As a system of identity, African masculinity is much more than a cluster of norms, values, and behavioral patterns expressing explicit and implicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others. It also refers to more than how African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are constituted in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. African masculinities, as historical subjects embodying distinctive socially constructed gender and sexual identities, have been both male and female. By occupying a masculine sociopolitical position, embodying masculine social traits, and performing cultural deeds socially construed and symbolized as masculine, African men and women have constituted masculinity. Across various African societies and times, there have been multiple and conflicting notions of masculinities, promoted by local and foreign institutions, and there have been ceaseless contestations and synergies among the various forms of hegemonic, subordinate, and subversive African masculinities. Men and women have frequently brought their own agendas to bear on the political utility of particular notions of masculinity. Through such performances of masculinity, Africans have constantly negotiated the institutional power dynamics of gender relations. So, the question is not whether Africans worked with gender binaries, because they did. As anthropologist John Wood puts it, African indigenous logic of gender becomes evident in the juxtaposition, symbolic reversals, and interrelation of opposites. Rather, one should ask, why and how did African societies generate a fluid gender system in which biological sex did not always correspond to gender, such that anatomically male and female persons could normatively occupy socially constructed masculine and feminine roles and vice versa? And how did African mutually constitutive gender and sexuality constructions shape African societies?
Ndubueze L. Mbah
Noémia de Sousa (1926–2002) is traditionally designated as the founding mother of Mozambican national poetry. She was the only woman poet in Mozambique to play a major role in shaping the cultural imaginary of the Portuguese African nationalisms that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Her early life as a woman of mixed African, European, and Goan racial heritage, and the education this racial status afforded her, drew her into writing and journalism in opposition to the colonial regime of the Portuguese New State. Her first and only poetry collection, Sangue Negro (Black blood), was completed and circulated clandestinely in 1951. She was subsequently exiled to Lisbon, and from there to Paris, returning to Portugal in 1973, shortly before the April 1974 Revolution. The contents of Sangue Negro were circulated, in the original and in translation, largely through specific selected poems in African nationalist anthologies. Divided into five sections, the poems of Sangue Negro mix oral and literary tropes and influences. They deal with issues of racial hybridity and colonial assimilation, African American and Pan-Africanist influences in Mozambique, Portuguese Neorealism and Marxist resistance, autobiographical memories and testimonies, and the specificity of women’s political voice. The literary establishment’s reception of de Sousa in 1960s Mozambique was generally dismissive. Her work was also afforded relatively minor status in foundational anglophone accounts of the Lusophone African canon, such as those by Russel Hamilton and Patrick Chabal. The Marxist sociologist critic, Alfredo Margarido was an important exception in this regard and an early champion of her work. In the 1990s, de Sousa was progressively validated and incorporated into the canonization of black, Pan-Africanist, and Negritudinist writers by critics such as Pires Laranjeira in Portugal. Since the 1990s she has received more in-depth, gender-informed attention in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, the United States, and the United Kingdom, consolidating her international status as a pioneering woman’s voice in Africa’s literary history of national liberation struggle. Her poetry collection Sangue Negro was reprinted by the Mozambican Writers’ Association (AEMO) in a new edition in 2001, for the first time since the 1951 original.
Any account of women and food history in sub-Saharan Africa must be complicated by two main factors: first, the multitude and complexity of African societies and their interactions with the different colonial powers over five centuries, and, second, by an underestimation of the importance of women’s activities by researchers imbued with colonial patriarchal ideologies. In prehistoric and precolonial times, only glimpses of women’s roles in food production and gathering can be seen, drawing on evidence from historical linguistics, ethnography, anthropology, and archaeology. What evidence there is suggests that women’s participation in these tasks was important. The written account of Ibn Battutah and the oral epic of Sundiata provide some information about what was eaten and Sundiata does point to women’s major role in growing food and in cooking. During the colonial period, from about 1500 to the 1960s, many accounts from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa stress how women played a dominant part in the farming, processing, preparation, and cooking of food. There was a varied and often complex division of labor between men and women. Instead of the more rigid gendered private/public divide often seen in the West, women in Africa have engaged in wider roles in the public sphere, for example, in the processing of food for sale. There are some indications that women’s work was changed by the introduction of new crops from Asia and the Americas. Colonial governments favored men working on cash crops so that women focused even more on the provision of food for the family. Women also showed great adaptability in assessing and using new technologies such as peanut processing machines. Cooking has remained predominantly a woman’s occupation in sub-Saharan Africa and a divide between a “high” cuisine, mainly in the hands of men outside Africa, and a “low” or humble cuisine, has not developed. Cookery books are very useful sources for evidence of the history of women’s domestic role. Those published for European settler wives in the colonial period were focused on the housewife rooted in the home and this ideology of domesticity can be found in the cookery books of postcolonial Africa. After independence, the ruling elites of African nations set about constructing discourses of national identity, flags and anthems particular to each nation, and women have contributed to this nation-building by assembling national cuisines. Since the 1980s, an epidemic of obesity has occurred in many African urban areas, with associated chronic disease, which women have suffered more than men. An ideal image of a plumper body, along with the introduction of “fast food,” has contributed to this situation. Women have also been disadvantaged by cultural food taboos in which certain foods are prohibited to them.
Susanne M. Klausen
Fertility has long been highly prized in Africa, especially in societies where economic production depended mainly on human labor power. In addition to their role as future workers, children were crucial for, inter alia, securing lineages, providing social security, and ensuring spiritual safekeeping. Women were therefore expected to produce offspring. For them, bearing children was elemental to their social identity, security, and status; failing to reproduce could be calamitous. For both women and their husbands, infertility was often stigmatizing, but women usually bore the brunt of blame for involuntary childlessness and therefore could suffer especially devastating social consequences, such as divorce and ostracism. Managing fertility involved a wide range of reproductive practices. Africans believed infertility was caused by supernatural forces; consequently they sought assistance from spirit mediums and traditional healers to help women achieve or maintain fecundity. Postpartum women practiced birth spacing to ensure infants’ health, achieved through sexual abstinence and prolonged breastfeeding. Because premarital pregnancy was often a serious violation of social norms, youth were typically taught ways to avoid conception while engaging in premarital sex play. Women procured abortions using a variety of methods, including ingestion of plant-based concoctions and extreme manual pressure to kill the fetus. Childbirth, though feared for the risk involved, was typically a welcomed event although the social context for birth varied according to culture and social organization. In some societies, midwives attended women, whereas in others, solitary birth was the ideal. The reproductive politics and practices of precolonial societies informed those of the colonial era, which in turn helped shape postcolonial Africa. Western incursions into African societies had uneven effects on indigenous practices related to reproductive health, fertility control, and childbirth. While some indigenous ideas and practices persist, others, such as post-partum sexual abstinence, have been severely undermined.
In the history of religion in Africa, women have contributed richly to the diversity of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic spiritual practices prevalent within their communities. As mediums, healer-diviners, ministers, mystics, prophets, poets, priestesses, theologians, and spiritual advisors, they are integral to the creation and maintenance of possession cults and other indigenous religious societies, Islamic Sufi orders, mainline and African-initiated churches, as well as new and emerging Christian and Islamic movements. Often inhabiting pluralistic worlds, women weave together creative and dynamic spiritual tapestries that give their lives coherence. An investigation into the experiences of women reveals spaces of agency and constraint, portraits of women’s intimate encounters with the divine, accounts of women’s indigenization of Christianity and reform of Islam, stories of discrimination and of healing, struggles to create more liberating theologies, and stories of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.
Writing on women in Nigeria is an ambitious venture, considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups that make up Nigeria, and the historical antecedents and cultural particularities of the various ethnic groupings. Women in Nigeria can, therefore, be studied more appropriately within the historical trajectory of the continent of Africa, by examining the different nationalities that constituted “Nigeria” in the early 20th century, and finally through the dissection of identities, power, and the experiences of diverse categories of women in postcolonial Nigeria. There is a need to avoid undue generalizations about women in Nigeria. In postcolonial Nigeria, women’s experiences are differentiated based on the extent to which the superimposition or assimilation of external cultural traits—which manifest along class lines, the rural-urban divide, ethnicity, and religion—have altered indigenous lifeways. Africa’s contact with the Arabian world in the 7th century impacted on women’s experiences in areas where the Islamic religion was introduced. Prior to the contact of Africa with the European world in the 15th century and the subsequent imposition of British rule, what became “Nigeria” in the early 20th century were disparate groups with different cultural, political, and historical configurations. The amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914 gave birth to “Nigeria.” These historical events redefined and reshaped the place and participation of women in society. In precolonial Nigeria, women enjoyed certain privileges, prestige, and recognition, which colonialism and emerging Western economic rationality later undermined. Women-led protests against the colonial administration were prevalent and led to policy changes intended to take women into account in government policies. In postcolonial Nigeria, women confront the forces of tradition, modernity, and the neo-patriarchy, forces that contend with their drive for self-definition, while they struggle, against all odds, to remain afloat.
In precolonial Africa, relations between women and men were varied, changing, and culturally specific, yet there were some common themes. Most African societies attempted to attain forms of heterarchy, which meant they often created several centers of authority and aspired to establish communities where gender relations between women and men were equitable. Additionally, throughout history most Africans determined status by the amount of labor a group or individual could control, and in a historically underpopulated continent, this meant that motherhood and giving birth to children was very important. The result is that women, as both biological and social mothers and as grandmothers, were highly respected throughout the history of the continent. The earliest ancestors of modern humans originated in Africa, and so the history of women starts earlier in Africa than anywhere else, probably around 200,000 bce. Anthropologists of early humanity have proposed that the most successful human families in the earliest eras were based on family units that situated grandmothers at the center, a family structure found in many parts of Africa in the early 21st century. Around 5,500 years ago, a small group of Bantu-speaking people migrated from West Africa and over time populated large portions of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Heterarchy and gender equity were features of most Bantu-speaking societies. Their worldviews were manifested in the matrilineal social structure that most Bantu societies preferred until recent history. Even the earliest empires in Africa, Nubia and Egypt, were organized matrilineally. The West African Sahel empires from 700 ce were also matrilineal, and there is a long history of Muslim African female rulers. However, with the creation of empires and more centralized societies, hierarchy among some societies replaced heterarchy. This change motivated a shift in gender relations: Women from elite lineages maintained their status, while other women tended to lose their traditional positions of authority as mothers and elders within their clans. Overall, the Atlantic slave trade severely challenged heterarchical social relations and threatened women’s authority and status in West Africa. Another element of this period is the transference of African gender relations to the Americas. During the 19th century, as Europeans arrived in greater numbers, they imposed new gender ideologies as they began to structure how the rest of the world viewed Africans. From the so-called White Man’s Burden to Social Darwinism, new definitions of the Other placed African women at the bottom of this new social order. While women played key roles in the long term history of Africa, the Western analysis of African gender dynamics began to inform colonial policies, dominate world opinion, and shape academic research.