Ahebi Ugbabe was born around 1880 to farmer parents in Enugu-Ezike, an Igbo community in colonial Nigeria. After Ugbabe’s father committed a crime, he was served the punishment that his teenage daughter was to marry a female deity.
Ugbabe escaped this to nearby Ingalaland, becoming a sex worker and learning many languages. These aided Ugbabe in meeting powerful officials. Access to the Attah-Igala, or king, in Ingalaland facilitated the support of Ugbabe’s return to Enugu-Ezike.
At this time, British forces were invading Igboland and Ugbabe led them straight into Enugu-Ezike. As thanks for this, and for communication in English, the invaders installed Ugbabe as chief of the village. Ugbabe was to be the first eze born a woman in colonised Nigeria.
Working with colonisers was characteristic of Ugbabe’s rule. After ascending to King status with the help of the Attah-Ingala in 1918, the eze performed rituals associated with traditional kingship. Particularly, Ugbabe used mythological practices to convey an omnipotent rule.
One of the traditions Ugbabe continued was marrying multiple wives. No differently to ezes previously, their children continued the Ugbabe name. After a long reign, the eze died in 1948 and was buried according to customs that were used for burying men.
Although it is unknown how Ugbabe personally referred to their gender, they were accepted and celebrated as king. This disrupts ideologies introduced by colonialism. Nwanda Achebi notes that in pre-colonial society there were a multiplicity of African female masculinities.
Ugbabe did, though, upset the Enugu-Ezike community when performing as a masked male spirit, Ekpe Ahebi, in a masquerade that separated the biological sexes. Through this the eze was aiming to assume biological manhood, which was met with resistance.
Differently to other elites in West Africa, Ugbabe was not formally educated and did not come from a royal family. The many intersecting and formative life experiences had by this eze makes Ugbabe one of the most interesting and important leaders of the twentieth century.
Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in African Society (London: Zed Books, 1989)
Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebe Ugbabe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).