Ahebi Ugbabe was not an African woman coming from an elite background. Born in Enugu-Ezike, an Igbo community, in the late 19th century, she rose from being a poor, uneducated girl and a prostitute, to a village headman, a warrant chief and a king.
According to a book by African historian Nwando Achebe, Ahebi, at the age of 13 or 14, fled into neighbouring Igala land to escape marriage to a deity as appeasement for her father’s sins.
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During her exile in Igala, she ended up being a commercial sex worker and through that, she got connected to influential men including British colonial officials and the ruler of Igala.
She also learnt pidgin English and other African languages; these would eventually come in handy in her life.
By the early 20th century, the British had started invading Igboland. Ahebi, with her influence, led some of the British forces into her hometown, Enugu Ezike.
In appreciation of her support, the British invaders installed her as a village headman. She was subsequently given the post of warrant chief, which she basically acted as a local representative of the British administration among the people.
With the help of the ruler of Igala, Ahebi later became king of Enugu-Ezike.
But, according to her biography by Achebe, these positions given her were “upsetting to gendered politics in her community.”
At the time, the Igbos were surrounded by centralized societies and were aware that kings and queens existed.
But they never had one until the Europeans conquered them and imposed what was called warrant chiefs on them.
Essentially, before colonial rule, no man or woman had ever been made a chief in an Igbo community.
As a king, Ahebi was above all male political hierarchy at the time. She began performing masculine roles, including marrying wives for herself and her brothers.
This practice was not related to homosexuality though, as, in Igbo land, a woman-to-woman marriage was devoid of any sexual activity. The wives were permitted to have sexual relations with men and children born of such marriages belonged to the female husband.
But when Ahebi, along the way, decided to assume full manhood by introducing her own masquerade (a practice that is only done by men initiated into the masquerade cult), she was greeted with stiff resistance from society and her biography indicated that she never got over it.
Out of fear that she might not be given a befitting burial when she dies, Ahebi performed her own funeral while alive.
Despite not being given a grand send-off when she passed away in 1948, she became deified as a goddess in her mother’s hometown and has since remained in songs and parables of Enugu-Ezike.
Ahebi’s life story also debunked the assumption that African women were less powerful and could easily be victimized or marginalized.