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The Female King of Colonial Nigeria is a biography of a woman who became a warrant chief in colonial Nigeria. This woman was called Ahebi Ugbabe. Drawing from her in-depth ethnographic knowledge of Igbo customs and society, songs, oral traditions, and written archives, African gender historian Nwando Achebe tells the story of Ahebi Ugbabe. As a biography, the book follows the life and times of this elite African woman from the late nineteenth century through much of the first half of the twentieth century. The book demonstrates how complex an individual African woman’s life history can be, punctuated with different experiences. As a chief, Ahebi was not a typical African woman of elite background. She was a poor, uneducated girl who lived in exile; she became a slave and eventually a prostitute. The book is divided into five chapters, and they move chronologically from the time of her youth to the day when the British rejected her.
The book is important in many ways. First, as an Igbo herself, Achebe is able to offer a rich analysis of Igbo culture, and this is situated in the context of other major changes in twentieth-century colonial Nigeria. We are introduced to the importance of naming in Igbo society, oral history, the role of oracles, marriage of deities, relationships between individuals and their personal spirits, dedication of daughters to spirits, the “respect” that prostitutes receive in this society, [End Page 483] as well as how gerontocracy bestowed leadership on a group of elders. Second, the book adds to the growing body of scholarship that shows that the impact of European colonialism on African societies was profound (e.g., Osborn, Our New Husbands Are Here: Households, Gender, and Politics in a West African State from the Slave Trade to Colonial Rule ; Allman et al., Women in African Colonial Histories ; Prevost, The Communion of Women: Missions and Gender in Colonial Africa and the British Metropole , among others). This is particularly true in the area of African gender relationships. Ahebi’s story is very much a consequence of British colonialism in southeastern Nigeria. While the Igbos were surrounded by centralized societies and knew the existence of kings and chiefs, they never had one until the Europeans conquered them and imposed warrant chiefs on them. Before the imposition of colonial rule, which brought Ahebi to power, no man or woman had ever assumed the role of a chief in an Igbo community. But by appointing Ahebi, the female king, as a warrant chief, Achebe demonstrates, the British had set in motion a radical departure from the past.
Furthermore, through Ahebi’s life history Achebe shows that African women’s diverse lifestyles and experiences cannot be reduced to a singular narrative of powerlessness, victimization, exclusion, or marginalization. For instance, female prostitutes or ex-slaves such as Ahebi were not passive individuals but real historical actors who actively tried to change their lives. Further, the author argues against the application of Western understanding of gender relations to the African worlds, that is, seeing African gender through Western eyes. She argues, for instance, that Western understandings of sexuality, morality, victimization, and exploitation cannot be applied to the Igbo since marginalized women could enjoy greater social mobility in both the human and the supernatural worlds. According to Achebe, it is also not possible to understand the practice of woman-to-woman marriage from a Western European worldview. In Igboland, woman-to-woman marriage did not take the form of a relationship between lesbians (p. 59). Here, like Ahebi did, wealthy, ambitious women sought wives who could bear children for them. This form of “marriage” was therefore about women’s attempts to redefine their social and economic status and class in wider Igbo society. According to Igbo custom, the “female husband” pays the dowry for her wives and looks for a male that will have intercourse with the wives, and, when children are born from these unions, she claims “paternal” rights to these children by giving them her surname...