* were slaves initiated in public by Kabaseros (older, experienced public women) with the use of blood offerings and incantations that instil fear into the woman, convincing her that if she denies any bachelor that approaches her for sexual services, she will die. The Abrakee hands everything she gains from her sex work to the Kabasero and is granted the freedom to take foodstuff from anywhere, whether someone else’s house or in the market, for herself without having to pay. Interestingly Dapper notes that as part of the public initiation someone has to take the Abrakee away to make sure that she is “not a man but a woman”. Public women were indeed public, apart from being initiated in public, they were put on stools and carried on the shoulders of men around the village so that I guess everyone would know who they were. They were also expected to dance and drink in public during initiation, and then sit on a mat positioned near the marketplace wearing beads, clean clothes and lime or chalk decorations on their skin, collecting money from anyone who passed by.

Another Dutchman in Axim, this time in the 1700s wrote that young men would go and ask the elders to purchase a “common whore” for them. According to Willem Bosman merchant with the Dutch West India company, the purchased woman is brought to the marketplace by another woman who acts as her instructor. Part of Bosman’s account of the initiation involves a young boy pretending to have sex with the public woman so as to symbolise her reception of all men who demand her services. Bosman notes that public women lived on the outskirts of the village. Jean Godot who visted Assini a town to the west of Axim and in present-day Ivory Coast in 1701 noted that the king of Assini maintained six public women in every village and town who wore white headwraps to distinguish themselves from other women and lived on the outskirts of towns and villages where they provided sexual services to all bachelors.

Another European who noted and wrote on public women include A. Van der Eb, the General Director of the Dutch West India Company in the Gold Coast in his 1851 memorandum on the customs of the region. He notes that public women were paid in gold-dust, and that the only men who didn’t pay were those who slept with them first after their initiation.

The distinguished women who refused marriage
There is little mention of another kind of sex worker, different from the public women observed by Europeans in pre-colonial Akan societies. One Pieter de Marees in 1602 regarded coastal Akan women as being “prone to whoredom and promiscuity” especially with the Dutchmen, and a Jean Barbot noted that etiguafou were “distinguished from others by their fine appearance and clothing”. Bosman mentioned Elmina, Fetu, Asebu and Fantyn (presumably Fante) women who exchanged sex for a negotiated price. And then there is a Bowdich who in the early 19th century commented on the numerous prostitutes among the Asante stating that no Asante man forces his daughter to marry the man he wants her to, but disowns her if she refuses leading her to resort to sex work in order to support herself.

Yet information on such women is lacking when compared to that available on public women. These women were not slaves and became sex workers after asserting their autonomy.

Legacy of pre-colonial sex work
Akyeampong pays a lot of attention to how sex work changed during colonialism, and the differences between the new “urban prostitution” and the older forms. Colonialism brought about social changes that lead to women seeking independence and material accumulation through sex work as they now had more opportunities to accumulate wealth. They exerted their own will by stepping outside traditional constraints imposed on women, the emphasis on marriage and fidelity for women, the gerontocracy and patriarchy, and the control over sexuality maintained by the elders. Yet the pre-colonial influences remained in the use of ritual by sex workers for spiritual protection, and by the desires of urban sex workers to gain official recognition. (In 1943, an organised group of sex workers living in and around a street in Kumasi, the Baasifuo Community put forward a petition to the Chief Commissioner seeking recognition from the colonial government. They wanted the colonial government to grant their community a license and access to medical attention for a fee). Like public women, sex workers in colonial Gold Coast lived on the boundaries of towns, they also enjoyed freedom from male pimps even though they did sometimes employ men who got them clients on a commission.

In colonial Gold Coast, sex workers controlled their own sexuality and wealth which threatened some men. Sex work came to be seen as connected with women who were wealthy and exercised sexual autonomy, as well as venereal diseases and witchcraft.

*Akyeampong suggests that abrakee is a combination of aba’a, abea (woman) and akyere (a person to be sacrificed) which may explain the religious ritual purification and public display that surrounded the initiation of public women. In fact the initiation of public women bears similarities to those of priestesses, and they both enjoyed sexual agency sanctioned by society unlike other women in Akan society. Priestesses regarded market as a sacred space, and used beads, white clay and cloth in their initiations. They could never marry as they were already married to the deities they worshipped, custom allowed them to have as many lovers as they pleased. Basically a priestess could call upon any man they fancied, and the men would have to respond for fear of the consequences from the deity she worshipped. She would have sex with the man until she grew bored and found a new lover, her lovers lived with her and apparently some priestess had harems containing up to six men. Sometimes these men would follow them when they went out walking.

What I read
Akyeampong Emmanuel, “Sexuality and Prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast c. 1650-1950″, Past & Present, No. 156 (Aug., 1997), pp. 144-173

King Ahebi Ugbabe

Ahebi Ugbabe’s life story is to me, equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because Ahebi Ugbabe was a woman ahead of her time, and her story provides incredible insights into pre-colonial Igbo attitudes towards gender and sex. And frustrating because of the exact same reason; that is pre-colonial Igbo attitudes towards gender and sex. Ahebi Ugbabe was a woman who rose in the dawn of British colonialism of what is now Nigeria, to become a female king to a people who did not have autocratic rule, and a female headman and warrant chief to the British colonial forces. She was a woman who became a man as Igbo society allowed, ruled as a man with the support of foreign powers, until the elders of the society thought that she had gone too far and essentially re-transformed her to a woman.

By gathering several oral histories about her character, Nwando Achebe paints a very detailed and amazing picture of a defiant woman who challenged established ideas of how much a woman could become a man. As a young girl, Ahebi Ugbabe fled to Igalaland for two apparent reasons. One was to escape being forced to marry the goddess Ohe as a punishment for crimes her father had committed in Enugu-Ezike. The other may have been due to being raped, and then possibly being forced to marry the man who raped her and fathered her child. It may have been a combination of these reasons that lead to a Ahebi Ugbabe fleeing to Igalaland as a teenager.

In Igalaland, Ahebi Ugbabe turned to sex work, this gave her enough finances to set up a trade, and also access to important and powerful people such as Attah Igala, the King of the Igala, and some European colonists, both of who aided her in realising her ambitious goals as a ruler. Her activities, as a trader and sex worker, gave Ahebi Ugbabe economic power and political influence.
After establishing herself as a person of influence and affluence, Ahebi Ugbabe acted as an informant to the British by leading the British invaders to Umuida and Ogrute. It is still uncertain what Ahebi Ugbabe’s motives in aiding the British were, Achebe suggests that she used the British to enact revenge on the people whose customs had caused her to flee from her home at a young age, or possibly to remove the institution of deity marriage and domestic slavery which the British used as justification for colonialism.*

In return for her aiding them, and in recognition of Ahebi Ugbabe’s linguistic skills (she was fluent in Igbo and Igala, and pidgin English with which she communicated with the British colonialist), Ahebi Ugbabe was given political offices by the British. First as a headman, then as a warrant chief in 1918. The headman was an agent of the British who controlled the wards that comprised villages, while the warrant chief was the indigenous leader who ruled the people in place of the British in the indirect rule system. In Igboland which was decentralised and gerontocratic, warrants (basically pieces of paper) were given to men who rose to claim positions as heads of their communities. Although Ahebi Ugbabe’s high political office was not so strange in Igbo political life in which women could attain high levels of powers, she was apparently the only woman in colonial Nigeria, and perhaps British Africa to fill these offices. In occupying these roles (of headman and warrant chief), Ahebi Ugbabe’s authority was okayed by the British and grudgingly accepted by the people of Enugu-Ezike. Similarly Ahebi Ugbabe’s becoming a king was sanctioned by the Igala.

Ahebi Ugbabe was made king by Attah Aliyu Obaje, she was initiated into the sacred throne of the attah and had her ears pierced as all attah (rulers of the Igala kingdom) do in remembrance of the earliest female King Ebulejonu, Ahebi Ugbabe was then given a beaded crown, a horsetail that marked her station, beads to wear on her neck and wrists, a black fowl to sacrifice to her chi, and a staff that signified male kingship. This initiation is not so strange when you consider that in pre-colonial times, the official title of eze was one given by the attah, and that all ezes were required to make a pilgrimage to Igalaland. Achebe mentions Igala pioneers that may have inspired Ahebi to pursue a female kingship, such as Attah Ebulejonu, a female king of the Igala who is said to be a woman born of a half-human, half-leopard father, and who ruled as a Female King; Princesses Inikpi who buried herself alive, along with nine of her slaves as a willing sacrifice to help safeguard the Igala kingdom in a time of war, and who afterwards was elevated to become a goddess; and Oma Idoko who was similarly sacrificed, although unwillingly.

The Igbo pre-colonially practised a gerontocracy and believed in leadership by merit, power was shared between male and female elders in a complimentary fashion, yet Ahebi Ugbabe ruled autocratically. Her subjects, the people of Enugu-Ezike were compelled to recognise Ahebi Ugbabe as king because she had the Attah and the British behind her and supporting her. Ahebi Ugbabe soon became known as a greatly feared ruler, she was bestowed titles that were usually the reserve of male kings and chieftains, along with titles solely for exceptional women and women who had transformed themselves into men. Ahebi Ugbabe was praised both as an exceptional woman and an exceptional man.

And as a man, Ahebi Ugbabe’s treatment of women followed society’s taboos. She had a masquerade house in her palace that women were forbidden to enter. She slept surrounded by young virginal girls, teenagers and women were not allowed to sleep near her following the belief that menstrual blood was contaminating. Ahebi Ugbabe married several women, and several slaves one of whom she adopted as her own son. Her palace was a sanctuary for women who ran from abusive husbands, and Ahebi Ugbabe married some of the women who decided not return to their husbands. At the same time, her palace was a kind of corrective facility for “difficult” wives. Men sent their wives to King Ahebi’s palace and paid her to deal with their stubborn wives, until they became softened and were ready “to live in peace and harmony with their husbands”. King Ahebi’s palace was a sexually liberated place, her wives not only had as many lovers as they wanted to, but they were apparently also encouraged to sleep with her important male visitors. Thus the women in her palace lived as free women and sex workers. There was also a coed school in King Ahebi’s palace at a time when it was rare for girls to be educated.

There were several people who were not happy with King Ahebi. Particularly the male elders who were upset with her disregard of traditional leadership and elders, her autocratic rule, her reception of bribes and the manner she forcibly took away men’s wives. However they tolerated King Ahebi until she did the unthinkable, she tried to own a masquerade. Masquerades are believed to be the ancestors come back to the land of the living, they enforce the laws of the community and are agents of social control. They were also the domain of a solely male secret society and in a society where gender and sex were fluid, ownership of, and the ability to control a masquerade differentiated the male from the female. Only cis-gendered men who were initiated into the masquerade secret society were allowed to control masquerades. Ahebi Ugbabe was a female king and a female husband, and indeed she was treated as a man in her community. Yet when King Ahebi came out with a masquerade, this was considered the ultimate insult and disregard of society’s rules.

Ultimately, King Ahebi fell from grace when the British betrayed her by not supporting her when she took the male elders to court after they object at her masquerade. The British resident who presided over this dispute, concluded that Ahebi Ugbabe did not have the right to control a masquerade as she was a woman. With the British no longer backing her, Ahebi Ugbabe’s influence significantly lessened, people stopped attending her court and her market. Now the British sought to reconnect with the male elders they had previously ignored, and with this the male elders were free to force Ahebi Ugbabe’s re-transformation into womanhood.

She still retained considerable influence and wealth until she died in May 1948. Today most people do not know about King Ahebi and her legacy, however she lives on as she was transformed into a medicine by one medicine man, and then to a goddess who sees and reveals the unknown.

* Interestingly, although Ahebi Ugbabe may have been unique in Britain’s African colonies as a woman who became a headman and then warrant chief, she was not the only African woman who acted as an informant to aspiring colonial authorities. More on this in future posts.

What I Read
Achebe, Nwando (2011), The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Indiana University Press
Listen to Nwando Achebe talk about her research and King Ahebi here.

Pre-colonial Igboland: On Woman-to-Woman Marriage

Nwando Achebe writes that “woman-to-woman marriage in Africa has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality” (emphasis hers)…and I actually agree with this…kind of. While I strongly believe in pre-colonial lesbian secret societies littered across the African continent, at the risk of falling into the trap of Eurocentric and Western (mis)understanding of African social institutions, it should be made clear that the institution in which women were allowed to marry women was not created to facilitate gay marriage. In fact, another researcher, Kenneth Chukwuemeka labels woman-to-woman marriage “an improvisation to sustain patriarchy” and “simply an instrument for the preservation and extension of patriarchy and its traditions”, the basic argument being that in Igbo society the male child was of utmost importance and it was in this obsession to have a male child to continue the lineage that woman-to-woman marriage came about* (and also apparently because when a female husband wants to marry a wife, a male relative is required to do the talking for her).

Reading Achebe’s The Female King of Colonial Nigeria, one could be forgiven in believing that woman-to-woman marriage was unique among the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria. It wasn’t. This institution can be found across the African continent among various ethnic groups, with slight differences in norms and practices. Even I was surprised to discover, among the Yoruba where a widow who wanted to remain with her in-laws could marry a female relative when there were no men in the family as considerable options. In other societies, women who could not have children, and widows took wives and claimed the children their wives had as their own. In others women who did not have sons could marry a woman who would act as a daughter-in-law, in fact married to the female husband’s non-existent son. In all societies where this was practised, female husbands occupied high statuses in the community.

In Igboland women who were considered exceptional in the eyes of society due to their wealth and/or social standing, and those who were past menopause could marry wives for themselves, for their husbands, for their sons, and/or for their siblings. These influential women were usually viewed as men, due to the fluidity of gender in the pre-colonial Igbo context, by marrying women their status was elevated mostly due to female husbands paying bride-price. Woman-to-woman marriage allowed for greater freedom of sexuality for the wives, they could have boyfriends, anonymous men whose only duty was to supply sperm, henceforth “male sperm donors”, and this was socially accepted. Any child they had were taken care of by their female husband, and carried her name and this was legitimate in the eyes of society.

Children were very important to this society, apparently women who had given birth to ten or more children were honoured by receiving the title, Lolo. It was also common for a man who had no sons to appoint a daughter who would become a female son. This female son would be required to remain in her father’s home (as opposed to leaving for marriage) and would receive his inheritance. A daughter could become a son after secret rituals were carried out to aid this transformation. The female husband did not have to go through this, they simply had to go out and marry whoever they wanted and by doing so became men and husbands. The female husband was treated like a man and enjoyed equal privilege with her male counterparts, she sometimes even associated with the male elders, however there were some restrictions.

Kenneth Chukwuemeka suggests that while the wife married to the female husband had her own companions, the female husband too always had a male companion (emphasis mine). This male companion, “satisfied her erotic desires and supported her when the biological realities became inevitable”. Which suggests that all women have an emotional and biological need to be with a man. Which I find laughable, as well as problematic. Even though apparently all female husbands had male lovers, they could not be seen openly with them, and if she had a child with it was considered illegitimate and treated as an outcast.

Every single African researcher I’ve read says with the utmost conviction that the practice of woman-to-woman marriage did not involve sexual relationship between the couple, it was not lesbianism because none of the women who married other women was romantically or sexually attracted to other women. They were only interested in children, every single woman who became a female husband just wanted a child that was considered legitimate in society’s eyes.

If woman-to-woman marriage was an ingenious way through which women manipulated the existing system to achiever higher and economic status, as this page suggests, what is to say that only heterosexual women took advantage of this? Is it impossible that lesbian-like women in the pre-colonial past could not have similarly manipulated the society sanctioned woman-to-woman marriage to achieve personal goals? Could the one lesbian in the village employed woman-to-woman marriage to be with a woman she loved? Then again I am still unsure of what pre-colonial Igbo reactions were to homosexuality, whether it was a taboo that lead to exile or something that was accepted, or something in between. Practices such as woman-to-woman marriage suggest fluidity between gender roles in pre-colonial Igbo culture yet they don’t really say much else. As sexual practices in Africa past remain under-researched, largely because most if not all of our scholars and researchers today are heterosexist and believe that everyone was heterosexual because children are everything, I doubt we’ll ever really find out what other kinds of sexual practices took place among female husbands and their wives. Especially those female husbands who were apparently single and wealthy women.

Woman-to-woman marriage is still practised in Nigeria today. Since writing this post, two of my friends have revealed that they have relatives who are female husbands and have wives.

*I personally question this obsession, really, all African societies apparently had for children from the dawn of time. On one hand it does make sense for people in any part of the world to want to continue their lineage and pass on their heritage, but I wonder why Africans seem to solely occupy this domain of fascinating over children. Some say it is due to high mortality rates, but was this really unique to Africa past, or present even. It is almost as if wanting the preservation of a culture is unique to us?


What I Read

Achebe, Nwando (2011), The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Indiana University Press
Chukwuemeka, Kenneth (2012), “Female Husbands in Igbo Land: Southeast Nigeria”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 5, No.1 (link goes to pdf files)
Cadigan, R. Jean (1998), “Woman-to-Woman Marriage: Practices and Benefits in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1