- The Day I “Met” Ahebi Ugbabe, Female King of Enugu-Ezike, Nigeria
I “met” Ahebi Ugbabe in the summer of 1995. Our “meeting” was not physical, for she had lived and died many years before I was born. Rather, our encounter occurred on the pages of C. K. Meek’s 1934 anthropological report on the people of eastern Nigeria, Law and Authority in an Igbo Tribe.1 As I read page after page of the dense text—part of a bigger reading assignment imposed by my dissertation advisor, the late Professor Boniface Obichere—I was reminded of his somewhat rebuking tone a few days earlier: “No one will give you a Ph.D. to write another study of the Women’s War!” He was, of course, alluding to Ogu Umunwanyi, which was launched by Igbo women on an abusive British colonial government in 1929—a movement that effectively put African women on the historical map. Even though I had no intention of writing a history of the Women’s War, I must admit that I was taken aback, because I really did not know exactly what it was that I wished to work on. I was certain that I wanted to write a history of my people, the Igbo women, but that was about it. Therefore, words are not enough to describe the excitement that coursed through my body some moons later when the words “[t]he village-group of Ogurte [Enugu-Ezike, Nigeria] is distinguished by having a female Eze” jumped out at me on page 158 of Meek’s report.2 The words were a validation of time invested—the better part of three summer months—reading, eating, and sleeping impenetrable ethnography compiled by such British colonial and missionary greats as G. T. Basden and T. L. Talbot.3 The validation came not from finally unearthing information about an unnamed Igbo woman, but because the woman was said to be an eze—king.
Eze nwanyi is Igbo for queen—a term that C. K. Meek did not use—but even if he had, my feelings of validation would not have been diminished, because the people that Meek was writing about were a non-centralized society that bestowed leadership on elders. I had finally uncovered a worthy topic for my dissertation—the politics of gender and the evolution of female power. This research would later be revised into my book, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900–1960 (Heinemann, 2005). [End Page 134]
Her name was Ahebi Ugbabe, this female king and warrant chief of Enugu-Ezike, Nigeria.4 I featured aspects of her story in the last chapter of my first book, but I quickly realized that I had only just touched the tip of the Ahebi Ugbabe iceberg.5 My love affair with this female king would have to continue; and continue it did in a full-length critical biography, Gendered Politics in a Changing Space: Colonialism and the Invention of a Female Igbo King—the writing of which has been made possible by a generous grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.
Ahebi Ugbabe was born in Ogurte, Enugu-Ezike, two decades before the turn of the nineteenth century. She would later escape to Igalaland, just north of Nsukka. The young Ahebi was evading an oracular pronunciation that ordered that she be offered in marriage to a female deity in retribution for her father’s crime. The penalty, known as igo mma ogo (to become the in-law of a deity), was a recognized and well-established sanction in northern Igboland. During her forced exile, a resilient Ahebi became a prostitute and used this form of work to her advantage. She traveled widely and learned to speak many languages, including Igala, Nupe, and Pidgin English. Her sex work and linguistic skills gave her access to the Attah-Igala (king) and the British divisional officer, who not only facilitated her return to Nsukka Division, but supported her claim to the office of headman, warrant chief, and, later, eze.
Having completed six chapters of writing, I am about to begin the process of securing a publisher for the book. My...