In the past, women have pushed the boundaries to ensure that they shatter the glass barrier, speak out against tyranny, and tenaciously defend what they believe to be their own from oppressors. The duties that the Edo women of old played in society were not only valued and respected but also highly appreciated and rewarded. Emotan, the market woman who prevented her Benin king from being killed, is one of these women.
Born between 1380 and 1400, Emotan was from the village of Eyaen along the Benin-Auchi Road, not far from the modern-day Aduwawa cattle market region. Uwaraye was the name her parents gave her. She married Chief Azama of the Ihogbe district as his second wife when she was a young woman. Uwaraye’s spouse thought she was lazy since she couldn’t cook. She was also unable to become pregnant.
Emotan started bringing items, along with some herbal goods, to sell at a stall next to the city market. Emotan was skilled at making evbarie, a soup seasoning condiment produced from fermented melon seeds. She was unable to go back to her parents’ house after her spouse passed away because they had also passed away from old age.
At her trading post across from the market, she erected a hut where she would dwell. Her hut quickly gained a reputation as a beloved temporary nursery for the kids of families that frequented the market. The parents of the children quickly outgrew her services as she attended to their needs, including their health and other necessities. According to some historians, Emotan was a market vendor who looked after young children while their moms were away shopping for and selling goods in the oba market. She is referred to as the person who founded Benin City’s first “DAY-CARE CENTRE.”
Emotan was still a market woman during the rule of Oba Uwaifiokun whose brother Prince Ogun would eventually adopt the name “Oba Ewuare the Great” after becoming the Oba of Benin. Ogun was a magnificent ruler, magician, trustworthy figurehead, and warrior. His brother Uwaifiokun was one of several people who disliked him, denying him the throne. Emotan was useful in this regard. Ogun’s brother Uwaifiokun, who was still in power, had planned Ogun’s assassination with the help of his chiefs.
When Emotan learned of the plot, she decided to expose it to Ogun. She participated in defending and shielding him from being slain. Some historians say that Emotan hid Ogun who later crept into the palace and killed his brother, taking back the throne as “Oba Ewuare 1”. Emotan rose to prominence as a citizen after Ogun was appointed Oba of Benin.
When she passed away, Ogun now King or Oba Ewuare gave the request for her body to be buried at the Oba market, where she had previously traded. The Oba commanded the planting of a tree at the grave. Later, the king ordered her deification as the conscience of justice, and the tomb was marked with a Uruhe tree. Every festive procession in Benin honors the location of her grave. Before it finally died, the first Uruhe tree (marker) lived for over 300 years. Before an Iroko tree was planted to sustain it, the replacement Uruhe tree lasted for almost 150 years.
Additionally, Ewuare elevated Emotan, who was revered as the mother of kindness and love. Every male used to participate in the funeral procession held in her honor. They would celebrate, invest, and pay their respects at the tree and grave site in the middle of the city.
The tree was felled and poisoned in 1951 by British colonial administration officers. This conduct nearly sparked a violent uprising. The “37th” Oba Akenzua II, who reigned from 1933 to 1978, then angrily denounced the destruction of the Emotan shrine. The colonists agreed to the request for a replacement as a result. Enomayo, a skilled brass caster from the Igun-Eronmwon, designed a clay Marquette and had it cast by Mr. J.A. Danfor in London into a life-size statue. The new Emotan statue was unveiled by the Oba of Benin, Akenzua ll, on March 20, 1954, amid a ceremony.