The nature of motherhood and maternalism in Africa challenges perceptions and assumptions about women, families, and societies in unexpected ways. Across Africa, motherhood has operated as an institution and ideology that shaped social, economic, and political organization, especially before European colonialism expanded across the continent during the late 19th century. The sociocultural significance of biological motherhood and childrearing remains an important theme in the study of the past and the present as African women form families, sometimes outside of the bonds of marriage. Ideas about biological motherhood have also shifted to address health, disease, and sexuality. African women and men are reimagining motherhood in the face of diverse issues such as infertility, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and an emergent, self-identified LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. Similarly, maternalism in Africa extends beyond the common focus on issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health, or children’s education. Maternalist politics in Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries have addressed broader political questions such as state policies, housing, and infrastructure, often with an internationalist vision. Taken together, motherhood and maternalism in Africa not only encompass personal and emotional realms often associated with both terms but also bridge historical and political questions, including ones about belonging and citizenship in an interconnected world.
Jill E. Kelly
Gendered processes produced and sustained families and labor in southern Africa from the first hunter-gatherers through the present, but these processes were never static or uncontested. Archaeological, oral, and ethnographic sources suggest that southern Africa’s first hunter-gatherers experienced tense contestations of social and sexual roles and that the division of labor was more fluid than is normally assumed. Some 2,000 years ago new ways of life—pastoralism and agriculture—organized societies according to gender and generation, with young persons under the control of adults, and older women able to wield control over children-in-law as well as political and spiritual power. For agriculturalists, the home was a political space. During the centralization of states in the region, leaders tightened control of women, coming-of-age practices, and marriage as well as militarized age sets. After the onset of colonialism, gendered violence and contested social relations shaped and maintained a gendered and racialized capitalist society. Enslaved, dependent, and free African women’s labor unfolded in the service of white settlers along European ideas of women’s work, and a consensus emerged among officials, missionaries, and African Christian converts over the centrality of educated women converts to the making of Christian African families. Authorities enacted legislation to govern sex and marriage and to differentiate by race and culture. The developing system of migrant labor relied upon women’s agricultural work in the reserves. The apartheid state, too, intervened in social relations to control labor and produce not only racialized but also ethnicized persons in the service of separate development. Across the 20th century women shaped nationalisms, often using their association with social reproduction, and mobilized both within larger nationalism movements and specifically as women. Their political and social activism continues in the post-apartheid era.