On Life, love and Politics

"Random musings about Life, love and Politics. Just my open diary on the events going on in the world as I see it."

The African Woman I Know June 12, 2009

By Thomas Jing

Far
from being a passive observer, a baby factory and a sufferer, the
African woman has been a prime mover in the history of the African
continent.

In 1976, Prince Nico
Mbarga, a musician of Nigerian and Cameroonian extraction, burst onto
the African musical scene with his song Sweet Mother. In less
than a month, the record soared to the top of the continental chart and
not long it had become a fixture in most households. In Cameroon and
Nigeria especially, where the content of the music was fully understood
and its impact greatest, children wriggled their butts to the song
after gorging themselves senseless with rice and pork during the
Christmas season of that year.

When
Prince Nico and his band, the Rocafil Jazz, eventually toured England,
it was said that “diplomats violated all ethics and danced away the hot
summer.” Even three decades after, the song still remains a favorite in
most African parties and functions.

Behind the record’s phenomenal success (over 13 million copies sold)
lay its extremely wonderful lyrics that, as the title implies, sang the
praise of mothers, as well as its melody that could stir even a
cripple. In addition, and in a rather subtle fashion, it told the tale
of the women of a continent that still remains mysterious to many; a
land whose image has been distorted for centuries. Western propaganda,
often fuelled by the alarms of feminists who have never stepped foot on
the African soil or the sensational accounts of those who visit the
continent determined to see only what they already have in their minds,
tends to depict the African woman as an object of pity. While it
remains true that the African woman has never been fully compensated
for her huge contributions to a continent where men often act like
children, people have always failed to clearly identify the place she
occupies.

Any portrayal that feeds on the old stereotype of a helpless African
woman who requires salvation is wide of the mark, for the history of
this continent tells an entirely different story. A common error often
committed when looking at the African woman is to do so through the
lens of Hollywood, its glitz, glamour, feminist soap opera, fairytale,
and ephemeral marriages. A second error, and this is serious, is to
cast things in racial terms, attributing her plight more to race. The
second argument fails to recognize the fact that while an Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf may be black, she is also a Harvard graduate and the president
of Liberia. Hers is not the only example, at least as far as education
goes. Similarly, it is pitiful to be blind to the fact that in most
Afrikaner homes in South Africa or Namibia, it was a common practice to
keep a shambok or whip for the wife of the house.

Africa is
still reeling from the impact of its history; and so generally
speaking, it is not a place for glamour, at least not for now. It is a
continent still roiled by political instability and armed conflicts and
sometimes stalked by drought, hunger, and diseases. Seen in this light,
it is only proper to pitch the role of the African woman against such a
backdrop, no matter how terrible it may be. In this context, the
African woman has proved to be a fierce fighter and an incredible
survivor. The role the African woman has played, especially in troubled
times, may have eluded the eye of the public partly because things
African generally do not elicit the same degree of interest they do
elsewhere; but mainly because those who come to Africa to report on any
development tend to be men trained to see only men.

Regardless
of the manner in which the African woman might have been depicted in
other parts of the world, she remains central to the very survival of
most Africans. Polygamy, a practice that normally devalues African men
in the eyes of their offspring by reducing them to communal property,
compels children to give their mothers their unalloyed love, loyalty
and allegiance. So, apart from the biological relationship that usually
strengthens child-mother bond, there is this additional sociological
factor. The role of the father is further diminished by the abstract
conception Africans attach to human relationship. In a very traditional
setting, blood is not a major factor in determining who is brother,
sister, or even father. A true father is one who plays the role
effectively and not necessarily the person whose “drop of liquid did
the trick.” Seen from this perspective, it is perilous to mess with the
mother of an African in his or her presence. She is perhaps the only
person most Africans will die for.

From this narrow base, historically, women have expanded their role
over the centuries. The story of Makeda, the queen of Sheba, born in
1020 BC in Ophir, is recounted in Kebra Negast or the Book of Kings. Of
her, the Jewish historian Josephus writes: “She was inquisitive into
philosophy…” But she was much more than that. Beautiful, intelligent,
resourceful and adventurous, she was best known as a shrewd diplomat
and competent ruler. She met with King Solomon and gave birth to
Menelik I, who started the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for
centuries and only came to an end when the military overthrew Emperor
Haile Selaissie in 1974. Her grandeur set the pace for Empress Taitu
who came centuries later. Born in 1851, she became the wife of Menelik
II and was instrumental in Italy’s defeat by the Ethiopians at the
battle of Adowa in 1896 (see The African Nation of October).

North of Ethiopia, in Egypt of the Pharaohs, Cleopatra, the last
ruler of the Ptolomic dynasty, also enacted great scenes of her own.
With a beauty that still enthralls the world to this day, she held
Cesar spellbound. Completely swept off his feet, a feat only an African
woman can do to an Italian, the old general realized there was more to
life than wielding a sword. He kept coming back for more and ended up
siring a son called Cesaron.

Long after the royal
intercontinental sexual rumble, when the banks of the Nile had already
come under the sway of the Muslims and their minarets and muezzins, the
drama shifted to the shores of the Niger where a raunchy tale of love
and war swirled around Princess Amina (1533-1610), then the ruler of
what is today Zaria in Nigeria. Commonly known as the warrior queen,
this spinster and amazon embarked on a territorial expansion that still
remains a favorite subject of discussion among intellectuals in her
native Hausaland. The legend of her persona has inspired the fictional
TV series about a fictional warrior princess called Xena. But apart
from war, she also had another side of her that has remained the
subject of wild speculations. Legends have it that no man who slept
with her ever lived to tell the tale. She had their throats slit the
next morning. In most minds, this could have meant only one thing: the
belief that hers might have been the kinkiest of sex. Yet, some of her
actions pointed almost to the opposite direction, for she delighted in
obtaining eunuchs from some of her vassal territories. A cover up, a
mere female fantasy to see a band of ball-less and so harmless men?
Talk of female chauvinism!

If war defined Amina, it was the love
of her people that has given Aba Pokou, the founder of the Baule
kingdom in Ivory Coast, her place in history. A runaway Ashanti
princess, she led her followers in the 18th century on an exodus
towards the gold mining area they now occupy. According to legend, to
cross a river that had burst its banks, she sacrificed her son to the
river god, thus giving her people the name Bauli, Akan for “the son is
dead.”

From the role of stateswomen and warriors such as the
ones exercised by the Ashanti queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, of Ghana and
the16th century Angolan queen, Nzinga Mbandi of Ndongo, to the
courageous activism for justice exemplified by Ruth First and Winnie
Mandela of South Africa, the African woman has demonstrated that she is
of sterner stuff. Into this cocktail pop the Amazons of Dahomey, the
likes of Mantatisi, Nefertiti, Hashepsut and many others and you are
stuck with a continent that could conveniently dictate the pace of
female liberation. Today, increasingly, African women are taking on
more important roles, from ministers through prime ministers to
president. Yes, president, for Africa now has its first woman
president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. As democracy gathers
momentum, guess who Africans will elect into office. Not the Paul
Biyas, Sassou Nguessos and the Obiang Nguemas (see The African Nation
of October) with their sick and deplorable records. Oh no!

So,
far from being a passive observer, a baby factory and a sufferer, the
African woman has been a prime mover in the history of the African
continent. Some pictures may depict her as a woman dressed in rags
returning from the field with firewood on her head. This side of her is
true but it only tells part of the story. After all, against the much
touted image of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe in America must be
pitched the countless voiceless women who live in fear of their pimps,
madams or even their so-called lovers and husbands.

The
African woman certainly has a long way to go in her battle to improve
her situation.  But by mere dint of the circumstances in which she
evolves, one that toughens her for battle, who will be surprised if she
gets to the finish line first?

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