Over the past year, I have conducted interviews trying to find information about my maternal and paternal great-grandmothers. I needed to hear their voices. I needed to feel their pain. I desperately needed to know where my activism came from and what kind of legacy I am carrying.

Igbo people believe in reincarnation and the importance of conjuring ancestors to guide future generations. My name is Nnennaya and it means “I am a remembrance of my grandmother”. I am carrying so many women inside of me and they have unfinished business.

Ogu Umu Nwanyi

I became particularly interested in my great-grandmother’s generation when I read Toyin Falola’s book, “Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria”. Falola brilliantly links the Aba Women’s Rebellion of 1929 (also known as Ogu Umu Nwanyi) to the pressure and organization for the independence of Nigeria in 1960. Often times, the Ogu Umu Nwanyi is reduced to an erratic anti-taxation protest. Nigerian scholars have ignored the prominent role of women in establishing independence and this is reminiscent of the suppression and disenfranchisement women faced during Colonial Nigeria.

“Colonialism undermined and subverted the position and status of women in many African societies. The Women’s War of 1929 represents an early response of African women to their disempowerment and the subservience colonialism perpetuated and legitimized. The 1929 riots also reveal traditions of women’s activism among the peoples and groups of eastern Nigeria.” – Toyin Falola, “Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria”

The Aba Rebellion was about the political, social, and economic disenfranchisement of women across southeastern Nigeria. Many Igbo women were the sole economic providers of their family pre-colonization and during colonization. The British intentionally began to take over their markets in palm oil, cassava, yams, cocoa, and more. Restricting women from economic avenues meant stripping women of their agency and independence, leaving them vulnerable to interpersonal abuse.

funmilayo-ransome-kuti-4 copy
Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, Nigerian anti-colonialist, womanist and revolutionary (right)

Contrary to the stereotypes around Igbo culture, women have never been silent. Women have always fought and voiced their opposition, but conversely, women have been erased from history. Black women across the globe continue to have their words erased and rewritten, both dead and alive. Audre Lorde articulated what many of our ancestors already knew, “Your silence will not protect you”. In fact, Igbo women have often used dancing, singing, and storytelling to describe their pain and to air out their grievances.

In 1929, hundreds of women organized dancing groups to complain about colonial rule. Each time they stopped at a man’s door, they would exclaim verbal demands. These women encapsulated what it meant to be unapologetic and to exhibit #blackgirlmagic. In fact, they conjured curses, such as baring their breasts to shame the men who dared abuse them. Baring naked breast is a form of protest and curse in Igbo culture. But, these women felt so repressed, they had no choice but to show these men that they were abusing the same women who gave life to them and fed them with their nipple.

These women encapsulated what it meant to be unapologetic and to exhibit #blackgirlmagic.

Using song and dance, women reasserted the agency that had continuously been denied under colonization. The women sang in Igbo, “Ihe putra anyi ge erne (whatever comes, we will face it!)”. At today’s marches, we see the same call-and-response and animated dance bringing energy and purpose to the movement. During an oral interview after the 1929 Women’s Rebellion, an Igbo woman declared:

“We are all dying. It is a long time since the Chiefs and the people who know book have been oppressing us. We are telling you that we have been oppressed. The new Chiefs are also receiving bribes. Since the white men came, our oil does not fetch money. Our kernels do not fetch money. If we take goats or yams to the market to sell, court messengers who wear a uniform take all these things from us.”

The warrant chiefs

To say Nigerian women did not know they were oppressed is to remove their agency and to erase their rich history of rebellion and resistance. Igbo women understood how resourceful and powerful they were in numbers. They understood what it meant to organize mass movements and mobilize women. Burning down a colonial building, throwing tables out of the windows, sitting on men, running around naked; these women were fearless. As Assata Shakur said, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” They were, quite frankly, fed the fuck up. Black women always get shit done. In fact, Falola notes that Igbo women critiqued warrant chiefs, describing them as “useless men” who would do anything for money and were not needed as husbands or as members of society. As such, women demanded:

No taxation of women
End to the warrant chief system
No personal property, such as boxes, is to be counted for taxation
Any one woman who is a known prostitute is (not) to be arrested. (shout out to women protecting sex workers!)
No rent charge for use of common market shade
No payment required for licenses to hold plays
Removal of Chief Mark Pepple Jaja from Head Chief of Opobo Town.
No taxation for men
Men be less involved with local trade
Men work more on the farms
Abolish the native courts because they were too powerful
Rich men stop exercising too much power over the poor
Reduction in bride-price
Attending to sanitation and compound cleaning
Restoration of many of the older values that were being eroded

Historians estimate that over 100 women were killed during this rebellion. While all these demands were not met, this rebellion put pressure on colonial powers to end the practice of warrant chiefs and mobilized more men to fight against colonization.

Both of my maternal great-grandfathers had at least four wives. One of the wives, who is my great-grandmother Ufoaku (meaning leftover wealth in Igbo), had 10 children. She was a farmer and would teach her children and grandchildren how to harvest yams and cassava. Ufoaku was also a potter. During the dry season, she would trek to the river and dig clay to make pots and pans to sell at the market. She always taught her grandchildren, “No matter what you are going through, always support and protect your mother.” All of my grandmothers suffered psychological and physical abuse like the women in the Aba rebellion, but they understood the importance of sisterhood and independence.

My maternal grandmother, Nwanyimma (beautiful woman in Igbo), was never formally educated but has more street smarts than anyone I know. Nwanyimma knew how to sew, make pottery, farm, plait hair, cook akara, and settle disputes. She was tasked with the responsibility of raising five children with little to no support from my grandfather. My grandfather had three wives and was often gone because he was a police officer and court clerk. Luckily, I have met and spent a significant amount of time with my grandmother. She is 4’10 and brilliant, resilient, and kind.

Whenever I am walking around my maternal village in Umuahia, people yell the name Virginia. Virginia is my great-grandmother. My maternal grandfather tells me that I am Virginia in the flesh. Light in complexion, muscular with calves and arms as big as yams, bright pink gums with a smile to calm a crying baby, Virginia was beautiful like me. I recently found out that she had breast cancer and got a mastectomy on one of her breasts. She only had two children, one of whom is my grandfather. I am still trying to learn more about her because I feel her in my veins. My name is Nnennaya because I am a remembrance of Virginia.

My mother

My mother, Nnennaya (my namesake), is the first of 6 children. She arrived in Austin, Texas in 1975 with literally nothing to lose but her chains. Nnennaya brought all of her 5 siblings to America and paved the way for their success. She is the smartest woman I know. I am because of her and I often fall short of words describing her brilliance and artistry. I know that the Black woman is a God because I have met her in the flesh. She is retired and is finally exercising the agency she lost in marriage, motherhood, and siblinghood. Every day, I learn more and more about and from her.

My paternal grandmother’s name is Amaraegbulem (meaning “it pays to be wise” in Igbo). She died when my father was 2 years old, so he never got a chance to know her. Thus, my dad was not raised by his biological mother but rather a community of women who were invested in his future. I am determined to learn more about her. Something inside of me believes she died due to pregnancy-related complications. And I ask, “Do you know how many of your grandmothers died trying to carry your life into existence?”

Motherhood within Igbo culture is a source of pain and a source of resistance. Raising children and creating a whole new generation in a world that deems you invisible is resistance. Motherhood can sometimes be a matter of life and death; for many people, they do not have the choice between the two. Deciding if, when, and how to parent is resistance.

“Do you know how many of your grandmothers died trying to carry your life into existence?”

Although I have only met one of my grandmothers, I know they live in me. I hear Amara breathing inside of me. I feel Ufoaku pushing me with her arms. I feel Virginia hugging me when I am in pain. I exist alongside Nwanyimma and Nnennaya as we sharpen each other and grow in love. I am a living legacy of all of the dynamic women who came before me. I dedicate this Women’s History Month to the Aba Rebellion warriors who were unjustly murdered at the hands of the colonial police and their brethren. Every day Black women die, not only physically but spiritually. Everyday Black women are erased and silenced, so it is important for me to write their names and stories down.

To Amaraegbulem, Ufoaku, Nwanyimma, Nnennaya, Virginia, and the brave women of Ogu Umunwanyi 1929, Daalu, Imeela. Thank you.

One thought on “A Letter to My Ancestors: Umu Nwanyi

  1. This was beautifully written and a heartwarming read that has inspired me to learn more about the Igbo women I come from


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