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Village in the Metropolis Edition Three
The Power of Igbo Women
These days when I wake up, I hear my wife and mother in law speaking Igbo in the plan of the day and laughing at the latest antics of my two young sons. They are always up earlier than I am, not because I am late but because they always have these children on their minds. Their lives are about the family which begins early. If they were in our Onicha Ebonyi State house, they would be up before dawn stoking the day’s first fires and cooking breakfast. I am not Igbo, and though I do not know what is being planned, I do know that they are sharing their lives and their ancient culture. I do know that it is wholly positive because they are strong. They and their sisters have had to be strong for time out of mind and uncounted generations.
My wife is happy now that her mother is here. She has someone to share her language and laughter. Someone who can advise on the universal but often unlearned dynamics of raising children and
making a home. Of the four girls and eight children that my mother in law gave birth to and raised only Ifeoma, my wife, was born in a hospital, so she expects her to be different. After all, it is only Ify that married an Onya Ocha (white somebody) and became an American. They share pride in each other. They seem fearless for they never seem in doubt about what has to be done. This knowledge cannot be weighed or valued. It is the wisdom of their people that have raised families in the Niger Delta for thousands of years.
Igbo women know their value. A man wanting to marry them will have to pay a bride price and even after that and having arranged for the wedding in which the entire village will be invited; they know that they can change their mind even on the day, nay even moment of their marital vows. While I will not now detail the elements of a traditional wedding, I do know from experience that even on the day of the marriage, they are allowed to change their mind. No matter that the wedding may have gone on for days with many feasts and hundreds of flasks of palm wine consumed, her two ceremonial dances finished in front of hundreds of faces; the bride can just say no. Actually, she does not even have to say no, but simply after carrying around a glass of palm wine which she is expected to offer to her future husband at the end of her last dance; she can simply pour it out on the ground in front of both groom and her father. She even has the right to offer it to the man she wants to marry somewhere else in the circle. This moment, which all grooms face in a traditional wedding, is never forgotten for, at that moment, she might have slipped away forever.
While modern Igbo women carry their brightness and strength as did their ancestors, the lucky husband will find deep tradition and commitment in his wife. In the traditional Igbo world, women in the village grow and cook most of the food and in that they have power. Yes, the husband is honored to grow the African yam and eat the chicken gizzard as proof of pater familias, and harvest and serve palm wine; in reality, most of the food vegetables, cassava, and cocoyam is the woman’s fiefdom. If a man is too overbearing, he can find himself without dinner and if particularly bad without breakfast too.
The Igbo woman also makes the market. She not only sells her surplus production but also with her capital can begin trading and develop her own wealth. In ancient times, women’s control over the market and themselves empowered them in village life. While Lysistrata was a one-off play by the Greek playwright Aristophanes of women’s boycott of men to stop war, Igbo history is replete
with true stories of such events. In Onitsha, Nigeria 1886 an Igbo woman leader Omu Muagboku led all the Onitsha Ikporo (Onitsha wives) to abandon all family responsibilities forcing the Obi Ananzanwu (the reigning monarch) and his council to sue for peace. Without their wives, the men could not take up their duties and without his men, the Obi discovered himself powerless. In another incident involving a potential war between two communities in Orlu, the wives of both sides just left their village to a neutral community ending the war even before it had a chance to begin.
But of all the wars carried out by Igbo women, the most famous was the Aba Women’s War or as the British called it the Aba Women’s Riots of November 1929 which resulted from the British excluding women from the role due them in tradition. Igbo polities were ‘acephalous’ equivalent to democratic city states in which women had clearly defined roles of power. As noted in the first Village in the Metropolis, Igbo societies were essentially a community of villages with never more than two levels of hierarchy. This meant that Igboland was composed of hundreds of small states. This interfered with The British formula for managing colonized peoples which was to rule them through their traditional Chiefs, Kings, or Emirs.
Since the Igbo did not have such rulers to manipulate, local colonial authorities decided to invent them. These fiat rulers called ‘Warrant’ Chiefs were given power that had never been granted individuals previously in Igbo traditional society. As Warrant Chiefs were men, all the traditional power points of leverage held by women were undercut. The most egregious aspect of this new system was that it took away the power women had in markets resulting in their being taxed unfairly. The result was an anti-colonial revolt by 10,000 women which forced the resignation of many Warrant Chiefs and the destruction of sixteen ‘native’ courts. In addition to this, these women attacked prison and released prisoners. This rebellion extended over six thousand square miles and two provinces home to more than 2 million people. Ultimately, 55 women were killed but in the end, the British Colonial Administration was forced to reform/reconstruct the Native Administration and return to women much of the rights that were due them in traditional society.
This short article cannot begin to detail the constructive and important role women had in the Igbos democratic societies, but it does provide warning to husbands and sons of Igbo women that
they are powerful and if one is to take them on, be to be in the right because the consequences can be severe. Their rights and privileges are born of a tradition thousands of years old.
And when they begin to plan a day in the life of the family, it is wise of husbands and sons to listen and if one does not understand Igbo it is best to ask in all humility what they are thinking and what they plan to do.
There is something comforting in the manner of their arranging family life. To know that they are strong and will fight beside and for you is reassuring. It is wonderful to hear them laughing in the morning, and it is even better to have them laughing at night. Men, do the right thing, and you will rest easy when going to sleep.
“There is no one who does not like soup with fish in it.”
Igbo Proverb about wives