In the open marketplaces found in cities and villages throughout Africa, women traders usually predominate. This gives women considerable weight as economic actors, because these marketplace systems are the primary distributive networks in most parts of Africa. A large proportion of Africa’s consumer goods and foodstuffs move through their intricate chains of intermediaries, which can include market retailers, neighborhood shops, street vendors, wholesalers, and travelers who collect goods from farms, factories, and ports. Although the vast majority of women traders live at or below the poverty line, some have risen to powerful positions that earn them the sobriquet of queen.
Different regions of Africa show distinctive patterns of trading practices and of men and women’s participation in specific trading roles, reflecting specific gendered histories of precolonial trade, colonial interventions, and waves of national policy. These variations arise not from some primordial isolation, but from traders’ varied positioning within longstanding trade relations that have linked Africans since ancient times between regions, across the Sahara Desert and over adjoining oceans. Women’s trading roles are more highly developed in western Africa than in eastern, northern, and southern Africa, where precolonial trading patterns were more radically disrupted by conquest, land appropriation, and apartheid.
Ideologies and arenas of practice such as Islam, Christianity, modernization, socialism, structural adjustment, and globalization likewise shape the constraints and opportunities facing women traders in any given situation. Because these influences operate around the globe, though not uniformly, they to some extent create parallel or convergent trends in widely separated nations. Deepening economic pressures today push even more women and men into trading to support their families and sustain the hope of prosperity. Market women struggle individually and collectively to keep their communities going under difficult circumstances that make formal economic channels function poorly. Their determined efforts give African economies more resilience as they respond to the challenges of war, political instability, and climate change.
Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué
From 1958 to 1961, Kom women in western Cameroon cast aside their regular domestic and agricultural duties to engage in a revolt against British administrative interference in agriculture—normally their domain—and the alleged plan by the ruling political party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), to sell Kom land to Nigerian Igbos. In keeping with the practices of anlu, a centuries-old women’s organization generally deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, women interfered with burial rituals; hurled insults at men in public; demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets; set up roadblocks; destroyed and burned property; and defied both traditional and British authorities in the Bamenda Grassfields of western Cameroon. Their tactics included stripping naked in front of men. While local men considered the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent and thus understood the seriousness of the revolt, flabbergasted British officials had no idea what was to come. By seizing control of resources and demonstrating in public, Kom women disturbed local political power, and protested against British rule in the Southern Cameroons. They were a crucial force in the victory of the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in 1961, which brought a restoration of political order at the time of independence.
The Amazons in general come from Greek legend and myth without any palpable historical evidence. However, there is no doubt about the historical female fighters of the erstwhile Kingdom of Dahomey (Danhome or Danxome) in West Africa, which survived until their defeat by the French colonial forces in 1893. The history of the historical Amazons of the Kingdom of Dahomey stems from vast amounts of oral tradition collected and analyzed over the years, as well as written accounts by Europeans who happened to have visited the kingdom or lived on the West African coast since Dahomey’s foundation in the 17th century to its demise in the late 19th century. These sources have been reviewed and debated by several scholars (including Amélie Degbelo, Stanley B. Alpern, Melville J. Herskovits, Hélène d’Almeida-Topor, Boniface Obichere, Edna G. Bay, Robin Law, Susan Preston Blier, Auguste Le Herisse, etc.), who may or may not agree on the narrative of the founding of the kingdom or the genesis of female fighters in the Dahomean army. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that the female forces traditionally called Ahosi/Mino did exist and fought valiantly in many of Dahomey’s battles against their neighbors (Oyo, Ouemenou, Ouidah, etc.) and France. The history of the Ahosi/Mino is intricately linked to the origins and political and social development of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Ahosi/Mino are still celebrated in the oral traditions of the Fon.
Jessica Catherine Reuther
The modern-day Republic of Benin in West Africa was historically a patchwork of precolonial kingdoms and acephalous zones. In the 17th century, the kingdom of Dahomey formed in the south central interior plateau region of modern-day Benin. In the 18th century, Dahomey grew to become the dominant regional power. Dahomey’s women were famed globally for their roles as government ministers, queen mothers, and warriors. Women had multiple means through which to achieve various forms of power. Women’s power was multi-faceted during the precolonial era; however, these women’s power required proximity to the king and incorporation into the royal palace.
During the colonial era from 1894–1960, women had much fewer opportunities to achieve positions of formal power. After the conquest of the Slave Coast region in the 1890s, France established a colony named after the kingdom of Dahomey. Women’s roles in politics declined rapidly as part of the shift from the precolonial to colonial systems of governance. This shift continued a trend though, already unfolding in the 19th century, that reduced women’s power in the royal palace. Few women rose to formal positions of authority in collaboration with the French colonial administration. Colonialism irrevocably transformed gendered systems of power and authority in ways that removed Dahomean women from officially sanctioned positions of power. Despite these restrictions, Dahomean women always found ways to express their agendas and exert influence over the colonial government. During the colonial era, market women, in particular, found ways to protest colonial policies and developed gendered strategies of activism.
In 1960, Dahomey gained independence from France and was renamed Benin in 1972. Beninese women have struggled to regain their active roles in political life. Since the end of the Cold War and the transition from socialism to democracy in the 1990s, individual Beninese women who had access to education and the opportunity to study and work for extended periods of time have managed to once again participate in national politics. However, they remain a disadvantaged minority in electoral politics.
Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country, is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups with complicated historical entanglements along the Upper Guinea Coast and across European and Afro-Atlantic orbits. Generalizations about women’s lives, given both the longue durée of its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history and the diversity of its social systems, are quite easily countered by contradictory—or at least more nuanced—renderings. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern some broad commonalities and continuities, especially in market-related roles and activities. Guinean women have been enterprising traders—sometimes gaining economic and political prominence—since precolonial times and throughout the prolonged Portuguese colonial presence in the region. In particular, Luso-African women, known as nharas, revolutionized and dominated trade in coastal settlements from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but their political and economic autonomy was ultimately curtailed by increasingly repressive colonial policies.
Guinea-Bissau’s unique struggle for independence—spearheaded by the revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral and achieved through an 11-year military struggle against the Portuguese—opened up opportunities for women’s liberation from both Portuguese colonialism and customary patriarchal strictures. Although Guinean women participated in the Luta da Libertação in unprecedented ways, they struggled to maintain an active role in nation-building after formal independence in 1974. The Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde’s (PAIGC) rhetorical commitment to gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise in the postcolonial period, as chronic political instability, deleterious economic policies, and largely unfavorable structural adjustment programs have tended to worsen women’s overall conditions. Women have continued to carve out creative roles in an expanding neoliberal marketplace, often becoming intrepid—although always precarious—players in the informal sector. Although women have gained several protective legislative rights since independence—such as the prohibition of forced and child marriage, and easier access to divorce—these have been implemented unevenly. Guinea-Bissau’s human development indicators are among the lowest in the world, especially for women: life expectancy for women is 59 years, childbirth is the leading cause of women’s mortality, and literacy among women is at 44 percent. The failure of the postcolonial state to fulfill Cabral’s egalitarian vision has not only marginalized women’s political and economic status within the country, it may have contributed to the overall weakening of key state institutions, ultimately enticing international narco-traffickers to its shores in the early 21st century and entrenching a drug economy amidst the ruins of the country’s capital city. The gendered roots of Guinea-Bissau’s present woes cannot be ignored.
Mary H. Moran
Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847.
As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.
Catherine Cymone Fourshey
A predominantly rural territory with few urban centers historically, the Gambia holds little in the way of well-known luxury resources commonly discussed in studies of western Africa. People of the region, in particular women, have exploited both riverine and oceanic food and material resources. The limited scholarship available on Gambian women reveals they have been essential to those endeavors contributing to economy, politics, society, and family institutions. Often by pursuing seemingly less-lucrative endeavors, women have been prominent actors innovating production and acquisition techniques as well as product uses in this mixed agricultural and aquatic economy, from precolonial to contemporary times. Despite few raw materials or luxury resources, and in certain contexts great limits on their authority, women of the Gambia River region were central to economic life historically, developing household food production and trading their surplus agricultural, aquatic, and manufactured goods. In different eras and contexts, Gambian women have been agricultural innovators and technologists; catchers, processors, and traders of aquatic resources; merchants of manufactured and crafted items; and educators. In essence, they created intellectual, economic, and artisanal opportunities for themselves and others in their communities. These activities allowed women to influence and propel economic and political agendas over time. In particular, women have been credited with critical developments in rice production technologies going back at least to the 16th century, though women’s expertise in this realm likely has much deeper historical roots. This knowledge and set of skills related to rice agriculture made Mandinka women of the Gambia River region critical to West Africa’s Upper Guinea coast and also to life in the Americas as enslaved producers. Mandinka women and men became a large demographic represented in southeastern US plantations and communities because of their well-developed techniques in rice cultivation. Gambian women significantly influenced the eastern and western Atlantic worlds.
The modern-day nation of The Gambia, which achieved independence in 1965, is a relatively small territory hugging the banks of Gambia River for a narrow fifteen miles from the north and south banks. Starting 300 miles inland to the east (upriver), the river flows west into the Atlantic Ocean (downriver). Looking back in time at this region bordering the river, it is important to consider Gambian women’s lives over time in the context of both centralized and non-centralized political units. In the orbit of centralized states such as Ghana (4th–13th centuries), Takrur (9th–14th centuries), Mali (13th–15th centuries), and Jolof (14th–16th centuries), women (and men) negotiated shifting expectations over time. Certainly Gambian women have been born into, circulated among, or married within several local cultural and linguistic traditions that include Aku, Bambara, Fula, Jola, Mandinka, Manjago, Serahulle, Serer, and Wollof. However, scholars have written more about women and gender for these groups in neighboring countries. Non-centralized political and social affiliations typically provided women a great deal of authority and autonomy. However, most positions and statuses women were privy to historically were reshaped and often greatly diminished from the 19th century onward due to processes of the slave trade, Islamization, and European colonialization. With the rise of Atlantic-world trade small numbers of coastal Gambian River women expanded their spheres of influence and wealth by forming both marital and economic alliances with Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British men. By the 20th century a number of women pursued various forms and levels of education in efforts to increase their opportunities in the social, political, and economic arenas. In essence, in each historical era women of the Gambia River have sought out knowledge, expertise, and skills in order to achieve their ambitions regardless of the political, religious, or social order dominant at the time.
Across West Africa up to the 19th century, titled positions for women ensured that women’s interests could be voiced and their disputes regulated. Women often had major roles as brokers and intermediaries in trade centers along the Saharan and Atlantic littorals, contributing to the emergence of powerful Euro-African families. Nevertheless, women were particularly vulnerable to the depredations of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades. Because female labor was so highly valued, female slaves were more expensive than male slaves. The history of women in West Africa has been characterized by marked differences by ecological zone. Those differences have been deepened by Islamic influences in the North and by different experiences under French, British, and Portuguese rule. With the decline in the Atlantic trade and the growing emphasis upon commodity production, the demand for female labor in agriculture and in processing rose. Under colonial rule, the loss of slave labor was partially offset by increasing demands upon the labor of wives. Women mediated demands upon their labor through colonial courts, with some success in the early decades of the 20th century. Later courts and administrators supported patriarchal controls upon women in the interests of order and a smoothly running economy. Women’s control over their traditional means of accumulating wealth through farming, cloth production, and specialized crafts was typically undermined as economies shifted to emphasize cash crop production and tree crops in particular. Women nevertheless could flourish in market trade and could sometimes gain control over new niches in the economy. The growth of colonial infrastructure had contradictory implications. Women’s traditionally important roles as queens, priestesses, and ritual specialists declined in importance. At the same time, schooling gave some women access to new means of gaining income and prestige as teachers and medical practitioners.
Women’s involvement in the processes of state formation is marked by a strong ambivalence in Guinea: female political mobilizations appear as an indispensable advantage for state power when they are deployed in support of it, but these mobilizations can likewise disrupt and generate major problems for the state when they are directed against it. The efficacy of female political involvement is closely linked to the historiography of relationships between women and the state in Guinea, a country that helped construct an image of female activism outside of areas considered to be exclusively political, and as a guarantor of social justice.
During the colonial period, as was the case for many other countries under French colonial rule, the influence of women was restricted to the domestic sphere: once households ceased to constitute a political resource for the colonial regimes (in contrast to the precolonial era), the influence that women were able to wield within, for example, matrimonial alliances was considerably reduced. Yet, women played a highly important role in nationalist conflicts and under the regime of Sékou Touré, who served as Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Presented as the “women’s man,” Touré sought high integration of women into his political party, based on structures inspired by the Soviet socialist model. This was a Guinean political originality. In this context, even though women were given official prominence, their demands nonetheless drew on conservative models that relied on a politicization of the maternal figure. Yet the domestic and apolitical character of female mobilization still lends it a spontaneous efficacy in a context in which laws supporting women are seldom enforced and in which the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for women due to male emigration and inequalities in property rights.
The Women’s War of 1929, known among Igbo women as Ogu Umunwanyi, occurred from November 23 to January 10, 1930. It was a resistance movement whereby women in the Eastern Provinces of the British colony of Nigeria intended to reverse colonial policies that intruded on their political, economic, and social participation in local communities. Women participants included predominantly Igbo and Ibibio women; however, Ogoni and Andoni women, among others, participated. Whereas the British system of indirect rule on paper intended to institute political control with minimal intrusion on African societies, colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria significantly contributed to redefining women’s position in society, which meant colonialism’s political changes led to a range of consequences for women’s work and daily lives that extended well beyond politics. In addition, the British colonial government imposed an almost completely alien political system of autocratic warrant chiefs on societies that in the past practiced a political system with diffused political authority shared across several positions, organizations, and gender.
Shortly after World War I, the British colonial army in eastern Nigeria defeated the last major resistance to colonial rule, the Ekumeku rebellion. In the ensuing decade, resistance to colonial rule continued, but Africans altered their tactics and women featured prominently in anticolonial resistance when cultural changes tended to disadvantage women. The Women’s War of 1929 marked an apex in women’s resistance in Eastern Nigeria to colonial rule. The War began in the rural town of Oloko when Igbo women suspected the colonial government intended to use warrant chiefs and the native court system to implement a new tax on women, which they believed the colonial government planned to add to an existing tax on African men. From the initial outbreak of resistance in Oloko, the women’s resistance extended across eastern Nigeria as women joined the movement and demanded either significant changes in or the removal of the colonial government. Thousands of women participated in the resistance and they employed a variety of tactics, which included removing the cap of office from warrant chiefs, looting factories, burning down native court buildings, blocking train tracks, cutting telegraph wires, releasing prisoners from colonial jails, and destroying or confiscating colonial property. The British colonial government resorted to lethal force and in the process colonial soldiers shot women at Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Opobo. The most significant loss of life occurred at Opobo and it marked the end of the Women’s War except for a few minor instances of resistance.
The tactics and scope of the Women’s War confounded colonial authorities because, even though they extensively assured women they would not be taxed, participation in the resistance increased and spread across the region. Eventually, the Women’s War caused the British to abandon the warrant chief system and establish village councils; however, generally women were excluded from political participation. More importantly, the Women’s War of 1929 marks the beginning of a transition in eastern Nigeria from predominantly localized ethnic-based opposition to British imperialism to resistance movements that transcended ethnicity and class.