Impact of the Second World War on Women in Esan Land, Edo State, Nigeria

Dr. Julius O. Unumen

Department of History and International Studies, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, Nigeria.

Abstract: The paper examines the impact of the Second World War on Esan women. It is based on literary sources, archival materials and oral interviews. It posits that their distance from the main theatre of war notwithstanding, the war affected them greatly. The war had a paradox of effects on Esan women, some positive, others negative. On the negative side, the war had its toll on the wives of the men who served as soldiers during the war. Available evidence suggests that the wives of soldiers who served in the war suffered emotional and psychological pains. They were burdened with the responsibility of solely providing for their families. However, many women cashed in on the scarcity of foodstuff, especially in the urban centres and ventured into “long distance trading” activities to urban centres such as Warri, Sapele, Lagos and Ibadan. Long distance trading turned out to become a profitable economic activity by women during the war.

Keywords:  Second World War. Impact. Esan Women. Essential Commodities. Scarcity.          

I. Introduction

One of the wrong notions about the Second World War, 1939-1945, is that African societies were not greatly affected by it because they were far away from the main theatre of war (Mordi, 2010:87). As a consequence, foreign textbooks and documentaries on the war make only passing references to Africa’s engagement in it. However, such evidences tend to concentrate on North Africa (ASCUP, 2008) and, little or no attention is paid to the impact of the war on Sub-Sahara African societies. Contrary to this notion, this study demonstrates that their distance from the main theatre of war notwithstanding, the war had a great impact on women in Esan, some negative, others positive. Up to the colonial period, Esan society was strictly gendered along sex line. Sex was the basis of role allocation, privileges, rights and opportunities (Unumen, 2012). Moreover, studies have shown that what Esan women experienced in history was different, in many significant ways, from what the men experienced (Unumen, 1988; Unumen, 2005; Unumen, 2012). These are the main justifications for focusing this study on Esan women.

Esan is a land located in Edo State of Nigeria. The name of the land, the people and their language is Esan.

During the colonial period, it was a Division of Benin Province, lying to the north-east of Benin Division.

Esanland is currently made up of five local government areas of Edo State, namely: Esan West, Esan NorthEast, Esan North-West, Esan Central and Igueben Local Government Areas. From a population of 143, 069 in 1931, 194, 891 in 1953 and 373,122 in 1991, it increased to 591,534 in 2006 (Government Printer, 1953; Ukhun and Inegbedion, 2005; NPC, 2006).

II. Impact of the War on Women

According to Ibhawoh (2007:223), although no soldiers from British West Africa fought on the European front during the Second World War, considerable number participated in military campaigns in East Africa, Burma, Cameroon and Togo. Over 240,000 soldiers and thousands of labourers, drivers and carriers, the vast majority of them from Nigeria and Ghana (then Gold Coast), were involved in the war. About 100,000 Nigerian soldiers fought in the war (Ibiwuike, 2013:178). In Esan, about 1,000 men were recruited into the army. Many of them served overseas. In 1944, the District Officer in charge of Ishan Division, Mr. T. F. Barker, reported that of the nearly 1,000 soldiers from the division who were serving overseas, 570 were making home allotments (N.A.I; 1944). It is possible that many of the nearly 1000 soldiers from Esan served as labourers, drivers and carriers, since, according to the District Officer, many of them were farmers before their recruitment (N.A.I: 1944).

A.  Negative Impact

There is no doubt, whatsoever, that the absence of men from home had significant impact on their wives.

Writing on Nigerian women generally, Ibiwuike (2013:178), argued that most of the women whose husbands went to war went through “great anxieties” within the period. This was partly because the women knew, from their knowledge of wars in pre-colonial era, that not all the men who went to war would come back and partly because some did not know if their husbands were still alive or dead. Indeed, many women lost their husbands in the war. With regard to Esanland, it is possible, judging from the report of the District Office in charge of Esanland, that out of the nearly 1,000 men recruited from Esan, only 570 were alive by 1944 since the rest were not making home allotment. This conforms to the widely held view in the area that many of the men who served in the army during the war died (Akhilomen, 1988).

The harrowing experiences of women in Esan whose husbands were recruited to serve overseas during the war can be illustrated by the life of Princess Iwaeye Akhuetie. Born into the royal family in Ekpoma in about 1908, she was the first child of the Onojie of Ekpoma, Akhimie I (Osebor, 1988: 1). Ipso facto, Princess Iwaeye would have been the heir apparent to the throne but for the fact that women were precluded from being Enijie in Esanland. The Onojie title in Esan is by the law of primogeniture (Okojie, 1960: 149-161). Princess Iwaeye later married Mr. Osebor Akhuetie of Uwelen-oboh quarters, Eguare, Ekpoma. Life was normal for the couple until 1940, when the man enlisted in the army and served overseas during the war, “leaving her alone to care for the kids” (Osebor, 1988). 

According to her, the period was a remarkable one in her life, which she could never forget because, as she put it, “I found myself faced with near unbearable situation, which I absorbed with hope and courage” (Osebor,

1988). For Princess Iwaeye Akhuetie, the period of the war and her husband’s absence from home was a most agonising one. Apart from the emotional and psychological loss she suffered, she had to grapple with financial difficulties, including payment of the children school fees as the period of her husband’s absence was a time the children were at different levels in schools (Akhuetie, 1988).

However, Princess Iwaye Akhuete was fortunate because her husband survived the war and came back alive in 1946. While there is no doubt that some of the nearly 1,000 women, whose husbands served overseas during the war, could have experienced similar conditions, it was, however, worse for those whose husbands died in the war and did not return to their families. Thus, although Esan women did not serve as soldiers during the war, they faced difficult times at the home front. 

The situation was made worse because other developments within the period under review took men off the land, thereby increasing the burden of women in the family and the society. For example, there were migrations of men to other Nigerian urban centres to take advantage of the opportunities for wage employment created by war time developments (Unumen, 1988:58). Apart from wage employment in the major cities, Esan men worked as labourers on road and timber concessions. This development was clearly evident as the District Officer, Mr. R. L. U. Wilkes, reported in 1940 that:

The United African Company alone employed 700 men in their timber concessions. Almost all are Ibos but it is also understood that almost all labourers in concessions in Ibo and Yoruba countries are Ishans (N.A.I., Ishan Div. I, 1940:16).

The migration of men from the villages meant that the women had to undertake the family “responsibilities in the community to a considerable extent, while at the same time, taking over their work in the farm and in the society” (Unumen, 1988:59). Thus, it is easy to agree with the argument that, in small and large ways, mobilizing for World War II affected people’s lives whether they fought in France or Burma or remained in their towns and villages (BBC, 2013). In Esan, the absence of men naturally increased women’s responsibilities in the family and the society.

A.1. Scarcity of Essential Commodities and the Coping Strategies of Women

According to Korieh (2010:90) the Second World War resulted in a situation of labour shortages, low levels of import and export, shortages of food items and higher prices for imported products such as sugar and for locally produced food items, such as rice, yams, cassava and salt. Accounting for this situation he stated that: The problem was exacerbated partly by the restrictions on imports, but most importantly by shipping difficulties resulting from German attacks on merchant ships at sea, which affected imported food items such as rice, salt, and dairy products. The shortage of imported items increased the value of locally produced rice and garri, which had become an important staple for the urban population. (Korieh, 2010: 90).

Women in Esan were not at all exempted from the above situation during the war. They suffered untold hardship arising from the scarcity. In Esanland, up to the colonial period, although men and women were engaged in farming activities, there was an internal division of labour with respect to cultivating particular crops. Women grew maize, melons, cocoyams, groundnut, pepper, beans of different varieties and vegetables, which were generally known as women crops, and men would have nothing to do with them as they were considered beneath their status. On the other hand, the growing of yam was a special preserve of the men (Unumen, 1988:30). To ensure that men had exclusive right over the cultivation of yam, in order to ensure that they controlled the main staple crop, it was made a taboo for married women to harvest yam. If they harvested yam, it could be interpreted to mean that they were wishing their husbands’ death. Only widows could harvest yam, after a special ritual was performed to permit them to do so (Unumen, 1988:30). 

During the war, due mainly to the absence of many men from the Division, there was scarcity of yam, the staple food. As early as 1940, Uromi, one of the main districts in Esanland in the colonial period, had to impose restriction on the sale of yams in their market on the ground that “foreign traders were carrying away yams to sell at higher prices in other countries” (N.A.I, Ishan Div. 1: 1944). Following Uromi’s example, Ubiaja Town Council also “decreed” that yams should not be sold in their market because otherwise, a famine threatened to occur (N.A.I Ishan Div. 1. 1944). These developments were not just due to a “small increase in the prices of yams” due to the war (N.A.I, Ishan Div. 1: 1944) as the District Officer, Mr. R. L. U. Wilkes, later explained, it was actually a period of scarcity and famine (Unumen, 1988: 69).

Another very essential commodity that was scarce in the country during the war was salt. As Falola (1992: 412436) remarked, importation of salt from Europe following the imposition of colonial rule, had led to the decline of the indigenous salt industry. By 1939, when the Second World War started, the country had become dependent on imported salt. It was in this regard that restrictions on imports during the war resulted in scarcity of salt throughout the country. As a consequence, government took direct control of the distribution of the product. As a result of the fact that the available salt was not sufficient for the population, government resorted to salt rationing to ensure that the available one was shared out fairly. It was in this regard that profiteering, hoarding and scramble for salt became rampant. In the circumstance, it is understandable why the prices of salt skyrocketed (Falola, 1992: 412). When the scarcity of the commodity became severe in 1941, the colonial government embarked on a system of salt rationing through the local chiefs in order to alleviate the problem. 

Unfortunately, the majority of women in Esanland could not get the “authorized salt”. They had to resort to the so called “German salt” illegally imported into the area. Women, who were found in possession of the “unauthorized salt”, were arrested because it constituted trading with the enemy. As a consequence, many women suffered, and, were sometimes molested by the so-called “government agents” on the grounds that they were found in possession of the “unauthorized salt” (Unumen, 1988: 70). This development gave rise to a black market situation. Women devised a false name for salt, Ebebhoko, which in Esan language means “something that is wrapped”, so that the government agents could not understand even when salt transactions were taking place (Egogo, 1988).

Other women obtained salt from other sources. Madam Ito Ehijiator (1988), also from Ekpoma, explained that salt was scarce for three years during the war. Narrating how they got salt within the period of scarcity, she stated that:

When salt was scarce, we always got salt from Mr. Eromosele from Ujoelen. We would give him palm kernel and got salt from him. He got salt from Sapele where he sold his palm kernel. At that time, salt was called Ebebhoko in Ehor market. It was against the law to call it salt. Even when selling salt, a government officer nearby would not know it was salt (Egogo, 1988).

Mrs. L. A. Idemudia, then at Igueben, believed that the scarcity was caused by the “British who did not want us to buy German salt during the war”. According to her:

My uncle was a contractor with U.A.C. Through him my mother was getting salt but I do not know how my uncle was getting it. Women were always trooping to our house. Salt was then called Ebebhoko so that another person would not know. It was German salt. It was not as fine as the normal salt from Britain. It was hidden because if one was caught it was regarded as a criminal offense (Idemudia, 1988).

Other women in Esanland had different experiences (Ajayi, 1988). Thus, available evidence suggests that women in Esan passed through very trying time during the Second World War. The scarcity of some essential commodities, such as salt, therefore, affected women more, because it was their primary responsibility to cook for the family, including getting the necessary ingredients for that duty.

B.  Positive Impact of the War on Women

One of the effects of the Second World War in Nigeria was scarcity of foodstuff, especially in urban areas. This situation was caused by both the departure of large number of men from the agricultural sector into the army and migration to the main urban centres to seek wage employment. In addition, there was increased government demand for food supplies to feed the soldiers in the war front. According to Johnson (1982:141), these factors combined to drive food prices up such that in the urban areas, especially Lagos, “there was rampant inflation and an acute food shortage”. As a consequence, the Nigerian colonial government inaugurated a scheme of food and price control under the direction of Captain A. P. Pullen, from which the scheme took its name. Pullen deviced a food control scheme, which the colonial legislature enacted in February, 1941. (Oyemakinde, 1973: 413-423; Johnson, 1982: 141). The scheme resulted in a black market situation, because, traditionally, Nigerian women controlled the distribution, marketing and pricing of foodstuff in the country (Johnson: 1982: 141).

The inability of the government to control prices led to an expansion of the original 1941 price control plan to a 1943 administrative proposal to control not only the prices of foodstuff but their actual sale in the markets. Government agents were sent to buy foodstuffs from several localities near Lagos and sell in designated government centres in Lagos (Oyemakinde 1973: 413-423). However, the whole scheme was a failure because Lagos market women, who felt that government was depriving them of their legitimate source of income, protested and worked against the success of the scheme. Other administrative miscalculations added to the reasons for the failure of the scheme (Oyemakinde, 1973: 413-423; Johnson, 1982; 141). This meant in earnest that the prevailing inflation and hike in the prices of foodstuff in the major urban areas persisted.

B.1. Processing and Marketing of Garri

The above situation was beneficial to the women. For instance, during the war, Esan women became more involved in the cultivation of cassava and processing it into garri. The women were also involved in the actual shipment of garri from the division to other areas. Many women in the major sub-urban centres, such as Ekpoma, Uromi, Irrua and Ubiaja, entered the external trade and benefited from the profitable venture (Unumen, 1988: 193).

Although cassava had been introduced into Nigeria as early as the 16th century by the Portuguese in Warri (Agboola, 1988: 369-388) and had become a common crop in Esan by the early decades of the 20th century, the crop was cultivated on a small scale before the Second World War. In 1914, the Distrcit Officer, Mr. M. R. J. Sasse, reported that “cassava is common locally to some extent, but is not substituted for yam” (NAI, Ben Prof. 2/1 1914). Up to the Second World War, cassava was regarded as “women’s crop” and grown almost solely by women (Unumen, 1988:187). 

Okojie (1960:20) posited that the knowledge of processing cassava into garri was introduced into Esan in 1925. Available evidence suggests that the technology was introduced from outside Esan, which is generally referred in Esan language as uwamen (Ajayi, 1988). Up to the period of the Second World War, garri and other byproducts of cassava were not yet staple foods in Esanland.  Thus, the processing of cassava into garri was geared almost entirely towards sale to people outside the area.

During the war, the shortage of foodstuff gave rise to the high demand for cassava starch and garri. As a result, there was increase in the prices of cassava products and this gave impetus to the increased production and processing of the crop in the country (Oyemakinde, 1973). Shortage of food was experienced everywhere in the country. In 1942, for example, it was reported that “there is at present a general shortage of foodstuffs throughout Benin and Warri Provinces” (NAI, WAR Prof. I, 1945). There was also a shortage of yams and a consequent increase in the demand for garri and for cassava starch and farina to fill the gap (NAI, WAR Prof. I, 1945).

Although, as alluded to, garri was not yet widely consumed in Esanland but produced for external consumption outside the area, in the major cities such as Lagos and Kano, it had become “a staple food for the teaming population” (Oyemakinde, 1973: 419). The main centre of supply to Lagos was Benin, Warri and Ibadan Provinces. On the other hand, Kano and other areas in the north had their supply from “Aba down south” (Oyamakinde, 1973: 419). Esanland became, therefore, one of the major producing areas for both sectors of the country. 

Another development that led to the demand for cassava products during the Second World War was the decision of the Nigerian Food Department to export cassava starch. In 1942, the Ministry of Food started the export of cassava starch to Britain. Between July 1941 and April, 1943, cassava starch was graded and exported. From as low as four tons in July 1941, export increased to 928 tons in December 1942. It got to a peak of 1139 tons in February 1943 and plummeted to 2 tons in August 1943 (NAI, WAR Prof I, 1945). It has been explained that although these were Nigeria’s figures, they were actually supplied almost exclusively from Benin and Warri Provinces (NAI, WAR Prof. I, 1945: 66).  

In a 1943 press notice by the Deputy Director of supplies, G. F. T. Colly, it was reported that: …the present stocks of cassava starch are sufficient to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Food for some months to come and it has consequently been decided with the approval of His majesty’s government that the purchase of cassava starch for export shall cease as from 1st of May, 1943 (NAI, 1943).

The main consideration governing the prohibition of export of cassava starch was to “prevent the diversion of labour from palm production” (NAI, 1943). This order notwithstanding, the “Crops and Native Foodstuff Monthly Report” revealed in September 1945 that there was a considerable increase in the amount of cassava harvested in the Northern parts of Benin Province (Ishan Division), and the growth of immature crops is everywhere (NAI, 1945). Thus, Esanland formed part of the region where cassava starch and garri were produced for export to the major urban centres in the country. 

It is a common economic parlance that production is not completed until the goods get to the final consumer. Apart from the cultivation and processing of cassava into garri, women became involved in the shipment of the product and other foodstuff to urban markets outside the ethnic landscape. Women would buy garri, plantain, banana and pineapples from the village markets in Esan and ship them to Warri, Sapele, Lagos, Kaduna, Zaria and Kano for sale (Unumen, 1988).

Although in the pre-colonial period Esan women were more of producers than distributors, they were, however, involved in buying and selling in the local periodic markets. However, as Unumen (1988) has argued, women economic activities are determined by opportunities. This was demonstrated by Esan women during the Second World War, when they cashed in on the scarcity of essential commodities and hike in the prices of foodstuff to go into long distance trading. While more and more women were entering the trading business during the Second World War, not even the apparent potential profits could attract the men to trading activities. In 1940, when the colonial government wanted to encourage men to go into trading, in order to stem the tide of scarcity of foodstuff, the District Officer in charge of Ishan Division, Mr. Wilkes, reported that “a suggestion that men should start trading was greeted with laughter”, meaning that it was beneath their status (NAI, 1940: 15). Thus, only women took advantage of the situation. 

By July 1945, the price of garri had risen to thirty shillings or more per bag at Benin City and Agbor (NAI, Ben.

Prof. I: 30). One of the reasons for this price hike was because garri was “illegally” exported from the “region” to Lagos and the Northern Provinces, leaving little for the internal market. The price was so high that a “Garri Scheme” was instituted in Benin and Warri provinces in order to “defeat the black market and bring down prices” (NAI, WAR Prof. 1, 3). The scheme was instituted at the request of the Resident, Benin Province, Mr. L. L. Cattle. Meanwhile, although the Lagos scheme failed, traders in Benin and Warri provinces turned to Onitsha and Owerri provinces where “prices were out of proportion to the cost of production” (NAI, WAR Prof. 1:3). Thus, although prices were fixed and export of garri prohibited, the order was not obeyed and smuggling of the product out of the area persisted.

At a point, government made arrangements for Chief Emeni of Ubiaruku to buy garri at a comparatively cheap rate at Ubiaruku to be brought down for sale at controlled price in Benin Province. In 1945, 330 bags of garri were supplied by Chief Emeni. At Ubiaruku, a bag of oiled garri sold for seven shillings six pence, while that without oil was sold for seven shillings, per one. Chief Emeni sold at the rate of thirteen shillings six pence in Benin instead of the prevailing price of sixteen shillings, six pence (NAI, Ben. Prof. 1: 30). Thus, although Chief Emeni sold below the prevailing price, he was still able to make nearly 100 percent profits per bag. This high profitability was what the women cashed in on. The scheme was short-lived as traders devised other means of sidetracking government regulations. 

The net effect of the high demand for foodstuff in the major urban areas and the shipment of the produce from

Ishan to those areas by women was that the prices paid for these foodstuffs also increased. Thus, the farmers, the processors and the women who marketed the produce benefited from the war situation (NAI, 1945:24). Thus, there is no doubt whatsoever those women in Esan who cashed in on the inflation and price hike of foodstuff during the war, benefited greatly from it.

B.2. Milling and Marketing of Rice

Another economic activity, which got a boost in Esanland during the Second World War and greatly benefited the women, was the milling and marketing of rice. The cultivation of rice was a male activity in Esan. However, the more lucrative processing and marketing of the produce, which were inevitably bound together, were done by women (Unumen, 1988:167). Increased production and processing of rice in Esan was closely connected with the installation of a rice milling machine along Ukhun Road in Ekpoma in November 1941, as part of the colonial government’s strategies to encourage local production of the produce (NAI, Ben Prof. 1). Prior to its installation, the processing of rice was done by women using mortars and pestles, a very laborious and energy sapping task, which limited very seriously the quantity produced and processed in the area (Unumen, 1988). Thus, the establishment of the mill gave a new impetus to the cultivation and processing of rice in Esan. Since the processing of rice was the work of women, the installation of the milling machine expanded their economic activities.

Women would travel to different parts of Ihsan and Kukuruku Divisions to purchase un-milled rice from farmers, bring it to Ekpoma for processing and sale in Ekpoma market. This gave the impression that all the rice was produced in Ekpoma. Hence it earned the name “Ekpoma rice” (Ehijiator, 1988). The women adopted a number of strategies to create a monopoly in the processing and marketing of rice, thereby enhancing their profitability. In the first place, the rice millers/sellers association gave enough money to their members who would go to both the surrounding villages and other parts of Esan to purchase un-milled rice. Secondly, the members would go to the market as early as possible to purchase all the available un-milled rice, which they later sold to Benin and Igbo traders at exorbitant prices. Since they controlled the access of other traders to rice supplies, they were able to keep down competition (Ehijiator, 188). By so doing, they controlled the supply of the produce.

Another strategy was to control the sale of milled rice in Ekpoma. In order to be permitted to sell milled rice in Ekpoma market, a prospective trader had to first register with the Association of Rice Sellers, otherwise, they would force her to carry her rice home. The members, thus, constituted themselves into a cartel that monopolised the supply, milling and sale of rice in Esanland. As a consequence, their profitability increased tremendously.

B.3. Boost in the Local Weaving Industry

The Second World War also resulted in a temporary boost in the local cloth- weaving industry. Competition from cheap imported factory manufactured cloth from Liverpool and Manchester, notwithstanding, the industry survived up to the period of the Second World War. However, the restrictions on imports during the war temporarily boosted the industry, which was an exclusive women industry (Unumen, 1988). Due to the restrictions on imports during the war, the uniforms of primary school pupils were made from Esan cloth in toto (Iyamah, 1988). In addition, the unakpa (police), onighan (the prison inmates) and the warders in Esan were using the special Esan uselu, which had khaki texture, for uniforms during the war (Akhilomen, 1988). As a consequence of these measures, the local cloth-weaving industry experienced a boom during the war. Available evidence suggests that it was not until after the war, and with many women moving into more modern, profitable and prestigious occupations, such as teaching and nursing, that the industry declined (Unumen, 2013).

III. Conclusion

A major argument in this study is that their distances from the main theatres of war notwithstanding, Esan women were greatly affected by the Second World War. Women whose husbands served in the war, either as soldiers or as carriers and labourers, suffered emotional and psychological pains due to the absence of their husbands. Their burden in the family and society increased. Some who lost their husbands had their lives changed for the worse. The ban on and/or restriction on imports of some essential commodities equally had its toll on Esan women, as they suffered to get these products.

On the other hand, war time developments benefited some women who took advantage of the prevailing conditions and went into long distance trading activities from Esan to major urban areas. Women benefited from the production and distribution of garri and cassava starch. Milling and marketing of rice was another economic activity that benefited women within the period under review. More importantly, perhaps, the local clothweaving industry, which was entirely a women’s industry, experienced a temporary boost during the war.

Thus, it is clear that the Second World War had a profound, although paradox of effects, on Esan women, some positive and others negative. This study has effectively debunked the notion that Sub-Saharan African societies were not greatly affected by the Second World War because they were far away from the main theatres of war in Europe, North Africa and Asia. Moreover, the study has further reinforced the thesis that what women experienced in history was different, in many significant ways, from what the men experienced, thus, further justifying concentrating on women as a category in historical studies


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