Leonard Ndubueze Mbah is a Ph.D. student in African history at Michigan State University. In 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Emergent Masculinities: The Gendered Struggle for Power in Southeastern Nigeria, 1850-1920,’ supervised by Dr. Nwando Achebe. We contacted Mbah to learn more about his project investigating the shifting historical dynamics of gendered power in Ohafia, Nigeria.
Let’s begin by setting the historical scene for your research. What was the hypothesis that you set out to test?
Growing up as a child, I heard folktales of the ‘in’-famous “Abam warriors” (a term used to refer to Ohafia and Abam warriors) who fought with obejiri or what the Ohafia call akparaja (machetes), which they hauled into their enemy forces, magically decapitating several heads at once. In these folktales, Abam warriors personify two identities: dimkpa (brave warrior) and dibia (medicine men). In college at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, I experienced two phenomena that would shape my dissertation focus. The first was the “Bakasi Boys Movement,” which was a young men’s vigilante organization. The Bakasi Boys held public spectacles where they executed criminals through decapitation. In these scenarios, they also displayed bravado: the vigilantes landed powerful machete blows on each other and fired gun-shots at each other to show that they were spiritually immune to physical injury. This immunity display became known as oda eshi (spiritual bullet-proof). The Bakasi Boys (many of whom came from the Ohafia region) sought to resurrect two prototypes of masculinities from pre-colonial Igbo society: the medicine-man (dibia), and the warrior (dimkpa). I was curious of any possible connections between traditional masculinities and these atavistic performances. Second, I witnessed the Ohafia war dance (iri aha). The lead dancer carried a basket of human skulls, the dancers were dressed as fierce warriors, they moved like leopards, and they mimed the act of cutting off human heads and stowing them in an imaginary pouch. The war dancers portrayed Ohafia as a land of brave warriors, an image that resonated with the folk-tales I heard growing up. Indeed, this was the dominant social image of the society: a society of warriors without women. The status of women in the society was left to the imagination.
However, I soon began to make acquaintances with Ohafia people: fellow students and college professors. I learnt that the Ohafia-Igbo are the only society in Southeastern Nigeria with a matrilineal kinship system, which placed women in an especial position of socio-political significance: in the acquisition and distribution of property, in marriage and divorce practices, in the ownership of children, and in the practice of a gendered socio-political system. My friends told me that Ohafia women are very powerful and that in fact, the men feared them. I wanted to understand what seemed to be a phenomenal contradiction: brave warriors afraid of their women. Like British colonial officials astounded by the Igbo Women’s War of 1929, I wondered, “Who were these Ohafia women?” In published literature on the Ohafia-Igbo the major historical outlines are the Atlantic slave trade and British colonialism. The literature give a sense of why Ohafia was a militant society, mention their role in slave production and their relationship with the Aro slaving oligarchy, as well as the structural workings of the kinship system, but none of them examine female power and authority. None of them account for internal factors of historical change in the society. All of them suggest that the only form of masculinity in the society was the warrior and that an adult male was considered a “man” only when he went to war and cut a human head in battle. But I had also read that the British colonial government abolished head-hunting in the late 19th century.
So I had a lot of questions: Are there no more “men” in Ohafia-Igbo society because of the cessation of head-hunting? Was the warrior the only form of masculinity in pre-colonial Ohafia-Igbo society? Were Ohafia-Igbo women really powerful, socio-politically and economically? Were they subservient or complementary to men, or were they more powerful? After two pre-dissertation research trips in the summer months of 2009 and 2010, it became clear that the meaning of “cutting a head” had changed over time: In the era of head-hunting (a practice that developed as a psychological means of defense for a society surrounded by truculent non-Igbo neighbors), adult males were conferred the title of ufiem (masculinity) when they went to war and returned with a human head. In the course of the Atlantic slave trade, men who captured slaves alive were said to have “cut a head” and conferred ufiem. Upon British colonial rule, Ohafia men who returned home with a school certificate were also said to have “cut a head,” as were those who returned from civil service with insignia of modernity and success. Second, besides the warrior, ufiem was a diffuse concept immanent and manifest in leisure practices, economic endeavors (trade, agriculture, hunting, and traditional medicare) and political activities, and was contested daily in the society’s kinship relations and gendered politics. Third, besides being the major breadwinners of their families and forging a matriarchy of matrilineal ancestresses, Ohafia-Igbo women possessed the most powerful socio-political institution in southeastern Nigeria — Ikpirikpe Ndi Iyom — a women’s council, combining the powers of umuada (assembly of daughters), otu inyomdi (assembly of wives), and a “female king.” Moreover, they performed political strategies that were more effective and powerful than those of their men, and commanded greater political obeisance from both men and women.
Still, I had more questions: What kind of structures enabled Ohafia-Igbo women to achieve greater measures of power than men during the pre-colonial epoch, and what did this portend for men? What is the indigenous logic of masculinity in Ohafia-Igbo society? How was ufiem — the beliefs, attitudes, behavior and actions that define the gender category of men — constructed and how did understandings of ufiem change over time? Were all forms of ufiem equal or were some more powerful than others? Did any form of ufiem attain a hegemonic character and how? What were the relationships between the constructions of masculinities through institutionalization and performance, and female performance of political power? How did Igbo men appropriate new ideas, opportunities, and institutions introduced through the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism to inform their contestation of female dominance? What forms did gendered power struggles take in Ohafia-Igbo society, and what were their consequences? What were the internal forces of social change in the society? How do we talk about individual African innovation, adaptation, and agency in the face of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism without bellying the ills of these capitalist interventions? Yet, how do we account for the impact of European exploitation of Africans without relying on assumptions of aggregated African communities, bound by collective identities, and lacking in self-aware individual subjects? What were the dynamic relationships between indvidual agency and social constraints?