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


When I saw Nwando Achebe's book The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (Indiana University Press, 2011), I thought: "Really? A female king? Cool!" It turns out Ahebi Ugbabe was not only a female king, but also a female husband and father. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Ahebi Ugbaba was born late in the nineteenth century in Igboland, in present-day Nigeria. She fled home to escape her community's dedication of her in marriage to a deity to compensate for a crime her father had committed. The marriage would have reduced her to the status of a slave. After twenty years as a prostitute and trader in exile, she returned and established herself: first as headman, then as warrant chief, and finally as king. For a biological woman to transform herself into a social man was a familiar practice in Igboland. But for anyone to be chief or king was not. The Igbo had practiced communitarian rule by groups of elders; it was the British who imposed rule by a single person. It was perhaps inevitable that Ahebi's rule would be troubled. The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugabe is a fascinating exploration of the fluidity of gender and the nature of political authority. And it's a remarkable reconstruction not only of colonial rule at the local level, but also of pre-colonial life and post-colonial memory. I highly recommend Nwando Achebe, Professor of History at Michigan State University, is the winner of both the Barbara "Penny" Kanner Prize and the Gita Chaudhuri Prize of the Western Association of Women Historians.

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Elizabeth Heineman

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