Background of the Study
Women’s history deals with the roles women have played in their societies and the effects which historical events have had on women. It focuses on women both as a group and as individuals, and understudies their economic, political, religious and social activities. Women are important to every society; they play vital roles in the society and are often regarded as the bedrock of the society. Therefore, their contributions to the society cannot be neglected or merely mentioned, but deserve adequate historical attention. Incidentally, in Africa, women have played significant roles in nation building, but this has not reflected in the number of studies on women. This also applies to Arochukwu women. Sometime in the past, according to Dike and Ekejiuba, Arochukwu had a female King, NneMgbokwoUdoOmiri, who ruled Arochukwu for a long time, presumably long before the British invasion of Arochukwu in 1902. Her role as EzeAro is yet to receive any academic attention. This is one evidence of the under-representation of women in history.
This study will focus on Arochukwu women of the Cross River Igbo area of Southeastern Nigeria. This distinct linguistic group is a part of the Igbo people who occupy the Eastern part of Nigeria, once known as Biafra. For close to a century, the literature on Arochukwu has grown rapidly, particularly her involvement in the slave trade, her use of the oracular services of the famous IbiniUkpabi (or the long juju according to European records), the Aro expedition of 1901, the establishment of Aro trading posts and settlements and so on. However, not much is written about the activities of women in this area.
Arochukwu is situated in Abia State. It is a community of more than 30,000 inhabitants,and covers 250 square miles. It is positioned on the east bank of the Cross River. It lies 74 kilometers through Bende and 102 kilometers through Uzuakoli, southeast of Umuahia, theAbia state capital. Arochukwu is bounded on the north by Ihechiowa and northeast by Ututu in Abia State, and on the east and south by the Ito of Cross River State, on the south and south-west by the Ikpanja, Iwerre and Makor of AkwaIbom State.The soil is light and sandy and the whole area is well watered. There are outcrops of sand stones and laterite in the area, but these are of no commercial value. The southern part of the area is low-lying and swampy during the rainy season. The Aro people are generally referred to as the Cross River Igbo. This is because the community is located in a system of waterways and is enclosed by the Cross River and its tributaries. Arochukwu is made up of 19 villages namely Amannagwu, Agbagwu, Amuvi, Amasu, Atani, Amukwa, Asaga, Amankwu, Amangwu, Amoba, Ibom, Isimkpu, Oror, Obinkita,
Ujari, Ugwuakuma, Utughugwu, Ugwuavo, and Ugbo. Each village chief, “EzeOgo”, is
responsible for administering the village and reports to the EzeAro of Arochukwu.Apart from the Aro living in the homeland, Arochukwu (Aro–ulo), there are a large number of Aro communities in the diaspora, (Aro–uzo). Dike and Ekejiuba noted that there are over one hundred and fifty colonies of varying demographic and political strength which the Aro founded between 1680 and 1890, and most of these colonies exist till date.Aro activities and penetration in other parts of Igboland and beyond would have been difficult without the establishment of these settlements. Among Aro communities in the diaspora are Ndi-Ikelionwu, Ajali, Ndiowu, Ndiokpalaeze, Ndiufelle and Ndiukwuenuin the present Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra State. AroNdi-Izuogu in Imo state is the largest concentration of Aro-uzo, with five autonomous communities. Others in Imo state are NdiNwafor, NdiOkoroji, AroUmulolo and AroIkpaautonomous community. There are also Aro communities in Owerri, Uratta, Oguta, Oru and Ohaji- Egbema Local Government Area of Imo state as well in Bende and Isiala-Ngwa North and South and as well as ObiomaNgwa Local Government Areas of Abia State. In Enugu and Ebonyi States, there are pockets of Aro communities in Oji River, Awgu, Ezeagu, Udi, Izii, Ezaa, Afikpo and Ohaozara Local Government Areas. In Rivers state, before the Nigerian Civil War, Aro communities were scattered in Ikwere land. Since after the war, the Aroare now found mainly in Obigbo in Oyibo Local Government Area of Rivers State. Again, before the Civil War, Aro communities were found in Biase and Akamkpa Local Government Areas of Cross River state and IkotEkpene Local Government Area of AkwaIbom state. These Aro communities in diaspora still look to Arochukwu as their ancestral home and they have retained the traits on which the Aro society was built, as most of the citizens refuse to change their beliefs, customs and allegiances. They owe allegiance to the EzeAro, King of Arochukwu, who remains even today, the symbol of Aro hegemony. Several of these Aro communities in diaspora are proud of their origin. They are also feared and respected by their neighbours for the very reason of their origin.
According to Simon Ottenberg, the Aro did not always regard themselves as Igbo but simply Aro. They spoke a distinct Igbo dialect, Igbo Aro, which differed from any other Igbo sub group. This variation of Igbo dialect is tinted with Ibibio and Efik words.The Aro people run a patrilineal social system with well-defined roles for the male and female genders. The oldest man in the family is usually the head and takes decisions at the family level. Traditionally, women have no right to inheritance especially if they do not have male children. Men until the outbreak of the Civil War were traditional breadwinners. Arochukwu had age grades for men and women groups, which played important roles in administration and development of the community during the pre – Civil War period.
Being a rural environment, a great majority of the people in Arochukwu were subsistent farmers and petty traders with an average per capita income that was far less than the national minimum wage.Social amenities like pipe borne water, electricity and roads are inadequate where they exist. Indeed, one of the biggest difficulties in Arochukwu is that of access to roads. Movement within the community is therefore with great difficulty. The commencement of Abia State College of Education Technical in the mid 1990’s has brought an influx of students and, consequently, an increase in commercial transport and trading in the locality. Arochukwu is served by one Government General Hospital and about six other health centers spread across different villages. There are five secondary schools within the community, two commercial banks and a micro finance bank. The main Aro market, Aviaovuru (i.e. new market), is held every Nkwo day- fourth day of the Igbo market day and women, mostly, dominate the market. Besides being in the control of the market,women regulated the activities in the market; they made sure that stealing, fighting and other forms of indiscipline did not take place in the market. Majority of the Aroare Christians and worship in the more than forty Church congregations located at different points in the community. Some of the professing Christians also embrace traditional beliefs and practices. Indeed, one of the most visible things about the Aro Christians is that they retain a strong inclination to traditional beliefs and ways of doing things. This is perceived as a way of preserving and retaining the Aro culture and identity. For instance majority of the people patronise traditional medical practitioners for medical treatment.
Statement of the Problem
The Nigerian Civil War which lasted from 1967 to 1970 had an enormous impact on all parts of Igboland. Arochukwu witnessed loss of population, mainly the male population, destruction of infrastructure and basic amenities, among others. The town was in a deplorable condition immediately after the Nigerian Civil War. The 3R policies (Reconstruction, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation) instituted before the end of the Nigerian Civil War by the military government of General Yakubu Gowon that executed the war were not fully implemented in the entire Eastern Nigeria. Their impact was not felt in a number of Igbo communities, including Arochukwu. This prompted Arochukwu women to embark on various self-help projects and various developmental programmes that helped their society transit from a war torn community to a stable post-war society, with activities back to normal and economic activities considerably improved within a few decades. The post- civil war initiatives of Arochukwu women have continued for more than four decades now without receiving any historical or scholarly attention. My attention was not drawn to this situation until 2010 after a lengthy discussion with Prof. Simon Ottenberg who challenged me to consider the neglect of Arochukwu women in historical studies. It was this challenge that prompted the current study.
Purpose of the Study
This work, as noted, is an attempt to study the role and contributions of Arochukwu women in societal development in Arochukwu. The two main objectives of this study are: (I) to give attention to Arochukwu women and bring them within the focus of historical scholarship; and (II) to document the transformational roles played by Arochukwu women. It has been observed that among Arochukwu women, the younger women mostly widows who lost their husbands in the Nigerian Civil War, were particularly instrumental to the changes that have occurred in Arochukwu since the end of that war in 1970. These women did not despair because of their predicament and the daunting economic hardship that came with it, rather they embarked on various survival strategies, including taking on developmental projects that contributed to the post-war rehabilitation of themselves and the community.
One of the salient objectives of this study is to identify an appropriate theory which could help us better appreciate the dialectics and dynamics of women, both as individuals and as groups. Sequel to this understanding, the theoretical thrust for this study will be based on thechallenge and response theoretical model propounded by Arnold Toynbee. Indeed, this will provide an insight and a useful framework for a proper understanding of issues that would be dealt with in the course of this study.
The challenge and response theory  has been put to use in various studies since then. Arnold Toynbee, in his study of history, used the concept of “Challenge and Response” to describe how various civilizations rose and fell. To him, the prevailing outmoded descriptions – environment, race, leadership, possession of land, access to natural resources – were too narrow. Instead, he considered the basic cause that explained societal success or failure. By “challenge” Toynbee meant some unpredictable factor or events that posed threats and danger to the ways in which a group of people had lived and made their livelihood in the past. However, according to Toynbee, “challenge” was not all negative; it also carried the seeds of opportunities. “Response” was the action taken by the same group of people to cope and to adapt with the new situations. A challenge would arise as a result of many things like civil war, population growth, exhaustion of a vital resource and climate change, among others. It was something that nobody had knowingly created. Response required vision, leadership and proactive action to overcome those threats and to create a basis for survival. Because he analyzed large civilizations, Toynbee reserved the terms “challenge and response” for major threats and actions that impacted the well-being of the entire population. “Challenge” threatened the very survival of the existing system. “Response” would range from actions to major change in the living conditions of individuals as well as the group. It could embody new technology, social organizations, and economic activities, or a combination of various factors. “Response” was never predictable, and its outcome would only be known over time. According to him, this was the risk humans took resulting in either success or failure.
One of the examples used by Toynbee to demonstrate this challenge and response was the emergence of agriculture and cities in the ancient Near East. The challenge, in this case, was a regional shift in rainfall patterns. North Africa, Egypt and Mesopotamia were no longer tracked by Atlantic storms which, for unknown reasons, moved further north. With less rain, the traditional lifestyle of hunters and gatherers in this region could no longer be supported. Several response strategies emerged. Some people did nothing. They held on to their old ways, and eventually perished. Others migrated and discovered more amicable climatic conditions, and remained hunters and gatherers. But a few people survived, even prospered, in the new environment by inventing the domestication of plants and animals, and irrigated agriculture. With these, the civilizations of Egypt and Sumer were born. In relating this theory to the case of Arochukwu women, the impact of the Nigerian Civil War was the challenge that placed the community in a deplorable state and the response here were the various self-help projects and transformational programmes embarked on by Aro women which were aimed at transforming the whole Aro community from a war torn community to a more stable society. The relevant points made by this framework are fundamentally important to the understanding of the activities, roles and contributions of Arochukwu women. Thus, the impact of the Nigerian Civil War on Arochukwu was the challenge that confronted Arochukwu women. This challenge was a propelling force that compelled these women to embark on the various self-help projects. To these women, the only way for them to avoid a horrific existence was to band themselvestogether, put their mites, hands and brains together and generate work and business for themselves. The uniqueness of this model as aptly demonstrated does not necessarily imply the conferment of any political position or value system other than honouring Arochukwu women for their strength and transformational role. Indeed, this is relevant to the activities and contributions of these women as shall be shown in this study.
Numerous literatures abound on Arochukwu, ranging from her involvement in the slave trade, the Aro oligarchy, the Aro expedition, the IbiniUkpabioracle or long juju, but none of these works discussed the activities of Arochukwu women or their contributions to the society. Owing to the dearth of written materials on Arochukwu women, only a number of works dealing with women in Igbolandin general are reviewed here.
Margaret M. Green, Sylvia Leith-Ross, Harry Gailey, and Judith Van Allen, were the first set of writers to attempt a study of Igbo women. They were of European origin. Sylvia Leith-Ross’ and Margaret M. Green’s works were not essentially undertaken in order to study Igbo Women in their own right, rather it was in the interest of the British colonial authority that these works were done and the central theme of their work was the Aba women’s war of 1929  and the role Igbo women played in that war. These writers justified the roles played by the British colonial authority in the course of that civil unrest. However, they did not consider the transformational roles played by these women in their various communities which is the main focus of the present study.