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Womenfolk and nation building in African context

One of the most significant and awe-inspiring mysteries of human existence is the gift of womanhood; in particular, God’s endowment with responsibility over regeneration of human­kind. So, every International Women’s Day (IWD) is fortuitous, not only to ponder on the deep spiritual worth of our womenfolk, but to look back on their roles and valued contributions overtime.

The 2021 Celebration of IWD comes on the silhouette of the explainable euphoria over the election of Kamala Harris, as Vice President of the United States of America and more, our own, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to head the World Trade Organization (WTO). Coincidentally, on the celebration of IWD in 2020, I presaged Madam Ngozi’s ascension, in a dedicated piece, describing her then as “The Veritable Celebration of African Womanhood”. But the greater joy today is in the realization that the celebratory story of African womanhood in nation building has endured overtime.

The truth is that women have always been key in nation building and in the political transformation of the African society. This is often dwarfed in the light of the more visible role they play as agents of social and economic development, especially at the primary level. The heritage of African feminist footprint in state building and overall development can be appreciated from different levels. Direct involvement in state building and political leadership; entrenched institutional roles for multilayer participation in society; and most important, imbedded matriarchal influence appreciation in overall African world-view and spirituality.

Agreed that in most of Africa, society has tended to be overtly male dominated. However, the role of matriarchy in leadership in precolonial African society was ingrained and in several cases officially registered. Motherhood and maternal veneration ensured that the men, even at their highest levels of political accomplishment were essentially “sons of their mothers”. Unarguably, the average African man, past and present, from the most prominent empire builders and warrior-kings to the ordinary citizens is often their “mothers’ boys”. As a matter of fact, in the African social environment, unlike most other societies, men who are of great public standing always revere, with greatest piety, the ethereal presence of their mothers or some other maternal presence, unlike other cultures were male-maternal relationship is social and emotional. With African men, motherhood is also a spiritual cover. This also explains why in many African societies, the most revered religious roles are preserved for women-“priestess”. Indeed, this position is furthered by the fact that in some African cultures, the dominant names for God are of feminist root. This relates with the whole idea of veneration of “mother-earth”. A good example is the Ijaws of the Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where God is severally known as “Woyingi” – our mother; “Tamara” or “Ayiba” – she who creates; etc.

The spiritual worth of motherhood

Beyond the general sociological worth of matriarchal relevance, in many parts of Africa, women are often assigned specific political roles. Indeed, with several African groups, inheritance is through the female line. Good examples abound, amongst various groups in Ghana, especially the Ashanti, the Nembe (Ijaw) of Nigeria, etc. This helped produce powerful women in both political acculturation and actual governance roles. It reoccurred mostly in climes were the office of the “Queen Mother” took the centre stage. One of the most celebrated of these Queen Mothers, was Idia of Ancient Benin who ensured the ascendance of her son, Oba Esigie (r. 1504-1556) on the throne against unimaginable opposition. Thereafter, she worked to bring about his success and historical reckoning as one of the greatest African potentates ever. Her son has immortalized her with the famous “Festac Mask”. Much later in history, Queen mother, Nandi (1760-1827) mother of Shaka Zulu, of South Africa, helped her son expand his kingdom and was in charge of the Zulu Army and responsible for his great military exploits. The office of the Queen Mother among the Ashantis of Ghana was even of more relevance. In particular was Yaa Asantewaa (1840-1921). She led an army of thousands during the Wars, against the British colonial forces in 1900 also known as “the war of the Golden spoon”. In 1901, the British exiled her to Seychelles until her death in 1921. At a more directly engaging level were African women empire builders and rulers.

A classic example which appears even in the holy books is the legendary Queen Makeda of Sheba – “the Queen of Sheba”. Besides the scenic beauty, elegance and romance which she shared with King Solomon of Israel, accounts from Jewish and Arabic traditions confirm the great political legacy of this African mother. Her son, Emperor Menelik 1 of Ethiopia later ruled over much of the Horn of Africa in the 10th century BC, after rejecting the right to succeed King Solomon. Similarly poignant is the heroism of Queen Moremi Ajasoro “The Courageous”. Queen Moremi (12th century) was not ready to limit herself to being the wife of Oduduwa, the epical founder of the Yoruba race. Queen Moremi saved the nation from extinction in the hands of marauding attackers by placing her life up for martyrdom. Yoruba presence and civilization today spreads from Western Nigeria to large sections of Republic of Benin and Togo, the Caribbean and Latin America. Her son, Oramiyan, one of the greatest figures in African history, ended up establishing the Ife Kingdom, old Benin and Oyo Empire and their associated royalties.

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