Throughout African history, very few women are seen holding the fort of leadership and lording over a kingdom. Today, women are still trying to find their place in the upper echelons of society.
It is no secret that African society does not make enough room or in worst cases, no room at all for women, but centuries ago, one woman defied that notion and to date, she remains the greatest to ever do it and the only woman to ever do it.
Queen Luwoo Gbagidi was a pioneering woman who ruled as the Ooni (or monarch) of Ife and the most powerful superior ruler of Yoruba land. She is described as having been a stunningly beautiful woman who took great pleasure in her appearance. History refers to her as the Luwo Gbàgdá, a descendant of Otaataa from the Okereke compound of Owode. She married Chief Balran of Ilode and became the mother of Adekola Telu, the founding member of Iwo town, per oral tradition.
It is said that Queen Luwoo was the 21st ruler of Ife, a trailblazer far ahead of her time. Ilè-Ife, a town in Nigeria’s Osun state, is revered as the ancestral homeland of the Yoruba people, making any supreme ruler, such as the Ooni, a very powerful leader.
The subjects regard the Ooni as their religious guide and Chief Caretaker of Traditions. The Ooni royal families date back hundreds of years, and men were thought to have always possessed the revered stool. Luwoo Gbagida serves as the only female Ooni in Ile-Ife history. Around 1100CE, Ooni Luwo Gbagida became Ooni.
She was also widely recognized for commissioning the unique Yoruba practice of building elegant sidewalks and outdoor patios paved with ceramic shreds. To punish anyone who committed an offense, the streets of Ile-Ife were cemented with quartz pebbles and cracked pottery. The perpetrators were instructed to bake the clay, then break it up with their bare hands and lay it on the ground for the queen to walk on.
She was so refined and picky that she refused to walk on bare floors, and some of the hand-made clay tiles she decided to walk on during her reign are still accessible in parts of Ife and other Yoruba land she frequented while on the throne. The elders of the land, however, saw her as wicked to the Yoruba people, and she was deemed unmanageable and high-handed, according to history.
She was known to resent lazy men who broke her laws and were a slacker’s nightmare. There was no distinction between slave and child. As a result, when her reign came to an end, the committee of Obas convened and agreed never to appoint a woman as Ooni of Ife again. Ooni Luwoo, despite being labeled negatively by her council of chiefs, helped her son Adekola Tolu build the city of Iwo, making him the first Oluwo of Iwo. Irrespective, she joins the not-so-tall list of women who ruled at different times across the African continent.