Search results for 'African feminist forum'

African Feminist Forum, part 2: Ghana.

25 Aug

In my series of honouring the women who work with the African Feminist Forum, this blog is dedicated to three of our sisters from Ghana, Theo Sowa, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah and Maame Afon Yelbert-Obeng.

1. Theo Sowa

Ghanaian feminist and child rights activist, philanthropic advisor and CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund based in Ghana.
She has extensive experience as an independent advisor on a wide range of international and social development issues.


Her work on women’s rights has a special focus on their promotion and protection in armed conflict situations, the strengthening of women-focused development programmes in Africa, and advocacy related to women and HIV and AIDS issues. She is a member of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s African Advisory Board and the board of the Graça Machel Trust. She also serves on the board of the Museum of AIDS in Africa; is a Trustee of the UK’s Comic Relief and the Chair of its International Grant Committee; and is an Advisory Group member of the ‘Every Child a Reader’ literacy initiative. She holds a public appointment as a board member of the Charity Commission for England and Wales and was named as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2010.

2. Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

Nana is feminist, an African woman, a blogger, a sister, a daughter, a writer, a life coach and a trainer.
Nana is a programme Officer for Fundraising and Communications with the African Women’s Development Fund in Ghana. She believes that all women have the right to a joyful, fulfilling and rewarding existence free from the socio-cultural limitations often placed upon women. Her job allows her to work towards the realisation of this vision for all African women.


Taken from her biography, this is what she had to say:
In my life I have been inspired by the achievements of women from all across the globe including the African- American writer/lecturer/poet Maya Angelou, the Ghanaian professor/writer Ama Ata Aidoo and South African activist Pregs Govender. Through her writings Maya Angelou has taught me the importance of perseverance, bravery and creativity. Ama Ata Aidoo is an inspirational writer to many Ghanaians and in person is warm and generous of spirit. I admire Pregs for her “love and courage”. The qualities I admire in my heroines are those qualities that I continually aim to bring to all that I do in my life.
One of my current passions is documenting the lives of African women. I think more African women need to write and document their lives and herstories. Those of us who can read and write have the additional responsibilities of not only documenting our lives but the lives of our mothers, aunties and grandmothers who may not be able to capture their life stories. My grand aunt never had the opportunity to gain an education simply because she is a woman. However her brother, my grandfather, had the opportunity to gain an education, travel the world and write his story. One of my goals is to continue capturing my grand aunt’s herstory and to publish her biography.
Recently I have also been very interested in creating a repository of knowledge on the diverse sexualities of African women. Too little is known about women’s sexuality and even less is known about the diverse sexualities of African women. I think African women need safe spaces to learn and share knowledge about our diverse sexualities. I believe the anonymity of the internet may be able to provide one such space which is why I have started a blog on African women’s sexualities.

3. Maame Afon Yelbert-Obeng
Mama was born and raised in Ghana and has been living in the US for over 12 years. Over the past decade, She has supported initiatives that bring significant and meaningful changes to the lives of women and girls across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). For five years she worked as Program Officer for SSA at the Global Fund for Women, making grants to support women’s groups. From early 2011 to June 2012, she worked with Women’s Earth Alliance as the Sub-Saharan Africa Program Director, partnering with Africa-based organizations to address climate change issues and promote environmental and economic security.


From her biography, this is what she had to say:

I am passionate about building women’s leadership, with a specific focus on facilitating transformative mentorship for young African women. Just as important in my life is music – I am an accomplished singer and released my debut album RISE globally in May 2012 in the U.S., kicking off an international tour. RISE is an expression of the multifaceted woman that I am, an embodiment of music and a message which transcends multiple genres, ranging from gospel and inspirational to music for social justice. RISE pays tribute to the richness of African music.
I call myself a feminist because I believe in the power of women and our collective ability to effect change. Growing up with a single mother and several aunties and female cousins, I saw how the women around me managed every aspect of life – career, love, children, and all other societal obligations – with strength, tenacity, versatility, a sense of humour and a forward-looking vision. Juggling motherhood, work and all the different aspects that come with being a woman, I am experiencing first-hand this beautiful story of being a whole woman. As whole women we are free to bring all of who we are – our fears, tears, triumphs, gifts, faith, talent etc., to all that we do, recognizing that what we do is just as important as how we do it.
The fragmentation that exists within the women’s movement has the potential to erode the gains that we have made. As we forge ahead, it is important to replenish where our gains and accomplishments have been compromised. It is also crucial to build, practice and invest in sisterhood at all levels to unlock and realise the bright and promising future of African Feminism. In addition, we have to build alliances with men and welcome them as ambassadors for women and girls in Africa.  
I am proactively addressing these issues by embodying sisterhood in all its forms and expression. I bring other parts of me such as my gifting and love for music, my crazy sense of humour and infectious energy to women’s gatherings, infusing them with fun, laughter, promise and hope. I believe that it is important for the  feminist movement in Africa to capture the richness of our culture and enjoy the vast plethora of Africa’s musical rhythms, sounds and stories.
I am inspired by the shoulders on which we stand today to reclaim and restore our spaces, and lifted by the stories of many women and girls who lead the way with courage, dignity, grace, wisdom and beauty.

For more information on AFF go to

The African Feminist Forum

24 Aug

The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.

African feminism is a type of feminism innovated by African women that specifically addresses the conditions and needs of continental African women (African women who reside on the African continent).

We are all aware of the struggles that women face on a day to day basis and we need to continue pushing those agendas but we should also should take time and give thanks and acknowledge some of the women who stand up to patriarchy, change legislation and stand up for the rights of women. I would like to dedicate a series of blogposts introducing you to some of Africa’s most bravest and phenomenal feminists.

I will be posting a series on stories from The African Feminist forum.
The AFF Working is made up of a  diverse constituency of African feminist activists, academics, researchers, and practitioners from across the Continent.

Today I honour Isabella Matambanadzo and this is her story.


I am a daughter of the African soil. My home is Zimbabwe. I live with my mother who is in her 60s. It is one of the daily delights of my present life to be able to enjoy a very close and loving relationship with my mother and to harmoniously share a home with her. My mother, through the magical space of her womb was my first home. I am priviledged that she is my present home. It has not always been that way, and I am grateful that we have been given this time together.
I am a writer, this comes from the many years in the public and private media. And, I am an feminist activist, this comes from being in civil society institutions that had a mission and vision that I shared. I have been very fortunate so far to have a career path that has given me a space and a platform from which to organise these talents and gifts into a sense of service that reads as a fairly reasonable professional resume, because it comes with the generosity of a title that the corporate bureaucracy can organise. For me, it has always been a place from where I can have some structure and resources to be of service to communities where there is work to be done. Maybe one day I can be courageous enough to just say if I have to roll up my sleeves and work, I get work done.
I learned feminism in our home and family from my mother and my grandmother. It just wasn’t called or named Feminism, be that with a capital F or just an f. My mother and my grandmother have, to me been the most beautiful women I have ever known. I saw them show solidarity and sisterhood to women within and outside of our family circles and this left me in awe. It gave me a sense of purpose.   All I am I owe to these women of my family and many other women who have been generous with experience and counsel in the three or so decades of my life. Women from near and far who have shared their wisdom and strength with me and for me, in ways that are expressed formally and in ways that have been unexpressed, but understood. I attribute any part of my character that is positive, that is lived in a way that demonstrates feminist thought, emotion and action to my mother and my grandmother and my community of sisters. It may sound trite to someone reading this in the 21st century, an age of constitutional equality, the world wide web and other forms of civil and political liberty, but for me to sit on the laps of black African women who stepped out of the devastating confines of the forms of racisms and sexisms that the very ugly infrastructure and legalized reality if colonization, combined with the oppressive components of our Africanness is nothing short of astounding.
For women in my world, that have in any way had our humanness undermine, we value what it means to be raised by educated, professionally skilled, wage earning and tax paying professionals who have their own bank accounts, in their own names, have their own minds and hearts, and control and ownership of their bodies. This is an extraordinary achievement.
I aspire to a time when I can present my feminism with the wisdom, grace an art that I witnessed in their kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, gardens, plough fields, places of worship and public life. When I can express this sense of resistance and liberation in and with a collective of others who believe that to be a full human being rather than a dog (no disrespect to animal rights activists). When I arrive at this point in my life, then I can say my precious matriarchal inheritances have been honoured, and then I can sit back and exhale. Anything in my character that resembles less than this ‘Queendom’ as the rap diva Latifah names it, is me, is my shortcoming.  So for now, I continue to learn, to error, to relearn and to commit to growing.

For more information contact:

The Uganda Feminist Forum.

28 Aug


My three passions in life are womxn, Africa, and the arts. I was humbled to be invited and represent South Africa in 2019, Uganda Feminist Forum, which was in Jinja, Uganda. 

Background on UFF:
The Uganda Feminist Forum (UFF) was born out of several national and regional processes aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the feminist movement at the national and regional level. In 2005, womxn leaders and activists came together at a historic gathering in Jinja, Uganda under the auspices of Actionaid Uganda, Uganda women network and Akina Mama Wa Afrika. The meeting sought to map a way forward for the women’s movement in Uganda in the aftermath of a series of setback which culminated in the government ban of the play “The Vagina Monologues”. It was evident that serious intervention was needed to create space spaces for feminists on the continent. Thus the African feminist Forum was established and convened in Accra on November 2006. The Jinja participants joined forces with AFF and became the Uganda feminist Forum.

I documented the AFF, the link can be found here..

The UFF adopted the Charter of Feminist Principles for African feminists, which was developed by the AFF and provides the philosophical, aspirational and principle values that all who are members must uphold.
The charter can be found here:

The African Feminist Charter


This years forum was held 30 July to 1 August under the theme- ‘Silencing Our Fears and Fearing Our Silence”.The delegates included feminists and activists from across Uganda. there was also a Pan African delegation that included me, representing South Africa and Zimbabwe, Rwanda, India, and Kenya were represented.

My journey.
Please note that I have not added any names out of safety and respect for the delegates. 
I left South Africa in the early hours of July 30th, I connected via Nairobi, Kenya. On arrival at Entebbe airport, Myself and another delegate were collected and we embarked on our road trip to Jinja. The road trip took us an approximate three hours as we traveled in a northeast direction, we were blessed with experiencing the magnificent Ugandan landscape.
On arrival at our secret location, we were met with the wonderful staff from Akina Mama Wa Afrika. We checked into our cute chalets, equipped with two large beds, lounge, bathroom, all overlooking the majestic Victoria Lake.
In the dining hall, we began to meet the rest of our feminist tribe.

Day 1.
We began the day with meditation and African yoga. The session was led by one of the delegates, who is a certified yogi and a trauma healing and self-defense expert.
This was the perfect way to begin each day as it centered us for the next 10 to 12 hours. 
The day began with introductions, acknowledging the Feminist charter and discussion sessions as well as solutions.
The room was made up of feminists, lawyers, farmers, entrepreneurs, sex workers, doctors, activists. Powerful testimonies were shared by a few who had attended the first forum, it was noted that a lot of progress had been made from the initial forum, certain ignorant members walked at the presence of women who represented the LGBTQI community.


Through the discussion and panels, we looked at topics such as how do we handle life transitions from death, womanhood, pregnancy, menopause, etc. We focused on the lack of finance and resources that are made available to womxn in Africa, through a session titled- “Silence in the Economy”. We unraveled the shocking truths of womxn being paid half than their male counterparts especially in the private sector, one of the delegates highlighted the fact of womxn missing in critical spaces. An explanation was made of how tax is crucial for womxn to have access to social securities and the impact of Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs) to womxn. In Uganda, they lose to about 2 trillion UGX, approximately​ $541 960 000,00, to IFFs a year. This could fund the country’s​​ health budget.
For centuries, womxn have occupied spaces in the home, such as taking care of the aged, children, family and household, this constitutes as unpaid care work, we explored both the practical and theory behind it.

It was a powerful space where we learned from each other. From my perspective it was two-fold, I learned and understood the challenged from a Pan-African perspective and also learning from the younger feminists in the room.

The session which was led by women who represent Sex Workers of Uganda dealt with the challenges and realities. Through their participation at a South African conference held by Sonke Justice, they were able to benefit and gain additional knowledge. Understanding the need to invest capital in the industry, thus creating the sex workers conference. The positive outcomes led to empowered members on a financial and educational level. One of the women graduating with a Ph.D.
The next session we unpacked the economics of African feminism under power versus politics. The day also allowed for tributes to Sella Nyanzi and other Ugandan feminists who fought before us.

The second part of the day focused on packaging resistance in our territories. We all understand that many communities are aware of our rights but many of us cannot fight for them.
The rights of the Queer feminist were a centre point, which is an issue that resonates across the continent. We all need to create spaces and communities which allows for a safe and free living for all, that gives everyone respect without being questioned about one’s sexuality.

The quote for this session:
‘We ask not to be tolerated but to be respected as we unlearn rudely and patriarchal ideologies that are attached to the LGBTQI community.’

We looked at inter-generational feminism as we all acknowledge that there has been a historical muting of women through patriarchy. 
The quote of the session-

Feminism is a collective responsibly.

Day 2.
We started the day with meditation and Yoga and then broke into sessions of groups, with more panel discussions. Finding resolutions and way strategies that we need to apply in our personal spaces.
I sat on a panel with Maggie Kigozi, an investment Promotion Expert, an Entrepreneur, a farmer, and a feminist. She is Chairperson of the Africa Scout Foundation and Joyce Nangobi Rosemary, the founder of the Slum Women’s Initiative for Development in Jinja. I unpacked the realities and challenges from a South African perspective​ and why it is​ necessary for Pan African​ synergies within the feminist​ spaces​ so that we can learn for other territories​.

The last day culminated in a visit to the Nyonga Women’s Shelter and the Slum Women’s Initiative For Development (SWID).  
The Her-stories can be found here:

The Nyonga Women’s​ shelter:

​​For more information on how you can assist, please contact​ Akina Mama Wa Afrika


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: 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:

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.’