AFRICAN WOMEN IN AFRICAN CIVILIZATION
INTRODUCTION: THE GREAT BLACK MOTHER
Africans were the first to inhabit the earth. Fossil records as well as DNA analysis give scientific evidence to support this fact. Therefore, the first woman to give birth was a Black African woman. It is from us that all humans have come. The other races of humankind all evolved from Black Africans.
Ancient Africans had a deep-seated respect for women. Charles Finch in the book Echoes of the Old Darkland explains that early man did not know the link between sex and birth. Therefore, it was believed that new life was created by the woman, the mother alone. It was perceived that all life in nature emerged from women ALONE. Therefore when the first concept of God was developed, the female served as the model of the Supreme Being. Finch explains how it was under this initial Matriarchal System that the first rules and taboos to govern human behaviour were articulated. Another important contribution of ancient woman can be seen in the fact that as the gatherer of grains, seeds, roots berries and plants to the group, we had the opportunity to observe how seeds sprout when they fall in the ground. This observation led to the practice of organized cultivation. It was the woman who probably developed the practice of purposeful cultivation. This may have happened as early as 15,000 BC. It is the practice of agriculture that made population expansion, food surpluses and community settlement possible.
It is not known exactly when the role of the male in procreation was discovered, but this discovery did not enhance the status of men much until the necessity of men became clear in war and conquest. The vital role of men did not lead to an imposition of the male on the female, rather it served to enhance the principle of duality evident in creation. Males and females were seen as complements to one another and a harmony between the two was necessary for harmony to continue on earth. Therefore, it was seen as prudent and wise to ensure the well being of both men and women if the successful survival of humans was to continue. The respect for women was reflected in society and the seriousness and consideration women were given. In Egypt and Kush the importance of the mother was seen in the facts that the children took their surname from the mother and that the mother controlled both the household and the fields. In Kush, the Queen Mother had the right to choose the next Pharaoh. Prior to Islamic conquest of sub-Saharan Africa in the 12th and 13th centuries, the system of succession to the throne was matrilineal. Cheikh Anta Diop in his book Pre-colonial Black Africa explains that in the African custom of matrilineal succession, very strict rules were observed which stated that the heir of the throne was not the king’s son but the son of the King’s first-born sister (the king’s nephew). This is because, as an African proverb states, ‘ You can never be sure who the father of the child is; but of the mother you can always be sure. The brilliance of this logic cannot be missed. This saying underpinned the rationale many African societies used to ensure that conference of power and titles of leadership were reckoned through the mother’s line. This matriarchal foundation of African society meant that respect for women was woven into the very fabric of society. Women had numerous important roles and functions to carry out, many of which conferred a great deal of power and respect to them. The erosion of the status of women occurred gradually but was significantly exacerbated and hastened by foreign invasions, particularly colonialism.
Unfortunately, most people, Africans and non-Africans alike, assume that the current status of women in Africa is reflective of their status in ‘traditional African societies’. This is wrong. The status and power of women in Africa in antiquity and the pre-colonial period was significantly healthier than it is today. Therefore, referring to the second-class citizen status of African women today as ‘traditional’ is erroneous and must be rectified. Africans cannot afford to continue thinking that traditional African societies perceived women as inherently inferior creatures and thus sidelined them from positions of power and influence. In this article we will look at some of the roles, functions and related power that African women had before the onslaught of colonialism. In later articles we will look at how colonialism in particular led to the erosion of the power and status of women in African society. This article is by no means exhaustive but instead seeks to provide a brief overview of the role of women in traditional African society. The article will close with several examples of exceptional African women who transformed their societies and the world.
AFRICAN WOMEN’S ROLE IN SOCIETY AND GOVERNANCE
In traditional Africa, women had recognized and vital roles in the economic development of their communities.
Among the Kikuyu of Kenya, women were the major food producers and thus not only had ready access to land but also had AUTHROITY of how the land was to be used and cultivated. Therefore, the value of women’s productive labour in producing and processing food established and maintained their rights in the domestic and other spheres. Nowadays, although women still are major food producers either directly or through employment, they do not receive the recognition and respect that they used to. Colonialism profoundly negatively affected the role and status of women in African society.
Moreover, in much of pre-colonial Africa, bridewealth gave women a certain amount of economic independence and clout. In the past, African women in some societies retained a measure of control over their bridewealth which economically empowered them to a certain extent. Sadly, with the new financial constraints experienced by males due to colonialism, especially in the form of heavy taxation, bridewealth became a source of income that males sought to control. Thus, once more, women were excluded from a cultural prative that had previously given women some measure of economic independence.
Among the Egba of Nigeria, women were the economic powerhouses of the nation due to the trade and market system they had developed. Among these people from West Africa, women dominated the trade and merchant exchange of goods of their communities. Women were responsible for a number of things including: setting the rules of trade among themselves i.e. market taxes and tariffs; organizing and managing the market system; agreeing on lucrative terms of trade with outsiders; holding meetings to discuss how to improve their trade and marketing system and more. These women had a highly developed business acumen which they used for the economic upliftment of their community. Keep in mind that many of these women were taking over their businesses from mothers or aunties of the same profession. Therefore, the economic knowledge they implemented had been honed for centuries. In short, they knew what they were doing. To this day, women still dominate the local market scenes in Africa but almost none can be found in the ‘formal’ Westernised economic institutions that have developed in Africa since independence. Perhaps the absence of women, and thus the absence of ancient African economic knowledge is contributing to the LACK of economic organization and power in many African nations.
In ancient Africa, women were often the most powerful spiritual figures in the land. Women were often in charge of the spiritual systems in their communities. This group of female spiriual leaders were a select group, and not all women were allowed to join the ranks of spiritual leadership. Nonetheless, women dominated the positions of spiritual and religious power in most African traditional societies. These were responsible for announcing dates and times of ceremonies, rites and rituals. These women were oracles, spirit mediums, knowers, seers and advisors. These women had the power to place and remove curses.
African people are known for their spiritualism and the seriousness with which they take religion. Therefore, we can see how a dominant feminine energy in the spiritual sphere helped to ensure that women were respected in society.
We will begin with a intimate type of governance system used by African women. In parts of pre-colonial Nigeria, newly-married women of a given town would form an organization designed to look out for their interests and those of their families. Among the responsibilities of this body was the governance of their husbands! If one of the members came to the group with a serious and valid complaint about the behaviour of her husband, the group would find this man, confront him with the allegations and keep and eye on him until his behaviour improved. This method was highly effective because it did away with the often destructive and frankly, Western notion, that a marriage (or a serious relationship) if only the business of the two involved. This system of inter-personal governance ensure that BOTH the man and woman were accountable to each other and treated each other with respect and dignity.
In terms of macro-political organization, in the past, most African societies had a dual sex political system which allowed for substantial female representation and involvement in governance and administration. The position of Queen mother seen across Africa in Ghana among the Akan, Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda but to name a few, gave women prominent and visible political authority in running the nation.
In most cases the Queen Mother was older than the King and was biologically related to him. She often had her own land, from which she gained revenue through tax and her word was law on the land she owned. She had her own courts complete with courtiers and staff. It is only through her courts that decrees, especially death sentences, made by the King could be annulled. Therefore, although the King had the technical power of the lives of those in his kingdom, the Queen Mother could often give someone back their life.
The Queen Mother among the Akan of Ghana also had very important role in terms of ensuring the well-being of the women and children of the nation. Therefore, she and her staff were responsible for designing and implementing the educational system of the land. As you can see, the nation was entirely comfortable with the Queen Mother and her staff being in control of the structure, organization, some content and day-to day running of the educational system which ALL their children were affected by. We as modern African women should remember that not too long ago the minds of all nation were moulded by the vision women.
Often the Queen mother also in charge of childbirth, coming-of-age and marriage ceremonies.
In some nations, the role that the Queen mother played was also played by the King’s wife. For example among the Baganda of Uganda, the Kings wife had considerable power. But usually, the King’s wife either had as much power as the Queen mother but usually had less.
A very important role that the Queen Mother, and sometimes also the wife of the King, had was that of either selecting or endorsing the King’s successor. In some cases, the Queen was responsible for nominating the King’ successor and it was up to her to convince a panel of advisors to agree with her choice. In other cases, other people nominated the King’s successor and only with the Queen’s consent could the heir-select be allowed to rule.
Women also directly ruled many African nations. We should remember that this was the exception rather than the rule. However, women did rule their nations. At the end of this post you will find a list of women from whom we can draw inspiration, courage and self-confidence. Many of these women were Queens. African Queens had supreme power and authority over all inhabitants of her Queen-dom. Her word was law and no man or woman could defy her. She had supreme military, political, spiritual and economic power.
In the book Black Africa, Cheikh Anta Diop explains bicameralism, a type of governance some of our ancestors used to rule their people. Before Africa was under the dominance of any foreign powers, women had a position of influence in society. In African bicameralism, women participated in the running of public affairs within the framework of a women’s assembly. This assembly sat separately to the man’s assembly but the two shared influence and power. The resistance against foreign invasion and occupation of West African nations such as Dahomey and the Yorubas is said to be a result of the women’s assembly meeting at night. African bicameralism allowed the blossoming of both males and females and allowed the full use of both the feminine and masculine mind. Bicameralism is an ancient example of African democracy that put full to use the human resources of society in a manner that supported and encouraged everyone.
THE LEGACY OF AFRICAN WOMEN
These stories are taken from the book In praise of Black Women by Simone Shwarts- Bart and seek to give us all concrete examples of the power, scope and nature of African women in the past. African women should NEVER accept being told that they have done nothing. We have created religions, resisted invasions, raised kings and more.
Humanity was born in Africa, Black Africa to be precise. In 1959 two palaeontologists dug up the skull of a human like being dated to be 1.75 million years old. The place of the discovery was Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. In 1974, at the same location, they discovered Lucy, a 3 ½ million year old fossil of a small woman. This young African woman, Lucy, may be the womb from which all humanity came.
Little known today, Queen Tiye is among the women who have most marked history. 3,500 years ago she was the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Queen Tiye’s beauty was legendary, but her personality was even more powerful. For her pleasure the Pharaoh built a new palace for her in Thebes (now called Malkata). He also dug her a lake in the middle of the desert, just to please her. The revolution in Egyptian art dates back to her rule. Her influence on the Pharaoh was so great that she seemed to the supreme authority in the empire.
When the Pharaoh died, Tiye’s son Akhenaton came into power and it was during his rule that Queen Tiye took action that has most decisively marked history. Up until then Egyptians, like many others, were polytheists, they saw the world around them as governed by several gods. But suddenly, under Queen Tiye’s influence, the Pharaoh proclaimed for the first time in human history, a single God-Aton. This reform may have inspired Moses to establish the monotheism that has since spread all over the globe. So today when people pray to God in a church, mosque or synagogue, they may be, in some way, under the invisible influence of Queen Tiye.
The kingdom of Kush so renowned and honoured in ancient times was headed by Queens know as the Candaces. The Black Kingdom of Kush was born about 3,000 years ago and lasted until 350 AD. In the year 750 BC, the kingdom expanded north along the Nile and conquered Egypt founding the 25th dynasty, the illustrious dynasty of the Black pharaohs.
However in 666BC the Assyrians invaded Egypt and defeated them. The final battle took place in Thebes which the Assyrians burnt to the ground.
Tautaomon is the name of last black pharaoh to rule Egypt, he fled to Napata (Maraw) after the fall of Thebes. Napata was then the capital of the Kingdom of Kush. Of the Queens of Kush, the Candaces, two names stand out. The first is Amanireans, the Queen of Kush when the Romans followed the Nile south after the defeat of the last Pharaoh Cleopatra. She is described as a ‘very masculine woman who had lost an eye in battle’. Masculine probably meant courageous. Remembering her Pharaoh ancestors she went down the Nile to meet the Romans and defeated them at Aswan where her soldiers broke all of statues of Emperor Augustus. Although the Romans formulated a counteroffensive in the form of a strong army that stormed the kingdom of Kush up to Napa, it failed. This army was thoroughly humiliated by Amanireans and her army. The Roman army was withdrawn back to Egypt. Finally giving up the conquest of Kush, the Romans suggested that Candace ask for peace which the Emperor Augustus granted.
The second Candace is mentioned in the Bible in Acts 8. The story explains how the apostle Philip heard a voice telling him to go to Jerusalem from Gaza. On his way he met a eunuch, who was a Minister to Candace ‘Queen of Ethiopia’ (Kush was called Ethiopia by this time). The story goes on to detail how Philip told the eunuch of ‘the good news of Jesus Christ’. The eunuch was baptized and went o back to Kush filled with a desire to share the news he had been told. It appears that Candace was the first in Africa to embrace the faith. As a result Christianity went down the Nile reaching the area we now call Ethiopia. The biblical Candace and Amanrenias, the brave lady with the missing eye, give us a glimpse into our buried African past.
Makeda- Queen of Sheba
The story of the Makeda is recorded in the Bible in the second book of Chronicles and the first book of Kings. Makeda had learnt of the wisdom of Solomon and went to Jerusalem to test it with riddles. The Kebra Negast, a 14th century book of legends of Ethiopia says that the visit of Makeda lasted more than six months. At the first sight of Makeda, Solomon was struck by her miraculous beauty and he said in his heart ‘May God bless me with offspring through her’.
On the day of Makeda’s departure, Solomon had gifts loaded on 6,000 chariots for her alongside a vessel to travel in the air. He begged that if a child should be born of their union that she send him home to Jerusalem and give him a ring so that the child be recognised. So Makeda went back to her country where she gave birth to child and named him Ibn el Hakim: Son of Wisdom. When the child grew up, Makeda gave him the ring and sent him to visit his father. The child was 22 years old. In Jerusalem, crowds gathered in the streets surprised to see someone who looked so much like Solomon. Some people thought he looked even more like his grandfather David. During his stay in Jerusalem, the young man was adorned and consecrated a king in the Temple of Jerusalem. This is how he became Menelik I, the first king of the famous dynasty of the Lions of Judah, the last of whom was Negus Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia.
Sarraounia- The panther queen
In the 1890 a French colonial operation was planned whose mission it was to force the submission of an empire along the bend of the river Niger. Lieutenant Voulet and Captain Chanoine were the colonial officers in charge of this mission. The Voulet-Chanoine mission met with success as they spread death and ravaged the villages they took. It was in 1899 that they would go on their final and fatal expedition to Chad. It was there that they met a woman, Sarraounia, the queen who opposed their bayonets with the strength of her soul and the white man’s tricks with the traditional magic of Africa.
Sarraounia’s father was a warrior who had distinguished himself from the those who were hungry to sell black men. He had become the king of a small territory of the Azna’s. Sarraounia’s mother had died giving birth and it was thought that her child would follow her to the grave. But the little child with her pinched mouth and clenched fists opened her eyes and revealed shining yellow eyes; the people recognized the sign of the panther. The Azna’s always knew that they been born of a panther, and it was this animal which was sculpted in front of their houses, embroidered on their clothes and was their symbol among the other tribes. Panthers are made for the bush and the panther child soon learnt how to use a bow and arrow. She learnt the secrets of ‘hyena’s ear’ a poison that gives arrowheads merciless power over everything that breathes. She was the king’s daughter and she went with men as she pleased, but never wanted a child clinging to her breast. Sometimes she would disappear for weeks at a time and they said that she would talk to the spirits of the Shadow who taught her all the secrets of good and evil, the elixirs of power and wisdom and the plants that kill and those that bring back life. This is how she became Sarraounia, daughter to the king, sorceress, great dame of the Shadow.
She was 20 when was brought to the throne due to her father’s death. At the slightest danger, she would be at the head of her troops, her pales eyes shooting lightening. Her silhouette became legendary. Then a rumour made its way to her: a column of white men were marching east, devastating everything in their path. Sarraounia immediately sent messengers to her Muslim neighbours suggesting that theyunite against their common threat. The Muslims did not even bother to reply: you don’t make alliances with the seeds of slaves. So Sarraounia had a fortress wall built around Lougou, her capital. She smashed open the granaries and sent the women, children and old men to safe places in the bush. The warriors waited while the queen applied an ointment on them that was supposed to stop bullets. Then having hand-picked a group of archers, the silent warriors, she slipped into the tall grass to seek out the enemy. When night fell, a cloud of arrows from nowhere threw the Voulet-Chanoine expedition into a state of chaos for the first time. The next day 150 porters were missing at roll call and a dozen native infantrymen had deserted preferring to wander in a strange land that confront Sarraouina. The troops enter a deserted city. Another arrow flew in sky and shouts rang out, a woman’s laughter was heard: that was the beginning of the end for the French force. Day after day Sarrounia harassed the divided and crippled column until one of her warriors brought now Chaoine with a rifle shot, while Voulet was slain further along. That was the end of their adventure.
The capital kingdom was rebuilt, but new French soldiers followed those who had died and the traditional cunning of the Azna people could not sustain them. Eventually a French flag was raised in the middle of the great court of Lougou and the queen shut herself up in the shadows of her palace. One day at the end of a fiery hot afternoon, a yellow-eyed panther burst out of the throne room and disappeared into the bush. Sarraounia was never seen again.
Ana de Sousa Nzinga
In 1860 the Scottish missionary David Livingstone reached the old Portuguese stronghold of Luanda. Bare stairs, cells and shackles told of the horrifying recent history here. As he reached a courtyard he saw the imprint of a woman’s foot engraved in stone. When he asked whose it was an Angolan man declared it was the imprint of the great Ngola Nzinga who had set foot in this courtyard 300 years ago.
Ana de Sousa Nzinga was born in 1581 in Basa the capital of the kingdom of Ndongo, a land ruled by leaders called ngolas. During this time the Portuguese were advancing towards Ndongo with the aim of converting them as they had the peoples of Kongo. However, the greatest treasure in the minds of the Portuguese were the very people of Angola- the black ivory- slaves.
Ngola Karensi, Ana de Sousa’s father, had thought about the European effect on neighbouring Kongo and decided to bar missionaries from his country. War is waged against him for this decision. This war will last more than 40 years, until his very last breath. On the King’s death, power falls into the hands of his oldest son Ngola Mani a Ngola who raises an army of 30,000 men who he intends to put to fight against the Portuguese. Ana de Sousa Nzinga, the amazon and warrior considered the greatest political mind of her time plans to join them on the battlefield. She realizes that their traditional lances are no match for the Portuguese guns and points this out to the king in a council meeting saying, ‘My dear brother, your warriors are many, but their chests are bare; if you go this course, your defeat will be that of the whole nation’. Furious, the king has the throat of Nzinga’s only son cut and has her sterilized some say using red hot pokers while others claim they used scalding water.
A few months later after having been defeated again, the king begs Nzinga to negotiate a peace agreement with the Portuguese governor of Luanda. Since she speaks Portuguese and has studied their customs, ways of thinking and military strategies, Nzinga agrees to go though she cannot forget her dead son and ruined womb. But the lamentations of her people give her the conviction she needs and so she sets off for Luanda. She enters the white’s fortress accompanied only with a few of her fellow women. At that moment, trying to test her, the governor fires a 21 gun salute. But the princess already knows the sound of the white man’s music and she enters the fortress without blinking an eyelid. She crosses the courtyard where her step leaves an imprint in the stone as she makes her entrance into the main reception room. The room is full of armed men. All the way from the back of the room the governor signals her to step forward, but still wishing to embarrass her, he has not prepared a seat for her. She gestures to one of the women who kneels and Ana de Sousa Nzinga sits upon her human throne. The governor rudely asks her what the conditions of her surrender will be to which she replies, ‘I represent a sovereign people and I am ready to continue this conversation only on that basis.’
A few months later in 1623 a peace treaty is signed between the kingdoms of Angola and Portugal. But Nzinga knows the tricks of the Europeans and is still determined to fight in order to protect her people from the slavers. On her return home she jails her brother and proclaims herself ngala.
The passage of time proves Nzinga was right about the Europeans. The peace treaty lasts the space of only a dream and soon the Portuguese are moving deeper into her kingdom. Though she suffers setback after setback she fights until the very end. For 30 years she will fight to win her homeland. She will return blood for blood and slaughter for slaughter, all to save her people from slavery. She dies at the age of 84 without having been able to rebuild her homeland but she is still remembered as the woman who lost many battles but never lost the war. Ana de Sousa Nzinga lived a queen and died a queen.
1. Shwartz- Bart, Simone. In praise of Black women. Texas, Modus Vivendi Publications, 2001.
2. African Women in history course
3. Diop, Cheikh Anta. Precolonial Black Africa: A comparative study of the political and social systems of Europe and Black Africa, from antiquity to the formation of modern states .New York, Lawrence Hill Books. 1987
4. Mbiti, John. African religions and philosophies. Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers, 1969.
5. Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History 1000BC to AD 400. Virginia, The University Press of Virginia, 1998.
6. Finch, Charles. Echoes of the Old Darkland: Themes from the African Eden. (Georgia, Khenti Inc. 1999)
Previous comments on this post
Great respect to the phenomenal women you highlight, it is a great read. In addition another woman ruler occcured in the Shilluk kingdom around the early 18oo’s. She was ruoth Abudhok Bwoch and effectively ruled the Shilluk kingdom in current northern Sudan. The shilluk Kingdom is a branch of the ancient Luo nation, part of which settled in Kenya.
Ms K said…
Hey great blog you have here.
I just wanted to ask, what’s your reason for spelling Africa with a ‘k’. I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind that.
Check out this Book
“For Women and the Nation”-Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria.
Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a Nigerian feminist who fought for suffrage and equal rights for her countrywomen long before the second wave of the women’s movement in the United States. She also joined the struggle for Nigerian independence as an activist in the anticolonial movement. For Women and the Nation is the story of this courageous woman, one of a handful of full-length biographies of African women activists. It will be welcomed by students of women’s studies, African history, and biography, as well as by opponents of the Nigerian military regime that has held one of her sons, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, in solitary confinement since August 1995.
Afrikan Eye said…
Thank you for your comments…
@ms K…Afrika with a ‘K’ because that’s how it is spelt in Kiswahili…also signals a break from the ‘Africa’ that has been created by the West…Westerners have created an idea of ‘Africa’ in our heads that misrepresents our history and tends to belittle our legacy, who we are, our achievements/ contributions and our potential.
dear Afrikan Eye, we hope you will soon post the second part of ‘African women in civilization’. Some question now..
1) can I republish your posts in my (penniless for now) webzine http://www.strudeltimes.it ?
2) can you upgrade ‘African Women in..” adding tales, stories, so on ?
And last but not least, I have a dream (yep). Even if I am just a white male, my ambition is an international respectable webzine. There is a column ready for you, think on it . Thanks gdc
Afrikan Eye said…
Will soon post the next spiel…effects of colonialism on women as well as other great examples of Afrikan women
@gdc Thank you for your encouragement🙂 Will soon holla at you. in peace!
I love this! I’m no fan of historical writing, but this, this was just so inspiring! Proving that there was a time when women and men were held in equal regard by a society not tainted by patriarchy borne of displacement, colonialism and globalization!
Thanks for sharing this!
I’m adding you to my blogroll – fasta fasta:):)