When Women Ruled and Men Were Fearless

Presidential hopeful, Elizabeth Warren, exited stage-left. The audience that cheered her on muttered disappointment about how it will be a long while before this country ever gets a woman president. It’s still a relatively new thing for the European culture to accept women in powerful positions.

That was never the case in the African cultures. It was never a shock for women to rule Kingdoms, Chieftaincies, become generals in armies, serve as soldiers in the battlefield, and dominate trading in the markets.

Men never felt threatened by women taking up these positions as women because there was never gender competition when it came to roles. Competitions were driven by the usual human emotions– greed, envy, scorn, etc.

Gender wars and divisions came to Africa through colonization and Christianity. Early colonial African churches – those set up on a foundation of Eurocentric “white” Christianity whose purpose was subjugation – had to learn to separate men from women because these “primitive” Africans were taught by the “godly” Europeans it was ungodly to mix genders in public spaces, and it was certainly irreverent and unacceptable for a woman to speak in front of men – and the missionaries showed them where the bible said so.

So women, intent on achieving the good-Christian reputation, began to “lower” themselves as instructed. When one loses their place and purpose in society, they seek to reconstruct another identity that gives them what they lost. Subjugation brings a sickness to the mind. So African women got to submitting as the teaching required.

They got so good at it they became the enforcers of these good-woman etiquette: keeping silent in the presence of men, wearing a long dress well below your knees to quell the temptation of men (who had no problem seeing the beauty of their women’s buttocks and breasts out in public in the first place); they donned headscarf as a sign of modestly, not as a fashion statement. The white god was easily vexed by the female body.

Young girls were never to sit with feet apart. Many times my little-girl legs went whichever direction they pleased. I would hear the admonishing voice of a mother-figure snap- sit properly! And I would lock my knees together and pull my skirts way down. Then shut my fiery thoughts in my little head. I had questions from a very early age. Thank god for education. It frees you. I can now twirl my skirts until the wind lifts me up and hope the world is watching.

I still find it funny that African men and women could sit separately in these village churches, but when they go to line up for food at an event in the church compound, they make one single file, with men and women calmly standing back-to-crotch with no concept of personal space, and no one feels disrespected. Those line formations are remnants of what used to be. Genders that existed without the shackles of the sinful, manipulative and luring Eve.

Only recently, perhaps in the past 10-20 years or so, have I noticed this gender spacing in the village church becoming obsolete, at least in my rural home in Kenya. And this has also come with women becoming padres in these churches. I believe this is a result of the wave of western feminism sweeping across an Africa that forgot they never needed feminism in the first place.

With a colonial generation that has taught African men to believe in their own superiority, African women have picked up western feminism as a weapon to help them regain shattered dignities. The irony of it! Like a lot else that has been erased from our memories, we have forgotten that in our pre-intervention African world, women could occupy the same spaces men occupy, and that being “unequal” was never African.

Please note, women being able to comfortably occupy positions of power and influence does not mean there were no distinct gender roles. Oh yes, there were. These are roles the African woman still finds herself taking up with ease. Nurturing family, being the voice of diplomacy, trading in the market spaces.

To date, you will find the mama-mboga (the small market trader who runs the bulk of everyday business) is still a force to recon with. Setting product prices, selling in the market and controlling the market spaces were part of the role for women well before wazungu culture intervened. Among my people, women were also the roof-builders. Most gender roles were discrete — defined and apart.

The strict gender roles delineation did not mean that a woman could not serve as ruler or military general – what is seen in the western culture as “male roles”. Nothing about women’s prominent presence in society scared them. There are roles that did not depend on gender but on one’s ability, sometimes assignment through inheritance or ritual, not gender.

The story of Yenenga the young General whose progeny founded the Mossi Kingdom tells of a woman whose prowess and passion in commanding armies was as powerful as her longing to become a wife and mother. She had to fight her father who needed her only as a military commander. She did it all.

Most African women historical figures are now written about through the western gaze – as if they were an anomaly– Queens Nzinga, Nefertiti, Tiye, Al-Kahina the commander, Yenenga the military general, Ya Asantewa, Makeda, Mekatilili… Go on and do the rest of the research. In the kingdoms and chieftaincies that existed across Africa for millennia, there were many women leaders in different fields of expertise.

These women did what came naturally to them. They were allowed to be fully human, and that meant some gave in to the lures of excessive power just like men. No one said– Oh look, she’s cruel because she’s a woman trying to be a man! Many stood in their greatness and no one accused them of occupying men’s positions.

Sometimes ceremony would require a woman queen to dress up in kingly costume and sit on the throne as “male”. Gender was fluid in African consciousness. Not fluid in the modern western thought of “non-binary”, but fluid in that it was primarily role-based, not identity-based. African consciousness had long erased the gender extremes of male-female and settled for “person”, which explains why African languages do not have the gender pronoun he/she. The human identity was Spirit. That’s the Africa we forget.

Claims by post-colonial Africans that African cultures only recognized male/female according to biological assignment is hogwash and influenced by the colonialist’s Victorian puritanism and its miseducated morality. These “elders” who make these claims got reprogrammed by a colonizing force so powerful they forgot their own wisdoms, built over centuries of study about what it means to be human.

Some women have not forgotten this Africa. One, Chief Rebecca Lelosoli, formed a matriarchal village called Umoja and became its leader. She was much like the tiger that shows its tigritude by naturally pouncing. Being a visionary, a rebel, a modern-day warrior, and a leader, it all came as naturally to her as it did for the many other great African women in history. A fascinating story. Research it.

If you read the versions of Lelosoli’s story as told through the western gaze, you will see how the “white” person doing the telling shamelessly tries to attribute Lelosoli’s vision and dare to the influence of western feminism. Nonsense. She is a Samburu woman, with the blood of Africa’s gender-free warriors coursing through her veins.

Post-colonization: The fact that Africa has had eight.. nine(?) female presidents (a couple in acting capacity) is not an odd thing. What is odd is Africans thinking that this is odd. We only think it odd because we forgot that before intervention, there was nothing odd about the high positions African women occupied.

When Europe was burning its women at the stakes for just daring to use their powers for healing, clairvoyance, or leadership, Africa was seeking the counsel of these women who exhibited exceptional powers. Seers like Syokimau and the Isangomas would have been burnt at the stake were they living in Europe in their time.

Kenya has a statue of Syokimau the Seer who foretold of the coming of the “iron snake”, put up in reverence and remembrance of her greatness as a spiritual guide and relevance to a people’s history; and Europe burnt their Syokimau (Joan of Arc) at the stake and only put up a statue of her after a century and a half of seeing the error of their ways.

So when American women feel disappointed by the seemingly slim chances of ever having a women president in America, I wish they could immerse themselves in some inspirational African history and learn that we, as collective women of the world, have once been free to lead in societies where men were fearless and secure in their manhood.

First published on March 29, 2020

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