How do you picture the role of women in early colonial
The easy answer would be to regurgitate the well-worn lines
about patriarchal societies, in which prideful men sprawled out in comfy sofas shouted
controlling orders to the other half of the population. Wives, mothers, and
daughters deprived of economic and social freedoms had to make the most of the little
breathing space they were allowed, usually as teachers, nurses, and petty
That caricature has a bit of truth to it (as do many
sweeping portrayals), but it has been shattered more than a few times on the
way to the present time.
One character who punctured the general diminution of
women’s roles in the earlier decades of Nigeria’s history was Felicia Ekejiuba,
a merchant who was so good at her business that she was elected queen of her
town and ruled as a co-equal with its king.
But she is most widely known as Okwei, the Omu (queen) of Osomari, the greatest merchant queen of South Eastern Nigeria in the colonial era.
Okwei was born in 1872 to Osuna Afuebo, an Igbo prince and
trader. She was never formally educated; but starting at age nine, she was
trained in the practice of business. Her mother, herself a vegetable and palm
oil trader, passed on some of her entrepreneurial knowledge to her daughter.
Before she turned ten, Okwei was sent to live with an aunt
in the territory of the
Igalas (to the north), where she learned to speak the local language and
honed her trading skills.
By the time she returned to her mother six years later,
prince Afuebo had died. Both mother and daughter moved to Atani, a community on
the banks of the River Niger. At age 17, Okwei married Joseph Allagoa, a trader
from Brass. But the marriage ended shortly after she had given birth to a son.
At that time, Okwei was already building a sizeable business
for herself. She added such items as lamps, pots, pans, and clothes to the
products she retailed. Her trading spanned much of the length of the
Niger in the South East and the Delta, where she exchanged these items with
local communities for foodstuff. She, in turn, sold the foodstuff to European
merchants at a profit.
A few years later, Okwei married again, this time to the son
of a wealthy businesswoman. Her family kicked against her decision, claiming
that the new man, Opene, wasn’t given to hard work. But although he did prove
to be rather laid back about his business involvements, his relaxed attitude
allowed Okwei the space to continue with building a large, independent
At the time of the First World War (1914-1918), Europe’s demand for palm oil waned. Okwei, the ever savvy businesswoman, switched her trading interests to ivory, which had a growing market overseas. The move paid off: she made a large fortune from the ivory business, as well as from coral beads.
In the decade after the war, Okwei became one of Nigeria’s
wealthiest women. Her connections had expanded to include concerns run by some
top colonial officials, and she was well known in South Eastern commercial
circles. She also owned large tracts of lands in Onitsha.
In August 1935, Okwei was conferred with the title Omu of
Osomari. This meant that she had equal status with the King insofar as she
attended to the needs of women (as the king dealt with those concerning the men).
In this role, she consulted with local chiefs and interacted directly with the
colonial district officers.
She would be the last woman to ever take that role, as the
British later moved to dismantle the traditional dual-sex leadership system.
Okwei died in Onitsha in 1943. A marble statue was built in
her memory, and a street in Onitsha was named after her.
But her impact on the collective consciousness of the people of her community lives on in ways more significant than statues and streets. Her actions left an impression so deep that it inspired the women of the region to keep their entrepreneurial spirit alive, in the face of attempts by foreign authorities (and their local collaborators) to subjugate them.
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