Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Precolonial Roles of Women in Africa

In the film, The Africans: Legacy of Lifestyles, women are described as caretakers of water, fire, and earth (Mazrui). The respect implied in this statement emphasizes the power of women in African Society. Although social arrangements vary immensely between cultural groups, women maintain a position of power throughout Africa. This authority can be exemplified through a direct leadership role, governing behind the scenes, or from a domestic perspective. Regardless of the manifestation, women in Pre-colonial Africa were not powerless.
            Polygyny is a common practice in many African societies. In polygynous societies men and women have separate roles. Men are primarily responsible for supporting the household financially. In fact, the more wives a man has, the wealthier he appears to be. This correlation stems from the social stigma of a man being held accountable for supporting his family. The bigger the family, the more financial resources the man must have (Bingham and Hill-Gross, The Custom of Polygyny: The Roles of Co-Wives).
Women in Africa are seen as symbols of fertility, women are therefore appointed to farming the land and raising children (Mazrui). Polygyny allowed a multi-wife household to share the workload both agriculturally and in child care. These women are referred to as “co-wives” and within this is a hierarchy of power. The senior wife, (generally the first wife,) has the most say in decision making next to the husband. The senior wife is in charge of assigning tasks to the other wives and settling disputes within the family (Bingham and Hill-Gross, The Custom of Polygyny: The Roles of Co-Wives).
Apart from specific cultural variances such as Polygyny, African societies are typically structured in either patrilineal or matrilineal systems. As the names imply, kinship descent is determined either through paternal or maternal lines. Societies utilizing patrilineal descent trace the male line. When a man chooses a bride she moves to the husband’s family. There she must prove herself worthy to her new kin through a strong work ethic on the plot of land she is given to grow food for her family. She is further tested on her ability to produce children, (particularly, male offspring.) In this set up if the woman decides to divorce her husband she will often times lose custody over any children born during her marriage. Furthermore, she can be accepted back in to her former society only through the approval of her father and brother(s). If she is turned away from her former home, she loses not only the land she acquired in marriage, but now has nowhere to go.
Matrilineal systems are in many ways opposite of patrilineal ones. When a woman marries, she has the choice to stay with her family or to move in with the husband’s. If she chooses to leave, her husband’s family provides land for her to farm much like in a patrilineal society. However, if the woman decides to divorce her husband she is readily accepted back in to her former household. The land she left behind will often be returned to her and custody of her children is often unchallenged in her favor (Azevedo).
Women have ruled directly and from the sidelines throughout many cultural groups of Africa. For example, in the Zulu Kingdom, Chief Shaka relied heavily on the advice of his mother, sisters, and concubine. After the death of his mother, Nandi, Shaka murdered many of his people out of grief. His aunts led a revolt against him and unseated him from the throne. He Bantu speaking, Lovedu are ruled directly by their “Rain Queen”. The Rain Queen’s control is largely supernaturally based. The amount of rain that falls during her reign is how her performance as ruler is judged. In Matamba, the female chief gained power through conquest. She appointed female chiefs to each of the territories she conquered. The Basutoland culture has had woman rulers appointed by consensus. These leaders were selected based on merit (Bingham and Hill-Gross, Women as Political Leaders: Some Powerful Roles).
From a western perspective it may seem that the constraints placed on African women are a sign that they are powerless. However, the above examples illustrate the vast variety of roles of women in Africa. My interpretation from the resources in this unit and the class discussion is that even in a patrilineal society, women are not powerless. Returning to Mazrui’s point that women are a symbol of fertility and consequently, life, one can ascertain that women are highly respected in Africa. The almost spiritual reverence afforded women implies that they are a key dynamic in African society. 

"The African Family." Azevedo, Mario. Africana Studies: A Survey of Africa and the African Diaspora. Third. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2005. 373-378.
"The Custom of Polygyny: The Roles of Co-Wives." Bingham, Marjorie and Susan Hill-Gross. Women in Africa Volume 1: Ancient Times to the 20th Century. 1982. 93-100.
"Women as Political Leaders: Some Powerful Roles." Bingham, Marjorie and Susan Hill-Gross. Women in Africa: Volume 1: Ancient Times to the 20th Century. 1982. 18-26.
The Africans: Legacy of Lifestyles. Perf. Ali Mazrui. WETA and The BBC. 1986.


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