Described as a “woman of character” by her son, Kabaka (King) Sir Edward Mutesa II, Irene Drusilla Namaganda (1896–1957) was the earliest of the three queens who graced 20th-century Buganda. Yet quite independent of her personality, Namaganda was born, educated, and became queen during a momentous period in Buganda’s history. While occupying the office of queen mother following the death of her husband King Daudi Chwa II (1939), Namaganda became sexually involved with and pregnant by Simoni Petero Kigozi, a commoner almost twenty years her junior. For this behavior they were both tried for “An Abominable Crime” in a criminal court and pronounced guilty, and Namaganda was dethroned and sent into an internal exile. In later years, Namaganda converted to the radical Christianity of the Balokole movement. She died of uterus cancer in 1957 leaving behind a legacy of being first on many fronts but, above all, the first rebellious Buganda queen mother to ever be dethroned. Namaganda’s legacy also lies in her unmasking of the colonial misreadings of “native” protest strategies. Neither the colonialists nor the Buganda bureaucracy ever read Namaganda’s choice of becoming pregnant and subsequent strategies as a protest ploy aimed at exposing and ending the colonization of her body and the office she represented. Namaganda’s rebellion was neither a “simple palace matter,” “sad thing,” nor about sex or marriage, as it has been argued. It was about ending one form of patriarchal colonization (her body) and exposing the limitations of another (British).
Nakanyike B. Musisi
Beverly J. Stoeltje
The queen mothers of Asante are linked together with chiefs in a dual-gender system of leadership. The symbol of authority and leadership in Asante is a stool (like a throne in England). Throughout the polities of Asante, each queen mother occupies her own stool, and each chief occupies his own stool, representing the authority of chieftaincy in a town or a paramountcy. This political model shapes Asante like a pyramid: queen mothers and chiefs of towns and villages at the base, paramount queen mothers and chiefs at the next level with authority over those of towns and villages, and the king of Asante, the Asantehene, and the queen mother of Asante, the Asantehemaa, at the top ruling over all of Asante. The king of Asante occupies the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante nation, which holds the souls of the Asante people according to popular belief. Although the position of queen mother has survived challenges, the relative salience of specific features of her authority has varied. Colonialism ignored queen mothers, and yet Yaa Asantewaa led a war and became a symbol of Asante identity. When the global women’s movement provided inspiration, queen mothers joined together to reclaim their authority.
The life of Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011) was strongly shaped by her rural environment, missionary education, and exposure to university education in the United States and Germany. Her interactions with other women—her mother, teachers, and grassroots women—also had a great impact on her work and commitment. In the midst of enormous challenges and obstacles, she created a formidable Green Belt Movement (GBM) to empower grassroots women. By mobilizing women to plant and care for trees, Maathai changed the thinking and practices of conserving the environment at a time when dominant global thinking on the environment and women’s role in society was grappling for transformation. Hence the dynamics of local and international forces coalesced in the work of the GBM. Local experiences also infused global thinking and appreciation of struggles for democratic governance, peace, and sustainable development. Consequently, Professor Maathai’s ingenuity and persistence were widely recognized and honored, and earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Meron Zeleke Eresso
There are number of Ethiopian women from different historical epochs known for their military prowess or diplomatic skills, renowned as religious figures, and more. Some played a significant role in fighting against the predominant patriarchal value system, including Ye Kake Yewerdewt in the early 19th century. Born in Gurage Zone, she advocated for women’s rights and condemned many of the common cultural values and practices in her community, such as polygamy, exclusive property inheritance rights for male children and male family members, and the practice of arranged and forced marriage. Among the Arsi Oromo, women have been actively engaged in sociojudicial decision-making processes, as the case of the Sinqee institution, a women-led customary institution for dispute resolution, shows. This reflects the leading role and status women enjoyed in traditional Arsi Oromo society, both within the family and in the wider community. In Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in eastern Ethiopia, female Muslim scholars have played a significant role in teaching and handing down Islamic learning. One such religious figure was the Harari scholar Ay Amatullāh (1851–1893). Another prominent female religious figure from Arsi area, Sittī Momina (d. 1929), was known for her spiritual practices and healing powers. A shrine in eastern Ethiopia dedicated to Sittī Momina is visited by Muslim and Christian pilgrims from across the country. Despite the significant and multifaceted role played by women in the Ethiopian community, however, there is a paucity of data illustrating the place women had and have in Ethiopia’s cultural and historical milieu.
Ousseina D. Alidou and Halimatou Hima
Nigerien women played important cultural, economic, and political leadership roles throughout history. Women across ethnicities contributed to the economic life in precolonial Nigerien societies and their public presence in indigenous markets have been recorded by both Arab chroniclers as well as European colonial explorers, authorities, and historians. Women also occupied important positions in the political sphere and played important roles within their indigenous religious traditions and pantheons. The advent of Islam in the region in the 11th century changed the nature of preexisting spaces. However, a syncretism between Islam and indigenous religions developed, and this created yet another space for women across Nigerien ethnic groups to continue the preservation of some practices tied to their indigenous culture. As predominantly Muslims, most Nigerien women and men have been exposed to Arabic and Qur’anic literacy, and women of clerical lineage and those married to Qur’anic teachers have played a major role in the propagation of Islamic literacy in Nigerien precolonial societies, and continue to do so in the postcolonial dispensation. Ethnic and regional diversity accounts for the degree of authority that women may enjoy within the family structure, and women from rural and urban areas experience patriarchal structures in distinct ways. In relation to contemporary participation in political leadership, the year 1991, with the historic women’s march, marked a turning point in the history of women’s political leadership. The democratization process opened the way for multiparty democracy and greater women’s participation; it also fostered a religious pluralism that has engendered manifestations with women playing distinctive roles in the religious moral economy, including in minority religions. However, democratic pluralism has inadvertently created the conditions for the growth of violent religious fundamentalist movements undermining the rights of girls and women. Unequal gendered and power relations continue to hinder Nigerien women’s emergence at high levels of public leadership, with consequences for economic development and women’s rights. While there has been a steady increase in women’s participation in parliament and high-level appointed positions in government owing to a quota law, which was revisited in 2019, Nigerien women still have some way to go to achieve representative parity not only in politics but also in other public and private sectors of employment and elective positions in society. In terms of human development, Niger continues to register poor development indicators, especially those relating to women’s and girls’ welfare and well-being in rural areas including high rates of child marriage as well as high infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. The status of women in Nigerien societies continues to experience major mutations as women consolidate their roles as a visible and vocal political force as well as one of the main drivers of economic development.
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.
Sarah J. Zimmerman
African women are profoundly affected by warfare and its consequences in their societies. Militarization describes the violent processes that transform communities’ social, political, economic, and cultural spheres beyond the battlefield. These effects are gendered. Militarization transforms the social institutions that gender and define women’s personhood—marriage, motherhood, daughter, wife, widow, concubine, slave, domestic laborer, etc. Since these institutions are references for social continuity and discontinuity, conflict turns women into symbols of nationalistic significance and centers their procreative power and roles within regimes of morality. Militarization facilitates transformations in gendered roles and sexualities—women became soldiers and auxiliary wartime laborers, as well as the strategic targets of armed violence. Economic, social, and political status were key in determining women’s experiences of conflict and militarization. Elite women are often better-positioned to maintain their personal safety and access leadership roles in their communities during and after conflict. Low-status women were more vulnerable to enslavement, sexual/domestic violence, food insecurity, disease, displacement, and death. Women’s myriad experiences of militarization challenge false assumptions about the incontrovertible linkages between masculinity and belligerence or femininity and pacifism. Militarization alters how women realize optimal futures due to changes in gendered-access to authority, legal accountability, as well as perceptions of moral order and the division between public and domestic life. A handful of ancient and medieval noble women provide legendary exploits of warrior queens, who mobilized armies toward political unification or the defense of their societies. In several centralized African societies, noble women—as queen mothers or reign mates—constrained and bolstered the authority of male leaders. Dahomey fielded female regiments in battle. The warfare affiliated with long-distance slave trades and 19th-century state building created dichotomous experiences for elite and slave women. Elite African women depended on the resources generated from slave export, as well as benefited from the domestic and agricultural labor of captured and enslaved women. European colonization and the spread of monotheistic Abrahamic religions altered African women’s experiences of militarization. The gendered biases of written sources obscure the degree to which women participated in the militarization of their societies within political and/or religious conquest. Colonization normalized gender-restricted access to power and militancy, as well as entrenched patriarchy and gender dichotomies that equated masculinity with martiality and femininity with nonviolence. Anticolonial, revolutionary rhetoric championed African women’s participation in wars of decolonization—as freedom fighters and mothers within new nations. Women experienced great personal and communal violence in the postcolonial military dictatorships that prioritized patriarchal and violent power. During the 1990s, Western industries of humanitarianism and global media propagated stereotypical portrayals of African women as victims of male-perpetrated violence and as innate peacemakers. To the contrary, African women have played myriad roles in societies experiencing secessionist wars, military dictatorships, genocide, warlords, and Salafist militarization.
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.
Adelaide Smith Casely-Hayford (1868–1960) and her daughter Gladys May Casely-Hayford (Mrs. Kobina Hunter) (1904–1950) were a unique mother–daughter duo in 20th-century West African cultural history. They belonged to illustrious, multiethnic, coastal intercolony families linking them to European traders, indigenous Fante and Asante ruling houses, North American and West Indian settlers, and Liberated Africans relocated in Freetown in the 19th century. Educated in local mission schools and Britain, many in this group held high positions in the emergent colonial service, Christian missions, commercial firms, and modern legal and medical professions. Born in 1868 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Adelaide Smith Casely-Hayford spent most of her first twenty-two years in Britain where she had an elite upbringing and the type of education deemed suitable for a young woman of her class. Twice before her marriage to Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford, a lawyer from the Gold Coast, she returned for brief periods to Freetown where she tried her hand at teaching. After her marriage, she resided in the Gold Coast, where she felt culturally alienated, finding relief in two long visits to Britain. After a legal separation from her husband in 1914, she returned to Freetown where she flourished, gaining an international reputation as a writer, educator, traveler, and public figure. Her daughter Gladys May was born in the Gold Coast in 1904 with a malformed hip joint that inhibited mobility. After her parents’ separation, Gladys’s visits to her father were a source of contention with her mother, sometimes curtailed by demands that she return to Freetown. Educated at the el-ite Annie Walsh Memorial School in Freetown and two girls’ schools in England, Gladys’ disinterest in further education put her at odds with her mother’s ambitions for her future career. Further, Gladys’s involvement in popular cultural activities was a source of contention. Whereas Adelaide was extremely class and color conscious, by her own assessment “a bit of a snob,” Gladys was equalitarian and delighted in mixing with ordinary people wherever she was. She became a journalist, produced theatrical performances, and quietly developed as an artist and poet, even hiding some of her drawings and poems during her lifetime. Only after her death in 1950 did her family discover her artwork and a cache of 350 poems. Now a noted Sierra Leonean critic ranks her as an accomplished poet and one of the first to write in Krio. In the first half of the 20th century, few West African, western-educated, elite women achieved public influence outside their immediate society, whereas some West African women in “traditional” polities wielded power and influence as paramount chiefs, titled women, religious authorities, and resistance leaders. Rarely did educated elite women acknowledge their influential sisters. During her lifetime, Adelaide Casely-Hayford helped to shape girls’ education, cultural nationalism, and the formation of African identity in anglophone West Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, but also in the United States. Her daughter Gladys Casely-Hayford (later Hunter) was a pioneer Sierra Leone artist, dramatist, and poet who enthusiastically embraced popular Krio culture.
Disease control and public health have been key aspects of social and political life in sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial. With variations across space and time, many societies viewed disease as the result of imbalances in persons and societies and combined the use of materia medica from the natural world, spiritual divination, and community healing to redress these imbalances. While early encounters between African and European healing systems were still marked by mutual exchanges and adaptations, the emergence of European germ theory-based biomedicine and the establishment of racialized colonial states in the 19th century increasingly challenged the value of African therapeutic practices for disease control on the continent. Initially, colonial states focused on preserving the health of European soldiers, administrators, and settlers, who were deemed particularly vulnerable to tropical climate and its diseases. Around 1900, however, they started paying more attention to diseases among Africans, whose health and population growth were now deemed crucial for economic development and the legitimacy of colonial rule. Fueled by new insights and techniques provided by tropical medicine, antisleeping sickness campaigns would be among the first major interventions. After World War I, colonial health services expanded their campaigns against epidemic diseases, but also engaged with broader public health approaches that addressed reproductive problems and the social determinants of both disease and health. Colonial states were not the only providers of biomedical healthcare in colonial Africa. Missionary societies and private companies had their own health services, with particular logics, methods, and focuses. And after 1945, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) increasingly invested in health campaigns in Africa as well. Moreover, Africans actively participated in colonial disease control, most notably as nurses, midwives, and doctors. Nevertheless, Western biomedicine never gained hegemony in colonial Africa. Many Africans tried to avoid or minimize participation in certain campaigns or continued to utilize the services of local healers and diviners, often in combination with particular biomedical approaches. To what extent colonial disease control impacted on disease incidence and demography is still controversially debated.