Missing: The Great Daughters of Afrika

The revolution and women’s liberation go together.

We don’t talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity,

or because of a surge of human compassion.

It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution.

Women hold up the other half of the sky. 

Thomas Sankara, Pan-Africanist

 —-

Got into a small exchange the other day with the lovely person who handles the Steve Biko Foundation twitter account. Now, I greatly appreciate the work they do to keep the legacy of the South African anti-apartheid icon alive, and that of many others who have worked toward the liberation of black people in Africa and across the world. Biko reminds us of their ideas, contributions; and to be proud of being African. Encourages us to not tire from doing the work.

Last week was 27 years since the murder of Thomas Sankara, one-time President of Burkina Faso; ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’. The leader of the ’80s Burkinabe people-centred revolution not only challenged the global capitalist system, his feminist work is remarkable even for today; banning misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation and polygamy, which are still rampant world-over, improving conditions for women in the labour market, and boosting reproductive health options. His firm stand on how Africa’s progress is inextricably tied to women’s liberation is itself revolutionary. For that alone, he is worth celebrating.

And so on the morning of this anniversary, a Biko tweet flashed by:

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Curiosity forgot the man and his ‘uprightness’ for a moment, to ask:

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Fifty-two weeks a year, celebrations of one man then the next pop up. That day Fela Kuti was also filling my timeline. All the great men of Africa, great men of the American civil rights movement; Sons of the Soil. And I am grateful for what they did. But for Mother Africa’s sake, were there really no women involved in steering black consciousness forward?

To which they kindly responded:

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The response was refreshing. I was prepared for some defensive retort about derailing and stuff. And while I  agreed with their sentiment, couldn’t help noting “…Afrikan leaders were not alone…”; a Freudian slip in line with the idea that men are the default African revolutionaries. That said, except perhaps for those in the academe, tracing any of the wisdom and tales of the contributions of our foremothers who toiled alongside men like Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkurumah, and Patrice Lumumba is quite exhausting for the rest of us. One would love to learn more of the revolutionary work done by Africans like Graca Machel, not about her marriages. But it is not for Biko Foundation alone to collect and share this work.

This challenge isn’t unique to African women. Universally, women’s intellectual, activist, and work in diverse fields of endeavor is largely hidden from view. Western women have been ‘luckier’ in maintaining and retrieving writings and records. But the work of the Great Daughters of Afrika remains largely unknown; deceptively implying by erasure their historical absence in continental and global anti-colonialism, anti-racism and feminist movement.

As children, the ‘village’ of mothers who raised us often provided our earliest exposure to the power of sisterhood and all the good and great that a woman could be. There were also the TV women, whom my mother pointed out with pride – like close friends: Winnie Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and for not good reasons, Imelda Marcos. Quite oblivious to their politics. First-forward years later, away from home: Winnie and Margaret were considered top villains by all my peers. Indira was somewhat forgotten even if her legacy is still strong in India; powerfully carried forward by her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.

Writing on women in power, Naomi Wolf discusses whether this is real power or the women are just figureheads; or if it is only a phase wherein men are temporarily handing over the reins of leadership for women to clean up the mess men created. After hailing the Merkels, Kirshners, Livnis, and Rousseffs of this world, Wolf segues to: “The last three decades have yielded a cadre of women leaders even where women otherwise lag far behind in terms of opportunity.” That murky corner is where you find Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and Joyce Banda, recent ex-President of Malawi. She throws in Park Geun-hye, President of South Korea – a woman from the one continent where women have for decades held top office.

Evidently, the narrative persists that African (and Asian) women have only recently arrived at the table of leadership. This is intellectual dishonesty, in line with Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly’s work – about how the voices of African women, their history and perspectives, are generally excluded from writings about women, and if at all included, focus on negatives and/or are fashioned to reinforce negative stereotypes about  Africans. Correcting this misrepresentation is a hell of work. Sadly, it is a reality that is pervasive.

Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela, who I still consider a great Daughter of Afrika, is now known in the west for the death of Stompie and for neck-lacing. I do not condone murder. And neither do I believe that her ex-husband was, in his life and activism, the saint that is portrayed in the mainstream; the image celebrated even in countries where he was once considered a terrorist.

But those who care for balance know that her work during the struggle was invaluable, know about the persecution she suffered at the hands of a racist government (which, as a matter of fact, was supported by Margaret and her bestie Reagan), and know that her husband’s legacy wouldn’t be what it is without her work whilst he was on Robben Island. Africans know this, and some South Africans consider her mother of their nation. You sense this in public reaction toward her. She isn’t perfect, but she matters. Thank goddess some people remember.

Similarly, popular representations of the American civil rights movement largely exclude women; overwhelming us with sanitized versions of men like Martin Luther King Jr., with little trace of the blemishes lurking in their shadows. Regardless, we hail them and gloss over the negatives. Which makes you wonder: how many women, Daughters of Afrika here and abroad, have been Winnie’d, so to speak? Even worse, how many have been totally purged from our collective memory? Which Pankhursts do little African girls grow up looking up to?

As we find our way through this abyss of male-celebrating and white-centered written history, we must also come to the acknowledgement that the idea that African men will, guns ablaze, deliver Africa to post-colonial glory is an experiment which has not only failed, but has evidently cost us lives and time. Colonialism is an excuse which has done its time.

It is fifty bloody years long-overdue.

With many African governments characterized by endless corruption scandals and poor service delivery, it is no wonder some are conceding that collaborating with women is a prerequisite for progress. In any society, worst still a corruption-filled one, the structural dominance of men in leadership isn’t only a factor in the high levels of poverty among women, but also means that we don’t have as much to lose when it comes to doing the right thing. African men are deeply entrenched in the gut of the system that has stunted the revolution.

It is about time women’s contributions toward moving the world, Africa forward, were recognised. We need a coalition of equals; beginning in our homes, stretching to the rural-most corners of the continent, and spreading outwards to the wider social and political structures.

As the revolutionary said, women hold up the other half of the sky, alas:

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There’s no Africa rising without the voices of the Daughters of Afrika.

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