I consider connecting with ancestry to be very important, and not just the ancestors that have passed away but the elders who are living and still on this earth. Marcus Garvey said, “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. I can’t say how much this phrase speaks to me, and the importance I attach to knowing where I’ve come from in order to move forward, to having at least some idea of my roots.
At the same time, I see so much disconnection. I’m sure this will not be the first time I’ve mentioned encountering Africans who know next to nothing about their own history. I’ve come to realise that even relatively modern history is at stake. Lately I’ve been plagued with so many thoughts, wondering about how much Africans, generally speaking, know about those that came before us and also about how much we distort our/their histories. I have also consider how this distortion could affect any forms of connection or learning.
Last week, while hanging out with some people I know, I was told that it was expected for a man to hold open doors for women. Because I (obviously) don’t agree with waiting for men to open doors for me I was labelled too “Western”. Now, I’m used to been called Western and I wouldn’t be writing this if one lady didn’t go on to lecture me about how we, as Africans, need to let go of Western thinking while the others agreed with her. I was confused; since when did men opening doors become part of an African way of life? I thought expecting men to hold open doors for women was a strictly Western thing. The lady’s words were on replay in my mind, over and over. Then I watched the clip below and was surprised at the mention that “in the [Nigerian] past” women were expected to stay in the home and not do anything for themselves.
This again struck me as odd, I found myself asking out loud “which past?”. My interest in African history - along with my need to learn as much as possible about women in African history - has resulted in my different view of what life was like for women in the past. What's been written about the history of the Mali Empire, the Ashanti Empire and the Igbo people suggests that women in those times had a considerable amount of autonomy and power. However, women in the Buganda kingdom had considerably less freedom as they were considered minors and had to have male guardians who were responsible for them in every sense of the word , except if a woman was a member of the royalty, then she had autonomy. Once again African history remains truly diverse and complex.
When Africans talk about the “past”, is this in reference to the past before colonialism or the past after colonialism? The ways in which colonialism changed lives and what we remember of the “past” never fails to surprise me. If in the “past” African women were expected to stay in their homes and serve no one but their husbands, how do we explain the existence and achievements of people like Madam Tinubu or Efunsetan Aniwura? How do we explain the women who regularly traveled across West Africa to trade, such as my grandmother who spent most of her life working as a trader in Ghana?
In reconnecting with and trying to understand the ancestors, I do not think it is always necessary to look so far into the past. I know I may be sounding like an old woman, but I feel that today, young people are very disconnected from their elders. I’ve sat through meetings where rather than carrying the torch over from the older generations and continuing the proverbial struggle, we were sitting trying to come up with new ways to solve old problems, thinking we were pioneers, when it would have been much easier to take pointers from those who had been there before, years ago, and learn from their experience. I see it when I read articles on African politics and/or society, essays that are supposedly “radical” and saying what “needs to be said but all Africans are too cowardly to say”. People were saying the exact same thing in the '60s and '70s.
However, back to this issue of me being tainted by Western ideas of feminism. I resent this suggestion that I was sitting down waiting for white Western women to tell me about feminism when my sources of inspiration are much closer to home. I do not have to look far back in history, ticking off African women that rose against all odds when I happen to have grown up around them, namely my mother and her friends, the majority of them divorced women or widows living in a society that resents women like them and will do anything to reduce their successes. These are women who raised entire families on their own, became wealthy through their own means and fought the patriarchy the best way they could. And, they are by far the least “Western” women I know in their ideas and life views. I wonder what the lady who told me to wait for a man to open a door for me would say if I told her that the African women I know split bills with their husbands and that no, no big bad Western feminist taught them to do this.
I have recently rediscovered a folder in which I kept academic article, after academic article on women in African history. What these researchers and academics write about the lives of African women in the past is quite different from common lore today that wants to paint African women in history as abused and victimised under the hands of the big bad African man. Thankfully, I have my sources of inspiration, not to older friends who can sit down and give me advice that becomes invaluable as I try to navigate the world as a young Black African woman.
As someone once said to me, thanks to European colonisation, a lot of Africans have become Victorian in their thinking. It is my opinion that sorting through the misinformation and connecting with the past is the best way to understand what exactly is and/or isn’t part of an African philosophy. Be aware, though, that a lot of the work on Africa’s past is done by Western academics, which might be a barrier to those who distrust anything written by westerners. But nothing worth doing is every really easy.
To conclude, here’s a quote from E. Frances White’s, “Creole Women Traders in the Nineteenth Century”, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1981), pp. 626- 642
As the Nova Scotian women before them, Yoruba women brought to Sierra Leone a flexible attitude towards marital bonds. Robert LeVine and others report that Yoruba women divorce frequently, often seeking more advantageous relations. He maintains that they have the freedom to do this because they are economically independent of their husbands. Although the British expected recaptured men to support their wives, the Yoruba women set about insuring their own livelihoods and contributing to the family economy, a course which must have seemed natural to them. [emphasis mine]
This article was originally published on This Is Africa.