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

Pre-colonial Igboland: Marriage to a Goddess

In Nwando Achebe’s recount of Ahebi Ugbabe’s life, she looks into the practice of marrying women to Goddesses as a sort of human sacrifice and slavery system.

With the abolition of the international slave trade in 1805, some Igbo people created new deities and mystical forces that were to help them fight the internal slavery that continued on after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as to protect those who were left behind. These primarily female deities functioned to defend societies, they served as both mothers and protectors. The deities shielded communities from slave raiders and they repopulated the communities by using the bodies of women and the sperm of “anonymous human male sperm donors”. This institution was called igo mma ogo and allowed female deities to marry women so as to repopulate society. The children born from such unions were said to be children of the Goddess and her human wife, they bore names of their deity parents.

The women who were chosen to marry Goddesses were usually demanded as retribution for crimes that someone in their family had committed. Such crimes included murder, manslaughter and theft. Although the women married to Goddesses were not allowed to marry any freeborn men, they were allowed to have sexual relationships with freeborn men, those are the male sperm donors mentioned above. These men played their part in helping the female deities become female fathers.

One example of a powerful female medicine that went on to become a deity is Adoro of Alor-Uno, a northern Igbo town. As with most other towns in northern Igboland where the most popular and powerful deities were female, Adoro was a Goddess. She started out as a “medicine”, a spiritual force, to protect Alor-Uno during wars with other towns, and to save them from the slaving activities of the Aro and Nike who were renowned as aggressive slave-traders. Adoro grew to become a Goddess who meted our justice in events in the community, she also maintained social harmony and was apparently one of the most powerful expressions of female religious and political power in Nsukka.

Adoro was a mother, a nurturer and a fertility Goddess tasked with the responsibility of repopulating a society that had been ravished by the slave trade. She was a powerful war deity and as a legal instrument, she was called upon to judge cases that were thought to be too difficult for human justice. Adoro also maintained moral conducted, she detected criminal behaviour (for example those who were thought to have committed a crime would be called to swear upon Adoro, if they were innocent they were free but if they were not, they would be punished by her). Adoro punished though were stole, told lies, bore false witness, committed murder or adultery.

Criminal offenders would present their children in marriage to appease the wrathful Goddess with the support of her priests. Sometimes the family of the criminal would cast lots so as to figure out who would offered to Adoro while at other times, Adoro would instruct the wrongdoer to marry one of her daughters (that is the daughters of one of her wives). The women who found themselves dedicated to Adoro were both freeborn and enslaved, while they served to help Adoro repopulate society, they also helped build a relationship between Adoro and their families as she offered her protection to them as they had a Goddess for an in-law.

The wives of Adoro led strictly regulated lives. Initially it was forbidden for women betrothed to Adoro to marry freeborn men, they had sexual relations with Adoro’s priests (attamas) who would impregnate them. Daughters born of these relations were forbidden from having relationships with either Adoro priests or freemen, but only with men of similar status. As the number of Adoro wives increased, freeborn men were encouraged to have sexual relationships with them. None of Adoro’s wives could return to their natal village, even if they wanted to.

With the full coming of colonialism, the British missionaries became obsessed with Nsukka religion. They had heard of the system of igo mma ogo and convinced that it was a native form of slavery and human sacrifice, the missionaries sought to destroy the institution. They were somewhat successful, and it may be worth mentioning that several of the women married to Adoro ended up becoming Christians or using Christianity to combat a system which they found oppressive.


Igo mma ogo seems to be a unique institution, Achebe only uses examples like Adoro and another Goddess Ohe. However, I find it interesting that she seem to overlook that in many societies, including pre-colonial Igbo ones, priest, priestesses or devotees of both Gods and Goddesses were often referred to as their “wives”. Institutions similar to igo mma ogo can be seen among the Akan of Ghana were priestesses would be married to a God or Goddess and thus be exempt from marrying human men although they were not barred from sexual activity. I would like to, in the upcoming paragraphs, examine another aspect of women marrying goddesses using Mami Wata, the beautiful and seductive Goddess who is thought to make people rich and powerful through sexual encounters with her or her agents.

Igbo Mami Wata devotees and worshippers were considered to be married to her, they gave up living as human wives for the mysticism, water worship and marriage to the Goddess. And when they were married to humans, Igbo Mami Wata worshippers would set aside one day of the four-day Igbo market week to meet marital obligations to their “Goddess husband”. The wives of Mami Wata were not tasked with having children to bring up population numbers as with Adoro or Ohe. Nonetheless, my fascination stems from Mami Wata being a seductive goddess, all my life I have heard of Mami Wata encountering people men sexually. I am yet to hear of a woman who encountered Mami Wata sexually and therefore couldn’t have sex with any human being ever again.

Mami Wata is a Goddess that is considered to be active in the social, economic and sexual lives of ordinary people. Mami Wata demands exclusivity, people who have sex with her or her agents may never have sex with other humans or risk insanity. Though she is popularly imagined as female, Mami Wata does not have a familiar sexual orientation and claims human spouses indiscriminately regardless of gender. So why would she only be having sexual encounters with her human male spouses or are Mami Wata’s human female spouses really good at keeping secrets?

Perhaps this is a topic for another post, either way I found it an interesting addition to this one since it fits in the theme of women marrying Goddesses. I also believe this is a perfect way to round this post up and open the next post which will be on the “controversial” topic of woman-to-woman marriage (it is only “controversial” because people are still arguing about whether the female husbands had sexual relations with their wives).

What I read.
Achebe Nwando (2003), “IGO MMA OGO: The Adoro Goddess, Her Wives, and Challengers— Influences on the Reconstruction of Alor-Uno, Northern Igboland, 1890–1994″, Indiana University Press, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter)

Achebe Nwando (2011), Ahebi Ugbabe: The Female Colonial King of Nigeria

Izugbara O. Chimaraoke, “Sexuality and the supernatural in Africa”, pp. 533-558, in African Sexualities: A Reader, ed. Sylvia Tamale

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.