“Reopening Spaces” for African Women Cultural Leadership for Social Transformation – Part 2
In part 1 of this article, I attempted to provide a historical contextualization of the role the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and introduction of Christianity played in enabling the dominant narrative that African women have not played a significant leadership role in the social, economic, political, spiritual and other spheres of human development within their communities. This historical perspective attempted to make visible the reinforcement of existing male-dominance oriented political systems or the introduction of a patriarchal order by European colonialists and missionaries into African spaces that traditionally organized in more egalitarian ways where women leaders played visible, respected and effective strategic and tactical roles in the day to day social, economic, political and spiritual workings within their communities.
The question now becomes – which way forward, Africa? Although historically stripped of many aspects of her cultural majesty and pride by outside forces that were largely advantaged by their brutal use of the gun, Africa’s resilience continues to enable many African communities to re-invent themselves even in the face of challenges. To varying degrees, African communities have been able to salvage whatever was left of their cultural fabric and re-organize themselves in ways that have enabled them to restore a sense of cultural dignity and presence by integrating this into their inevitably changed way of living, even within a somewhat chaotic dynamic in some spaces. This integration is again evident in varying degrees as demonstrated in a number of African communities.
This is perhaps more visibily evident in the use of cultural artifacts with symbols like attire, diet, use of language and names as well as cultural practices and rituals and others. I say varying degrees because, for example, in some places like Nigeria, it is typically not considered strange or inappropriate for male members of parliament to wear African attire to sessions. On the other hand, a Kenyan male member of parliament dressed in African attire was accused of wearing "pajamas" and very publicly rebuked. In this space, a suit complete with a tie – perhaps a European style suit - is what would be considered official and appropriate attire for parliament.
Somehow, I am reminded of Ugandan poet, novelist and social anthropologist Okot p’Bitek’s 1966/1967 twin epic poems, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, that are ‘representatively’ set in post-independence Uganda. Leveraging the rich Acholi culture and tradition, pBitek’s two main characters; a couple named Lawino (woman) and Ocol (man) powerfully depict aspects of the overt and covert collision of African cultural values, artifacts, assumptions, beliefs, traditions and lifestyle with their European counterparts that were introduced through slave trade, colonialism and Christianity with a focus on Catholicism. This conflict reveals somewhat romanticized manifestations that paint a nostalgic aura from moments in African history and tradition perhaps still harbored by some Africans as a form of an existential assertion and reclamation - a way to legitimize their cultural identity and perhaps survival. The poems are a bold, satirical, imagery-filled and vivid pitting of two cultural-value orientations in an inferno of conflict yearning for a pragmatic balance and release. Okot p’Bitek ultimately questions “the African philosophy/On which we are reconstructing/Our new societies...”
The more invisible and structural aspects of the cultural values obliteration that Africa suffered are present in various schools of thought that emerged as new or strengthened “protégés” of a western patriarchal order. Of particular interest is what Amina Mama, professor and Director of Women and Gender Studies at the University of California Davis, as well as editor at the Feminist African Journal, recently reminded me of as is in some instances reflected in the Pan-Africanism movement. Some Pan-Africanists accommodate and celebrate an African leadership philosophy that largely pays homage to a patriarchal worldview that continues to essentially render women’s roles in leadership, women’s rights and the African feminist movement in generally as irrelevant and perhaps un-African. Mama 'laments' this school of thought as advancing a “Pan African discourse” that “is often patriarchal to the extent that it relies on gender conservative tropes... and antifeminist in the name of authenticity.”
It is in these spaces of systemic patriarchal leadership thought and practice that African women and women leaders continue to be sidelined, hoodwinked and silenced by post-independence political leadership systems that refuse to irrefutably acknowledge our full humanity, human rights as well as honor our dignity in light of past and current contributions. These systems continue to perpetuate the narrative of invisible, powerless and perpetually helpless women, perhaps with the exception of the reproductive and caregiving roles women relentlessly perform within the household that are still not socially and economically valued by conventional economic progress indicators like gross domestic product (GDP). This institutionalized global phenomenon of social and economic domination and devaluation of women’s contributions has been explored authors such as Riane Eisler, in her work The Real Wealth of Nations, as well as in the Center for Partnership Studies’ Caring Economy Campaign and Martha Nussbaum in her work Creating Capabilities where she challenges GDP’s effectiveness as the dominant economic measure for human well-being.
I am not disputing the fact that some African women have attained very high levels of education (formal and informal) in various fields and continue to successfully venture into diverse professional, vocational arenas and the informal economy offering their contributions in ways that continue to profoundly enable human development in Africa and other places. This is great! However, we cannot not forget that the majority of Africa’s women and girls continue to be marginalized by factors intertwined with the pre- and post-colonial social, economic and political structural systems that have condemned them to languish in poverty. The effects of the slave trade, Christianity, colonialism, imperialism and neo-colonialism continue to position women’s human rights as a non-issue or “just a women’s issue,” therefore not giving it the visibility and priority it deserves in the human development conversation; even though women are the other ‘half of humanity.’ This state of affairs not only affects women but everyone in Africa. The World Bank Africa 2012/2013 Development Indicators report indicates, “Although poverty is declining, Africa has the highest poverty rate in the world, with 47.5 percent of the population living on $1.25 a day. They account for 30 percent of the world’s poor."
It is therefore important that different stakeholders - individuals and organizations - in Africa keep the conversation of children’s and women’s human rights ALIVE. While the disproportionate number of women living in poverty is not unique to Africa, generally speaking, African women seem to be dealing with a double-edged predicament that includes defining, shaping, finding and reclaiming cultural and traditional leadership spaces that might perhaps enable them to collectively, more meaningfully and fully participate in their lives as well as impact social change within their communities.
As shared in part 1 of this article, I have not been aware of cultural women leaders within my community (Gusii) until perhaps more recently when I learned of Moraa wa Ngiti and Prophetess Bonareri Siiro and their contributions during the resistance to British colonial rule in Kenya. Other Kenyan women leaders I had heard of earlier included freedom fighters like Me Katilili from the Giriama community and General Muthoni’s in the Mau Mau movement.
The list of women leaders within Kenyan communities during the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras is extensive with more, but still limited, visibility given to post-independence women leaders like Wangu wa Makeri, the first female colonial Chief in Kenya, and pioneering former members of parliament like Hon. Grace Onyango Ogot, Hon. Phoebe Asiyo and the late Hon. Chelegat Mutai.
I applaud people like my friend Dr. Mshai Mwangola, who is committed to restoring our memory of Kenyan women political leaders’ pre- and post-independence contributions; raising them from the abyss of oblivion on the account of a patriarchal social, economic and political order that continues to erase and/or misrepresent women’s important contributions in their communities’ very survival.
It is encouraging to note that despite the challenges that present in the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and the onslaught of racial, misogynistic interpretations and manifestations of Christianity, Islam as well as within some ethno-religious spaces, some African women cultural leaders have made attempts, maintained and/or reclaimed their roles as leaders within their communities.
I am particularly inspired by the role some cultural women leaders continue to play within their communities in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Cameroon. I recognize that women in practically every African community continue to be custodians and gatekeepers of certain values and aspects of their cultures and are therefore leaders in this capacity because of the influence and power they hold in these spaces for the common good.
As Mama shared in her public lecture, “Global Militarism and the Resilience African Women,” organized by the African Leadership Centre at the University of Nairobi on the 24th of June 2013, it is African women’s “resilience” that has kept the African continent from perhaps destructing in the face of the many externally and internally inspired challenges she continues to face. This state of affairs challenges the idea that African women have not continued to play a significant leadership role in the very survival of their communities. However, my focus in the remainder of this article is on the role African women cultural and traditional leaders who, perhaps through royal lineage, statutory or customary community appointment and assignment, continue to play within their communities. Examples are Queens, Queen Mothers, Princesses, Chieftaincies and others cultural leaders.
The revelation that African women cultural leaders are inspiring and leading significant development and social change initiatives within their communities is not surprising. This came to me following recent interactions with an amazing group of African women cultural leaders where I had been invited by Christine Musisi, Director of the UN Women Eastern and Southern African Regional Office to be the keynote speaker at the launch of the African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders Network (AQWCLN) in Kampala, Uganda, September 3rd -7th 2013. As noted on their website, UN Women is the United Nations “organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. A global champion for women and girls, UN Women was established to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide.”
I met Musisi at a meeting in 2012 where I had been invited to participate in establishing criteria for creating a UN Women civil society committee in Kenya. As Musisi and I talked, we discovered that we have a mutual interest in leveraging positive African cultural values to enable social transformation with a focus on the advancement of girls and women’s rights for socioeconomic empowerment and human development in general. She further shared that she was working on a project within this scope and focus. I was delighted to receive her call inviting me to be the keynote speaker at the launch of the “African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders Network (AQWCLN)” last month.
AQWCLN indicates that it is a network that “Brings together African Queens, Queen Mothers, Princesses and Women Cultural Leaders to improve the lives of women, girls and children in Africa.” AQWCLN further identifies itself as “a voluntary non-profit network of queens and cultural women leaders, united to foster African Cultural Solutions that build positive gender and cultural norms to accelerate the well-being of women and girls by using our tremendous heritage to serve as an important engine for social and economic development.”
Since it is no secret that women did and continue to play a significant role in various spheres of leadership in pre- and post-independence Africa, how is it then that this is not mainstream knowledge? How is it that this knowledge has not been integrated into educational curriculum and widely published and shared in various spaces to give past and current African women leaders visibility and the credit they deserve for their contributions in traditional and modern leadership?
Could the recently launched African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders Network (AQWCLN) be the much-needed ‘re-awakening’ that will help reclaim African women’s leadership space within their communities in addressing the numerous challenges they face, particularly in the advancement of children’s rights, women’s rights and human rights in general? Could this network also serve as the platform that restores Africa’s memory of African cultural women leaders’ and women’s contributions in general to the continent’s very survival?
To be continued in a future post.