General View of Women in Pre-Colonial Africa: Economy, Governance, Social [Part One]

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From: ancestralvoices.tumblr.com

From: ancestralvoices.tumblr.com

It is important when studying the status of women in Africa, one should bear in mind that the continent is huge and there are significant differences between countries. In addition, within one state there are several traditions and values that are different. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to use specific examples within the communities in Africa to show the role of women which contributed to their status. The status of a pre-colonial African woman is very difficult to define because there are many examples where she dominated and other instances where she faced discrimination. Hence, it one will see that the pre-colonial woman was both a leader and a woman on the sideline. In both cases, analysis of the status  show the strength and the weaknesses of the individual communities or people and not a broad standpoint of ‘African.’

One of the issues involved in the debate on the status of women in pre-colonial Africa is women and governance. Generally the belief is that women held very submissive political positions in most of the African countries. There has been a cry from feminists and other women advocates who cry out against the patriarchal system which existed in most countries. Whilst it is true that patriarchy did exist in Africa, women were not entirely removed from political positions. According to C. Magbaily Fyle, although men dominated politics in Africa in the pre-colonial period there were a quite a few women who played an active role in politics and government. For example, in the Yoruba political culture, there was the Iyalode who was a member of the Alafin’s council – judiciary body in Yoruba. The Iyalode was a female representative whose was responsible for women issues and their spokeswoman at the Alafin’s meetings. Additionally, in Sierra Leone among the Mende and Sherbro people by the 19th century women can be heads of towns and sub-regions – a good example is Madame Yoko. Furthermore, according to Fyle  the queen mother  gave women influence and leverage in the political sphere of some African countries. In this writer’s opinion, the place held by the queen mother and queen sister was important politically but did not afford them much power ;authority but  no opportunit to exert any power to that place ; some of the Wolof and Serene People had the place of the Linguѐre (King’s mother). Her place was ceremonial, she was in charge of sacred objects and the Awa (king’s first wife) possessed fields and slaves. The two positions did not make decisions that influence the economic or political spheres of the empires or countries.

From the outside looking into the pre-colonial life of many Africans, it may seem like women were totally insubordinate both in the public and private sphere. However, according to Onaiwu W Ogbomo, women sometimes use informal means to influence decisions made in the household. For example, in Owan, Edo State Nigeria before a title system, the household was the smallest unit of administration. The leader of each household would frequency hold meetings to help discussions between family members; it was here that women got the chance to express their views. Furthermore, women created organizations that served them both in the private and public sphere. For example, in Owan, the Idegbe was a group for the unmarried and married daughters of a particular lineage. Additionally, there were the Ikhuoho and the Ikposafen groups for married or wives of the family. Since the Owan family line was patrilineal, the Idegbe  perceived  as ‘males’ of the family, got certain authority. According to Ogbomo, they had a great influence on their husbands and brothers that they were able to family problems such as marriages. In addition, because they operated as a group the man consulted them before a final decision. The Idegbe were active in birth, death and marriage activities, thus demonstrating part of their “social, economic and political consciousness.” In this writer’s opinion, it is important to bring attention to the grouping of women in positions as ‘males.’ In this instance in the Owan communities, it shows that men were not able to negotiate with women unless the men saw the women as one of them.

It is interesting to note that for some African women and men power came with titles based on economic gain and prosperity. The title was as involuntary because of tradition. For example, the Ekwe title in Nnobiq was a woman or girl whose fortune looks prosperous. The involuntary title opened to all women but for some men it is reserved, according to their lineage.

Women also fought in armies in some countries in pre-colonial Africa thus demonstrating the influence that they had in governance. For example, among the Sotho of South Africa, daughters of sub-rulers were women regiments. In addition, the most famous women warriors were the Amazons of Dahomey. In Niger and Chad, women led migrations, formed cities and conquered kingdoms such as Queen Amina of Katsina (Songhai people) became famous for her conquests during the early 15th century. Also in Zaria, Bazoa-Turunku was the head of warriors who lived in a town.

Another area of debate is the woman’s role in the pre-colonial economy in Africa. Although women had limited political rights, she has the responsibilty of providing for her family. In most African societies such as women were in charge of fire, water and the earth. Meaning she cooked, transported water and planted the fields. It was her role and her contribution to her family. For example, cotton cultivation and weaving was the prerogative of women in the Owan communities – became known as the golden age for women [Ca.1600-1632]. Thus, is it justified to say that women did most of the work in Africa societies, while men formed political decisions? In this writer’s belief, since it was their tradition and women did it for years, then her task essential  if not appreciated. Should the women decide to abandon their roles then, the social and economic spheres of the communities would change. Furthermore, one can view the arrangement as a sign that the contribution of women in those propositions was highly valued. However, at the same time it would not be wrong to say that the pre-colonial woman looked double burdened and thus many of their arguments for the advantages of a polygamous family.

In addition, Ogbomo made a very interesting point when he noted that the wealth obtained from the cotton boom in from the mid-17th century allowed the circulation of cowries and iron bars. The cowry and iron bar currency facilitated more  purchased titles in the Owan. Ogbomo argues that one of the reasons for the increasing the number of titles was to curtail the growing influence of women. The belief was that the traditional prestige of the communities was fading. Furthermore, Ogbomo did point out that women held a few of the titles. However, the shrewd nature of some oral traditions, do not clearly define the relationship between the titles held by men and women in respect to equality – on the occasion when it did exist.

The social life in the communities across Africa always raises contentious debates about the status of women – marriage, land and religion etc. Religion in particular influences the ideals of marriage and the other functions of the family. The penetration of Islam into Africa changed several dynamics on the role and status of women in society. For example, in Hausaland, the influx of Islam resulted in the measure and quality of important political roles to diminish. Islam also had an impact on the economic activity of a few such as the Fulani herders who were accustomed to women’s involvement in market day. However, women became forbidden to go to the market and to work in fields – “there was an emphasis on reproduction instead of production.” Islam brought in formal education for women but it is important to note that the education involved the women learning the sacred texts to understand their rights and place in society. In addition, the early role of Christianity into Africa especially in Ethiopia created a change in some social customs. The missionaries tried to sway the women from dressing in their traditional outfits because  of the image that it was provocative and coarse. In addition, the missionaries were contentious against polygamy and earnestly tried to fight against it. However, for my African families polygamous families worked for them because it allowed the communal raising of children and shared labour.

Land ownership is another issue on the status of women in pre-colonial Africa. Since land was community owed no one owned land individually as one did in western societies, although the land tradition differed from people to people. For some the Anlo of Ghana, land came with   clans and marriage played an important role in keeping land within clans. Thus, if a woman married outside her clan, then part of the land that her family possessed went to her husband from the other clan. For this reason, many daughters control over marriage because more restrictive because their families strongly encouraged a union within the clan. Additionally, Greene comments that in situations like these women placed the clan before their needs. It is also important to note that since land was communal and  tended mostly by women in some African countries, women were viewed as essential to land development. According to Anthonia C. Kalu, for the Bambara people of West Africa women were in control of certain forest products like fuel wood and fruits of certain trees such as the Shea nut-tree. Kalu further explains that women had customary rights to the land and as a result were part of the land rights that governed the Bambara land. It is noteworthy to point out that since most of the African states, countries or empires were agrarian and since one of the woman’s roles was in food product, she became more important.

Moreover, from the literature one can see that there were several issues which fuelled the debate on the status of women in pre-colonial Africa. The issues of land, marriage, work and power  are essential to the private and public sphere activities. It is important to bear in mind that when reading about women in Africa, most of the time western beliefs and tradition influence our judgements. Therefore, this writer agrees with many African writer’s who warn that the traditions of the west when juxtaposed with those of Africa, is very dangerous in understanding the significant roles that either men or women performed. Having said this it is also necessary to point out that there were instances when women in their roles may seem overburdened, such as her role as provider using fire, water and earth.

Work Cited
Amadiume, I. Male Daughters and Female Husbands. New Jersey: Zed Books, 1987.
Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. Africa and Africans in the 19th Century: A Turbulent History. New York: Sharpe, 2009.
Fyle, C. Magbaily. Introduction to the History of African Civilization: Pre-colonial Africa. Maryland: University Press of America, 1999.
Greene, Sandra A. “Gender and Ethnicity in Pre-Colonial West Africa.” Janssens, Eileen Borris and Angelique. Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004. 1-15.
Kalu, Anthonia C. Women, Literature and Development in Africa. Eritrea: African World Press Inc., 2001.
Lebeuf, Annie. “The Role of Women in the Political Organization of African Societies.” Wright, Denise Paulme and H.M. Women in Tropical Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. 93-120.
Ogbomo, Onaiwu W. When men and Women Mattered: A History of Gender Relations Among the Owan of Nigeria. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

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13 responses »

  1. Thank you for a good debate and summary! You may also be interested in researching the role of Kanjogera on Musinga’s rule (Yuhi V Musinga), as well as Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Queen Hangbe of Dahomey. The first is from Rwanda, Ndongo is in present day Angola, and Dahomey is in present day Benin.

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  2. I thought it was also helpful to talk of the productivity of women in the reproductive circles and food productivity hence their correlation. otherwise I enjoyed the script

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    • It is indeed an area for more in depth study, hence the “general” connotation. There is so much more that I want to learn and share. I am delighted that you enjoyed this piece.

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  3. Nice one I must say. You may also be interested in researching about the famous Inikpi of the Igala Kingdom in Nigeria. I can see your enthusiasm in historical research and will love to partner with you for some quality research if you would not mind. Thanks

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    • Oh Mayange, I am taking down that name for research. Last year I began working on a project of famous leading women in African history left by a commentor but unfortunately all that information is struck in my old nonfunctioning computer. Send me an email at yellowhistory@hotmail.com if you are serious about the research.

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