The Forgotten History of African Women

The Forgotten History of African Women

There is a great deal of discussion these days about the need to promote gender equality in Africa. Indeed, the need is obvious as millions of women toil in dreary, largely unpaid and unfulfilling tasks, responsible for most of the farming, marketing and commerce of rural Africa in addition to their child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities. Many more sit in desperation in refugee camps where they have been driven or shelter in the bush, trying to avoid the conflicts around them. In large tracts of Africa they are without a voice; without power; and the first victims of the civil conflicts which have beset warring African states. They are victims of rape, murder, virtual slavery as well as suffering from the diseases which debilitate African populations.

This popular vision of a poor, oppressed and powerless African female belies a long and proud history of African matriarchs, queens, rebels and freedom fighters who were immensely powerful in their own societies. Their history has been overlooked; suppressed by the colonial powers and demeaned by the men who stole back their thrones from these mighty women.

There is a long history of powerful African queens, consorts and rebel leaders which seldom make it into current history books. The role of women in ruling African nations, fighting against colonial enslavement and supervising the policies of their heirs and offspring as they rose into political primacy is a suppressed and forgotten history. This is a history which deserves to be taught in the schools.

There were many societies in Africa which were matriarchal. Women were enshrined in positions of power. In most cases this matriarchal power was broken by the invasion of foreign nations who could not or would not deal with powerful women. In Guinée Bissau there were even matriarchal societies where women were the most important element. On the Bijagos Islands they had queens. They were not queens because they were the daughters of kings. They had queens succeeding queens. The religious leaders were women too.

The Historical Record

One of the earliest of the powerful African queens, whose history did survive the passage of time, was Makeda, the Queen of Sheba. Black women of antiquity were legendary for their beauty and power. Amongst these were the Queens of Ethiopia (also known as Nubia, Kush, Axum and Sheba.) One thousand years before Christ, Ethiopia was ruled by a line of virgin queens. The one whose story has survived into our time was known as Makeda, “the Queen of Sheba.” Her remarkable tradition was recorded in the Kebar Nagast, or the Glory of Kings, and the Bible. The Bible tells us of the infatuation of King Solomon with this African queen (1 Kings 10). She bore a child to Solomon, his first-born, called Menelik. Menelik and the Queen returned to Ethiopia with the blessing of Solomon and founded the dynasty which lasted until the mid-20th century and the triumph of the Dergue. The emperors of Ethiopia were known as the “Lions of Judah” to reflect their descent from Solomon and Makeda.

The royal women of Ancient Egypt wielded immense power. The Kemetic women (Kemet was the Egyptian name for Egypt) of the 18th dynasty wielded military as well as political power, starting with Ahhotep I who drove out the foreign occupiers who had attacked Upper Egypt. Another was Hatshepsut, who actually ruled as Pharaoh over all of Egypt. Hatshepsut held the throne for over 20 years, building magnificent temples and sending a famous naval expedition to trade with Somalia. Two other women ruled as pharaohs in their own right: Sobekneferu and Twosret.

After the Romans conquered Egypt they set out to expand their empire. Augustus sent troops to the south of Eygpt to invade the Kingdom of the Meroites (Ethiopia) in 322 B.C., led by their warrior-queen Candace. Her full name and title was Amnirense qore li kdwe li (“Ameniras, Qore and Kandake”) Candace was one of the greatest generals of the ancient world. This formidable black queen was world famous as a military tactician and field commander. Augustus could not entertain even the possibility of having his world fame and unbroken chain of victories marred by risking a defeat, at last, by a woman. He halted his armies at the borders of Ethiopia and did not invade. He refused to meet the waiting black armies with their Queen in personal command. He granted an audience to the representatives of Candace at the island of Samos and negotiated a peace deal with the Meroites, including a neutral buffer zone. This was the first recorded instance in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler, independent of Egypt, travelled to Europe to achieve a diplomatic resolution.

Another great queen was the North African Berber Queen al-Kāhina bint D̲j̲arāwa al-Zanāt, better known as Dihya. She was a Berber queen, a religious and military leader who led indigenous resistance to Arab expansion in Northwest Africa (the region then known as Numidia, known as eastern Algeria today). She was born in the early 7th century and died around the end of the 7th century. She was Jewish. She was famous because, in her youth, she had freed her people from a tyrant by agreeing to marry him and then murdering him on their wedding night. Dihyā succeeded Kusaila as the war leader of the Berber tribes in the 680s and opposed the encroaching Arab armies of the Umayyad Dynasty. Hasan ibn al-Nu’man marched from Egypt and captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage and other cities. Standing in the way of his conquest of all of North Africa was Dihya. He marched into Numidia. Their armies met near Meskiana in the present-day province of Oum el-Bouaghi, Algeria. She defeated Hasan so soundly that he fled and retired to Cyrenaica (Libya) for four or five years before giving up his quest for North African hegemony.

There were many other powerful African queens whose actions shaped the destinies of their nations. One of the most important of these African queens was Amina, the Queen of Zaria (1588-1589). She was queen of Zazzua, a part of Nigeria now known as Zaria where matrilineal equality allowed women to rule as well as men. She was born around 1533 during the reign of Sarkin (king) Zazzau Nohir; she was probably his granddaughter. Zazzua was one of a number of Hausa city-states which dominated the trans-Saharan trade after the collapse of the Songhai Empire to the west. Its wealth was due to trade of mainly leather goods, cloth, kola, salt, horses and imported metals.

At the age of sixteen, Amina became the heir apparent (Magajiya) to her mother, Bakwa of Turunku, the ruling queen of Zazzua. Although her mother’s reign was known for peace and prosperity, Amina decided to immerse herself in military skills from the warriors. Queen Bakwa died around 1566 and the reign of Zazzua passed to her younger brother Karama. At this time Amina emerged as the leading warrior of Zazzua cavalry. Her military achievements brought her great wealth and power.

When Karama died after a ten-year rule, Amina became queen of Zazzua. She set off on her first military expedition three months after coming to power and continued fighting until her death. In her thirty-four year reign, she expanded the domain of Zazzua to its largest size ever. Her main focus, however, was not on annexation of neighbouring lands, but on forcing local rulers to accept vassal status and permitting Hausa traders safe passage. She is credited with popularizing the earthen city wall fortifications, which became characteristic of Hausa city-states since then. She ordered building of a defensive wall around each military camp that she established. Later, towns grew within these protective walls, many of which are still in existence. They’re known as “ganuwar Amina”, or Amina’s walls. She is mostly remembered as “Amina, Yar Bakwa ta san rana,” meaning “Amina, daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man.”[i]

With the arrival of colonialism the struggle took a different turn. When the British conquered and subjugated Ghana they captured the Asantahene, the paramount king of the Ashanti The counter attack against the imposition of colonial rule was led by Yaa Asantewa the Queen Mother of Ejisu. Her fight against British colonialists is a story that is a key feature of the history of Ghana. She stiffened the resolve of the chiefs who feared to attack the British. One evening the chiefs held a secret meeting at Kumasi. Yaa Asantewa was at the meeting. The chiefs were discussing how they should make war on the white men and force them to bring back the Asantehene. Yaa Asantewa noticed that some of the chiefs were afraid. Some said that there should be no war. They suggested that they be delegated to go to beg the Governor to bring back the Asantehene King Prempeh. Then Yaa Asantewa stood up and spoke.

This was what she said: “Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days of, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opolu Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see thief king taken away without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to chief of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this, if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”

This speech stirred up the men who took an oath to fight the white men until they released the Asantehene. For months the Ashanti, led by Yaa Asantewa, fought very bravely and kept the white men in their fort. Finally, British reinforcements totalling 1,400 soldiers arrived at Kumasi. Yaa Asantewa and other leaders were captured and sent into exile. Yaa Asantewa’s war was the last of the major wars in Africa led by a woman.

Another ant-colonial fighter was Mbande Zinga, the sister and advisor of the king of Ngola (today Angola). She served as his representative in negotiating treaties with the colonial Portuguese. She became queen when her brother died in 1624 and appointed women, including her two sisters Kifunji and Mukumbu, to all government offices. She was a member of the ethnic Jagas a militant group that formed a human shield against the Portuguese slave traders. As a visionary political leader, competent, and self-sacrificing she was completely devoted to the resistance movement. She formed alliances with other foreign powers pitting them against one another to free Angola of European influence. When the Portuguese broke the peace treaty she led her largely female army against them inflicting terrible casualties while also conquering nearby kingdoms in an attempt to build a strong enough confederation to drive the Portuguese out of Africa. She accepted a truce and then agreed to a peace treaty in 1635. She continued to rule her people and lived to be 81. When Angola became an independent nation in 1975 a street in Luanda was named in her honour.

Rebellion was led by women in Central Africa as well. One of the most revered is Nehanda Mbuya (‘grandmother’) of Zimbabwe. When the English invaded Zimbabwe in 1896 and Cecil Rhodes began confiscating land and cattle, Nehanda and other Shona leaders declared war. Nehanda (1862-1898) was a priestess of the MaShona nation of Zimbabwe. She became a military leader of her people when the British invaded her country. She led a number of successful attacks on the English but was eventually captured and executed. She is one of the most important personalities in the modern history of Zimbabwe. She is still referred to as Mbuya (Grandmother) Nehanda by Zimbabwean patriots.

The Baulé nation of the Ivory Coast reveres a female founder: the Ashanti princess Abla Pokou, who led her people fleeing across the river from Ghana into Ivory Coast to carve out a territory for their settlement

Llinga was a warrior queen of the Ba-Kongo who, armed with axe, bow and sword fought the Portuguese in 1640, leading an army of both women and men against the colonialists. Women warriors were common in the Congo where the Monomotapa confederacy had standing armies of women.

Kaipkir was the warrior leader of the Herero tribe of southwest Africa in the 18th century. She led her people in battles against British slave traders. She had a standing force of armed women who would attack the slave traders and force them to give up their captives. There are records of Herero women fighting German soldiers as late as 1919.

Nandi (Nandi kaBhebhe eLangeni) was the warrior mother of Shaka Zulu., the famed leader of the Zulu in South Africa. She battled slave traders as well and trained her son to be a warrior. When he became King he established an all-female regiment which often fought in the front lines of his army.

Mantatisi was the warrior queen of the baTlokwas (the once famous 40,000- to 50,000-strong Sotho tribe). In the early 1800s, Queen Mantatisi became the first woman to rule as chieftainess over her people. She fought to preserve her tribal lands during the wars between Shaka Zulu and Matiwane. She succeeded in protecting the baTlokwas heritage although her son, who became King when she died, was eventually defeated by Mahweshwe.

A contemporary was Dzugudini, a grand-daughter of “the famous ruler Monomatapa,”. She was the founding Rain Queen of the Lovedu. Her royal father was angry that she bore a child out of wedlock and drove her South to live among the Basotho. In the early 1800s, a leadership crisis was resolved by accession of the first Mujaji, a Rain Queen with both political and ceremonial power. She had no military, but even the Zulu king Shaka paid her tribute because of her rain power. Her successors have less authority, but still preside over womanhood initiations and other important rituals

Madam Yoko (Mammy Yoko) was a leader of the Mende of Sierra Leone. She ruled and led the army of the fourteen tribes of the Kpa Mende Confederacy, the largest tribal group in 19th century Sierra Leone. At that time at least 15% of all the tribes in Sierra Leone were led by women, today approximately 9% have women rulers. Her birth name was Soma, which she changed to Yoko after her Sande (women’s secret society) initiation. She was born around 1849 in the Gbo Chiefdom. She used her leadership of the Sande to augment her political contacts. In 1878 Yoko became the chief of Senehun and was recognised as the Queen by the British.

Menen Leben Amede was Empress of Ethopia. She commanded her own army and acted as regent for her son Ali Alulus. She was wounded and captured in a battle in 1847 but was ransomed by her son and continued to rule until 1853.

Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh was a leader of the Dahomey Amazons under King Gezo. In 1851 she led an army of 6,000 women against the Egba fortress of Abeokuta. Because the Amazons were armed with spears, bows and swords while the Egba had European cannons only about 1,200 survived the extended battle. In 1892 King Behanzin of Dahomey (now Benin) took up arms against the French colonists over trading rights. He led his army of 12,000 troops, including 2,000 Amazons trained by Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh into battle.

Despite the fact that the Dahomey army was armed only with rifles while the French had machine guns and cannons, the Amazons attacked when the French troops attempted a river crossing, inflicting heavy casualties. They engaged in hand to hand combat with the survivors eventually forcing the French army to retreat. Days later the French found a bridge, crossed the river and defeated the Dahomey army after fierce fighting. The Amazons burned fields, villages and cities rather than let them fall to the French but merely delayed Dahomey being absorbed as a French colony. [ii]

In the late 19th century Mukaya, the leader of the Luba people of central Africa whose nation stretched along the rain forest from Zaire to northern Zambia, led her warriors in battle against enemy tribes and rival factions. Initially she fought alongside her brother Kasongo Kalambo, after he was killed in battle she assumed sole control of the empire and the army.

Perhaps the most famous effort by women was thee Aba rebellion in southeastern Nigeria, This incident become known as the Igbo Women’s War of 1929 (or “Ogu Ndem,” Women’s War, in Igbo. It was organized and led by the rural women of Oerri and Calabar provinces. People were outraged at the colonial government’s plan to tax women, “the trees that bear fruit.” In protest, Ibo women bound their heads with ferns, painted their faces with ash, put on loincloths and carried sacred sticks with palm frond wreaths. Thousands marched on the District Office, dancing, singing protests, and demanding the cap of office of the colonial chief Okugo.

This protest spread into a vast regional insurrection. The Ibo women’s councils mobilized demonstrations in three provinces, turning out over 2,000,000 protesters. The British District Officer at Bende wrote, “The trouble spread in the 2nd week of December to Aba, an important trading centre on the railway. Here there converged some 10,000 women, scantily clothed, girdled with green leaves, carrying sticks. Singing angry songs against the chiefs and the court messengers, the women proceeded to attack and loot the European trading shops, stores, and Barclay’s Bank, and to break into the prison and release the prisoners.”

Elsewhere women protestors burned down the hated British “Native Courts” and cut telegraph wires, throwing officials into panic. The colonials fired on the female protesters, killing more than fifty and wounding more. The leaders of the protest in Oloko are known as the Oloko Trio: Ikonnia, Mwannedia and Nwugo. Nwanyereuwa played a major role in keeping the protests non-violent. Others included Mary of Ogu Ndem, Ihejilemebi Ibe of Umuokirika Village and Ahebi Ugabe of Enugu-Ezike: “The Female Leopard”.

Marches continued sporadically into 1930. These mass actions became known as the Aba Rebellion of 1929, or The War of the Women. It was one of the most significant anti-colonial revolts in Africa of that day. [iii]

There is a rich tradition of matriarchy in African societies; some still exist today Perhaps the most visible is the Queen Mother of Swaziland, the Indlovukazi (also known as the Great She-Elephant). Traditionally the Queen Mother is a co-regent with the King. The current Queen Mother is Ntombi laTwala, the mother of the current king Makhosetive Dhlamini, ruling as King Mswati III with his mother as Joint Head of State. As Queen Mother, Ntombi is seen as the spiritual and national head of state, while her son is considered the administrative head of state.[iv]

The history of Africa includes many important African women who used their power to shape their nations. However some women were powerful but considered to be very dangerous and evil by the colonial powers. The most famous of these was Queen Ranavalona I – The Mad Monarch of Madagascar (1782 – 1861). Contemporaries wrote about her) ‘She is certainly one of the proudest and cruel women on the face of the earth, and her whole history is a record of bloodshed and deeds of horror.’ – Ida Pfeiffer (explorer). This may well have been a biased view.

For centuries Madagascar was virtually unknown to foreign invaders. By the 18th century, this unspoiled and untamed land was discovered by European explorers who scrambled to claim the prime real estate for their very own. For the English, Madagascar was the perfect pit-stop on the long voyage to India. The French were eager to add Madagascar to their already burgeoning African portfolio. King Andrianampoinimerina believed that learning from the West would help his country. However, traditionalists and the priests weren’t too keen on the idea. His uncle took it one step further and tried to assassinate him. He was saved by the intervention of a local tribesman who alerted him to the plot. To say ‘thank you,’ the King decided to adopt the tribesman’s daughter, Ranavalona, bringing her to court as a possible wife for his son, Prince Radama. Soon Ranavalona became the first of Prince Radama’s 12 wives. They didn’t get on. She opposed reform; preferring the “old ways”

In 1810, Prince Radama succeeded his father as King. Ranavalona became increasingly frustrated at her inability to check her husband’s modernizing ideas. He was eager to bring his country into the 19th century. King Radama began to allow more foreigners onto the island, particularly British missionaries, who began efforts to convert the natives to Christianity. They built schools, and helped to develop a written language. Ranavalona watched in horror as the new religion slowly took root threatening the worship of the Malagasy gods.

In 1828, King Radama died after a long, debilitating illness. Two of his officers decided to keep the news out of circulation until they could place his nephew, Prince Rakatobe on the throne. But Ranavalona got wind of the plan and mobilized her supporters, which included the priests and the hard-core traditionalists. She spread rumours that the gods were telling her that she was destined to be the next ruler. After declaring herself Queen, she had all immediate rivals to the throne captured and put to death

Once that was out of the way, Ranavalona decided to teach the foreigners polluting her nation a lesson. As far as Ranavalona was concerned, the only good foreigner was a dead one. She broke treaties with both the English and the French and banned Christianity. With a fanaticism that would have made the Inquisition proud, she came up with creative and inventive ways to eliminate any one caught practicing Christianity. They were tortured, boiled in water, poisoned, flung off cliffs or beheaded if they didn’t recant.

She also got rid of trial by jury and brought back good old fashioned ‘Trial by Ordeal’ which was decided by forcing the accused to drink the poisonous juice of the tanguena plant. If they survived, they were innocent. Both the French and the British spent considerable time and effort trying to dislodge Ranavalona from the throne but to no avail. After one successful battle against an invasion, Ranavalona cut off the heads of the dead Europeans, stuck them on pikes, and lined them up on the beach, to repel any future invaders. After that little display, the French and the English decided that were better off concentrating their efforts on other third world countries not ruled by insane females.

Ranavalona wanted her people to be self-sufficient but was well aware of her inherent military weaknesses. Divine providence brought her a French arms manufacturer whose boat was shipwrecked off the coast. He helped her to build up her arsenal, and became her lover as well. Before long Madagascar had built factories to produce guns, bullets, sugar, clothing and rum. She founded cities, and was one of the few African rulers to successfully hold off colonial rule.

However, independence came at a high prize. To boost the economy, Ranavalona turned to selling her own subjects into slavery. Those who were sold were considered traitors, spoils of war, or Christians caught practicing their religion in secret. She continued the wars of expansion, determined to bring the entire island under her thumb. Her actions decimated the population from a high of 5 million people down to 2.5 million at the end of her reign. It was estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 were killed a year for various offenses. Ranavalona died peacefully in her bed at the age of 79 in 1861, managing to survive a coup by her son. It is difficult to treat her as a great African Queen.[v] She did, however, succeed against colonial takeover.

Problems Of Gender Equality

Despite the obvious problems of reaching gender equality in Africa there is one important area where gender equality has been achieved. Powerful African women: heads of state; cabinet ministers and businesswomen are as corrupt as their male counterparts. Today one can see a major investigation of corruption in Malawi, where President Joyce Banda is accused of mislaying some eighty million dollars. The President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson is accused of a wide variety of corrupt practices. The recent linking of the wife of the former head of state in Guinea to her sponsorship of the national drug trade and the turning of the country into a narco-state has illustrated the temptations of unchecked power. The Nigerian President, Jonathan Goodluck, is beset by a gaggle of corrupt women – Diezani K. Alison-Madueke (the Oil minister), Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi (the Aviation Minister); Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (the Finance Minister) and his wife Patience; all of whom are notorious for their forays into vulture capitalism. The wives of many African heads of state are famous for their excesses of personal spending meddling in political affairs for their own pecuniary ends – Chantal Biya, Grace Mugabe, to name but two. The female children sometimes excel their parents in their avarice and meddling in business as well as politics: Isabel Dos Santos is the richest woman in Africa; Valentina da Luz Guebuza is the second richest, running the family company Focus 21.

There are many prosperous African women who got their positions by marrying a “big man” who gave them oil concessions, banks to run and property to lease. Even those have been shown to have a predilection for shady business practices. In 2010 Cecilia Ibru, former CEO of Oceanic Bank, pleaded guilty to three of 25 counts of fraud and mismanagement and was sentenced to six months in prison for fraud and ordered to hand over $1.2bn (£786m) in cash and assets. This was after she tried to skip out of Nigeria on a borrowed jet.

The point of this is that, given half a chance, the female African with power or linked to power is as corrupt as her male counterparts. A good reason for this is that there are very few African female role models who provide an alternative to this Jagua Nana behaviour. They have not been taught about the historical African females who struggled on behalf of their countries; fought colonialism and made sacrifices for their nations. In Swahili they say the women have chosen to fight to be “wabenzi” (the people of the Mercedes-Benz) rather than to support the “wananchi” (the common people). The urban, educated African woman is capable of forcing a change in her society by example. The poor, disorganised rural women struggling for survival have no power to make changes but the educated, urban African woman has the power to make changes is she wishes to do so. So, perhaps she can reflect on the legacy of Amina of Zaria, Yaa Asantewa, Nehanda Mabuya and the others and spend some time fostering social justice in her own country.

It is a proud legacy and deserves to be better known.


By, DR, GARY K. BUSCH (Agency Report)


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