Five Old Ibibio Women

The homeland of the Ibibio people is the delta of the Niger River in southeast Nigeria. In the mid-1960s, anthropologist Iris Andreski visited Ibibio villages in the rainforest and swamps between Calabar and Port Harcourt to interview the oldest women she could find. Her book, Old Wives’ Tales, is a collection of biographies of these women, told in their own words. They had lived through a remarkable transition. While the Niger delta was ostensibly a British colony as early as 1885, the British didn’t occupy most of it until decades after. Many of these women lived through the British takeover, the colonial period, and independence. They were about to live through more; Andreski’s research was cut short by the start of the Nigerian Civil War. These women’s remarkable lives make fabulous inspiration for NPCs!

A quick note: none of the names below are accurate. It’s pretty common for anthropologists to anonymize their sources to protect them and keep their trust. Andreski gave her sources sobriquets like “the home daughter” and “a travelled woman”. That’s a little unwieldy, so I’ll be using the names of these women’s villages as their names instead.

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A young woman modeling a jaw-dropping Ibibio dress
Image credit: Akan1. Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Anua, a schoolteacher, had personal and business connections among the richest and most influential Ibibio. Her father was some kind of important man. When she was small, he sent her to live with (and work as an assistant for) his firstborn son, who served the early Catholic missionaries working in the area. In 1924, when Anua was ten, her brother convinced her father to send her to school, even though educating girls was seen as a waste of time and money. After primary school, she gained admission to a secondary school, graduated at eighteen, and immediately joined the faculty. There she met the man she would marry. They wed five years later.

All of this is remarkable. A woman working for a wage was unusual. Marrying for the first time at 23 was very late. And a lengthy five-year courtship is unlike anything else in Andreski’s book. Anua’s husband was an important man with many wives and children. But to have a proper Catholic marriage, he divorced them all before wedding Anua. He was a wealthy merchant and on the board of the Ibibio State Union, a quasi-governmental entity that served as an intermediary between the British colonial authority and traditional Ibibio chiefs. The man was a pillar of the community.

The two moved to Calabar (a city we’ve discussed before). Anua got an instructional job in a college, later moved to a girl’s secondary school, and was appointed head of the women’s wing of the Ibibio Union. Anua’s husband joined the Rosicrucian Order (a European occult movement) and later became one of its branch directors. Through the Ibibio Union, the Rosicrucians, and the schools, Anua clearly knew everybody who was anybody in both Ibibioland and Calabar. Her autobiography is full of mentions of favors she did for others and the favors they did for her. She was a kingmaker in a schoolteacher’s uniform. Anua’s husband maintained contact with his ex-wives and his children by them. This gave Anua yet more contacts, for her husband’s first wife was one of the richest women in Calabar and had as her firstborn son the Assistant Head Postmaster in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. At the time of the interview, Anua was recently widowed but still teaching and still serving as a kingmaker.

An NPC based on Anua is a wonderful power player. She’ll happily arrange a meeting for you with any politician, business leader, or mystic in the city. But in return, she’ll ask you for a favor on behalf of a former student, a grandchild, or a local up-and-comer. And she’ll have the conversation with your party over her lunch break in the middle of a bustling all-girls high school.

Ibibioland is that little splash of maroon along the southern coast of Nigeria.

The oldest woman in the book, whom we’ll call Offot, said she was 100 years old. Her family said it was closer to 130. Her father was a person of note, and she was old enough (“a matured girl”) to remember the first white man who came to visit him. She was married off at age 10 to a much older man: a hunter and palm wine tapper. He died seventeen years later. Offot describes her marriage to her first husband as happy, but acknowledged how unusual that was; bitterness and antipathy towards abusive or neglectful husbands is a recurring theme through these autobiographies. Offot was the first of seven wives of her first husband. When he died and she remarried, her second husband already had three wives. This meant Offot was junior (and therefore subordinate) to all three. She chafed at this loss of autonomy. She also had to tolerate slights from the three senior wives she claims were born of jealousy, for their shared husband much preferred to have sex with the beautiful (and probably younger) Offot. This sort of inter-spouse jealousy is another recurring theme in these autobiographies, and I’ve seen it in other accounts of polygynous societies.

When Offot was 50, she was arrested and charged with murder. By then, the British were well and truly in control of Ibibioland. Offot was head of an Ibibio women’s society. The society had a religious component. Among its many duties, it performed ritual dances. At one of these dances, a notorious thief sang and danced with the society. Such a thing had never happened before! It was improper and disgraceful. Offot led the society to drag the offending woman out of the party and beat her. The thief later died of her injuries. Such a thing was perfectly acceptable under Ibibio custom (the thief was at fault, not Offot) but to the British this was just plain murder. The police arrested the dancers and hauled them before a judge. As the leader of the society, Offot was heavily fined. 50 years later in her interview with Andreski, Offot maintained she had no idea what the judge was so upset about. She remained mystified by British conceptions of justice.

An NPC based on Offot is likely to be well-known and well-respected in her community. She’s an ancient, creaky woman with a wealth of perspective. She’s a source of information, as she’s seen just about everything. She’s also someone the PCs might approach for help. Offot has a lifetime of favors owed to her – though she might have to call them in with the children of the now-dead people who owed her. If your fictional campaign setting has room for something like Offot’s women’s society, Offot probably has a lot of pull with it. Everyone knows she’s committed enough to the society that she braved a judge for it! In exchange for her help, your Offot-analogue might ask the party to do a favor for her adult grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Or she might ask the PCs to undermine the grandchildren of the long-dead senior wives who once caused her so much grief.

Image credit: Chimexzy. Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Our next subject, Ibiaku, enjoyed something Offot never had: a glimpse of the world outside the Niger delta. She had a son-in-law in central Nigeria. When Ibiaku fell sick, her son-in-law sent for her and put her up in a hospital in the city of Jos. She rode in an airplane to get there. She saw black Nigerians dressed like white people and others going about naked. She saw streets lit at night with electric lights, so people could go outside without fear. She described her time in Jos as being “in a trance. I seemed to have gone to the land beyond this earth.” She quite enjoyed her time in Jos and would have stayed if she could. But alas, her livelihood depended on her vegetable garden, so she was back in familiar surroundings as soon as she was well.

One of the wildest marvels of Jos was that the people there seem to have done away with witchcraft. Almost all the women in Andreski’s book expressed fears of witches. The general consensus was that natural deaths were rare; most deaths were the result of curses. Ibiaku had lost her husband four years before the interview. She didn’t much care for the man. He had twenty(!) other wives and little time to spare for her, except to demand his share of her produce. Nonetheless, she was deeply loyal to him. He was, she maintained, a good man and too young to have died of natural causes. She believed some of her husband’s brothers were jealous of his public generosity and killed him with magic.

Witchcraft also impacted Ibiaku years earlier, when influenza came to her village. There was a great epidemic. Three of her children sickened and one died. Ibiaku’s outside perspective, developed perhaps years after the fact, make her recollections of the epidemic remarkable:

“One thing common with us is that we think nobody has ever died a natural death; nor could we reasonably accept the plague without associating it with the wicked hands of wizards. This being the case, a group of persons were suspected of having infected the atmosphere with some poisonous gas which they purchased purposely to cause havoc. At that time, there were no judicial courts. Instead, the suspects had to defend themselves by swearing at a juju shrine or eating calabar beans. Held by this bias, I rejoiced that the man responsible for the death of my child would eventually die. On an appointed day, these people were summoned to a special tribunal which tried them. They were all made to chew calabar beans. The beans, it was said, would poison the blood of anyone who was guilty. The innocent would go free. To be very candid, the two species of the beans are quite poisonous and any person who chewed them died within a short while. This notwithstanding, they were forced to eat the fruit and within a short while they all died, not because they were perhaps at fault but because the village had wanted to get rid of these men whom they suspected without any proof.”

An NPC based on Ibiaku might make an amazing intermediary for the party: someone who understands their perspective and motivations, and can translate not just words but ideas. If you want to dig into cultural differences in your game (some folks really enjoy this and others find it boring – know your players!) an Ibiaku-analogue is a great way to do it. She might also ask the party’s help finding her husband’s killer. If she suspects the PCs won’t buy that his somewhat untimely death is proof of sorcery, she’ll reframe all clues in a way to make them more palatable to the party. If you really want to lean into the ‘cultural differences’ angle, have the PCs uncover physical evidence that Ibiaku’s husband was murdered! It wasn’t sorcery but calabar bean poisoning. But since the husband was a good man and calabar beans don’t harm the innocent, there must have been witchcraft involved to change the nature of the beans, right? Arguing over which perspective is correct and whether it matters could be a really fun roleplay moment.

Image credit: 1qfoodplatter. Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

cw: rape

The life of Ibesilymo, our fourth subject, was awful: “Since I grew up to know myself, I have never had a happy time. I started suffering from my youth and it has ended just like that.” She was not originally intended to marry the man who became her husband. She was sent to him at age seven to work as a servant for his second wife. But in the following five years, the man became interested in her, raped her, and she fell pregnant. Ibesilymo’s parents married her off to her rapist at age thirteen. At the time of the interview, Ibesilymo had been with her husband for 44 years. There were no indications he’d die anytime soon. Officially, the man was a palm wine tapper, but he got most of his money from smuggling. He had sixteen wives. He married the most recent only two years before the interview. He’d never done anything for her, but just demanded money and produce.

Ibesilymo had nothing at the time of her interview save her hut and her garden plot. All her children grew up, then died one after another in short order. She suspected witchcraft but had no idea of the culprit; jealousy is the motive to which sorcery is most commonly ascribed, and who would be jealous of her? She had no friends and no living relatives. She could see and appreciate many of the features of then-modern Nigeria: hospitals, large buildings, schools for women, even universities. But she had access to none of it. She was utterly and totally miserable.

Sometimes you need a tragic NPC. Maybe you need an underdog for the PCs to help or root for. Or you just need someone justifiably miserable to vary the game’s emotional experience. Tragedy and grief are parts of life, and including some in your game world make it richer and more ‘alive’. Speaking personally, I’d replace the child rape with something less awful. Know your players. Talk about lines and veils. Figure out where, for your table, the line lies between engaging tragedy that generates more complex emotions and “this is straight-up not fun anymore”. But if you’ve done your homework with your group, absolutely consider including an NPC based on Ibesilymo.

We’ll finish up with a palate cleanser in the form of Ifa, who led a rich, complex and ultimately pleasant life. When she was a girl, her father came down with leprosy. The family didn’t have any money, since their eldest son (who would be the main earner) was off fighting in WWI. So instead, another man paid to have her father treated and took Ifa as a wife in exchange. After eight years with this man, Ifa had not produced any children. Her family investigated the cause and found her husband was practicing a form of witchcraft that left him infertile. They also discovered the man was magically poisonous. If Ifa stayed with him much longer, she’d die. So Ifa’s mother begged a friend’s husband for money to pay off their debt and recovered Ifa.

Then Ifa married a hunter. This situation was much better. She was his first wife, which meant his four later wives had to show her respect. She had some experience under her belt, so she was able to run the family compound well. Sometimes her sister wives were jealous or unkind, but (so Ifa says) she always refused to retaliate. Thus, discontent never escalated and the five women came to be friends. Five years before the interview, Ifa’s husband died in a hunting accident. The death was shocking, but Ifa suggested neither conspiracy nor witchcraft. She and her sister-wives were offered husbands from the late hunter’s family, but all refused. They each had grown children who could support them and preferred not to remarry. At the time of the interview, they continued to occupy the same family compound even though none of them were obliged to. To me, this suggests they got along well and made a good team.

Ifa spoke a great deal in her interview of her love for her children and how they made the hardship of her life worthwhile. She had nine kids, of whom seven were living. She also had fourteen grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Many of her descendants were educated. They looked after her and made sure she wanted for nothing, even though she was too old to do much for them.

An NPC based on Ifa works great as the ex-wife of your current antagonist. As your party is tracking down information on their foe, they learn he or she has an ex-wife living in such-and-such village. They’ll find your Ifa-analogue is a great source of information about your villain – though she may ask them to do a favor for one of her grandkids in exchange. If the party gets along well with Ifa, she may even invite them to use her family compound as their home base in their adventures, which would be super cool!

Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! Three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror-adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.

Source: Old Wives’ Tales: Life-stories from Ibibioland by Iris Andreski (1970)

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