Urhobo Historical Society


By Peter Ekeh

It is remarkable how much cultural amalgam Nigeria is evolving into in a matter of a few short decades, particularly after Nigeria's National Independence from British colonial rule in 1960. The great majority of those Nigerians who will be reading this essay were born after 1960. They have therefore grown up with an emerging Nigerian culture in which various fragments of Nigeria's multiplex cultural ensembles have informed a growing cultural admixture.

I suspect that that versatile student of Nigerian culture whom we have called Urhobo Comedian in these pages was born after 1960. He has compiled an impressive dictionary of Nigerian pidgin English whose centre of gravity is Lagos cultural life. Consider BabaWilly's entry for Amebo in his dictionary. It reads as follows:

Amebo: 1. Gossip 2. Name of a character in a Nigerian soap opera (The Village Headmaster), with a penchant for gossiping.
Now, BabaWilly is a self-conscious Urhobo man who is doing everything he can to identify Urhobo culture. However, he has not mentioned Urhobo in this definition of a term, Amebo, that Nigerian culture makers lifted from Urhobo language and culture. BabaWilly's definition of Amebo is innocent of any linkage to Urhobo language and culture. If I have to take a guess, it would be that BabaWilly, a brilliant medical practitioner that he is in his full professional life, does not know that Amebo is an adulteration of an Urhobo icon. Avwebô, from which Amebo was coined, is such a great term of endearment in marriage and family matters that most married women would crave it from their husbands' families -- in traditional Urhobo, of course.  How did this Urhobo icon come to be inverted in its meaning in Nigeria's emergent cultural architecture?


Urhobo family and marriage institutions are complex and formidable. The primary relationships between husbands and wives are embedded in larger extended family relationships at every turn. Matters become much more complex when a man has two or several wives, a status associated with an enhanced standing in Urhobo communities -- in traditional Urhobo. In a majority of instances of marriage, frictions between men and their wives, and among the co-wives, require intervention from the extended families on both sides of the marriage. However, husbands and wives quickly establish degrees of reputation that govern their relationships with their spouses, co-wives, and members of the extended family.

Avwebo is the dearest reputation that a married woman can achieve for herself. It works at two levels. First, in cases of polygamous marriages, in which a man has, say, two wives, one emerges as the husband's favourite. She is the Avwebo. What determines the status of an Avwebo obviously varies. But a few items are expected in relationships between a man and his Avwebo. Good cooking and providing good food for the husband's meals are a common attribute of an Avwebo. Taking good care of his clothing and generally catering for his welfare are expected from the Avwebo. In the competition and rivalries in a polygamous marriage, there is always suspicion that the Avwebo wins over her husband by crafty sex life. In general, a  man and his Avwebo are known to share private, or even secret, affairs that are strictly between them. An Avwebo is generally neat and is obviously appealing to her husband.

In such a marriage with multiple wives, one of them may emerge as the least favoured. She has enormous difficulties with her husband. She is labelled as Avwiorovwe. The relationships between Avwiorovwe and her husband are usually the opposite of those between the husband and his Avwebo. Public quarrelling and fighting are not uncommon. She is clearly talkative, often abusing the husband with harsh words in public.

There is a second designation of the term Avwebo with respect to the extended family. A married woman may also be regarded as Avwebo by the extended family, even if she is the only wife in a marriage. Married women in the entire extended family are constantly being compared with one another in the way they behave towards their husbands' relatives. The status of Avwebo cannot be maintained only in respect of the relationship between a man and his favoured wife. An Avwebo must also sustain good relations with her husband's relatives. This includes taking good care of her husband's visitors and relatives who need care. Such a family's Avwebo has reputation for having a "good  mouth," that is, she is temperate in her verbal relations with most people. The reputation of an Avwebo will evaporate quickly if it is known that a man and his wife only care about themselves.

Older men and women will generally address a woman married to their kinsman as "Avwebo mê," translated as "My Avwebo." In other words, Avwebo is widely employed as a polite term of respect for addressing women married into the extended family. Such respect is expected to to be reciprocated with proper genuflection and, in the case of well-to-do women, some gifts to their husbands' elders.

An Historic Instance of the 1940s and 1950s

It must not be imagined that being an Avwebo is an easy responsibility. Character counts a great deal towards determining the wife who becomes Avwebo. But it takes material resources to maintain the status of Avwebo. Such a  woman must be kind, not just to her husband and his relatives, but also to his friends. It will help if the husband reciprocates with sizeable contributions to the marriage. Very often, an Avwebo has few children or even none at all. It is not easy to maintain the status of Avwebo, which competes with the attention that one must devote to one's children.

The good attributes of an Avwebo sometimes predispose her to unwholesome temptations. An Avwiorovwe, often maltreated by her husband, will stay in the marriage for the sake of her children. But she will fight oppression and maltreatment with her harsh tongue and even with her fists. An Avwebo is less likely to resort to public quarrelling and fighting to undo any injustice visited on her in a society that is generally considered, by modern standards at any rate, as oppressive to women. Many of them prefer to escape from their marriages. Opportunities for such escape were severely limited before the 1940s and 1950s. That was because their parents would have to refund the bride price paid on them to their husbands. Some of them could secure new husbands.

These difficulties created unexpected problems for Urhobo marriage institutions in the 1940s and 1950s. New opportunities for travelling to Lagos and Ibadan were opened up for women, allowing them to escape from unhappy marriages. Travelling to Lagos or Ibadan in the 1940s required a great amount of efforts. Just as Urhobo men were seeking fortunes in Okitipupa, some Urhobo women escaped to Lagos and Ibadan for their own fortunes. They were largely from the class of married women who wore the Avwebo label. Some left their husbands and even children to seek new life with their beauty and manners in Lagos and Ibadan. They became a new class of what Urhobos called Igberadja, a euphemism for prostitutes. Now completely disappeared, this is a class of women whose behaviours in Lagos or Ibadan contrasted with their strict roles back home in Urhoboland. Many Urhobos were uncomfortable with their presence in Lagos and Ibadan. Many of these women, with no formal education and living in a metropolis that despised them, easily became misfits, mouthing a bad version of pidgin English and much taken to gossips.


The Village Headmaster was one of the earliest public shows in Nigeria. Created to celebrate Nigeria's cultural amalgam, especially its Lagos variant, the Village Headmaster  has yielded many cultural themes for Nigeria. There is little doubt that its most enduring character is Amebo. Without any question whatsoever, Amebo was coined from Avwebo. One of the major actors in the Village Headmaster was Mr. Umukoro, an Urhobo man who spent his earlier career in Warri. The lady who acted Amebo grew up in the Urhobo town of Sapele and was thoroughly familiar with Urhobo culture.

Even so, two important questions arise. First, why did the Village Headmaster employ Amebo, and not the authentic Urhobo Avwebo? The answer here appears clear. It is to escape the difficulties of pronouncing some unique Urhobo words. Such other Urhobo words as ogbarogba and ikebe have made it into Nigerian popular culture because they can easily be pronounced by speakers of other languages. But that is not the case with Avwebo. The "vw" consonant combination does not exist in most Nigerian languages. Even Urhobos who did not grow up at home have difficulties pronouncing the "vw" combination of words, as in the popular name Rukevwe.

But why, for a second question, was Avwebo's character inverted? Here we may have to wait for the creators of the character to tell us what happened. Indeed, I wish one could get hold of Mr. Umukoro to tell us the behind-the-scene discussions on how this talkative character of Amebo came to be so different from the amiable Avwebo of Urhobo marriages. It is entirely possible that matching Urhobo traditional character with an artistic character was not part of the concern of the creators of the Village Headmaster. Whatever the case, Village Headmaster's Amebo is an inversion of the good-natured Avwebo, an icon of Urhobo culture.

Peter P. Ekeh
Buffalo, USA
April 2001


In late 1999, I amused myself with the thoughts of the poor Urhobo woman who was once an Avwebo but who became marooned in the debris of Lagos and became Amebo. I doubt that anyone read what I wrote then. But now that I have explained my thoughts, above, please read the four episodes in my pidgin English which is no longer as sharp as BabaWilly's. They are under "Avwebo Matters," as follows.