The Umuomainta Women's Hall

After years of dogged determination and hard work, one of the most effective women’s groups in the country recently unveiled a massive project that was completed and backed by an astute leader from Abia State, writes Solomon Elusoji

In 1929, thousands of women took to the streets of Oloko to protest against the warrant chiefs serving under the British government. Historically known as the Aba Women’s Riots, the protest was triggered by systematic attempts to limit the economic and political freewill of women through taxation and through the draconian activities of the warrant chiefs.

Using the traditional practice of censoring men through all night song and dance ridicule (often called “sitting on a man”), the women chanted and danced, and in some locations forced warrant chiefs to resign their positions. The women also attacked European owned stores and Barclays Bank, broke into prisons and released prisoners. They attacked Native Courts run by colonial officials, burning many of them to the ground. Colonial Police and troops were called in and fired into the crowds that had gathered at Calabar and Owerri, killing more than 50 women and wounding over 50 others. During the two month “war”, at least 25,000 Igbo women were involved in protests against British officials.

Although the British would claim victory after quelling the uprising, the riot prompted them to drop their plans to impose a tax on the market women, and to curb the power of the warrant chiefs. History records this as the first major challenge to British authority in Nigeria and West Africa during the colonial period.

Today, the spirit of the Aba Women Riot of 1929 is still much alive, although in a more refined and organised sense. The Umuomainta Women Association, of Isiala North Local Government Area of Abia State, bear testament to this.

Started in 2002, the association comprises every married woman in Umuomainta, irrespective of their state of residency, religion or tribe. “As long as you are married by an Umuomainta son, you are a member. This association, unlike many of its kind, is not a tea party. It is an organisation that has helped in maintaining peace and order in the Umuomainta community, which comprises six villages: Okpuala, Umuezenta, Umulenwa, Umunkpeyi, Umunkolo, and Umuelemoha.

“When the women sneeze, everybody runs,” the president of the association, Dr. Esther Mbuko, told THISDAY. “We don’t allow people to behave badly in our place. Even the men have the fear of the women, including the non-indigenes residing in the community. “

“There was a time a four-month old baby was stolen in the night,” according to Mbuko, “that baby was supposed to be dedicated on Sunday, but was stolen on a Friday evening. The father had been in the process of giving the mother some money to buy the things they would use on Sunday for entertainment when some people came on Okada and started firing guns. They just went into the room where the father and mother were with the baby, who was sleeping, carried the baby, jumped onto their Okada and sped off.”

The next day, the women from that village came to Mbuko’s house and reported the matter. “The Umuomainta women didn’t take it lightly. But they didn’t spring into action immediately. They waited to see what the men would do. The matter was reported to the police, but nothing happened; it was reported to the Eze, nothing happened still; everybody was just looking, they didn’t know what to do.

“On Sunday, seeing that the men were clueless, the women decided that that baby must come back from wherever the baby was. By Sunday afternoon, the women started singing and crying around the whole village. They went to the police and to the Eze, saying that they would not go back to their husband’s houses until that baby had been brought back. And that was it. The men came out en mass, took their guns and knives and went scouting. By eight pm the next day, the baby was brought back from Port Harcourt, where it had been ferried to, hale and hearty.”

The women have also been successful in dealing with cases of marital abuse in their communities. Mbuko regaled the story of a man in Umuezenta Village who was always beating his wife. “On the day the Umuomainta women dealt with him, his wife had joined the women to attend a meeting.

“When the man didn’t see her, he thought in his mind that she must have gone to her concubines. So, he went to the market, laid curses on the table where the woman uses to sell her things, and then used his knife to break the table into pieces.

“When the women were coming back from where they went to, they were informed about what had happened. Incidentally, they also heard that people from that area had tried to see what they could do to bring about a change in the man’s behaviour, but all to no avail. So, the women marched to his house, more than 1,000 of them. When the man saw them, he ran away; but they pursued him, caught him and brought him back to their fold. Thus began his misery.

“Swirling around him like bees, they took him round the whole village, to the police, the Eze, and back to his house. They didn’t beat him, but he was subdued. “Imagine you being in the midst of women,” Mbuko said.

“They forced him to write an undertaking to be of good behaviour from that day. He agreed and wrote down the things that he mustn’t do anymore. The women took it to the computer, printed it and made photocopies. He read through and signed. Then the women gave him a copy, gave the police a copy, gave the Eze a copy, gave the village heads copies, and then held on to their own copy.

“Since then,” Mbuko said, “that man has been a very nice man, husband and father. He doesn’t beat the wife anymore.”

In August 2015, the association received a report concerning a man in Nbawsi who had a medicine store, where he was raping children. He had lived in the community for a long time, and nobody had had the courage to expose his evil deeds. But no one intimidates the women of Umuomainta.

“He was very ill and couldn’t even walk from here to there,” Mbuko told THISDAY. “But almost every child that goes to school in that community passes that side of the road where the store is located. When a child is coming, he would call and say “bring this bucket for me”. Immediately the child enters, he would bounce on her and do what he wants to do. Later, he would threaten them not to say a word.”

After concluding their investigations, the association informed the community heads and gave them an ultimatum of seven days to send the man packing out of Nbawsi. When a fresh investigation was conducted at the Eze’s palace, some of these abused children were called, and they opened up. The women’s wish was granted and the man was exiled from Abia State.

Away from their role of maintaining justice and sanity in their communities, the women of Umuomainta are also interested in developmental projects that would benefit their communities. When the group came to being in 2002 and Dr. Mbuko was unanimously elected as its first president, she wanted the group to have a good sense of direction, in terms of how it spends its money.

“If we are collecting money from people, then that money has to be put somewhere,” she said. “That means for that money to be put somewhere, we have to think of a project.”

So, they agreed with her and started to think about what to do. At the end of the day, they chose to build a befitting hall, since there was no befitting hall where people could gather and have their ceremonies comfortably in the whole of Isiala Ngwa North Local Government Area.

“Then, we had about 34,000 naira from the contributions that people made,” Mbuko said. “And I told them that we were going to take off with that. So, we went to the Eze, told him we want to build a hall and told him to show us a piece of land. Somehow, he was moved. He showed us a land, and we took off with that 34,000 naira. We uprooted the trees, cleared the space and then our money finished.”

Gradually, over the years, the women built the hall with funds from their little contributions. It was a difficult journey, but they didn’t give up. By 2015, they had a roofed building and were making plans to paint and inaugurate it this year. Surprisingly, however, the senator currently representing Abia Central, Theodore Orji, decided to help with finishing the building.

“Since we started that building, we’ve not seen anybody that has come out to help the women.”
Mbuko said. “The men would just stay somewhere and be watching us. So, for Senator T.A.Orji, a non-indigene, to come to us, even though he did not know us, and do what he did, it was a surprise. There is no amount of words that would be able to express our love for him.”

It was one of Orji’s former Senior Special Assistant during his time as Governor of Abia State, Hon. Chinweuba Nwachukwu, who informed him about the Umuomainta Women’s project.

“I saw what the women were doing, and no help was coming from anywhere,” he told THISDAY. “And I know Ochendo (the senator) very well as a listener to the cry of the people; so I told him about it and he was eager to do it. In fact, he made a promise on a Saturday that he would paint that building; on Monday, work begun; and within the next three weeks, they had finished everything about it. And he’s even willing to do more.”

His desire to lend a voice to the women’s project was spurred by the role the women had played in their communities.

“In fact, in the whole of Abia State, this is the strongest women association,” Nwachukwu told THISDAY. “You can hardly see a group that can raise enough money to build the kind of hall they built, through personal contributions. I must commend them. It’s not something easy; they did what most men can’t do.”

When asked why he didn’t waste time in sending resources to ensure the completion of the hall immediately he heard of it, Senator Orji said it was important to recognise the years of toil the women had put into the project.
“I feel fulfilled putting smiles in the faces of these industrious and hard working women who embarked on the project on their own,” he said. “This project is sited in my senatorial district, and I will continue to assist my constituents in any way I can because I promised them effective representation in the Senate. I am very proud of our women for their dedication and commitment to community development.”

The women later gave Orji an award, describing him as “a man that saw how we were and came all out to help us.”
“When we were informed that the senator would paint the place for us, we didn’t believe them,” Mbuko said. “We thought it was just one of these political promises, because we had not requested or appealed for anybody to help us. We were already making plans on how to go about it. But what he did takes a man that has a large heart, and we really appreciate him; we really love him.”

When the hall which was inaugurated last month, would be open for people to hire it for ceremonies and will serve as an avenue for the women of Umuomainta to generate some revenue, although Mbuko says they won’t charge too much money. “We will use our thing to help ourselves,” she said.