Igbo ancestral figures in an obi, Ohafia, 1930s

HomeArtIgbo ancestral figures in an obi, Ohafia, 1930s
Igbo ancestral figures in an obi, Ohafia, 1930s
Igbo ancestral figures in an obi (central/meeting house), Ohafia, 1930s. Photo: G.I. Jones. Source: Jones Archive, Southern Illinois University

Ohaffia, a unique society within the larger Igbo culture of southeastern Nigeria, has long been known for its matrilineal tradition. This system traces ancestry and inheritance through the maternal line, with property and titles passed down from mothers to daughters. But how did this distinct social structure come to be?

One intriguing origin story, explored by Philip O. Nsugbe in his 1974 book “Ohaffia: A Matrilineal Ibo People” (pp. 18-19), centers around the historical wanderings of the Ohaffia people. Nsugbe suggests that during these migrations, pregnant women who were unable to continue due to the rigors of travel might have been left behind “in the charge and care of a brother or husband.” These abandoned women, the story continues, became the founders of new Ohaffia settlements.

Nsugbe further suggests that the practice of leaving women behind might have stemmed from the fear of twins, which were sometimes considered an abomination. This explanation aligns with traditions in certain Ohaffia villages that trace their lineage back to female founders.

While the historical accuracy of this specific origin story remains debatable, documented traditions within Ohaffia offer evidence of a strong emphasis on women’s roles in societal development. Nsugbe highlights cases where “traditions acknowledge and even ritually rehearse from year to year” the significant part women played in founding villages and lineage groups.

A prime example of this matrilineal structure in action is the Ebem Ohafia, a village group, and the Ekeuke royal family. Here, positions of leadership and influence are passed down through the female line, ensuring a strong lineage of women leaders.

The origins of Ohaffia matriliny remain shrouded in some mystery, but the traditions and practices that continue to this day shows us a unique social structure. Further research into historical accounts, archaeological evidence, and oral traditions passed down through generations can shed more light on this aspect of Igbo culture.

Do you have any insights or stories about the origins of Ohaffia matriliny or the role of women in Igbo society? Share your knowledge in the comments section below. By piecing together these fragments of history, we can gain a richer understanding of this enduring cultural legacy.


Nsugbe, Philip O. Ohaffia: A Matrilineal Ibo People. Oxford Monographs on Social Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.

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Onyeka Nwokike
Onyeka Nwokike

Onyeka Nwokike, a graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and a writer at Igbo Archives, is working to challenge common misconceptions and broaden understanding. He has curated a collection of historical photographs and artifacts for Igbo Archives, which helps to fill the educational gaps left by mainstream media and school curricula. His commitment to the celebration and conservation of Igbo heritage has made Igbo Archives an essential resource, cultivating a strong sense of pride and cultural identity within the Igbo community.

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