African Culture And Women

About African Women, Culture and who they Are In The Society.

African women’s role in Society and Governance

Posted by cultureafrico on February 25, 2011

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.

Spiritual Roles

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.
Political Roles

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.

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