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.