King Ahebi Ugbabe was unique among the men of Igboland in colonial Nigeria. There weren’t many kings in Igboland at all. But the infrequency of kingship is not what set Ugbabe  apart: more importantly, in a world dominated by councils of old men, where political, social, economic, and spiritual roles were meted out in a complimentary but rigid dual-sex system, King Ahebi Ugbabe was a female who “became a man.” We know about Ahebi Ugbabe because of the work of historian Nwando Achebe, who found a reference to this female king in the records of British colonial administrators. Achebe points out that Ugbabe is anomalous; female kings weren’t common in West Africa by any means. But the fluidity of gender in Igbo society meant that females could perform typically male roles, both temporarily and permanently. Ugbabe successfully manipulated the loopholes and soft spots in the system to take on increasingly more powerful roles in her community, culminating in her position as eze. But as Achebe shows, Ugbabe also ultimately overstepped the boundaries of gender fluidity, and was knocked from power by the very colonial system she used to seize power in the first place.

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Transcript of King Ahebi Ugbabe: The Nigerian Female King

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Averill: King Ahebi Ugbabe (ah-heh-be oo-WAH-be) was unique among the men of Igboland in colonial Nigeria. There weren’t many kings in Igboland at all; while West Africa was politically diverse with a range of governing structures, Igboland was largely in the 19th and early 20th centuries characterized by decentralized gerontocratic systems–that is, rule by a council of elder men. European observers like the very racist Mrs. Leith-Ross praised the Igbo peoples she encountered for their predisposition to democracy. So King Ugbabe (oo-WAH-be) ruled where few kings had before. But the infrequency of kingship is not what set Ugbabe (oo-WAH-be) apart: more importantly, in a world dominated by councils of old men, where political, social, economic, and spiritual roles were meted out in a complimentary but rigid dual-sex system, King Ahebi Ugbabe was a female who “became a man.”

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley- Cousins

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig!

<musical interlude>

Sarah: Ahebi Ugbabe (ah-heh-be oo-WAH-be), an Igbo female eze, or king, was born sometime near the end of the 19th century in Nsukka. The Igbo are an ethnic group who mostly live in the south central and southeastern parts of Nigeria. This region is also known as the “Biafra.” Today the Igbo are estimated to make up about 18% of the Nigerian population. If you are familiar with the writings of Chinua Achebe, the people and places that he discusses in his fiction are generally Igbo, including the village and characters of Things Fall Apart. Enugu-Ezike, where Ahebi Ugbabe was born, is a large town in Enugu, a state in southeastern Nigeria.

Averill: For most of the 20th century, Nigeria was under the control of British. This imperial subjugation started earlier in the 19th century, when English, Scottish, and Welsh missionaries made inroads evangelizing Christianity, building churches and schools and hospitals. By the 1850s, the British sent armies to begin long and violent campaigns to save the “heathens,” to “civilize” them, and – bonus – to take control of the vast wealth of natural resources the West Africans weren’t utilizing sufficiently. In 1885, concerned about the imperial aspirations of a newly unified Germany, the British agreed to gather with the other Europeans to carve out Africa into zones of so-called ownership. The rules of the Berlin Conference of 1885 required that hopeful imperial powers prove existing infrastructure in order to claim a particular territory. Because of a long tradition of religious imperialism and military imperialism, the British had roads, administrative buildings, barracks, and more dotting the West African landscape. The region, including what would eventually be the state of Enugu, was granted to the British by the other European states in attendance. No Africans were present for any of the decisions made at that “conference.”

A colorful book cover featuring a large black woman dressed in green Nigerian garb

The cover of Nwando Achebe’s The Female King of Colonial Nigeria

Sarah: We know about Ahebi Ugbabe because of the work of historian Nwando Achebe, who found a reference to this female king in the records of British colonial administrators. Achebe points out that Ugbabe is anomalous; female kings weren’t common in West Africa by any means. But the fluidity of gender in Igbo society meant that females could perform typically male roles, both temporarily and permanently. Ugbabe successfully manipulated the loopholes and soft spots in the system to take on increasingly more powerful roles in her community, culminating in her position as eze. But as Achebe shows, Ugbabe also ultimately overstepped the boundaries of gender fluidity, and was knocked from power by the very colonial system she used to seize power in the first place.

Averill: The oral histories that Achebe collected in Enugu-Ezike suggests that Ugbabe’s family had some hard times when she was a child, probably around 13 or 14 years old. Like 70% of West Africans, Ugbabe’s parents were farmers, and they’d had a few bad harvests that put the family into dire financial straits. There’d also been a series of illnesses in the household. Seeking answers to these misfortunes, Ugbabe’s father visited a diviner.

Sarah: Before and during colonization by the Europeans, the Igbo worldview was shaped by an understanding of two distinct realms: the spiritual, and the human. Within each of those worlds there is a social hierarchy. A supreme god was at the top of the spiritual realm, and a king or queen or elder was at the top of the human realm. Next on the spiritual totem pole there were lesser gods, who were conduits to the supreme god; and then there were titled men and women, warriors, workers, and slaves, in that order, on the human side. These two realms were always in communion.

Averill: There were, of course, special people who facilitated

A colorful book cover featuring a person dressed as a spirit

The cover of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

communication between the human and spiritual world — like Catholic priests and Muslim imams and Judaic rabbis, there were priests, priestesses, spirit mediums, and diviners, all of whom connected humans to their gods. Religious authority was not held solely by men in West Africa. Among the people of Nnobi, for example, only the priest (man) and Agba Ekwe (woman) were permitted to speak directly to the supreme goddess of the region, Idemili. But there were some sex-based boundaries that could not be transgressed in Igbo society. In precolonial and colonial Nigeria, only male-bodied men, for example, were allowed to interact with the masquerades. Masquerades and the masked spirits were basically secret societies of full-men — effectively, men who had passed the finial initiation of masculine development. The significance of the masquerade can be seen in a scene from Chinua Achebe’s (Nwando Achebe’s father) Things Fall Apart.

Sarah: “It happened during the annual ceremony which was held in honor of the earth deity. At such times the ancestors of the clan who had been committed to Mother Earth at their death emerged again as egwugwu through tiny ant holes.

One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this was what Enoch did.

The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring when Enoch boasted aloud that they would not dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. Enoch fell on him and tore off his mask. The other egwugwu immediately surrounded their desecrated companion, to shield him from the profane gaze of women and children, and led him away. Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia was thrown into confusion.”

Averill: This important caveat of male/men’s power will be important to our story later. For now, though, we return to the diviners. A diviner was believed to be able to discern the will of the gods. The diviner told Ahebi Ugbabe’s father that he had committed a grave crime against a kinsman, and offended the goddess Ohe. All of the family’s misfortune was Ohe’s revenge. According to Nwando Achebe, “Ohe was the goddess of creation, fertility, and protection. She was known to punish individuals for inappropriate and offensive behavior, like murder, thievery, and adultery….for things to get better, Ahebi would have to be offered as a living sacrifice to appease the great goddess.”

Sarah: Both before, during, and after contact with Europeans, slavery in West Africa included both human slavery — in which one human claimed ownership over another — and spiritual slavery. The sacrifice that the diviner demanded of Ahebi’s father was an enslavement of the latter kind.

Averill: Spiritual slavery in West Africa is similar to the dedication of young men and women to Jesus as monks and nuns. They are effectively in the service to a god for the rest of their life – but, because the gods and goddesses of West Africa don’t have lots of hang-ups about sex, spiritual slavery in West Africa is also transmuted from parent to child. The girls and women dedicated to a god or goddess bear children for their divine husband. Those children, in turn, belong to the deity. Mortal men are sperm donors.

Sarah: Spiritual slaves who are given to gods or goddesses tend to be treated fairly well; they are not allowed to live among regular people, but they are fed and clothed and housed by communities who respect and revere the divinity and the dedicatees. There is another form of spiritual slavery that is the result of a heinous crime – with the same hereditary qualifications, but without any of the nice side benefits, but that’s a concept for another episode.

Averill: In a legendary move in and of itself, Ahebi Ugbabe refused to be dedicated to the goddess. She refused to pay the price for her father’s alleged wrongdoings, she refused to accept her place as a pawn to be used by the old men in her world who held the power, and she refused to be enslaved, even if it was to a goddess. She ran away from home. Who doesn’t love a good teen rebellion story?

Sarah: Because she took this stand, she was banished from her home, her family, and everyone she knew. She was driven north into Igalaland, where she had nothing to offer – no skills, nothing to trade, no education. So she sold her body. Prostitution was common in Nigeria prior to and during British occupation. Though pre-colonial prostitution was primarily a rural phenomenon, closely regulated by social standards, prostitution in colonial British West Africa could be immensely profitable, particularly in the growing urban centers. One colonial official commented that prostitution in Nigerian cities was an “extremely profitable” venture and prostitutes “itinerant gold mines.”  

Averill: Though she was young, on the run, and carrying a newborn in tow–she’d given birth shortly after fleeing Nsukka, a daughter that may have been the result of a rape– Igalaland was ultimately a land of opportunity for Ahebi Ugbabe. Igalaland had its own historical female king. In the 16th century, a woman called Ebule is said to have reigned as king, as attah, or “father of all people.” This precedent may have facilitated Ugbabe’s eventual coronation, for it was the pressure of influential people in Igalaland that helped Ahebi secure her own kingdom. Perhaps a people who knew a female king, even if she reigned four hundred years ago, was prepared for another.

Sarah: But long before she was a king, Ahebi Ugbabe had to earn her way through land that was, for all intents and purposes, foreign to her. As a sex worker, she traveled. She learned the local languages, and then the languages of the peoples she encountered in the bigger cities. Before long she could speak Igala, Nupe, and Pidgin English, in addition to her mother tongue, Igbo. Her clientele increased in influence as well. She communed with British colonists, prominent Igala citizens, and eventually even the king of Igalaland himself.

Averill: In Igboland, prostitution was not viewed by locals with derision or disgust. Rather, sex workers were referred to as “free women.” Their spaces were places men could go and relax; they could be “friends” with men, unlike most women. Because sex workers were required to be single, they were not defying any social regulations. Unmarried women were allowed to do what they wanted sexually; their bodies were their own. Rather than street walkers, sex workers in Nigeria tended to work out of their homes, or in hotels.  

a gray map of Africa with a portion shaded light green on the West coast. Inside the light green, a brighter green portion indicates Igboland.

A map of Igboland and Nigeria on the continent of Africa | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Igalaland, on the other hand, had strict rules about sexual chastity, and prostitution was largely underground. Women caught selling sex faced harsh consequences. While concubinage was widespread and expected, it was seen as a separate system from prostitution. Most prostitutes in Igalaland, then, were either widowed women (thus not in danger of losing their virginity and being rendered worthless) or ‘foreigners’–Igbo, Yoruba, and other ethnic migrants who moved to Igalaland cities to take advantage of the colonial infrastructure and money. It was in this context that Ugbabe made connections with important people in high places, relationships that helped her take her first step toward ‘becoming a man.’

Averill: Beyond earning a living from sex work, Ahebi Ugbabe was ultimately successful as a businesswoman. She invested the money she made into various trading ventures. These, as much as anything else, proved essential to her success. She started in potash and palm oil, but quickly got into horses, turning small profits into large ones, and gained a reputation as an astute business woman. While palm oil production and small-scale buying and selling were traditionally woman’s work, horse trading proved her prowess. At the height of her trading career, she was known as one of the most affluent horse traders in the Igbo-Igala borderlands.

Sarah: As a businesswoman and a successful sex worker, Ahebi Ugbabe made connections in Igalaland, including British colonial officers. Igalaland was already conquered by the turn of the century, and the British were using that as a staging point to move into Igboland. Officially, the British were going to liberate the Igbo from slavery, which sounds pleasantly noble. Their methods, however, were not. But they did not conquer Igboland alone. Colonial records suggest that Ahebi Ugbabe traveled with the British army and helped them find them the most advantageous paths to conquer her people. Local collaborators, those who’d been cast out from society and abused by the existing regimes, were essential to European colonial projects.

Averill: These individuals would be central to the indirect rule model that the British employed in colonial Nigeria. We see this in Chinua Achebe’s fiction – the Umuofia villagers who join the Christian church and eventually become the police, tax collectors, etcetera, were the twins who’d been cast out into the evil forest, or Okonkwo’s son who was not strong enough to ‘be a man’ like Okonkwo. So people like Ahebi Ugbabe, cast out of her village and family for refusing to be dedicated into spiritual slavery to pay her father’s debts, who was probably raped and definitely had to sell her body just to get by — people like Ahebi had every reason to join the other side, to accept positions of power where they could change the system that hurt them, where they could be powerful after so long of powerlessness.

Sarah: And then all that ‘infrastructure’ that gave Britain colonial ‘rights’ over West Africa – the Anglo churches, the schools, the prisons, the court houses – these became the places where locals were trained and educated to do all the day-to-day operations of running a colony for the British crown. British West Africa was largely governed by West Africans. There were some Scots and Irish and Welsh and English fellas with their wives overseeing everything, but within a few years they were able to turn the vast majority of governance over to the people like Ahebi Ugbabe. Ahebi Ugbabe returned home with the British. She immediately made allies among the political elite. As Nwando Achebe notes, Ahebi was the only one in her village who spoke any English; she quickly set herself up as the intermediary between herself and her people.

Averill: Ahebi was ultimately able to outmaneuver the man whom the British had initially appointed as headman of the village. The British tended to ignore the custom of having the oldest man and oldest woman of a village in the symbolic seats overseeing a village. They preferred young men who were more malleable to their machinations. A headman was necessary to the British colonial structure, however, to carry out the oversight of each village, and to report back to the Division head (Divisions are essentially zones or regions that the British carved West Africa into for governance purposes). Because the Igbo headman and headwoman were traditionally symbolic, and without actual power, the appointment of these young headmen – imbued with all the authority that a cap with an embroidered British crown suggested – were resented most of the time.

A colorful photograph of a woman wearing paint on her face and many orange necklaces, smiling

An Igbo woman, 2007 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: It is interesting that the British appointed Ahebi at all. They tended to dismiss West African women the same way they would have dismissed British women. There is nothing in the colonial records to indicate the circumstances at all, but the oral tradition suggests that she worked with the former headman, that they were friends or allies, and that she performed the duties of headman for him at times. This was in part because he still did not speak English, and she was able to fulfill that need in going between the village and the British. Ultimately when he stepped down (or possibly was removed – there were rumors of a murder) Ahebi Ugbabe was appointed headman, vaulting her over one of the hurdles to accumulation of the titles and authority of men. And though the British did not comment on the lead up to her appointment, there are notes about her intelligence, loyalty (to the British), and sensibility, all desirable traits for someone entrusted with colonial administration on His Majesty’s behalf.

Averill: Which is not to say that a female headman was accepted in Igboland simply because the British said so. In European society at this time, positions of power were primarily occupied by men. With the rare exception — like Queen Victoria, newly installed on the British throne in 1837 — all true power was held by men. Further, gender was tied explicitly to sex. Only males could be men, and only females could be women, and by extension, only male-bodied men were permitted to occupy positions reserved for men — king, judge, tax collector, magistrate, father, husband. For those who transgressed those boundaries, there were severe consequences. Male-bodied individuals who behaved or adopted the roles of women were sodomites, and sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or — if they were lucky — just to public humiliation in the stockades.

Sarah: In pre-colonial Igboland, gender was a performance, and sex and gender were not mutually assured conditions. Among the noncentralized Igbo, those governed by gerontocratic councils, there was a “dual sex” system of power, or a joint system of male and female government. Effectively a jury of males would deal with the governing of men’s issues, and a jury of women would deal with the governing of women’s issues. There would have been a symbolic vestment of authority in the oldest man and oldest woman in the village. But kings, the vestment of full political authority in a single individual, were extremely rare in Igboland, and there had certainly never been a female king – at least not in living memory – as there had been in Igalaland or other parts of West Africa. But there were instances where females performed the duties and roles of men in Igbo society. There was a gender fluidity that made allowances for certain rituals to be observed when a male-bodied individual was unavailable.

Averill: For example, Ifi Amadiume (eef-ee ah-mah-dyoo-may) tells the story of a ‘male daughter’ (a concept that Nwando Achebe actually calls a “female son,” because the sex of the individual remains constant, and it is the social identity that is being adopted.) When one man, who was very important in his community of Nnobi, was ill and dying, he recalled his daughter from her marital home back to his home. He had no sons, and no close male relatives, so he chose to make her his son. She would then have the status necessary to inherit his property. Her father returned the marriage payment, and she became his son. After he died, she went to go work his fields; some men challenged her right to do so, because they did not recognize a female as having rights to their father’s property, and the issue went to court. Because her father had been a dibia, or religious leader, the court ruled that she could not become a priest, but that she could stay in her father’s home and inherit his possessions. So the gender fluidity had its possibilities — but also its limits.

Sarah: Gender fluidity was rooted in the very belief system we discussed earlier in the episode. When girls like the young Ahebi Ugbabe were dedicated to a goddess, for example, they were effectively married to that goddess. The goddess was their husband – a masculine role – and any children those wives produced would belong to the goddess. In Igboland, what we refer to as a “bride price” is misleading; when a man paid a woman’s family for her hand in marriage, he wasn’t paying for her — instead, he was paying for the right to any children she produced. Those could be his biological children, or children she begot with Phillip next door. But he paid the bride price – or what Nwando Achebe calls the “child price,” to reflect the way this system actually works. To that end, a financially powerful woman could pay the child price for wives of her own. Then any children those wives produced would be hers — she could name them her heirs, and any daughters would bring bride/child prices of their own. In this way she would be considered a female husband. There needn’t (and generally wasn’t) any sexual element to these relationships. They were accepted and fairly common. Ahebi Ugbabe paid the child price for her brothers’ wives, as well as a number of wives for herself. She had the economic power to have as many wives as she wanted.

Averill: Nwando Achebe argues that colonialism actually expanded the gender fluidity possibilities, as evidenced by Ahebi Ugbabe’s elevation from headman to warrant chief and finally to king. But she also notes that Nsukka society also policed and limited the extent to which colonialism expanded those boundaries. This limitation is also revealed in Ahebi Ugbabe’s story.

Sarah: In October 1918, the British appointed Ahebi to the Native Court of Enugu-Ezike. She was the only female warrant chief in all of colonial Nigeria. In fact, her position was so unusual that in all the colonial records where she is mentioned as a warrant chief, her name is followed by an “f” for “female”.

Averill: Her appointment to warrant chief did not sit well with the elder men of her village. Already they saw her overstepping what they considered the boundaries of the dual-sex political system of the Igbo peoples in Nsukka. But Ahebi did not care. In fact, she almost immediately began working toward the ultimate goal of Eze. The British cared little for local politics as long as the colonial machine was operating smoothly. But Ahebi did not turn to the British for the next phase anyway. She turned instead to the contacts she’d made in Igalaland as a businesswoman. She gained the support of the king of Igalaland in her bid for forming a kingship of her own in Enugu-Ezike. There had never been a king in Enugu-Ezike before. Perhaps because it would be a new institution, and also because of her successes as headman and then warrant chief, Ahebi maneuvered herself into the role of king in the early 1920s. She was crowned in Igalaland, and rode a horse back home, the staff of her kingship held high in one hand, and a troupe of musicians and dancers following her, celebrating her kingship.

Sarah: Public display was important to Igbo life. The celebration was as much an affirmation of her kingship as a joyous occasion. It solidified her position as an autocratic ruler – a position that was, in effect, already within her grasp as warrant chief, which held so much authority in and of itself. When building her massive palace, she need only point to a piece of land that she wanted, and the owner would ‘gift’ it to her. The palace grounds contained  a market, a court, a prison, a school, a ‘retraining’ house, a masquerade house, animal stables, several residential homes, guest houses, and a brothel. The market served as the main market for the region. There were houses for every man and each of his wives. As king, Ahebi continued to accumulate power through wealth and influence. She had twelve barns of yams. Yams were the king crop of Igboland, and to possess them was a sign of wealth. She required the men of the surrounding communities to work her fields in shifts. It was all surrounded by a short wall made of mud. King Ahebi entertained guests and dignitaries from all over, both European and locals. Her palace was, as Nwando Achebe puts it, “the showpiece of town.”

A black and white image of Igbo people making a roof out of leaves

Igbo people thatching a roof with palm leaf mats | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Maintaining her masculine power meant maintaining the gender regime. Only virgin girls slept in Ahebi’s bedroom. Women were not permitted in the masquerade house (where the masked spirit resided) — but presumably this did not count Ahebi, who was, for all intents and purposes, a man. And Ahebi kept a ‘retraining’ school at her palace, where men could send their unruly wives to be worked and beaten into better behavior. As a man with many wives herself, Ahebi knew the importance of keeping wives in check and well-behaved. Some of those women ended up staying at the palace – Ahebi paid the child-price to take them on as her wives, or as wives for her brothers or other relatives. Some stayed to work in the kitchens or perform other tasks around the palace. Maintaining the ideal construct of ‘wife’ was important to the visage of masculinity that Ahebi had cultivated. Ahebi’s own wives were expected to service the important men who came to the palace for visits, including the King of Igalaland, and British colonial officers. Children born of these encounters were, of course, Ahebi’s by right. The local colonial police used Ahebi’s brothel with regularity.

Sarah: In addition to these gendered social rites that Ahebi observed and enforced in her palace, she also maintained a school to educate her own children and the children from the surrounding communities. At first she hired a man named Jacob Elam to be the teacher in her school. Few children came from the neighboring communities, however. The local elders wooed Elam away from Ahebi’s palace, telling him that the children would attend school if it was in the home of the eldest man in Ogurte, per tradition. So Elam went. Ahebi was angry. She called the district police – frequenters of her brothel – who rounded up the conspiring elders, and sent for a new teacher to work at the palace school.

Averill: As it turned out, the old men whom she’d ousted when she took autocratic rule of the region as king were fed up with King Ahebi. To them, she’d violated social mores: she refused to consult the elders when making political decisions, she used forced labor in her fields, she took bribes, and she allowed her employees to forcibly take away other men’s wives. These issues were going to reach a boiling point eventually. But the last straw was when Ahebi tried to appropriate spiritual male power.

Sarah: Throughout her life, Ahebi had been building an air of mystery and power around herself. Beyond developing the economic means to earn influence and respect, from those first months on the road fleeing her father and the goddess, Ahebi had been practicing a local custom of religious and spiritual ritual known as “good medicine.” Good medicine was intended to appease or help one hide from gods, to foster good luck. One could also practice bad medicine – cursing others and wishing ill on enemies. But all of the oral traditions surrounding Ahebi suggest that she was practicing good medicine, and in so doing she cultivated the aura of spiritual mystery that aided in her climb to the top.

Averill: Medicine was a religious rite that wasn’t restricted to men. The masquerade, however, was. While women weren’t allowed in Ahebi’s masquerade house, it seems likely that at least one female – Ahebi herself – was. As A.O. Onyeneke notes in his book The Dead Among the Living, “The masquerade serves the special function of differentiating males and females in Igbo society. It is the exclusive function of the full men, while the women are always excluded, even where a female character is portrayed in the masking. .. The social definition of full man therefore is the ability to control a masquerade.” The masquerade was sacred; women were supposed to flee in its presence, and it was effectively a tool of social control as well as spiritual significance. King Ahebi created and ‘brought out’ her own masked spirit – this was to be the final rung on her ladder to full manhood. But according to Igbo tradition, that was not allowed. Even if she’d become a man as a headman, warrant chief, and king, she was still biologically female. And females were not permitted to create masked spirits, nor could they control a masked spirit. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Sarah: When King Ahebi presented her masked spirit at a masquerade, the elders ordered it be taken out back and effectively destroyed. After the business with the teacher, Ahebi Ugbabe was ready for a confrontation. She immediately took the elders to court.

Averill: That, unfortunately, turned out to be a mistake. Though she’d been loyal and sensible and represented all the British wanted in their colonial administrators, she was also still just a woman to them. They heard the elders’ position that the masquerade was a male realm of power. They looked at Ahebi Ugbabe and saw a female. The British, like all Europeans, still understood sex and gender as constants. They found in favor of the elders. Ahebi’s masked spirit was never seen again.

Sarah: But more importantly, this moment represented a loss for Ahebi. She’d been building her political power toward this moment of ascension into spiritual power. The elders tore that rug out from under her. As king, she had peaked; when she tried to seize the next rung of “full man” as the controller of a masked spirit, she was knocked down. Her political authority was never again absolute. Though she lived the rest of her life, until 1948, as King Ahebi, she was never as secure, as powerful, as she had been before the masquerade.

Show Notes:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Penguin, 1994).

Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria : Ahebi Ugbabe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011)

Nwando Achebe, “And she became a man’: King Ahebi Ugbabe in the history of Enugu-Ezike northern Igboland, 1880-1948,” Men and Masculinities in Modern Africa ed. Lisa Lindsay and Stephan Miescher (Heinemann, 2003).

Saheed Aderinto, When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014).

Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Zed Books, 1987).

Anene Ejikeme, “The Women of Things Fall Apart, Speaking from a Different Perspective: Chimamanda Adichie’s Headstrong Storytellers,” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 15, no. 2 (2017): 307–329.

Emmanuel C. Onyeozili and Obi N. I. Ebbe, “Social Control in Precolonial Igboland of Nigeria,” African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies: AJCJS, Vol.6, #s1 &2 (November 2012).

King Ahebi Ugbabe was a female who “became a man.” We know about Ahebi Ugbabe because of the work of historian Nwando Achebe, who found a reference to this female king in the records of British colonial administrators. Achebe points out that Ugbabe is anomalous; female kings weren’t common in West Africa by any means. But the fluidity of gender in Igbo society meant that females could perform typically male roles, both temporarily and permanently.


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