African Queens and Empresses: Uncovering a forgotten history to pave the way to a bold future

Asantewaa, Hatseput, Ranavalona_III_of_Madagascar, Taitu_Empress_Ethiopia, Madam Yoko (Hatseput Photo by postdlfCC BY-SA 3.0, others public domain)

“We must dare to invent the future” Thomas Sankara

Until recently, much of the past has been recorded and presented as “his” story (history). The male perspectives have dominated the interpretations of African peoples’ past focusing on the deeds of men. We talk of the founding fathers of Africa without even questioning if there were women who also contributed to the founding of Africa as we know it today. The history of Africa which we reference in our today and on which we base our projections of the future, is mostly colonial and post-colonial. This is problematic because the patriarchal model of Africa’s colonisation (see Horace Campbell 2003)[1] sifted our past through the colonialist and black male perspective. It has silenced the roles played by African women, devalued their contributions to the freedom and development of their societies and has erased their struggles from the collective struggles. If we are to invent a future that bestows dignity, equality, peace and prosperity for all African citizens, we need to look into the past before it was distorted by colonialism, for only then can we know our true history. We need to ‘restore women to history’ (see Berger & White 1999)[2]. This will enable us to correct the present and give us the audacity to imagine, invent and build a future that all Africans are proud of.

Patriarchal alliances struck between various colonial administrations and African chiefs and elders resulted in the systematization and codification of patriarchy across African societies, which Belinda Bozzoli (1983)[3] has named as the ‘patchwork-quilt of patriarchies’. This is true, as this ‘quilt’ closed off avenues for female visibility and leadership during the colonial period. Further to this, the colonial wage economy was essentially a male one, hence it entrenched only the male value. Christine Oppong (1983)[4] and others illustrate how African men and women lived in pre-colonial Africa and show how women were independent, were leaders and were active participants in the economy and public life of their societies. Further to that, Akyeampong & Fofack (2012)[5] illustrate how scholars have concluded that the socio-economic status of African women was better off in the pre-colonial period and significantly deteriorated, thus leaving women worse off in the colonial period.

A look into Africa‘s pre-colonial past shows that African societies were ruled and led by men and women. This article seeks to illustrate the high profile leadership women contributed in public life as exemplified by experiences from all the five regions of Africa. This illustrates that the presence of women in politics, business, the military and specialist careers is not new but instead has been happening since centuries ago. It is sins of omission and commission that are responsible for how our past has been narrated and how our present is moulded.

The following is a glimpse into a few examples of great and heroic African women who were fierce warriors, diplomats, scientists and business people in pre-colonial Africa. Most of us do not know about them, yet every African needs to know about who they were and what they did so we can understand how it ought to shift how we view women today and shape the integratedness of women in the public and leadership spheres of African societies. The gift of access to information afforded by the internet can allow any reader to find out more about each of these women. However, the following is an introduction that can serve to point readers in the direction of who to search for;

  1. Queen Yaa Asante wa of Ghana, who In 1900 led the Ashanti rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool against British colonialism;
  2. Queen Ranavalone III of Madagascar – She ruled from July 30, 1883 to February 28, 1897 in a reign marked by ongoing and ultimately futile efforts to resist the colonial designs of the government of France;
  3. Empress Taitu of Ethiopia – Deeply suspicious of European intentions towards Ethiopia, she was a key player in the conflict over the Treaty of Wuchale with Italy, in which the Italian version made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, while the Amharic version did not do so. The Empress held a hard line against the Italians, and when talks eventually broke down, and Italy invaded the Empire from its Eritrean colony, she marched north with the Emperor and the Imperial Army, commanding a force of cannoneers at the historic Battle of Adwa which resulted in a humiliating defeat for Italy in March, 1896 ;
  4. Queen Amina of Zazzau of Nigeria – a warrior queen who established her capital to be a major trading centre and introduced kola nuts cultivation;
  5. Chief of Moyamba – Madam Yoko or Mammy Yoko (1849–1906) was a leader of the Mende people in Sierra Leone who had considerable influence. She expanded the territories of her Kingdom to a vast Confederacy;
  6. Pharoah Hatsheput of Egypt – one of about 8 ancient Egypt women rulers – she is the woman who reigned the longest. She was successful in warfare early in her reign, but generally is considered to be a pharaoh who inaugurated a long peaceful era. She re-established international tradingrelationships lost during a foreign occupation and brought great wealth to Egypt. That wealth enabled Hatshepsut to initiate building projects that raised the calibre of Ancient Egyptian architecture to a standard, comparable to classical architecture, that would not be rivaled by any other culture for a thousand years
  7. Queen Nzingha of Angola – The most stubborn opposition to the Portuguesse in colonising Angola in early 1600, came from queen Nzingha who was a great head of state, and a military leader with few peers in her time. Queen Nzingha never accepted the Portuguese conquest of Angola, and was always on the military offensive. As part of her strategy against the invaders, she formed an alliance with the Dutch, who she intended to use to defeat the Portuguese slave traders.
  8. Mbuya Nehanda of Zimbabwe – a 1890s spiritual leader who provided inspiration to the revolt against the British South Africa Company‘s colonisation of Zimbabwe. She was killed in incarceration for leading this revolt
  9. Queen Muhumuza, of the great lakes region: This courageous woman resisted colonial power and was assisted by people from South Western Uganda. She could be considered one of the forerunners of feminist political struggle in Africa.
  10. Queen Pokuo of Ivory Coast – founder of the Baoule tribe in the Ivory Coast. She ruled over a branch of the powerful Ashanti Empire as it expanded westward. Also known as the Akan people,[1] they became the ancestors of the largest tribe of modern Ivory Coast.

Why is the story of our continent silent about what these women did, the roles they played for their peoples, communities and nations? If the value, treatment and positioning of women in contemporary society is based on the norms of our ancestors, why are the examples of the ancestors illustrated above not followed? It seems in the evolvement of our societies, the ‘patchwork-quilt’ of patriarchal parameters entrenched by our colonialists, informed the traditions and cultures we lean on today and somehow the contributions of women were disappeared in the narratives and models of our societies. It is clear that as Africans we have a rich heritage, great models of how women and men participated in public life for the freedoms, peace, prosperity and greatness of their nations. We have to restore this past into our today’s narratives of our past and build on it so we can together build an Africa that is great in the future.

[1] Campbell H. (2003) Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation

[2]Berger I. & White Frances W (1999) Women in sub Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History

[3]Bozzoli A. (1983) Marxism, Feminism and South African Studies in Journal of Southern African Studies Vol. 9 issue 2

[4] Oppong C. (1983) Female and Male in West Africa

[5]Akyeampong and Fofack (2012) The Contribution of African Women to Economic Growth and Development: Historical Perspectives and Policy Implications. The World Bank Policy and Research Paper no. WPS 6051

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