Women in the past have pushed the boundaries in order to break the glass ceiling, speak out against tyranny, and tenaciously defend what they believe to be their own from oppressors. The roles that Edo women used to play in society were not only valued and respected, but also highly valued and rewarded. One of these women is Emotan, the market woman who saved her Benin king from assassination.
Emotan was born between 1380 and 1400 in the village of Eyaen on the Benin-Auchi Road, near the modern-day Aduwawa cattle market region. Her parents gave her the name Uwaraye. When she was a young woman, she married Chief Azama of the Ihogbe district as his second wife. Uwaraye’s husband assumed she was lazy because she couldn’t cook. She was also unable to conceive.
Emotan began bringing items, as well as some herbal goods, to sell at a stall near the city market. Emotan was an expert in the preparation of evbarie, a soup seasoning condiment made from fermented melon seeds. She was unable to return to her parents’ home after her spouse died because they had also died of old age.
She built a hut for herself across from the market at her trading post. Her hut quickly became known as a popular temporary nursery for the children of market-goers’ families. As she attended to their needs, including their health and other necessities, the parents of the children quickly outgrew her services. Some historians believe Emotan was a market vendor who looked after young children while their mothers went shopping and selling goods in the oba market. She is credited with establishing Benin City’s first “DAY-CARE CENTER.”
During the reign of Oba Uwaifiokun, Emotan was still a market woman, and her brother Prince Ogun took the name “Oba Ewuare the Great” after becoming Oba of Benin. Ogun was a fantastic ruler, magician, dependable figurehead, and warrior. His brother Uwaifiokun was one of several people who disliked him and opposed his accession to the throne. Emotan was extremely helpful in this regard. Ogun’s brother Uwaifiokun, who remained in power, plotted Ogun’s assassination with the assistance of his chiefs.
When Emotan discovered the plot, she decided to reveal it to Ogun. She helped to defend and protect him from being killed. According to some historians, Emotan hid Ogun, who later crept into the palace and killed his brother, reclaiming the throne as “Oba Ewuare 1.” After Ogun was appointed Oba of Benin, Emotan rose to prominence as a citizen.
When she died, Ogun, now King, or Oba Ewuare, requested that her body be buried at the Oba market, where she had previously traded. The Oba ordered that a tree be planted at the grave. Later, the king had her deified as the conscience of justice, and her tomb was marked by a Uruhe tree. Every festive procession in Benin commemorates the site of her grave. The first Uruhe tree (marker) lived for over 300 years before dying. The replacement Uruhe tree lasted nearly 150 years before an Iroko tree was planted to sustain it.
Ewuare also elevated Emotan, who was revered as the mother of kindness and love. Every male used to march in the funeral procession in her honor. They would celebrate, invest, and pay their respects at the city’s tree and grave site.
British colonial administration officers cut down and poisoned the tree in 1951. This behavior almost sparked a violent uprising. The “37th” Oba Akenzua II, who reigned from 1933 to 1978, then angrily condemned the Emotan shrine’s destruction. As a result, the colonists agreed to the request for a replacement. Enomayo, a skilled brass caster from the Igun-Eronmwon, designed a clay Marquette and had it cast into a life-size statue by Mr. J.A. Danfor in London. On March 20, 1954, the Oba of Benin, Akenzua ll, unveiled the new Emotan statue during a ceremony.