In 1929, during colonial era Nigeria, a group of women, fearing that a head count of lives and property in the Eastern region by British administrators would lead to direct taxation, came together to put up a protest that was unprecedented in scope and remarkable in the success recorded.
The revolt, recorded in history books as the Aba women’s riot, attracted women from at least six ethnic groups, stretching along the Owerri and Calabar provinces, as they marched to the town of Oloko, in present day Abia State to seek social, economic and political redress. By the time the uprising was quelled, the women had sacked dozens of warrant chiefs, and were subsequently appointed to serve in the Native Courts.
But the struggle did not come without casualties. About 55 women lost their lives, felled by the weapons of the colonial troops.
Chioma Onyenwe’s August Meeting staged at Muson Centre, Onikan, on the fringes of the Lagos Theatre Festival, on March 2 and 3, details the occurrences of this historic event in a flashback scene. But it is more concerned with what happened after.
Directed by Kenneth Uphopho, August Meeting is a useful blend of feminist fact and fiction that pays homage to the matriarchs of yesteryears, and also rallies today’s youth to take the road that avoids redundancy. It would be all too tempting to report that the Aba women’s riot was a game changer for women’s rights across the region, but it would be untrue. For while the women dodged the taxation bullet – if indeed it was on the cards at all – and achieved some form of political representation, they only managed to exchange one form of antagonism with another.
August Meeting is set in the town of Oloko, only a few months after the events of the women’s riot. We meet some of the women who were major actors in the revolt. They have gathered in the home of Nwakego (Ego Ogbaro), a widow fresh out of the mourning period for her late husband. Nwakego has inherited the mansion that was built by her husband and she intends donating it as a venue for the women’s periodic meeting.
The women gather only to find the house under lock and key. The patriarchal system has decided that Nwakego cannot inherit a home, simply because she does not have a child. Arriving just in time from prison, where she was held on account of her role in the women’s revolt, is the formidable Nwanyeruwa Ojim, played by a capable Gloria Young.
Nwanyeruwa, based on the real life instigator of the women’s riot, is a unifying figure for the women and provides leadership and mentorship for the younger women who look up to her. Her (mis) understanding of a local census organised by the colonial masters led to the protest movement and unapologetically, she narrates her role in it.
These events, of course, have been recorded in history books and August Meeting takes time to chastise men like Eric Moore and Sir Kitoye Ajasa, who served in the British government’s commission of enquiry and handed out prison sentences to both Nwanyeruwa and Emeruwa, the warrant officer’s lackey who started the crisis.
Nwakego’s plight allows the women do some soul searching. This examination is done in the form of monologues where the central characters take the spotlight to highlight their hidden pain. Sexual frustrations, genital mutilation, and emotional abuse are some of the themes that are touched upon. And the characters, Nwugo, played by Ijeoma Aniebo, and Ikonnia (Inna Erizia) are based on real life women leaders. Mgbeke (Odera Orji) is the foil whose strong reluctance to upend the status quo merely covers a painful event from her past.
They soon come to the conclusion that women’s lives matter and go ahead to make resolutions to demand for what is theirs. Beyond the itemization of the problems, Uphopho and his characters proffer solutions too. Part of this, is understanding that protest movements such as theirs, require inspired leaders to push through the resistance. The play makes a deliberate effort to have Nwanyeruwa pass the baton of leadership to the younger but equally effective Ikonnia, thus ensuring that the fire keeps burning.
With this, August Meeting, unabashedly feminist and hugely political as it is, passes a timely message across. That the battle for gender equality is never fully done and strategic choices in leadership will make a whole lot of difference. It also highlights how far women’s rights have come and maps out the burden of work that still lies ahead.
A lot of progress has been made but it doesn’t always feel like it, especially when today’s women are still tackling the same challenges faced by their mothers, decades ago. If there is one point that August Meeting makes loud and clear, it is that a woman’s job is never done.