Despite Adichie’s title, this is not the first time women are taking titles in Igboland…
By Chimezie Chika
On the 1st of January 2023, the famous writer and outspoken feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, bagged a chieftaincy title in her hometown of Abba in Anambra State, formally taking the title of “Odeluwa,” meaning, “one who writes for the world.” A trail of controversy had followed the chieftaincy, drawing lines between feminists and traditionalists. The former has argued that this was a win for all feminists and a step in the right direction in the fight against patriarchy; the latter insisted that though some traditional boundaries were overstepped, the title is not as much of a big deal as it is being made. In the light of this, here are fifteen things to know about Adichie’s chieftaincy title.
1. Women take traditional titles in Igboland
Despite Adichie’s title, this is not the first time women are taking titles in Igboland. There are many traditional titles in many parts of Igbo land that are the exclusive preserve of women. These titles include Omu, Iyom, and others. These titles come with serious roles within traditional circles. In places such as Onitsha, Anioma, and Oguta, female traditional titles are quite the norm and are the mark of women who have attained a certain level of prestige and renown. Beyond these, there are normal chieftaincy titles bestowed on “honorary” basis and these do not come with deep traditional roles. However, they also command respect. Prominent Igbo female politicians and professionals such as Stella Oduah, Uche Ekwunife, Flora Nkemakonam Ilonzo, and others have been beneficiaries.
2. There are different hierarchies of traditional titles in Igboland
Adichie’s title is a reminder that there are levels and hierarchies in traditional titles. Some titles represent the attainment of true manhood, after a man must have achieved societal milestones such as marriage, ownership of children, etc. Other titles show a rising relevance within the traditional society. Yet others outline specific roles for the title holders. One who has attained a lower titleship cannot always hobnob with higher title holders such as “Ozo,” “Nze,” and other distinguished ozoship titles such as “Ogbuefi,” which comes with some serious traditional responsibility.
3. Adichie chieftaincy is not Ozo title
Some people seem to be confusing Adichie’s title with “Ozo” title. However, it is not. The “Ozo” title is the highest chieftaincy title in Igboland, and is exclusively reserved for men, except in very special circumstances. Ozo title comes with certain religious rules within the Igbo traditional religion. Some of these rules can be very austere. A certain level of chastity is required from higher titleholders such as Ozo. Titleholders cannot eat randomly. They are expected to be well-to-do or people of uncommon dignity and achievement. They are also expected to be the grand epitome of tradition. “Ozo” is sometimes used interchangeably with another title called “Nze,” which is a shortened form of the phrase, “ndina-ezenzeani,” that is, “the ones who differ to the ethical rules of the land.” This is a title that attains near-priesthood. Here the title holders no longer attend just any event. They adhere to extreme rules of chastity and represent the pure sages of the Igbo society. They are the ones who finally transmute to the level of “egede” in the spirit world—that is, the grand old, white-haired custodians of human affairs from the great beyond.
4. Adichie is not the first African female writer to take a traditional title
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not the first female writer to take a chieftaincy title. Flora Nwapa, widely regarded as the first African female novelist in English, had several titles from her hometown of Oguta, where women can attain a level of prestige that some men can only dream of. In the Oguta sub-culture in Igboland, there are many high level traditional roles reserved for women. There are cases where women superintend over men. Such women must have attained certain bodily and societal changes. In her time, Nwapa achieved the highest title, “Ogbuefi,” in Oguta.
5. Adichie’s title puts her in the list of foremost African women representing their culture
Adichie’s title puts her among the list of famous women who have taken their representation of their culture further by identifying with their individual cultural institutions. Across Nigeria and the rest of Africa, such examples abound. There is Chief Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti, Grace Alele Williams, Winnie Mandela, and numerous others.
6. Adichie’s title is not political in the national sense
All such titles are honorary and therefore do not come with political roles. The title is a representation of culture. All title holders are representatives of their cultures. Adichie’s traditional title is not a national ministerial title or a ticket to some national political role. The title however carries the weight of history, culture and identity, and is therefore something to be proud of.
7. Her titles do not automatically make her a member of paramount ruler’s cabinet
Similar to the above, Adichie’s title does not automatically make her a member of the Igwe’s cabinet. The cabinet members are men who have several titles and roles within the tradition. These are men who are expected to have attained certain milestones within the culture. Some titles such as “Onowu” in some parts of Igboland come with political responsibility, but this is only within the kingdom. There are many such titles ranging from the religious to the political.
8. In certain traditional ceremonies, Adichie will be expected to dress like a titled woman
In many events and ceremonies, especially in ones like kingship coronations and title-taking, Adichie will be expected to deck out in the standard regalia of a chief. Most title holders wear white regalia and red caps. This white regalia is very important. In exclusively female titles such as Omu, the white regalia is taken even further to include almost every accessory on the body. One such remarkable accessory are large ivory anklets known as “odu.”
9. The traditional regalia and physical trappings of a title holder has evolved
Historically, title holders in Igboland did not wear the elaborate embroidery and flamboyant apparels such as we see chiefs today wearing. The mark of a titled man or woman in pre-colonial Igboland was simply their anklets. In some parts of Igboland in that period, female titles are denoted by both anklets, bracelets and a peculiar form of beady headgear. For the title-taking ceremony, Adichie wore a white regalia and was then crowned subsequently with a red cap. A titled man’s entire apparel might just be a piece of cloth across his waist but he is immediately distinguished by his anklets, as well as tribal marks such as “ichi” in some cases. Over the years, this has changed, and titled people wear very conspicuous regalia now.
10. Adichie’s chieftaincy is not a feminist milestone
Contrary to what some people seem to think, Adichie’s title is not a feminist milestone. As has been stated, the taking of titles by women is a common occurrence in many African cultures. Feminist-conscious institutions in many traditional African cultures are very strong. What we have today is a huge knowledge gap due to the disruption that colonialism and the coming of the church caused in the knowledge of traditional African cultural institutions and practices. In Igbo culture, certain laws and institutions such as Umuada, which represent women, are very strong and their opinions are always final on issues affecting women’s rights.
It should be noted, however, that in many African pre-colonial societies, the rights of women were far more advanced than in many European societies of the same equivalent period. European women did not attain universal suffrage until the early twentieth century. In many African societies, women were at the forefront of political affairs. In places like 17th century Dahomey, there was a level playing ground for men and women to attain whatever position they choose. In Igbo culture, the female identity is given very high honour. If the culture had been allowed to develop without the deeply patriarchal interference of European Christian missionaries, it would have attained an even better feminist consciousness. However, as it is, more work needs to be done.
(Read also: Is the Nigerian Feminist Wokeness Asleep?)
11. A woman who attains chieftaincy is no longer seen as a woman in the metaphorical sense
In most cases such women as Adichie who are bestowed with a title are usually women who have passed menopause. In Igbo traditional religion, when a female dibia attains menopause, she attains powers that transcends even that of men; she enters a new level of spiritual control that is far higher that of men, for it is believed in Igbo cosmology that the very soul of the universe is feminine, and therefore the highest spiritual identities are female. The female dibia or priestess becomes above sexual classification. Such a woman can tread where women are traditionally not allowed to tread. A female chief, upon attaining the title, becomes a sort of “honorary man.” This might explain why the pronoun “His” was used in Adichie’s chieftaincy certificate. Political leadership is often left for men, but when a woman attains the necessary title and age she is no longer seen as part of the large cohort of “childbearing women” who are still regarded as “women.”
12. Female identity and feminism in Igboland and the rest of Africa is very complicated
Female identity and feminism in Africa is very complicated. Any argument that simply declares that African societies are not feminist or that a female chieftaincy title has now become a major feminist attainment is uninformed. There is a great need for historical research in Africa and this is one of the misconceptions that such scholarly endeavours would correct. It is important to approach such issues with objectivity, curiosity and scholarly rigour and not redundant sentiments. On that note, African feminist scholars from Ama Ata Aidoo, Obioma Nnaemeka, Omolara Leslie-Ogundipe, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, and others, have proffered interventions on the issue, noting that African feminism must not be judged with the parameters of Western feminism.
They variously point out that the cultural and historical milieu of Africa is different. It is, they argue regarding African feminism, attuned to the peculiarities of the African cultures, history and ethics. Alice Walker argues, in her 1983 book on “womanism,” that the issue with feminism, which in essence refers to “western feminism,” is that it does not take into account the unique experiences of women from other cultures, classes, geographies, and histories, apart from the West. White privileged women cannot fully understand the plight of women from the third world. She notes that only womanism can cover the gamut of the variegated experiences of women in order to avoid micro-oppressions within the larger feminist movement. Adichie’s title thus raises issues about the complicated nature and subtlety of feminism and patriarchal traditions in Africa.
13. Chiefdoms or kingdoms in Igboland came with colonialism
Adichie’s title makes her a respected chief, but not a king. Traditionally, the Igbo do not have kings. Before the turn of the twentieth century, the Igbo were not a large group of united people. They did not have kingdoms and empires. Igbos lived in small, almost self-contained republican enclaves. Each dialectical sub-group lived in hundreds of such small republican towns, much like the ancient Greeks. However, unlike the Greeks, the Igbo had no king. Each town was ruled by a council of elders who were titled men. These titled men also had leaders amongst them who had attained the fourth and highest title in Igboland, which is the “Ozo” title (In some parts of Igboland, the “Ozo” is the third title). This peculiar political arrangement made it very hard for the British colonialists to govern Igboland with any success. Hence, they introduced the position of paramount chief to operate within the “Indirect Rule” system. It should be noted that there are exceptions to this piece of history: some western Igbo towns such as Onitsha and others across the Niger had always had kings, known mainly as “Obi,” dating back to pre-colonial times.
14. Some traditional male roles can also be attained by women
These are especially in marriage, priesthood, and leadership. Adichie can possibly choose to achieve any of these, if she wants to. For example, a woman can marry a woman in Igbo culture. She does have to be a chief to do this. There are several reasons for this, ranging from domestic to larger societal issues. However, a menopausal title holder might choose to marry several women to bear children for her through carefully chosen male mates. Such a woman attains unprecedented status. In some dialectical sub-cultures of Igboland, this is not new.
15. The Igbo have great respect for feminine deities
The greatest deity in Igboland is the earth goddess, Ani. All water bodies are seen as feminine. Land and water are the foundation of Igbo spirituality. There is a deep-seethed reverence that the Igbo have for water and earth, and for female deities, more than the male ones. There are also many androgynous goddesses and deities that are attuned to matters that are exclusively female. Adichie’s chieftaincy is not the beginning of Igbo respect for the feminine identity, it is deeper than that.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.