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The Power of the African Woman: Past, Present and Future

Updated: May 16, 2021

This was a live talk that I presented on 25 April, 2020 to the United World College community.

My name is Chulu Chansa from Zambia. These are the words I spoke when I descended from the bus for the first time at United World College of Atlantic in 2002. They are words that I would continue to say for many years to come.

One of the many topics that is brought up for much self reflection in a United World College is the idea of Identity. Who are you? Where do you belong? What does it mean to be part of the group you identify with? What are your core characteristics as a group?

Well I am a Zambian female of the Bemba tribe. Our geographical location is in sub-saharan Africa. We have beautiful weather, numerous natural resources and we are a peaceful nation with no civil war since our independence in 1964. There are 72 ethnic groups and languages in Zambia, 7 of which are national languages including English and Bemba. Last but not least Zambia was declared a Christian nation in 1991 by our former president Chiluba.

BUT, I have a secret. I do not actually speak any indigenous language. I have never been to a village. I have never gone through or seen any traditional rites of passage as a member of the Bemba tribe. I come from a middle income single parent home and quite frankly lived a sheltered life in the city. I learned about the world through books and western media. So there I was, an urban kid, stuck in United World College where everyone was sooo cultured. We are talking about 200 students from 90 countries on one campus. Talking about bonjour, hola, konichiwa and there comes Chulu with “Hello. How are you today.” I was terrified. My first thought was, “What if they find out I am a fraud masquerading as an ambassador of Zambia when I had no clue what that really was.” My next thought was, “they will kick me out!”

I was not going to let that happen, hence I began my research of what it means to be African and more precisely an African Woman. From my adolescent gleen into my Zambian culture, between traditional beliefs and Christianity, it seemed women were bred to wed. They lacked ambition or the support to pursue their own dream. There seemed to be much focus on women’s submission to men and they dedicated their lives to pleasing and supporting men.

At that time, the internet was not so great. I desperately searched for African women role models whom i could point to and say that is what it means to be African. Needless to say I was not successful. Instead I saw in the media the African woman depicted as poor, helpless, uneducated and oppressed.

UHH I still had a problem. In my head I was going to be kicked out of UWC, if they found out I was not African enough. So I thought okay, I will use what I have; my bright chitenge wear, my long natural hair, my flair for dance and song and my name. I mean my name was definitely African. You will be happy to know I was not kicked out of UWC, I scraped through the 2 years.

Fast forward to 2016. I had since moved back to Zambia. I was living and working in the capital city Lusaka. I happened to attend a talk by Ms. Mulenga Kapwepwe, one of Zambia’s great historians. In her talk she spoke about how women in pre-colonial times were the spiritual leaders, they were in charge of the wealth of the homestead and were prominent leaders.

Wait a minute. That is not the history I remembered. Zambian history in school was all about Zinjathropus, Kabwe broken hill man, ngombe ilede. Mwata Kazembe (a man), Chitimukulu (a man), Chief Mukuni (a man). Where were the stories of these women she spoke about?

So I dug a bit deeper. The internet had since improved by then. One by one African Women stepped forward from the dark abyss where inconvenient history goes to die. And they revealed an African Woman quite unlike the one popularly depicted today. There was:

Amina Mohamed, the Hausa Queen of present day Northern Nigeria

The Kandake, who were queens and queen mothers of ancient Kush in present day Ethiopia. 4 Kandake were known to the Greco Roman world.

There was Makeda, Queen of Sheba

Queen Moremi of the Ile Ife Kingdom in modern day NIgeria

Yaa Asentawaa of the Ashanti Kingdom in present day Ghana

And Queen Nzinga of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of modern day Angola.

To name but a few

Even closer to home, there were many Zambian heroine’s that were prominent historical characters. I recommend you look up a 10 (ten) part series on YouTube called ‘Leading Ladies Zambia”. It is a podcast on the brilliance of Zambian women. We have been generals, innovators, feminists, warriors, secretary of state, diplomats, peacemakers, head of state, politicians and power brokers.

So then I often think about the brain drain of the African continent. Questions that come to mind are; do we as African Women believe that the only place where we can have both a fulfilling career and a family is by living in the western world? Is our mindset resigned to believe a woman cannot excel in Africa?

Let me give you a history lesson about how women’s status shifted over the years especially during the colonial period. I will use my tribe, the Bemba, as an example. Remember I was not taught this, I had to read about it.

The first thing to understand is that the origin story of the Bemba involved a deity called Lesa, who was both male and female. Essentially, it is an ancestral belief system. There is a promise of eternal life in the spirit world where one returns to be with the ancestors. In the cycle of life, it is believed that the ancestral spirits are reborn into this world through the babies that women give birth to. Therefore, there is much significance placed in the process of bringing life into the world which was also reflected in the nature of agricultural activities. When there was a problem the spirits were consulted to identify the source of the problem. Because women by nature bring life into this world, only women had the power to liaise with the spirits. They would evoke the spirits in dance and allow the spirits to possess their bodies and then prophecy to the people.

I have to pause here to say, for those Christians amongst us, it might come as a surprise to you, but you have been possessed by the Holy Spirit. Possession simply means a spirit inhabiting flesh. It can be a good or bad spirit. I just wanted to throw that out there before you judge the word possessed.

Back to my story. The Bemba are a matrilineal tribe. As a result Chiefs are elected by the eldest matriarchs and might be discharged by them too if they do not manage their office in a satisfactory way. Men would move into their wife’s homestead upon marriage. In terms of division of labour the men would clear forests in preparation for farming, but their main activity was hunting and fishing. But it was the women that actually farmed, from tilling, sowing, and harvesting. Therefore, they were the custodians of the families material wealth in a cashless society. In addition, the women would undergo two main periods of schooling. The first time was when a young woman received her first menstrual cycle. The second time was when a woman was to be married. In these ceremonies, elder women would teach them about the Bemba traditions in the context of society and in marriage. Marriage and bearing children was considered sacred.

To sum up their role in society, Bemba women were called Na cimbusa wa cisungu (mother of sacred emblems), Cibinda wa ‘nganda (head of families religious duties) and Kabumba wa mapepo (initiator of prayers). Or simply put, a woman was considered the priestess of the home and custodian of the Bemba traditions.

Cue colonial powers and missionaries. In Zambia the British empire took it upon themselves to gain control of our mineral wealth, have cheap wage labour for the mines AND raise revenue on the backs of the indigenous people. To achieve this they imposed a Hut Tax that was payable only in cash. Every single hut had to pay the tax. This forced families to be separated, where the able bodied men went to work in the mines in order to receive a salary. This meant the Bemba could no longer efficiently practice rotating their farming lands as the men were not there to clear the fields. They continued farming on the same land and soon exhausted it. Worse still the wealth, now called, money was now in the control of the absentee men and often said money did not reach the families to provide for their needs.

On the other hand Missionaries were on a holy mission to convert the savage man to Christianity. Their original strategy was to learn the local languages and convert the scriptures into the local languages. This took a while. So they changed tactics and decided to open up schools and hopefully convert enough people over the years. The church rejected ALL African beliefs and traditions. They gave the baptised English names and required them to only speak English. This meant that Zambians were being educated with an underlying subtext that basically implied self hatred. In regards to women, under the Church only men could be at the pulpit, only men of the cloth could read the holy text, men were the absolute head of the household. Women were to submit to their husbands. Such rhetoric flipped the dynamics of the Bemba matriarchy. When looked at as a whole, there was a systematic dis-empowerment or women’s status in society.

Interestingly enough the missionaries really struggled to convert Zambians and yet in 1955, a woman called Mulenga Alice Lenshina Mubisha founded the Lumpa Church in the Northern province. This African Indigenous Church attracted about 50, 000 - 100, 000 followers because it successfully combined African culture with Chirstianity. Lenshina composed many songs in the local language that resonated with the people. She is famous for promoting Gender justice by condeming things like polygamy, she spoke against witchcraft and practiced a healing ministry.

Listen this woman drove both the transition government and the Church crazy because she would not conform to earthly authority. It did not end well. Roughly 2 months before Zambia gained independence in 1964 the transition government sent the Northern Rhodesian Regiment to shoot the Lumpa members. This resulted in the Lumpa Massacre where about 1000 Lumpa members were killed. Many took refuge in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. I know what you are thinking, and the answer is no. This is not in our history books. An interesting fact is that the Roman Catholic church adopted Lenshina's vernacular hymns in order to win back their followers, hymns which are sung in the church even today.

I guess one legacy the Church can claim is how well respected their schools are across Africa. I would add that the Church has also contributed to the death of numerous indigenous languages. Exhibit A.

Back to the topic at hand, you can see that women in the past were held in high esteem . External forces came in to weaken the social ties for their own economic benefit or in the name of spreading a religion.

Today the Bemba tribe continues to exist in the North of the country. Whereas, many people who live in urban areas may identify as Bemba yet have never been to their tribal lands. They practice Bemba marriage rites which have been reduced to a focus on sexual acts. After all we are a Christian nation and cannot follow the primitive ancestral beliefs about culture.

May I point out a few observations, we the Bemba actually held women in such high esteem, that they were granted the honour of being placed in a formal school. Men did not have the same privilege. In fact had there been no colonial interruption, I believe today we would be saying educate the boy child and not vice versa.

As Africans we continue to live through the consequences of oral traditions. The oral traditions have been cut off along the generations and the indigenous knowledge is lost. Therefore, we have a people that believe only that which is tangible, history in preserved books written from the perspective of a European male and more recently from that of African males. How can we expect a woman to be educated in a system that glorifies men, to then embrace the mindset that believes she can be more and aspire to more.

My final observation is around indigenous knowledge. By definition it is the local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. In Zambia this includes the Western Province canal system used for transport and irrigation, the sustainable wildlife management systems among the Lozi and Bemba tribes, traditional iron smelting amongst the Tumbuka/Chewa tribes and the traditional medicine practiced among many tribes in Zambia. The world is continuously changing, we can see it in the climate, and new scientific discoveries. Indigenous knowledge is not immune to such change. Why is there no space for indigenous knowledge to meet modern advances so as they work in harmony? Why do they need to be in conflict? When I think of slave traders invading African villages, they did not target Africans because they were weak and feeble. No these were strong men and women. Which means there must have been wisdom in the local nutrition and medicines. But we live in a world where traditional healers are called witch doctors.

Moving forward, I am extending an open invitation to all African Women, whether you live on the continent or not, whether you speak indigenous languages or not, young or mature. My Sisters, I propose that we African Women make it our responsibility to preserve our history, by putting stories of our ancestors in books and modern media and make it accessible to all. We should advocate for a more inclusive historical narrative in our schools. We should hold continuous forums that discuss what our culture is in this modern society. I believe culture is dynamic and not static therefore can adapt with the times. Most importantly, I believe before examining our cultures and traditional beliefs, past and present, we should first consciously release the negative connotations we have been taught for years and enter conversations with an open mind. Finally, never again should we allow our stories to be told OR NOT by anyone other than African Women. The stories we write today are the inheritance of our grandchildren’s children.

As a mother I often think about what inheritance I will leave for my child. I believe that half the battle that we have to win as an African people is our mindset. We are in a War for our land, our culture and our right to be thriving African Women. Queen Yaa Asntawaa said in her infamous speech:

“Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight… If you the men of Asante will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will Fight! We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields”

Listen, the African Woman is wise, giving, passionate, supportive and does not give up. She is intelligent and NO Intelligence does not equate to literate. Through her, hope and knowledge lives on. So today, I come as one, but stand as ten thousand. Some of the 10, 000 are here right now. We are never alone. That is the Power of the African Woman.

Thank you.

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