The Role of A Woman In African Traditional Society;All Facts And Myth.

The Role of A Woman In African Traditional Society.To understand women’s place in ancient African societies, we must of course examine their place in the family as just defined. But the African continent, with its vast expanses and its multitude of historical-social-cultural or “ethnic” groups, spans a broad spectrum of types of familial communities. There is no one model that describes “the African family,” much less a “position of women” in such a family. Nonetheless, one can discern certain main tendencies, colored by regional differences.

The Role of A Woman In African Traditional Society;All Facts And Myth.

If we exclude the early colonization of South Africa, which created cities and mining towns, until about the middle of the twentieth century the great majority of Africans were rural people. They were cattle herders, farmers,and occasionally humcr-gathcrcrs and foragers, such as the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest or the Kalahari Desert San. A clear but not rigid division of labor existed between men and women. Usually, men were responsible for war and long-distance trade, helped clear land, hunted, and ran political affairs. Women took care of agriculture, household tasks such as supplying water and firewood, nearby gardening, and small-scale subsistence and neighborhood trading. At the same time, women were entirely responsible for the work connected with reproduction and had an almost biologically maximal fertility rate—an average of one child every three years.1

Inheritance of goods and power was unequal between men and women.

Inheritance of goods and power was unequal between men and women. The great division was the opposition between patrilineality and matrilincal-ity, with many local variations dependent on whether the couple went to live with the husband s family (patrilocal) or (less commonly) with the wife’s (matrilocal). In matrilineal traditions, where inheritance passed not from father to son but from uncle to sister s son, rather than enjoying power women passed it on to the men in their families and were sometimes privileged as “mother of the chief.”

Polygamy, doubtless linked with womens important dual role as pro* ducer and reproducer, was very widespread. This position, glorified—as in all agrarian societies—as both symbol and reality of fertility, was one of the pillars of marriage. In contrast to the situation in ancient Chinese society, the birth of girls was valued, although less than that of boys. For the family receiving her, whether birth family (for matrilocal societies) or future in-laws (for patrilocal ones), a girl was a source of wealth—a promise of work and a guarantee of children. Thus women had social value, and with the moneta-rization of the economy this became market value. In any case, women always had political value if their fathers employed it judiciously. They were used by society and thus objectified.

Women Are used by society in Africa as objectified.The Role of A Woman In African Traditional Society

Ordinary polygamy meant only two to ten wives, if only because of their cost. It contrasted with the more extensive polygamy of chiefs, which was used for political domination. The king of the Ganda, in central Africa, is said to have possessed several hundred and even thousands of wives; Mutcsa, in the nineteenth century, had three or four hundred. Any lineage aspiring to political office did well to give several of its daughters to the king. The man who wanted a favor or pardon for an offense would offer one or two daughters.

In addition, once a year the king sent his agents to gather female attendants for his wives in every province, keeping the best for himself. He also chose wives and slaves from among war prisoners, gathering around him a female elite of bakembuga, a tangible expression of his power.2 He might then give some of them to his chiefs, using women as prizes within the political hierarchy. On the Niger plateau around 1832-1833, the chief of the Igala is said to have had 2,000 wives. At the beginning of the twentieth century King Njoya of the Bamum of Cameroon had 1,200, of whom at least 120 were precisely identified. At his death in the early 1930s he left 163 living children of the 350 he had apparently fathered.5 In 1960 the Kuba’s sovereign in Zaire had 600 wives.4 Women of the aristocracy were not a workforce for the great chiefs. Although occasionally invested with administrative or military functions, they commonly lived together in a special place, conducted royal ceremonies, and at most supervised an army of female servants and slaves who took care of the palace’s and the king $ daily needs. Women in this category were of course an exception.

Daily Life of African Women

Africa is too large and its types of social organization too varied to allow a detailed description of “the” African woman’s tasks. As in all societies, male supremacy was both ideologically and effectively a reality, and the public sphere, considered the most prestigious, was reserved for men. Women’s domain was domestic life in the broadest sense: not just the house, as in the West, but the whole household’s subsistence—the household being the basic unit of production and consumption. In eastern and southern Africa, where human settlements were widely scattered, the household usually consisted of a woman and her children, possibly including her dependents and slaves; the husband came to visit each of his wives in turn.

It might, however, be a group of households in a village, usually small in forested parts of Africa (at the most a few hundred inhabitants) and larger in western Africa (where numbers could exceed a thousand). In both cases, each wife, autonomous to some degree, had her food stores and her kitchen; she managed her own fields and sometimes her own herd of cattle. Yet she remained tied to the head of the family, who was responsible for overall production.

Whether in forest or savanna, in nation-state or decentralized society, or among farmers or herders, peasant women’s work was organized in the same way. First, it was mainly women who farmed. Today field work is largely done by men in only a few regions, mainly in West Africa, and this has probably always been true. Men traditionally used the hoc for subsistence production only along the southern border of the Sahara, for example, among the Songhai of Mali or the Hausa of Nigeria, where women were allowed outside only after sunset.

Among the Hausa, women were even secluded according to a peculiarly urban custom that is said to have been introduced by the sultan of Kano in 1485 but became more common as Islam spread. Men were farmers among the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria, but among their Igbo neighbors to the southeast it was women who worked in the fields.5 Among the Fon of Benin, working the land, while not forbidden, was considered improper for women because their jobs beyond gardening were trade and handicrafts, especially indigo dying, and, long ago, transporting goods as needed for trading. Everywhere else, even where field work was done by both sexes, as on the Tonga plateau (in what is now southern Zambia),6 the hoe was generally a women’s tool.

Men used axes to chop down trees and sometimes another tool called the nton, a kind of shovel with a very long handle used by the Beti of forested Cameroon.7 Can we conclude from this that hoeing made agriculture womens work and that the introduction of the plow (as in North Africa and Asia) almost automatically implied men’s participation in it?* In sub-Saharan Africa, men’s turning to agricultural work was a late consequence of “modernization.” Mechanized and skilled labor was monopolized by men because it required some capital, while hand labor fell to women, who needed only their centuries-old knowledge in order to do it.

Gender division of labor was still the rule. In nineteenth-century Kikuyu-land (now Kenya), for example, as in most of central and eastern Africa, over vast grassland plateaus, women and girls cultivated and prepared food while men and boys mainly kept herds of goats and sheep and later cattle. It was always women, however, who milked the cows and made butter, as among the Nucr (now in Sudan) or among the Fula of western Africa.

Men were responsible for making war, which was often connected with agriculture; the long fallow periods required by poor soils (Fifteen or twenty years if not more) meant a semi-itinerant form of agriculture and the occasional wresting of new lands from neighbors. Some kinds of agricultural work were done by men because of the physical strength required, such as the heavy labor of clearing land for planting; cutting down a single tree could take two men an entire day. Other tasks were performed by men and women together, for example, preparing the soil after clearing and sometimes even the first planting. Men, with the possible help of their wives, grew particular foods such as sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and bananas among the Kikuyu, yams and watermelons’ among the Beti, yams among the Baule of Cote d’Ivoire, and peanuts in Senegal. It was also their task to dig trenches and build drainage systems, bridges, and trails.

In Kenya, Masai men, as in other herding cultures, kept raising and selling of herd animals to themselves, though their wives had to milk. A Luo proverb has it that “herding is better than farming as the man is better than the woman.”10 To women were relegated all other tasks: sowing grain and beans, daily hoeing, harvesting, transporting and storing surplus, milking cows and caring for smaller animals, pounding millet and preparing cassava flour and millet beer.*’ Women also did the laundry for the entire household and the daily chores of supplying water and firewood for the kitchen. Water was often located at the bottom of a ravine and wood in the bush where it had to be gathered with the help of children (little boys included). Everywhere in Africa where water is not piped into homes (that is, in most rural areas), the best one can hope for is a trip to the village water faucet. Women and children make these daily supply trips to this day.

by Abdullah Sam
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