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Friday, March 4, 2011

The Great Black Mother

Africans were the first to inhabit the earth. Fossil records as well as DNA analysis give scientific evidence to support this fact. Therefore, the first woman to give birth was a Black African woman. It is from us that all humans have come. The other races of humankind all evolved from Black Africans.
Ancient Africans had a deep-seated respect for women. Charles Finch in the book Echoes of the Old Darkland explains that early man did not know the link between sex and birth. Therefore, it was believed that new life was created by the woman, the mother alone. It was perceived that all life in nature emerged from women ALONE. Therefore when the first concept of God was developed, the female served as the model of the Supreme Being. Finch explains how it was under this initial Matriarchal System that the first rules and taboos to govern human behaviour were articulated. Another important contribution of ancient woman can be seen in the fact that as the gatherer of grains, seeds, roots berries and plants to the group, we had the opportunity to observe how seeds sprout when they fall in the ground. This observation led to the practice of organized cultivation. It was the woman who probably developed the practice of purposeful cultivation. This may have happened as early as 15,000 BC. It is the practice of agriculture that made population expansion, food surpluses and community settlement possible.

It is not known exactly when the role of the male in procreation was discovered, but this discovery did not enhance the status of men much until the necessity of men became clear in war and conquest. The vital role of men did not lead to an imposition of the male on the female, rather it served to enhance the principle of duality evident in creation. Males and females were seen as complements to one another and a harmony between the two was necessary for harmony to continue on earth. Therefore, it was seen as prudent and wise to ensure the well being of both men and women if the successful survival of humans was to continue. The respect for women was reflected in society and the seriousness and consideration women were given. In Egypt and Kush the importance of the mother was seen in the facts that the children took their surname from the mother and that the mother controlled both the household and the fields. In Kush, the Queen Mother had the right to choose the next Pharaoh. Prior to Islamic conquest of sub-Saharan Africa in the 12th and 13th centuries, the system of succession to the throne was matrilineal. Cheikh Anta Diop in his book Pre-colonial Black Africa explains that in the African custom of matrilineal succession, very strict rules were observed which stated that the heir of the throne was not the king’s son but the son of the King’s first-born sister (the king’s nephew). This is because, as an African proverb states, ‘ You can never be sure who the father of the child is; but of the mother you can always be sure. The brilliance of this logic cannot be missed. This saying underpinned the rationale many African societies used to ensure that conference of power and titles of leadership were reckoned through the mother’s line. This matriarchal foundation of African society meant that respect for women was woven into the very fabric of society. Women had numerous important roles and functions to carry out, many of which conferred a great deal of power and respect to them. The erosion of the status of women occurred gradually but was significantly exacerbated and hastened by foreign invasions, particularly colonialism.
Unfortunately, most people, Africans and non-Africans alike, assume that the current status of women in Africa is reflective of their status in ‘traditional African societies’. This is wrong. The status and power of women in Africa in antiquity and the pre-colonial period was significantly healthier than it is today. Therefore, referring to the second-class citizen status of African women today as ‘traditional’ is erroneous and must be rectified. Africans cannot afford to continue thinking that traditional African societies perceived women as inherently inferior creatures and thus sidelined them from positions of power and influence. In this article we will look at some of the roles, functions and related power that African women had before the onslaught of colonialism. In later articles we will look at how colonialism in particular led to the erosion of the power and status of women in African society. This article is by no means exhaustive but instead seeks to provide a brief overview of the role of women in traditional African society. The article will close with several examples of exceptional African women who transformed their societies and the world.

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