Archive | September, 2017

Our Country has been in a crisis for a while.

13 Sep

Our Country has been in a crisis for a while.

Over the past few months there as been an increasing number for cases, reported, of violence against women (VAW). I have to place emphasis on cased that are reported as many women do not report cases and there are many cases the police do not follow protocol and therefore cases fall off the roll or simply they are never opened.
In August 2017, I moderated a session led by the Centre for the study of Violence and reconciliation (CSVR). The CSVR in partnership with OxfamSA, launched a new report on Violence against Women. The report is titled:
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN SOUTH AFRICA: A COUNTRY IN CRISIS. I have made a few key points in relation to the report, the full report can found at
I decided to write about these findings in relation the state of VAW in SA. A few weeks ago on my Facebook timeline, a person posted that criminals who had abused a dog received a 25 years jail sentence. I commented on it saying that the price of a women’s life is valued less than that an animal, as in many rape case, the perpetrators are released on a suspended case or receive between 7 and 25 years. The level of vitriol and defamatory remarks to that posts were astounding. This highlights the fact that there is still a war on women bodies and the fact that many do not see it as being a major problem, adds to the fact that we are in serious crisis.
The first week of September 2017, a video was released on social media of male school teachers gang raping a female student whilst learners watched on. I refused to watch the link but what I have deciphered is that the learners watched on and cheered as if watching their favourite sports match. This opens up a number of crucial factors.
The people who are supposed to be role models and teaching our youth, are corrupt, disgusting beasts, who are using their positions and authority for their own gain. Another example being the ex-deputy minister of higher education, Mduduzi Manana, beating a young girl in public and receiving preferential treatment at courts and surrounding his employment.
Rape has become a sport for many. There is absolutely no logic behind rape, gang rape or abuse and to perform such a beastly act, especially in a classroom, speaks volumes to the level of damaged psyches that are living amongst us.
The trauma of rape can never be managed, but being gang raped and watched by your peers at school will have lifelong effects on the survivors self esteem, psyche and physical body.

In relation to the report by CSVR and Oxfam, South Africa, we are way beyond a crisis. We need serious strategies in place not only on a governmental level but on a domestic front. In South Africa we have laws in place that are supposed to protect our women but they are not being implemented accordingly. Our Minister of police recently released a statement stating that a new action plan has been put in place at our police stations. These actions plans are placed on a manifesto which is written on boards at every police station. If you enter any police station in South Africa, its states what our rights are as women and individuals and what the role of the police should be. Why are the police not following those action plans? Examples of such are police questioning the validity of the survivors complaints, undermining their trauma and ridiculing them. This is evident in cases where black lesbians have reported cares of rape and the police questioning the survivors identity and undermining the crime.
As a continent we need to collectively take responsibility for ourselves, our thoughts and actions. How we raise our girls and boys, the conversations we have with our peers and question each other, when in doubt.
In relation to the CSVR report, I have highlighted the key elements:
This research contributes towards explaining the high prevalence of VAW in South Africa, and presents recommendations to inform interventions by women, government departments and the wider society for addressing VAW. It does so from the experiences and perceptions of survivors of VAW, a perspective that is under-explored. The report also suggests that attempts at tackling VAW in South Africa should not be looked at in isolation from other structural and social problems.
The following recommendations were made:
1. There is a need for multifaceted approaches: VAW is an intricate phenomenon requiring a multifaceted approach and should be understood as the outcome of multiple factors interlinked at the individual, family, community and societal levels.
2. Need for a focused approach on VAW: While mindful of the fact that gender violence affects both women and men, the reality is that women are most affected.Bringing back VAW as a central focus and priority in discourse and practice is therefore critical for developing effective strategies and interventions to address it.
3. Address inter department and inter-sector coordination issues in the implementation of VAW programmes and policies: There is an urgent need to address the fragmentation and divisions within and among elements working towards women’s rights.

4. Strengthen implementation of existing laws: South Africa boasts a largely progressive national legislative framework to address VAW and as such does not necessarily need new laws. What needs to be strengthened is implementation and accountability for those already in existence.
5. Address challenges in the criminal justice system: One of the main reasons accounting for the persistence of VAW in South Africa was attributed to challenges within the criminal justice system, particularly within the police services. It is therefore crucial to address the systemic challenges within the police services in order to restore trust and confidence in the justice system.
6. Promote gender equality to prevent VAW: Strategies to address VAW must be intrinsically linked to efforts towards achieving gender equality more generally. Prevention must start early in life by educating and working with girls and boys to promote respectful relationships and gender equality.
7. Increased women’s economic empowerment: This includes efforts to increase women’s economic empowerment through encouraging and strengthening their entrepreneurship and labour rights, encouraging universal access to education and providing access to capital and resource control, are recommended as essential to combat VAW in South Africa.
8. Improving services for intimate partner violence (IPV): Improving access to services for abused women is a critical measure to prevent future or recurrent violence. To ensure this, broad-based community involvement is crucial.
9. Enhancing parenting practices: Childhood experiences such as neglectful and violent parenting practices have been shown to influence the formation of violent masculinities. Approaches to VAW intervention must encourage healthy parenting practices as a prevention strategy.
10. Role of media: Women’s accounts and perceptions of VAW point out that violence is a learned behaviour. This learning takes place through various mediums. At present, the South African media is identified as being instrumental in shaping individual perceptions of VAW. It is recommended that CSOs and community-based organisations employ the media as a dissemination tool for positive messaging and images of women. They must collaborate with the media, in partnership, to ensure sustainability and a shared sense of responsibility.

11. The value of using an intersectional analysis: Given that no single factor can sufficiently explain the violence experienced by women in South Africa, it follows that it is in the intersections of oppression that violence occurs. This study highlights the added vulnerability of lesbians (or those assumed to be) and women in poor and less resourced communities as being particularly at risk.
12. Lifecycle approach to addressing VAW: The various accounts by the women in this study point to the reality that VAW takes on many forms and can occur throughout a person’s life. A number of the life- history respondents recounted experiences of multiple episodes of violence that (in some instances) started in the prenatal period and continued through childhood to adulthood and old age. Interventions therefore need to be framed in ways that take this into account.
13. VAW research and policy recommendations should account for the lived experiences of women: There is a critical need for VAW research to take into account women’s lived experiences. Policy recommendations need to be based on what women say their lives are like rather than on ideological perspectives that researchers might think is happening. There is a need to centre women’s voices and experiences (e.g., by applying feminist methodologies, as done in this research) in order to improve the implementation methods and the results experienced by women themselves.

The report also includes the following posts:
A brief comparative review of VAW in other post conflict countries, particularly of Iberia and Sierra Leone.
A South Africa state response to VAW
The research mythology includes: Applying a feminist framework to VAW, this includes various research methods, who to study and what the limitations are. This included Life history interviews
The study employed life history narratives to capture women’s experiences of VAW, and their own perceptions of the meanings of these experiences. This involved in-depth interviews with women to find out about their experiences generally and in particular the VAW experiences throughout their lives. This was done because telling stories is a fundamental part of how people communicate.
More important for this study is the ability of stories to show how storytellers make sense of their world. In line with the feminist postmodern approach, life history methods are less concerned with uncovering a universal ‘truth’ represented in people’s storytelling. Rather, they are interested in the manner in which people tell their stories and represent particular truths at particular historical moments. Individuals make sense of and understand their experiences through narrative.
Another key strength of life story interviews is the strong emphasis on holism. Lives are seen as whole, the public and private cannot be separated, and the contextual lives of respondents are studied and understood this way.
On selecting participants for life story interviews : Two women per province were selected, based on their willingness to participate in the study and share their life experiences and viewpoints as they relate to the study. In addition, the study endeavoured to select a mix of participants from diverse social demographic groups such as age, sexual orientation, marital status, and religious or cultural grouping. This allowed for a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of VAW in South Africa. Twelve life histories constituted the data for this report.
On selecting participants for focus groups discussions (FGD): Two FGDs were conducted per province, one with young women (18–34 years) and the other with women over 35 years of age. In total, eight FGDs were conducted. Each groups had 8–10 participants.
The report findings and analysis, it unpacks the persistence of VAW in South Africa and the strategies to overcome that.
The limitations included language barriers, as translating VAW terminology often required translators.

For assistance or additional support please contact the following organisations:
POWA is a “feminist, women’s rights organisation that provides both services, and engages in advocacy in order to ensure the realisation of women’s rights and thereby improve women’s quality of life”.
POWA’s uniqueness as an organisation is in providing both services to survivors and engaging in advocacy using a feminist and intersectional analysis. Our work is rooted in the belief that change can only be said to be effective when women’s lives are directly improved through our interventions. We also believe that there is no single route to change, and thus constantly seek new and creative approaches in our programming to achieve the change we seek.www.few
CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute involved in research, policy formation, community interventions, service delivery, education and training, as well as providing consultancy services. The primary goal of CSVR is to use its expertise in building reconciliation, democracy and a human rights culture and in preventing violence in South Africa and in other countries in Africa.
Forum For The Empowerment of Women: FEW was established by black lesbian women activists living in Johannesburg in 2001.In a post 1994 South Africa and with the new constitution of 1996 recognising sexual orientation within the equality clause, it was clear that we had to organise ourselves to ensure that we were able to claim and live the rights entrenched in the constitution. Already, with increasing numbers of LGBTI people coming out and being visible both in everyday life as well as within human rights defending work, the age-old issues of discrimination, stigmatisation and marginalisation were becoming more blatant. The group which initially began the conversation about organising black lesbian women were concerned that within the broader LGBTI and women’s human rights issues, black lesbian women were more vulnerable because of intersecting identities, contexts and realities.

African Feminist Ancestors: Huda Sha’rawi

13 Sep


Taken from, her biography reads:

Huda Sha’rawi, an activist for women’s rights and social change, is a household name in the Arab world. In many ways, Sha’rawi represented the face of Egyptian feminism, as demonstrated by her actions, thoughts, speeches and writings.
Sha’rawi was born in Minya in 1879 to Muhammad Sultan. She was taught to read the Quran and tutored in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Islamic subjects by Muslim women tutors in Cairo. She wrote poetry in both Arabic and French. Against her will, she was married to her cousin, Ali Sha’rawi. As a young woman, she showed early signs of her independent spirit by entering a department store in Alexandria to buy her clothes instead of having them brought to her house.
Sha’rawi’s early years of activism started with her establishing Mubarrat Muhammad Ali, a women’s social service organisation in 1909, and organising the Union of Educated Egyptian Women in 1914, the year in which she travelled to Europe for the first time. She worked across class lines to demonstrate against British occupation of Egypt and to lead the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee (WWCC). Sha’rawi often worked within the social confines of her time even as she sought to transform Egypt socially and politically. In 1919, she helped lead the first women’s street demonstration, the ‘March of Veiled Women’, in Cairo to protest British colonial rule and to foil ‘a British plan to exile four Egyptian nationalist leaders, including [her] husband.

Egyptian feminist discourse and activism during the period of post-colonial state formation and even up to the first half of the 20th century have repeatedly been identified with Huda Sha’rawi, but it is important to note that her activism built on the efforts of women before her. Her narrative texts present the story of her coming into feminism as a natural growth, not as a radical break with the past or with tradition.

In 1923, Sha’rawi founded and became the first president of the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU)— it is important to note that there is no direct translation in Arabic for the term feminist hence the EFU women used the French term, feministe, French being the language of the upper class. The EFU launched one of the first feminist journals in the French language, L’Egyptienne, in 1925 and its Arabic edition, al-Misriyya, in 1927.
One of the factors that accelerated the growth of the EFU was the relationship its members established with other women through journeys and conferences. For example, after attending an international feminist meeting in Rome in 1923, Sha’rawi cast aside her veil in a very public act. At that moment, she stood between two halves of her life—one conducted within the conventions of the harem system and the one she would lead at the head of a women’s movement.

The hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women, was a loaded symbol of the ideological conflicts over culture and collective identity in the Arab World from the late colonial to post-colonial periods. Both its proponents and attackers tended to assign an absolute and essential meaning to the hijab, as good or evil. Neither group considered the possibility that the hijab could be both or neither, or that its meanings shifted with its historical context.
Sha’rawi, in her then radical act of ‘unveiling’, was merely removing the facial screen she used to wear, the curtain behind which the upper-class household secluded its women. By removing the veil, she was dislodging a symbolic barrier impeding women’s access to public life. She noted that by donning the hijab in the first place, she had grounded herself in Islam and Arabic culture, and therefore could claim the right to interpret that culture anew with authority and legitimacy.
After Egypt gained nominal independence from Britain in 1922, Sha’rawi carried on her fight for women’s rights. She led pickets of Egyptian women at the opening of Parliament in January 1924 and submitted a list of nationalist and feminist demands, which were ignored by the then Wafdist (national liberal) government. A member of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee, she resigned out of frustration with its members’ conciliatory stance toward the Wafd, which could do little about the de facto British control over the country.

Sha’rawi negotiated maximum dividends from her upper-class status and her alliance with men who shared her particular intersection of class, ideological and political interests, for the benefit of the feminist nationalism/nationalist feminism she espoused. Despite these men’s initial discomfort with the notion of the ‘liberation of woman’ (as it was defined by men in that era), it fit to a certain degree with their image of themselves as ‘civilised’ people modelling themselves after ‘the civilised nations.

The language of the agenda submitted by the Sha’rawi-led EFU to the government reiterates the reasoning that its feminist programme was needed, not because of its inherent rightness, but because Egypt needed ‘to reach a level of glory and might like that reached by the civilised nations.’ That such an agenda was validated by the ‘spirit of religion’, as they add, was a secondary justification for their arguments. This was an understandable strategy, given the need to find common ground on which Copts and Muslims, men and women, could build an Egyptian nation-state.

Sha’rawi continued to lead the national feminist movement and extended the fight to other Arab countries. In 1945, two years before her death at 68, Sha’rawi received the highest decoration from the Egyptian state, the Nishan al-Kamal, for services rendered to the country. Yet, even as the state recognised her for her dual struggles for gender equality and national liberation, ‘it withheld from her political rights. It was a symbol of the contradictions with which she and other women had to live.



While there are controversies about the nature of the feminist voice represented by Sha’rawi, scholars have cautioned that to understand her feminism and activism, one must consider their context of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle. As such, we can see that Sha’rawi did not abandon Islam but was acting within and reacting against a complex web of considerations. Among other tensions she had to negotiate was the accusation that the feminist movement was Westernised and therefore inauthentic. Further contentions have also centred around Sha’rawi’s leadership and portrayal of women, and her early assumption that the experience of a very small category of privileged women could represent and speak on behalf of Egyptian women.

Sha’rawi continued to lead the EFU until her death in 1974, still publishing the feminist journal and representing Egypt at women’s congresses in Graz, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Marseille, Istanbul, Brussels, Budapest, Copenhagen, Interlaken and Geneva. She was instrumental in 1944 in convening the first Arab Feminist Union, which called for solidarity with the Arabs of Palestine. She also proposed the internationalisation of the Suez Canal and, shortly before her death, the abolition of nuclear weapons. Even if only some of her demands were met during her lifetime, she laid the groundwork for later gains by Egyptian women and remains the symbolic standard bearer for their liberation movement.
Sha’rawi is seen as a key contributor to the modern Egyptian nation-state. Her contribution to Arab feminisms has many conflicting faces. Nevertheless, her role and leadership have to be acknowledged as complex, contradictory, pioneering and invaluable. She is remembered today as one of the most prominent Arab feminists. She saw the national struggle for independence in Egypt and the struggle for women’s emancipation as inseparable and interdependent.

African Feminist Ancestors: Constance Cummings-John

12 Sep


Taken from

Constance Cummings-John was a politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone who campaigned for African women’s rights. She was born in 1918 in the British colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, into the elite Krio Horton family. The Krios were the descendants of freed slaves (Jamaicans, Barbadians and Black Nova Scotians) who had been settled in the area by the British in the 18th century. Britain offered some support and encouraged the Krio to become anglophiles and see themselves as much superior to the peoples of the hinterland. Cummings-John’s family were intellectuals, entrepreneurs and professionals. She attended the best of the local missionary schools, belonged to elite clubs and societies and visited with members of the family living in other West African colonies.
In 1935, Cummings-John was sent to London to train as a teacher, a qualification she gained in a year, despite involvement in the major black organisations in London, the West African Students’ Union and the League of Coloured People (LCP). Sponsored by a colonial office loan, she went on to study vocational education in the United States in the 1930s. Like many other activist women of her time, her career trajectory started with the socially respectable career of teaching, but took a political turn as she became involved in nationalist struggles.

Political awakenings
Cummings-John experienced racism in the United States which led her back to London in 1936, where she became involved with the International African Service Bureau (IASB) founded by the Sierra Leonean anti-colonialist, I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. She married the newly qualified (but much older) lawyer, Ethan Cummings-John, and within a year returned to Freetown. Offered a job as inspector of schools by the colonial government, Cummings-John chose instead to accept the principalship of the black-led African Methodist Episcopal Girls’ Industrial School, which grew rapidly under her guidance and fundraising abilities.
By February 1938, Cummings-John had set up a branch of the LCP in Freetown, but was soon disappointed in the disinterest of the mainly professional and conservative membership in involving non-Krio (protectorate) peoples in politics. Within a few months, she informed the parent-body in London that she wanted the LCP to affiliate with the newly formed West African Youth League (WAYL). The establishment of this league was a response to the ‘divide and rule’ policies promulgated by the colonial government which separated the coastal colony and Krio population from the rest of the country, which was ruled by the British and known as the Protectorate.  On the one hand, the colonial government limited colonial education to the existing elite of the Krio people in the area around Freetown. British colonisers also sub-contracted the bulk of administration to traditional chiefs and native rulers, thus also ensuring that they could maintain their colonies ‘on a shoestring.’  The British also admitted Africans into the central colonial government, but with a strict bar on advancement.

The WAYL was set up by radical activist, Wallace-Johnson, and aimed at the ‘social, political and economic emancipation’ of all West African colonies. Cummings-John immediately joined the new organisation and soon became its vice president. Along with four other women, she was a member of the WAYL Central Committee, and worked to ensure that the concerns of women were not ignored. The WAYL proved vastly popular as it set about establishing trade unions own branches in the Protectorate. Muslims, previously excluded from all political and social activities, were welcome, and Protectorate people served on its various committees.
Cummings-John was one of four WAYL candidates to win a seat in the 1938 Freetown municipal elections, in which she gained more votes than any other candidate. Only 20, she became the youngest and only female politician to win an election in the African colonies, and went on to serve a total of 20 years (1938-1942 and 1952-1966) as municipal councillor. Her main concerns as councillor were education, library facilities, market conditions and city sanitation.
The Colonial Office put considerable pressure on Cummings-John to repudiate Wallace-Johnson, who was seen as a dangerous communist rabble rouser. She refused but lost her seat in the 1942 elections, by which time Wallace-Johnson was languishing in ‘preventive detention,’ and the WAYL was in its death throes. Cummings-John herself barely escaped detention. Her outspokenness and refusal to buckle under the pressure put upon her by the colonial government made Sierra Leone a dangerous place for her. As a result, she travelled to the USA in 1946 with her two sons, evading the travel embargo that the British had placed on her.
Though helped by Asadata Dafora, her New York–based, well-known dancer brother (né Austin Horton), Cummings-John was unable to obtain work as a teacher in the USA and had to work in hospitals. She continued her involvement with black political movements, including serving on the executive committee of the American Council for African Education (ACAE) and the Council on African Affairs, where she mobilized considerable resources for the cause of free education for girls in Sierra Leone.

Political career

In 1951, Cummings-John returned to Freetown to establish the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls, financed by a quarrying business she had established and by US fundraising. The fact that the school was intended to be free was anathema to the colonial government, who threw many obstacles in her way. Eventually it was agreed that she would charge students a nominal annual fee. By 1953, the school, with its vocational and commercial focus, had 611 pupils, and the government agreed in 1954 to pay the salaries of the secondary department staff.
When decolonisation began in Sierra Leone, the 1951 constitution gave power to the peoples of the Protectorate, while Krio politicians founded their own party. However, some younger Krio intellectuals, including Cummings-John, in the interest of national reconciliation joined the Protectorate politicians’ Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). The SLPP’s motto was ‘One Country, One People.’ Reforms in 1951 merged the colony and protectorate politically, and the legislative council, while allowed to retain appointed white members, now had a majority of elected Africans, despite a still grossly limited franchise. At elections held later that year, the SLPP gained an overwhelming majority in the reformed legislative council. This was much resented by most Krios.
In 1952, the governor of Sierra Leone appointed Cummings-John to a seat on the Freetown Council, where she continued to work for the issues she had in 1938, along with those raised by the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement (SLWM). Cummings-John also served on the SLPP’s executive and maintained her campaign for the inclusion of Protectorate peoples and women in its policies. General elections were held for a new, elected House of Representatives in 1957, but the franchise was still restricted to men. Cummings-John decided to stand for election as an SLPP candidate; she again gained the most votes and became one of two women in the new Sierra Leone government led by the SLPP.

For this Cumming-John’s fellow Krios condemned her as a traitor. They accused her of malpractice in the 1957 election and brought a court case against her in which she was given a prison sentence—squashed on appeal. She resigned her seat rather than face further humiliation. Though deeply shaken by the accusations levelled at her, Cummings-John again stood for elections to the municipal council in 1958 and topped the polls. Back on the council, she continued her struggles for municipal (as opposed to denominational) education; her struggles for the market women against new, high tolls for market stalls; her struggles against the decree forcing women to buy staples of rice and palm oil from the large British firms rather than directly from producers, and her struggles for a farmers’ bank. She continued to run the Roosevelt School and to head the SLWM, which demanded more and more international travel.

In 1961, Sierra Leone gained its independence from the British. Within the SLPP Cummings-John unwisely associated herself with what became a losing faction, and was defeated in the 1962 post-independence election by a rival SLPP candidate. She abandoned national politics, and in 1966 was elected mayor of Freetown, becoming the first African woman to govern a modern capital city on the continent.
Cummings-John used her position to attempt to unite the people of Freetown and to elevate the position of women. She initiated a sanitation campaign; street traders were regulated; attempts were made to channel the energies of the growing number of street children; a municipal secondary school was set up. However Cummings-John did not have much time to do this work: political upheavals resulted in a commission of enquiry into Freetown’s finances and, while she was abroad attending a meeting of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, she was charged with misuse of public funds. Thereafter, the SLPP lost the 1966 general election, but the new All Peoples’ Congress government was soon overthrown by a military takeover.

Women’s movement building

In addition to trailblazing African women’s participation in politics, one of Cummings-John’s most notable achievements was the establishment of the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement (SLWM). In Sierra Leone, the gap between Krio women, raised in high Victorian fashion since the 19th century, and working-class market women—hairdressers, washerwomen and seamstresses—was immense. It was while on the city council that Cummings-John actively campaigned for Freetown’s market women, which led to the founding of the SLWM in 1952. The SLWM developed branches nationwide and campaigned on a variety of issues, ranging from trading rights to education, and for a farmers’ bank. It published a newspaper, established a women traders’ co-operative and conducted evening classes.
Cummings-John’s constant concern was to include Protectorate women in the work of the SLWM and to ensure that Krio concerns did not dominate it. One factor that worked in her favour was that politicised women were so rare that they had no choice but to organise across regional, ethnic and class barriers. Indeed their movement became a real crucible for the awakening of a Sierra Leonean national consciousness.
As the SLWM grew, it made international contacts, and in 1960 became a founding member of the Federation of Sierra Leone Women’s Organisations. Cummings-John worked largely with the market women and actively participated in their fight for self-determination. As a result of her efforts, much later, after the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), which had greatly increased the number of women workers, two working women’s unions were born: the Sierra Leone Market Women’s Union and the Washerwomen’s Union.

Latter years

In 1966, Cummings-John returned to London after 30 years’ absence. Though the city had changed radically and her old political associations no longer existed, she was soon politically involved again. She worked with the local branch of the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Society; she served in many schools as governor and became involved with a number of community organisations. Very active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Cummings-John spoke on CND platforms around the country and formed the Women for Disarmament group.
Cummings-John tried to resettle in Freetown in 1974 to 1976, but the conditions were too chaotic. She returned to her London commitments, but maintained her links with her old party (the SLPP), the women’s movement and her school. In 1996, she went to Nigeria to attend the launch of her autobiography and then again tried to settle in Freetown. The SLPP had won the elections, and she hoped to help Sierra Leone regain its stability. Her hopes were soon dashed, and she returned to London in 1998. Undoubtedly devastated by the continuing tragic events in Sierra Leone, Cummings-John died on 21 February 2000.


Her legacy

As a woman, Cumming-John’s struggle was two-fold: untying the knot of colonialism and gaining acceptance in the colony of Sierra Leone, where women were not expected to engage in political activities. Cummings-John is noted to have said that her major fault in her political career was ‘naivety in ascribing her own loyalty, generosity and civil courage to her male associates – to the politicians whose rapacity [had], during the past 40 years, brought her beloved country to ruin. Nonetheless, she will always be remembered in the history books as someone who strove for independence for her people and for equality, as well as for the work she did with women and in education. Her school for girls still stands.
In contemporary post-conflict Sierra Leone, women have managed to secure 13.5 per cent of seats in parliament—without affirmative action or a quota system—thanks to the mobilisation and activism of women’s groups and coalitions. The women’s movement has succeeded in making the political parties and government recognise that it is no longer politically viable to sidestep women’s rights should they wish to gain their votes. As women’s organisations, in particular the 50/50 group, continue the struggle to introduce a quota, the challenge for Sierra Leonean women is how to ensure that this is not hijacked by the male-dominated political establishment.
Even more social and cultural barriers exist for women in Sierra Leone in terms of their general wellbeing and equal opportunities with men. The work now required to build on the legacy of stalwarts such as Constance Cummings-John includes legislative reforms to promote women’s rights, dignity and well-being. Culturally the ongoing challenge is to redefine norms, values and behaviours to encourage women’s engagement in every level of private and public life.

African Feminist Ancestors:Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti

11 Sep


Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was a teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat of Nigeria. She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation. She was also the first woman in the country to drive a car. Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria, as well as to her being regarded as “The Mother of Africa.” Early on, she was a very powerful force advocating for the Nigerian woman’s right to vote. She was described in 1947, by the West African Pilot as the “Lioness of Lisabi” for her leadership of the women of the Egba people on a campaign against their arbitrary taxation. That struggle led to the abdication of the high king Oba Ademola II in 1949.

Kuti was the mother of the activists Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musician; Beko Ransome-Kuti, a doctor; and Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a doctor and health minister.She was also grandmother to musicians Seun Kuti and Femi Kuti.


This is her biography, taken from

Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti was born in 1900 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, to a seamstress and a small planter whose father had been an emancipated, baptised slave returnee from Sierra Leone. She received a Western education up to secondary school, before pursuing further education in England from 1919 to 1923. There she discovered socialism and anti-colonialism.

When Ransome-Kuti returned to Abeokuta, she made a point of speaking Yoruba rather than English, even in her dealings with the colonial authorities. She emphasised the need for unity between ‘elite’ women and the vigorous market women of the town, for whom she organised night schooling through a ‘ladies club’ that she established. In 1944 the club expanded to include the market women and, in 1945, defended them when the government began taking their rice without compensation. Ransome-Kuti’s calls to the press caused the rice controls to be lifted.
As the ladies’ club became more politicised, it was renamed the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) in 1946. Through this union, Ransome-Kuti organised women in Abeokuta to protest against colonial taxation and other unfavourable policies under the slogan ‘No taxation without representation.’ Taxation was a particularly sore issue for the women of Abeokuta: girls were taxed at 15 and boys at 16, and wives were taxed separately from their husbands, irrespective of their income. The women considered the taxes ‘foreign, unfair and excessive.

The women also protested against the corruption of the traditional rulers, and their failure to defend the women’s demands or to challenge the colonial authorities. One remarkable event organised by the women’s union was the protest against the alake, the king of the town, for enforcing food trade regulations that made life uncomfortable for the people. As with the Igbo women in 1929, the Egba women of Abeokuta focused their opposition on a local representative of British power rather than on British power itself.
Ademola II, Abeokuta’s new alake, and the first to have had a European-style education, came to power in 1920. He took advantage of his position and British support to steal lands and embezzle taxes. As early as 1938, a violent protest took place in front of his palace. Anger mounted again during World War II when the alake took advantage of colonial orders to increase requisitions. Women were his first targets because they brought chickens, yams, gari (cassava meal) and rice into the city. All the alake had to do was set up a few roadblocks in order to confiscate a large part of the women’s wares, offering the justification that no one should eat as long as the soldiers had not been fed. Women, paying both their own taxes and, through their work, some of their husbands’ taxes, were providing at least half the district’s revenues. They became more and more impatient, not only with the ill-treatment they endured to make them pay these taxes, but also with the fact that, despite the obligations imposed on them, they had neither the right to vote nor any representation—merely the right to complain of having been beaten and bullied!
The women’s protest was long and protracted. Ransome-Kuti is said to have led training sessions for their demonstrations, which they referred to as ‘picnics’ or ‘festivals’ as they were unable to get official permits. The campaign against the  alake publicly started with a petition, which resulted only in an increase of taxation on women. When thousands of women converged in protest at the palace, they were told to individually state their cases, as they had no collective economic interest. Women were then put on trial as individuals for refusal to pay taxes. Using all means available, the AWU continued its activities and mobilisation, with its leaders refusing to pay taxes as well. Ransome-Kuti was imprisoned in 1947 for this very reason, but the movement was not deterred and entered a radical phase, with increasing sit-ins, demonstrations and market closures, including using songs and the ridicule of male power.
A mass demonstration took place on 29 and 30 November 1947 and pulled in more than 10,000 women. The demonstration was repeated ten days later. The alake, in the meantime, employed divisive tactics by promising women positions of responsibility, thus trying to undermine Ransome-Kuti’s influence. In April 1948, Ransome-Kuti again refused to pay her taxes. This time the whole community reacted: on 20 December the men finally broke their silence. They organised a meeting in which they affirmed their desire to support the women in the name of happiness, freedom from oppression and peace in the region. All then settled to wait for the government to give in.
The alake held out until 3 January 1949, when the pressure became too much and he abdicated. The tax on women was abolished (whereas the one on men was increased), and four women, including Ransome-Kuti, were named to a new interim council. It had taken the women nearly three years of continuous struggle to win, during which they had remained cohesive, organised and determined, and had not resorted to violence.
The AWU continued to act as a pressure group every time the interests of Egba women were endangered. In 1952, they took actions against a new water tax (at three shillings per woman per year) to finance a new water supply system. Women had been exempt from water taxation since 1948. While not of the previous scale, demonstrations occurred sporadically until this unpopular tax was repealed in 1960. There were other disturbances in 1952 when the administration tried to bar the women of Abeokuta from holding their now annual demonstration to celebrate the anniversary of the overthrow of Ademola. The police drove them back with tear gas and arrested about 50 women. Ransome-Kuti managed to have the incident discussed by the British parliament.
Strengthened by its accomplishments, the AWU decided to expand into a trans-regional, trans-ethnic structure, and became the Nigerian Women’s Union. Sections were created in many areas, including Kano to the north. Many of its members joined in the struggle for independence with political parties such as the Action Group or the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). An executive committee was organised to try to keep educated women and often illiterate businesswomen, including several market representatives, on the same footing. Soon the Nigerian Women’s Union had 20,000 members. These activists were then able to mobilise 80,000 to 100,000 women. The union was more reformist than revolutionary and often drew on arguments deriving from British democracy. It was to later transform into the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Society (FNWS) with the mandate of articulating women’s position in Nigerian society.
Ransome-Kuti’s political activism led to her membership in the NCNC where she was the only woman to hold an executive position. She was also the only woman to join the Nigerian delegation to London in 1947 to lodge a formal protest with the secretary of state for the colonies. During this visit, she informed British unions and the crown of what was happening in Abeokuta. She became a well-known figure to the British press and public, had articles published in the Daily Worker and was even invited by the mayor of Manchester to speak on the condition of women in her country. Increasingly famous for representing women’s interests, Ransome-Kuti was honoured with a doctorate degree, the Order of the Niger, and the Lenin Peace Prize.


If Ransome-Kuti had not been progressive in her views and aspirations, she would have been labelled an ‘objectionist.’ Her dossier is full of objections entered in the interest of the people. Notable among these was her objection to the setting up of the ‘Sole Native Authority’ to the exclusion of the members of the Egba Native Authority.
Ransome-Kuti has been described as an ‘eloquent and compelling speaker’ who efficiently used ‘expressive, idiomatic language and very sharp wit. She also extended support to Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, who had commenced an independent resistance to colonial policies in eastern Nigeria.
In February 1978, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown out of a window by Nigerian soldiers ransacking the home of her son, renowned Afrobeat musician and activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. She died of her injuries in April that year.

African Feminist Ancestors: Yaa Asantewaa

7 Sep

Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu is celebrated for her leadership role in resisting British colonisation in the Gold Coast, now modern-day Ghana. She stood up to fight the British occupation in West Africa in spite of an initially cowardly response up by local men, which puts her in the league of Africa’s great women leaders.


Taken from

Yaa Asantewaa was born in 1840 as the sister of the ruler of Ejisu (Ejisuhene), an ethnic group in present day Ghana. Asantewaa was appointed queen mother by her brother, Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase, whose reign was volatile. At the time, the Gold Coast was under British protectorate. The British supported their colonising campaigns against the Asante with taxes levied upon the local population. In addition, they took over the state-owned gold mines, thus removing considerable income from the Asante government. Missionary schools were also established, and the missionaries began interfering in local affairs.

When the Asante began to rebel against British rule, the British attempted to put down the unrest. During her brother’s reign, Yaa Asantewaa saw the Asante Confederacy go through a series of events that threatened its future, including a civil war that lasted from 1883 to 1888. Akwasi, her brother, died thereafter.
Following his death, Yaa Asantewaa, being very influential as queen mother,  nominated her grandson as ruler of Ejisu. In 1896, this grandson and the king of the Asante (Prempeh I) were exiled by the British—then a common tactic for dealing with African kings—after which Yaa Asantewaa became regent of the Ejisu-Juaben District.
Further worsening matters, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool of the Asante. The Golden Stool was the Asante throne and a symbol of Asante independence. Colonial officials were sent out to find the stool by forcing the people to reveal where it was hidden. After going from village to village with no success, one British official found at the village of Bare only children, who said their parents had gone hunting. He ordered the children to be beaten. When their parents came out of hiding to defend the children, he had them bound and beaten too. This prompted a conference of the elders. Yaa Asantewaa was highly disgusted at the behaviour of her male counterparts and insisted that if they would not fight for the land, she would gather the women to do so. Thus Yaa Asantewaa led the famous Asante uprising in 1900 against the British.
In March 1900, Yaa Asantewaa mobilised Asante troops, and for three months laid siege to the British mission at the fort of Kumasi. The British had to bring in several thousand troops and artillery to break the siege. In retaliation, they plundered the villages in the area, killed many people, confiscated their lands and left the remaining population dependent upon them for survival. After several months, the Gold Coast governor eventually sent a force of 1,400 to quell the rebellion, during which Queen Yaa Asantewaa and 15 of her closest advisers were captured. They too were sent into exile in the Seychelles. The rebellion represented the final war in the series of Anglo-Asante wars, which lasted throughout the 19th century. On 1 January 1902, the British were finally able to accomplish what the Asante army had denied them for almost a century: the Asante empire was made a protectorate of the British crown.
Yaa Asantewaa remained in exile until her death 20 years later on 17 October 1921. Her dream of a nation free from British rule was realised on 6 March 1957, when the Asante protectorate gained independence as part of Ghana, the first African nation to achieve this feat.

Her legacy

Despite the scarcity of records, Yaa Asantewaa’s legacy is clear. She was the last African women to lead a major war against the colonial powers. She was a critical figure in recognising and using the power of women to mobilise both men and women to resist colonial power. Her fearless stand against foreign oppression points the way for activists today, wherever they may be.
Yaa Asantewaa is honoured in Africa till this very day for her courage. Her body was eventually returned to Ghana, where she was given a befitting burial.

African Feminist Ancestors:Bibi Titi Mohamed

6 Sep

Bibi Titi Mohamed was a major leader in the Tanganyikan nationalist movement. She led Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania (UWT), the women’s wing of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and later became the minister for women and social affairs.


Mohamed was a Muslim woman born in Dar es Salaam in 1926 to a businessman father and farmer mother. She received minimal primary school education and, at puberty, like many young Muslim women in Tanzania, entered purdah, a state of seclusion, until she was married at the age of 14 to an older man. After bearing a daughter, Mohamed was divorced. She then married twice more, this time to men of her choosing—a pattern familiar among coastal Muslims and many female TANU activists.

Political activism
Mohamed’s earliest foray into the public sphere was through her involvement in Maulidi, a performance celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, and as the lead singer in an ngoma (a dance and music group). She attributed her later political successes to these involvements, because they gave her significant public exposure, practice in leadership roles and connections within important women’s networks.
Her involvement in nationalist struggles started in 1950. After World War II, as elsewhere in colonial Africa, nationalist movements gained momentum. In 1954, TANU was formed under the leadership of the former schoolteacher and future president, Julius Nyerere. Tanganyika was at the time a UN Trust Territory under British administration. Given her energy and drive, it was inevitable that Mohamed should become a powerful voice in the party. In 1955, she was asked to chair the UWT, and within three months of her appointment she successfully enrolled more than 5,000 women as TANU members. The women’s wing was set to play a big role in the independence struggles in Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

The UWT did a great job selling TANU’s ideals to the masses. It also unified women and gave them one voice in the fight against colonialism. The Mohamed-led outfit did so well that it earned recognition in TANU’s 1964 constitution, which affirmed that there would be a place for women in the party: women would be entitled to all membership rights and every party branch would have a women’s wing. Moreover, men and women members would be treated equally. If the UWT had scored a victory with this affirmation, it was loaded with a sizeable amount of responsibilities: to mobilise women to join TANU; to spread party ideology in both rural and urban areas; to protect the party and its leaders against enemies; to mobilise financial resources for the party; and to nurture women members by empowering them economically, socially and politically.
Since historical records tend to underplay the role of women and, in particular, the role of women leaders such as Mohamed in the ultimate achievement of democracy and independence in Africa, it is important to reflect that women formed the bulwark of initial recruits to TANU because men were hesitant about openly identifying themselves with the party for fear of losing public-sector jobs. This was less of an issue for women, who tended to be self-employed within the informal economy. Women activists were able to use their multiple social and economic networks to raise significant funds for TANU. Additionally, Mohamed proved to be a charismatic force and a powerful speaker. By Mohamed’s own accounts, she mobilised women by going to the ngoma groups and asking their leaders to create space for her to address members:

The multiplicity of ethnicities represented within the ngomas also played an important function within the stated goal of Tanganyikan nationalism: to bring together more than a 120 different ethnic groups into a single nation.
While the records may suggest that women in Tanzania were politicised through nationalist movements and agendas, a counter-argument has been advanced that they were already politicised and loyal to their culture and country.
TANU did not necessarily teach women nationalism, instead it provided them with a context within which to advance specific interests, namely freedom from colonialism and gender equity. Women activists evoked, created and performed the nationalism that Nyerere needed to make TANU a credible and successful nationalist movement.
Also, women’s use of ngoma networks was a good tactic, as they were considered innocuous by British colonial officials—and by most African men as well in the 1950s. These groups were open to all women who wished to join, and ended up being highly politicised networks for the exchange of information, announcement of rallies and marches and raising of money for the party.
These activities were done under the noses of colonial officials, who, although increasingly jumpy and suspicious of nationalist movements, did not fathom that women’s dance associations might be vehicles of nationalist mobilisation. Furthermore, the dance associations expressed and produced nationalism not only through song and dance, but through relationships between and among the societies and the women in them.
Mohamed noted that it was the women who taught Julius Nyerere, then a young Catholic politician with a master’s degree from Edinburgh, how to speak Swahili and how to speak to people. These claims may seem audacious but, from the accounts of the women themselves, they were far more active than men in organising and mobilising for the nationalist cause. It was often women who went from house to house, often risking being accused of looking for men.
Women mobilised communities and neighbourhoods for mass rallies and visits from TANU leaders, raised money and took many risks for their ideals of freedom and gender equity, even pawning their rings and bracelets to fund


Nyerere’s trips abroad.

After independence
When nationalist goals were at last achieved in 1961, Mohamed’s prominent role within TANU was officially recognised. She shared the platform with Julius Nyerere as independence was declared. Thereafter, Mohamed continued her political activism. This included a role in the founding of the All African Women’s Conference, a position as a junior minister for community development, and  leadership of the UWT, into which all women’s organisations had been merged.
Mohamed’s political fortunes shifted in 1965 when she lost her parliamentary seat. In 1967, she resigned from her position on the party’s central committee in protest over a provision in the Arusha Declaration, Nyerere’s plan for African socialism, which banned central committee members from renting properties. For a woman with little education, renting property was one of the few avenues for stable income. She was put on trial and convicted for her alleged participation in a plot to overthrow Nyerere’s government in 1969. Mohamed proclaimed her innocence throughout, and after she had been in prison for two years, President Nyerere commuted her life sentence.
Although she largely disappeared from public life after her release from jail, Mohamed’s legacy is a testimony to the pivotal role played by many uneducated, mostly Muslim women in spreading political awareness and securing independence from British colonial rule in Tanzania. Her particular contribution to nationalism is indisputable. She was one of the most visible Tanganyikan nationalists during the struggle for independence in the 1950s, and was the sole woman in the ranks of Nyerere’s confidants. Indeed she was just as well-known as the president. So close was Mohamed to the founders of the nation that she was one of the TANU members who worked up the crowds at rallies before the president spoke. She understood the power of women to mobilise others to attain the ideals of nationalism. But she saw that in many ways, the expectation was that once independence was gained, women would hand over power and revert to their traditional roles of wives and mothers, and that the energy, vision and power they brought to bear on the struggle would not be recognised for the task of nation-building.

On 5 November 2000, Mohamed died in Johannesburg. Today, one of Dar es Salaam‘s major roads is named after Bibi Titi Mohamed in honour of her great contributions towards Tanzanian independence.

African Feminist Ancestors: Queen Nzinga

5 Sep

Queen Nzinga of Angola is one of the most celebrated African women to resist European colonisation. Nzinga Mbande led four decades (1620s to 1660s) of warfare against the Portuguese in Angola. Queen Nzinga is best remembered for her resistance against the Portuguese, and setting her people free from slavery.


As per the biography, taken from, this is her story:

Ana de Sousa Nzinga was born in 1581 in Kabasa, the capital of the Kingdom of Ndongo (now Angola), which was ruled by a people called ngolas. In 1571, a royal order from Lisbon declared that the kingdom of Ndongo be subjected and captured. The Portuguese had already converted the Kongo, a neighbouring people, and were after ‘black ivory’, that is slaves in Angola. Nzinga’s father, Ngola Karensi, distrusted the European expansion and banned missionaries from his kingdom. This action resulted in a war of resistance that lasted 40 years.
Nzinga, an Amazon and warrior, used to dress in men’s clothing and was considered to be the best politician in the country. However, her strategies angered her brother, Mani Ngola, who became ruler after their father’s death. In his anger, Nzinga’s brother sterilised her and killed her only son. However, after suffering many defeats by the Portuguese, he later begged his sister for help, and Nzinga agreed to aid him to keep her people from being enslaved. As she spoke Portuguese, she was sent to negotiate a treaty, which was signed but not honoured.

There are conflicting accounts as to how Nzinga ascended to leadership. One account shows that after her negotiations with the Portuguese, Nzinga returned home, jailed her brother, declared herself Ngola and issued her first orders. Another account notes that in 1624, Nzinga succeeded to the throne of Ndongo after her brother died under what some deem suspicious circumstances. After Nzinga had claimed the title of Ngola, she retreated eastward to Matamba, as a puppet ngola had been put in her brother’s place by the Portuguese after his death.
Nzinga had three main policy objectives. She wanted to stop the war between the Portuguese and her people, which was devastating the Luanda plateau. She wanted to obtain from the Portuguese the diplomatic recognition that had been accorded to the Kongo. And she wanted to establish a regular and profitable trading relationship between Luanda and Europeans. In the 1630s and 1640s, she forged an alliance with Dutch slave traders and used her wealth to consolidate her position. She also overcame traditional Mbande resistance to women in politics, employing Mbande refugees (runaway slaves) and others as mercenaries against local resistance where necessary. After continuous war against the Portuguese, she concluded a treaty with them that largely fulfilled her initial goals, and her policy continued successfully until her death.

Resisting colonisation:

Queen Nzinga’s lived and reigned in a time of colonial conquest and conflict between indigenous groups. The Portuguese had become preoccupied with the Ndongo Kingdom as a source of slaves and with expanding the colony of Angola.
Early resistance to the colonial onslaught was offered by the Luanda, Matamba and Kasanje kingdoms, which had acquired strong positions through trading slaves for goods from the Americas. The Portuguese did not gain any real control during these initial attempts to govern their proclaimed colony, but did manage to establish a number of forts and other footholds to the east of Luanda. In an attempt to find easier routes to the interior and slaves, the Portuguese also moved southward, where a settlement had been established in Benguela in 1617. But there they met considerable resistance in the highlands from various Ovimbundu kingdoms. Slaves were mainly supplied by competing warlords from the Wambu, Mbailundu and other Ovimbundu kingdoms. The slaves were sold for firearms and other imports, which preserved the power of the victors.
It was at this time that Nzinga was sent to Luanda in 1622 to discuss peace terms with the Portuguese governor there. As a necessary preliminary (which for a time won her Portuguese goodwill), she had herself baptised Dona Ana de Souza. In exchange for temporarily opening her country to missionaries and especially to the Portuguese slave trade, she managed to have a fortress that was located too close to her lands evacuated and certain chiefs whom the Portuguese had made their vassals freed. Most importantly, she won recognition of her dominion over Ndongo. The freed chiefs were probably little inclined to accept this, given the double handicap of Nzinga’s questionable ascendance to political power and her gender.
In 1623, disappointed with the Portuguese, Nzinga broke with Christianity and allied herself with the Jaga, a marginal group of warriors recently arrived from the southern Kwanza River plateaus. She also gave asylum to all fugitive slaves from Portuguese-controlled territory and induced kimbares (African soldiers) trained by the Portuguese to join her army by promising them land and rewards. She led her men to infiltrate the Portuguese army to incite the Africans within it to desert.
Thus by the end of 1624, Nzinga was slowly gaining the military advantage. In 1625, she finally incited one vassal chief after another to rebel against the Portuguese and was then told that war would result if she did not return the soldiers and the fugitive slaves. She categorically refused. By now she had been able to increase her forces sufficiently and obtain sufficient arms to plunge the kingdom into open warfare.
The Portuguese wanted to expel Nzinga and her followers and replace her with a monarch who would be subservient to their needs and wishes. Aided by perhaps most of the Mbande, the Portuguese managed to rout her, and this led to a protracted guerrilla war. They were eventually able to force Nzinga off her throne and replace her with a puppet ruler. Nzinga went into exile and continued to work to convince her followers to destroy the usurper’s rule and to expel the Portuguese who maintained him in power.
The Jaga’s tactics helped to foil many Portuguese attempts to capture Nzinga dead or alive. In 1629, she consolidated her power as a tembanza (a Jaga title reserved for powerful women) by arranging a ritual marriage (actually a political alliance) with the Jaga’s chief, the Kasanje. She later broke with the Jaga when they allied themselves with the Portuguese and came to pillage her capital.
Nzinga decided to conquer the kingdom of Matamba to the northeast. Matamba was one of the few places in the southern Konga and northern Kimbundu that had a history of women ruling. It was also the principal African slave-trading state in the Luanda region. Once in control there, Nzinga worked to develop strong ties with the Dutch to help her against the Portuguese, as well as for commercial and political reasons. Her goal was to remove the Portuguese from Angola altogether and have the Dutch as the European trading power on the coast.
Over the next few years, using a combination of ruthlessness and cleverness, Queen Nzinga was able to consolidate power in the Kimbundu territory of Ndongo and Matamba. Although often perceived as an outsider by Africans as well as Europeans because of her gender, she was able to manipulate her enemies and gather other outsiders around her to gain support to rule effectively. At times, she supported the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, but she also sometimes protected escaped slaves, in exchange for their loyalty. Matamba dominated the whole Kimbundu region, and after successfully fighting the Portuguese, Nzinga turned on her Dutch allies and defeated them as well. She then made a new alliance with the Portuguese, so that she could export the slaves she had captured in war or received from her vassals. In 1656, she signed a peace treaty with the Portuguese governor of Angola and reconverted to Catholicism.
Nzinga was able to keep the peace until her death at approximately 81 in 1663. She died a Catholic, and her deathbed was surrounded by the missionary advisers she had come to value in the last eight years of her life.


Her legacy:

Through her clever manipulations of the Portuguese, the Imbangala and the Dutch, Nzinga was able to dominate Kimbundu politics for 40 years. Her legacy is immense, if contradictory.
First, she was a leader who could inspire her people to resist the Europeans. Second, she had unusual strength, and her role as a warrior and an anti-colonialist is an excellent example of the commitment of African women to values of self-reliance and survival. From the period of Nzinga’s leadership to the present, African women have been at the forefront of resisting the militarism and the murderous tendencies of colonial economic relations and of social structures that privileged masculinity and violence. As to Nzinga’s role as a slave trader, many either choose not to believe it or to simply accept it as part of her legacy. One perspective on Nzinga’s contradictions is that her quest to preserve the humanity of African people required her to develop a flexible and strategic identity.
Queen Nzinga’s record as a military leader, diplomat, spiritual leader and mother belie any simplistic conception of gender identities in African societies. She has a special position in Angolan history and is seen as an important root of African nationalism both because of her resistance to colonial rule and because of her success in breaking the regional power of the old ethnic provinces.

African Feminist Ancestors: Queen Amina of Zaria

4 Sep

Queen Amina of Zaria: A West African Warrior Queen


Commonly known as the warrior queen, Queen Amina of Zaria was the first woman to become the Sarauniya (queen) in a male-dominated society. She expanded the territory of the Hausa people of north Africa to its largest borders in history. Much of what is known of Queen Amina is based on information related in the Kano Chronicles. Other details are pulled from the oral traditions of Nigeria. As a result, the memory of Queen Amina has assumed legendary proportions in her native Hausaland and beyond. The modern state of Nigeria has immortalised Amina by erecting a statue of her, spear in hand, on a horse, in the centre of Lagos.
The seven original states of Hausaland—Katsina, Daura, Kano, Zazzau, Gobir, Rano and Garun Gabas—cover an area of approximately 500 square miles and comprise the heart of Hausaland. In the 16th century, Queen Bakwa Turunku, Amina’s mother, built the capital of Zazzau at Zaria, named after her younger daughter. Eventually, the entire state of Zazzau was renamed Zaria, which is now a province in present-day Nigeria.
Amina was born around 1533 in Zaria. She lived approximately 200 years prior to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate federation that governed Nigeria during the period of British colonial rule following the Islamic jihad (holy war) that overtook the region in the 19th century.  She was born to the ruler, Bakwa of Turunku, who lived in the city state of Zazzau.  The family was wealthy as a result of trading in imported metals, cloth, cola, salt, horses and imported metals.  When her father died in 1566, the crown was conferred upon Amina’s younger brother, Karama.  Although her father’s reign was characterised by peace and prosperity, Amina nonetheless chose to spend her time honing her military skills with the warriors of the Zazzau cavalry.  This led to her eventually emerging as a leader of the Zazzau cavalry, during which time she accumulated great wealth and numerous military accolades. Upon the death of her brother after a 10 year rule, Amina had matured into a fierce warrior and earned the respect of the Zazzau military, so she was able to assume the reign of the kingdom.

Queen Amina elder daughter of Bakwa Turunku Zazzau Kingdom

The context of Queen Amina’s leadership was pre-colonial Nigeria, where men did not feel threatened when women were in powerful positions, as it was usually understood that they deserved to be there because of age, kinship or merit, not gender. Women could even oust men who were not performing their duties effectively. While socially and economically, pre-colonial Nigerian societies clearly delineated women’s and men’s roles this did not preclude women from asserting their authority or themselves.

At the time of Amina’s reign, Zazzau was situated at the crossroads of three major trade corridors of northern Africa, connecting the Sahara with the remote markets of the southern forest lands and the western Sudan. The rise and fall of the powerful and more dominant Songhai people, and the resulting competition for control of trade routes, incited continual warring among the Hausa people and their neighbouring settlements during the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the continual competition for power among the Hausa states, Zaria for a time achieved predominance under Queen Amina. ‘[She] led her first military charge a few months after assuming power. For the rest of her [34 year] reign, she continued to fight and expand her kingdom to [its] greatest in history.’ Heading up an army of 20,000 men, she tried to annex several surrounding cities up to Nupe, and ruled Kano and Katsina at the cost of 34 years of almost uninterrupted warfare. The objectives of her conquests were twofold: extension of Zazzau beyond its primary borders and reduction of conquered cities to vassal status.
The expansion of Amina’s kingdom made it the trading centre for all of southern Hausaland, spanning the traditional east-to-west trans-Saharan axis and guaranteeing Zaria’s prosperity. Amina brought unheard-of wealth to the land; one description cites a tribute payment of 40 eunuchs and 10,000 kola nuts. ‘She boosted her kingdom’s wealth and power with gold, slaves and new crops. Because her people were talented metal workers, Amina introduced metal armour, including iron helmets and chain mail, to her army.’
Amina is also credited as the architect of the strong earthen walls around the city, which became the prototype for the fortifications used in all Hausa states. She built many of these fortifications, later known as ganuwar Amina or ‘Amina’s walls’, around various conquered cities. Many of these walls remain in existence to this day.
Walling was a vitally important consideration in the development of African urban life. Walls gave definition to settlements and prevented uncontrollable sprawl. They also provided psychological and physical security. In unstable times, they afforded protection against theft or destruction and in peacetime, they controlled entry and exit.
Also, politically, walls were considered prestigious, their size a measure of a ruler’s ability to command the labour of his or her subjects. The walls constructed by Queen Amina of Zaria not only protected Hausa markets from external threats emanating from the south, but also became an enduring testimony to her glorious reign.
According to legend, Amina refused to marry and instead took a temporary husband from the legions of vanquished foes after every battle.
Legend also [records] that she died during a military campaign at Atagara near Bida in Nigeria. Her exploits earned her the moniker ‘Amina, daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man.’ Her legendary escapades made her the model for the television series Xena: Warrior Princess. Today, her memory represents the spirit and strength of womanhood.
Queen Amina undoubtedly managed to forge and imprint a legacy that contradicts all stereotypes of women’s leadership in patriarchal African societies, where the inequality that women face affects virtually all aspects of society. There is significant evidence that women were allowed to make ample contributions to the social, political and economic structure of their societies in pre-colonial Nigeria, if not with the same clout as men. Where they were prevented from being openly active, women used loopholes inherent in their social structures to gain and maintain some level of power. This changed to a large extent with the advent of Islam and, later, British colonial rule, causing women to suffer important setbacks.
The obstacles facing women in Nigeria and across Africa may persist, yet the legacies and examples of women such as Amina point to the possibilities that exist for African women to reshape the destinies of their societies and communities.

Queen Amina

African Feminist Ancestors:

3 Sep

In my series of honouring African Feminist Ancestors, today I would like to introduce:Wangari Muta Maathai


This biography was obtained via

Wangari Muta Maathai is known as the first central or eastern African to hold a Ph.D., the first woman head of a university department in Kenya, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for ‘her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.’ Maathai was elected as a member of the Kenyan Parliament and served as assistant minister for environment and natural resources between January 2003 and November 2005.

Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya. Maathai’s education included boarding school from as early as 11 years of age. Due to her outstanding academic performance, she was able to pursue higher education, a rarity for girls in rural areas of Kenya. In 1960, Maathai was one of about 300 students who participated in a programme that saw Kenyans benefitting from education in Western nations. She received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas. There, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with minors in chemistry and German, and went on to earn a master’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. It was during her time in Pittsburgh that she was first exposed to efforts at environmental restoration when local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution.
Returning to Kenya, Maathai was appointed research assistant to a professor of zoology at the University College of Nairobi. But when she arrived at the university to start her new job, she was informed that it had been given to someone else. Maathai believed this was because of gender and ethnic bias against her as a woman and as a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group.
In April 1966, she met Mwangi Mathai, another Kenyan who had studied in America, who would become her husband in 1969. She also rented a small shop in the city and established a general store, at which her sisters worked. Eventually, despite the scepticism and even opposition of the male students and faculty, she was able to earn a Ph.D. at the University College of Nairobi. She worked her way up through the academic ranks, eventually becoming head of the veterinary medicine faculty.
While working at the University College of Nairobi, Maathai started campaigning for equal benefits for the women staff, attempting to turn the academic staff association into a union. The courts denied this bid, but many of her demands for equal benefits were later met. In the early 1970s, she also became involved in a number of civic organisations. She was a member of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, becoming its director in 1973, and she was a member of the Kenya Association of University Women.
Following the establishment of the Environment Liaison Centre in 1974, Maathai was asked to be a member of the local board, eventually becoming the chair. The Environment Liaison Centre worked to promote the participation of non-governmental organisations in the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose headquarters was established in Nairobi in 1972. Maathai also joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work at these various volunteer associations, it became evident to Maathai that a root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation.
In 1974, Maathai’s husband campaigned for a seat in Parliament and won. During the course of his campaign, he had promised to find jobs to limit the rising unemployment in Kenya. This led his wife to become involved in organising work for poor people, and eventually this became a national grassroots organisation, providing work and improving the environment at the same time. The project has made significant headway against Kenya’s deforestation.
In 1977, Maathai proposed tree planting to the local council, and on 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji Park on the outskirts of the city, where they planted seven trees in honour of historical community leaders. This was the first ‘green belt’; it marked the beginning of a campaign first known as the ‘Save the Land Harambee’ and later the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to each area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling that was later transplanted.
Her activism spilled over into her personal life when she and her husband instituted divorce proceedings in 1977. Her husband claimed during the proceedings that she was ‘too strong-minded for a woman’ and that he was ‘unable to control her.’ In addition to naming her as ‘cruel’ in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another member of Parliament. After the judge ruled in favour of her husband, Maathai commented in an interview that the judge was incompetent, which led to her arrest and sentencing for six months. Following an application by her lawyer, she was released after three days. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that she drop his surname, but she instead chose to add an extra a.
Maathai focused her attention after her divorce on the NCWK, which was an umbrella organisation consisting of many different women’s organisations in the country. Her efforts to run for the leadership position within this structure were hampered by interference from President Daniel arap Moi, who was attempting to limit the influence of Kikuyus, including in volunteer civic organisations. In 1980, Maathai eventually succeeded in becoming chairwoman of NCWK and managed to ensure its financial survival by increasing its focus on the environment and growing its presence. She tried to take up a parliamentary seat in her home region but was frustrated due to her pro-democracy stance and evicted from her home.
At this point, Maathai began to pour all her efforts into the Green Belt Movement, which had established a partnership with the Norwegian Forestry Society and received seed money from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. These funds allowed the movement to expand, hire additional employees to oversee operations and continue to pay a small stipend to the women planting seedlings throughout the country. In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, invoking a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people from meeting without permission. In 1988, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities, such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. The government, however, was not interested in reform and practised electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power.
In October 1989, when she learned about a plan to construct a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park, Maathai was propelled into action. She wrote many letters in protest, to newspapers, the president and other officials, as well as international organisations. Her actions resulted in backlash and character assassination, with the government claiming that Maathai was a crazy woman and also attacking the Green Belt Movement’s legitimacy and credibility. The building project started, despite Maathai seeking an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but foreign investors eventually pulled out due to all the adverse publicity.
In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President arap Moi said those who opposed it had ‘insects in their heads.’ He later suggested that Maathai be a proper woman according to ‘African tradition’ and respect men and be quiet. She was forced by the government to vacate her office, so the Green Belt Movement moved into her home. The government then audited the organisation in an apparent attempt to shut it down.
In 1992, it came to the attention of Maathai and other pro-democracy activists that a list of people was targeted for assassination and a government-sponsored coup was possible. With a group of other activists, she presented this information to the media, calling for a general election. Maathai was later arrested but released on bail following pressure on the government by foreign politicians. Maathai participated in several organised activities at this time, including a hunger strike, to put pressure on the government to release political prisoners, often being subjected to physical violence, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released. Increasingly Maathai was being recognised with various international awards, but the government of Kenya still did not appreciate her work.
In 1998, Maathai gained worldwide attention when the Kenyan president backed development of a luxury housing project and building began by clearing hundreds of acres of Karura Public Forest.
She went with the Green Belt Movement to the forest to plant trees and protest its destruction. The following year, a group of protesters, including Maathai, returned to the forest and many were attacked by suspected government thugs. However the police refused to investigate the incident.
After so many years of activism and abuse by the arap Moi government, in December 2002, Maathai was elected to Parliament as Mwai Kibaki defeated the incumbent in the presidential election. Kibaki named Maathai as deputy minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in January 2003. Maathai died in Nairobi in 2011 of cancer.
Movement-building legacy
Today, the Green Belt movement in Kenya has planted more than 50 million trees to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. A 1989 United Nations report noted that only nine trees were being replanted in Africa for every 100 cut down, causing serious problems of deforestation: soil runoff, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, lack of animal nutrition and so on. The tree-planting programme was carried out primarily by women in villages who, through protecting their environment and receiving payment for planting the trees, are able to better care for their families.
Maathai’s extraordinary legacy is about more than the awards bestowed on her: it is one of steadfast beliefs and commitment to justice, democracy and environmental sustainability. Her genius was in recognising the inter-relatedness of local and global problems, and seeing that these problems can only be addressed as citizens themselves find their voices and courage to act. Maathai saw in the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting both a good in itself and an entry point, a way in which women could discover that they were not powerless in the face of autocratic husbands, village chiefs and a ruthless government.
Through creating their own tree nurseries—at least six thousand throughout Kenya—and planting trees, women began to control their own firewood, an enormous power shift that also freed up time for other pursuits. Then, through popular education, village women who had watched public forests be used by the arap Moi regime to grant political favours, were galvanised to see the forests differently: as something they as citizens had claim to. Through the Green Belt Movement, village women also came to see that a narrow focus on export commodities such as coffee, at the expense of environmentally-appropriate food crops, was an inheritance of colonialism reinforced by the International Monetary Fund’s policies.
Maathai’s foresight in understanding that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible concepts cannot be denied. She saw that protecting the environment is not a luxury, but a necessity, because people cannot survive without clean drinking water, which comes from the forested mountains, nor can they live without the food that is grown on fertile fields watered by the rains. The wisdom of empowering and mobilising local communities is practically demonstrated by Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, especially in this era of ‘ngo-ization’ in which many organisations have lost their connection to the voice and power of grassroots communities.

Our African Feminist Ancestors.

2 Sep

In honouring our feminist ancestors, I will feature a number of powerful women who led the way for us. The information was obtained via

The first lady to be honoured is Charlotte Maxeke.


Charlotte Manye Maxeke is known as the first black woman from South Africa to hold a graduate degree, and for her exceptional contribution to the struggle for women’s and workers’ rights, and her lifelong dedication to the struggle for peace and justice. Maxeke was an individual whose every action was expressive of her extraordinary intellect, determination, courage, principles and love of God. Yet because of her gender, her name is sadly overlooked in the history of South Africa.
Charlotte Makgomo Manye was born in Ramokgopa in the Polokwane (then Pietersburg) District on 7 April 1874. As a young girl growing up in the Cape, Maxeke never allowed herself to become too discouraged by the severe traditional restrictions that bound girls to the home and village. With the help of her parents, she was able to reject such limitations, especially the barriers to formal education. She received a missionary education in the early 1880s.
At eight, Maxeke began her primary school classes and rapidly advanced and outperformed her older classmates. She was exceptionally talented in languages, mathematics and music, and esteemed for her proficiency in English and Dutch. She spent long hours tutoring her less-skilled classmates, often with great success. Music later became the reason for which Maxeke journeyed alone to Port Elizabeth to study at the Edward Memorial School. As before, she excelled and completed her secondary school education in record time, achieving the highest possible grades. During this period, her family moved to Kimberley in quest of employment.
In Kimberley, Maxeke embarked on tutoring and music. She very successfully taught the fundamentals of indigenous languages to expatriate claim holders and basic English to African ‘boss-boys.’ A boss boy is an African placed in charge of a group of African workers, and thus needed to be able to communicate in both English and indigenous languages.  Her true joy, however, was music. Maxeke and her sister, Katie, joined the African Jubilee Choir in 1891 and toured England for two years, during which Maxeke performed for Queen Victoria, allegedly in Victorian costume. Sources state that the sisters were uncomfortable with being treated as novelties in London. Maxeke is also said to have attended suffragette speeches by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst.

With hopes of pursuing more education, Maxeke went on a second tour, now to the United States of America (USA), with her church choir in 1894. When the tour collapsed, Maxeke stayed on and studied at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, which was controlled by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
There she was taught by Pan-Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois, and received an education that focused on developing her as a future missionary in Africa. She became the first black woman from South Africa to be awarded a B.Sc. degree. At Wilberforce, Maxeke also met her husband, Marshall Maxeke, who had come to the university from South Africa in 1896. Upon their return to South Africa, she took up a post as the first African teacher at Pietersburg in the Transvaal, while opening the local missionary field for the AME church.
In 1912, Maxeke attended the launch of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC)—later the African National Congress (ANC)—in Bloemfontein and became one of its first women members. She went on to found the Bantu Women’s League of the SANNC in 1918. She authored a lot of the ANC’s earliest literature and her uplifting speeches on behalf of African liberty were described as ‘electrifying, passionate and fiery, yet not inflammatory. Charlotte spoke from her soul with great feeling for all, and everyone listened. It can be said of her that she cared deeply for all mankind. Although her main concerns were church-related social issues, Maxeke also wrote in Xhosa on women’s social and political situation.
As leader of the Bantu Women’s League, Maxeke led a delegation of women to Prime Minister Louis Botha to discuss the issue of passes for women. She also helped organise the anti-pass movement in Bloemfontein in 1913. She was involved in protests on the Witwatersrand about low wages and participated in the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) in 1920. It was her sense of leadership that led Charlotte to respond to a call by the South African Ministry of Education to testify before several government commissions in Johannesburg on matters concerning African education— another first for an African of any gender. Her clear brilliance resulted in a number of job offers, again the first of their kind made by the white government to an African.
After deep deliberation, Maxeke accepted the dual role of probation officer and court welfare officer to Johannesburg’s juvenile magistrate. In the latter role her path was to cross in a most fortuitous way with a young man by the name of Hastings Walter Kamuzu Banda—later the leader of Malawi. Banda was attempting to secure a passport to enable him to journey to the United States to take up an AME church scholarship at Wilberforce University. With the self-assurance and authority of solid personal experience, Maxeke asked the magistrate to approve his application. Widely known and highly respected by Africans and Europeans alike, Maxeke’s word carried great weight and the application was thus approved.
During her years in Johannesburg, Maxeke co-founded with her husband the Widow’s Home and the Foreign Missionary Society. Along with the AME Church’s Widow’s Mite Society, these two groups were responsible for funding and educating thousands of young Africans, many in the United States and Britain, and also for caring for sick and indigent Africans at home. Maxeke also set up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg and was involved in multiracial movements. She addressed the Women’s Reform Club in Pretoria, an organization for the voting rights of women, joined the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus, and was elected president of the Women’s Missionary Society.[5]
The various welfare organizations that Maxeke established, concerned with improving life in the townships, are a large part of her legacy. While somewhat conservative—emphasizing domestic duty, family life and Western ‘refinement’—they nevertheless created very broad networks between women from a range of class backgrounds.
Maxeke has often been honoured as the ‘Mother of Black Freedom in South Africa’, and an ANC nursery school in Tanzania was named after her. Throughout her life, Maxeke championed the potential of African people, especially women, to stand up and take control of their own affairs. Her work was an important turning point for women’s organizing in South Africa. The Bantu Women’s League was founded as a result of the women’s deep understanding of the challenges facing women in South Africa, in particular black women. It was meant to represent all black women of South Africa, irrespective of class and education. Consequently, women fought for their rights and the rights of all oppressed people. The Bantu Women’s League in many ways laid the ground for women’s organising from that point onwards.
Charlotte Manye Maxeke passed away in Johannesburg on 16 October 1939 at 65. At her funeral at Klipstown, her eulogy ended with the words ‘She was everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy.’