By Sainey Faye
Throughout our history, countless unsung African women have been on the frontline of our people’s struggle. African women have fought, and continue to fight against triple exploitation –namely, racialism, class exploitation, and gender oppression. National oppression affects all African people worldwide, and class exploitation, and gender exploitation; but the latter affects women the most and is still a problem for us in Africa, and elsewhere in the Diaspora.
African people are amongst the most exploited in the world, both at home and abroad in the scattered regions of the world. As a class they are exploited economically, because they are among the world’s have-nots. Their labor and resources mainly benefit others – not them. They’re always at the bottom of the economic ladder, in terms of development.
Thirdly, our women are exploited because they are women- be it at home, jobs, schools, and other areas. One area or place where African women can’t be oppressed ironically, have been on the front line of our people’s struggle. For historically, they were always in the vanguard of the struggles of the African Independence movement.
Ghana, which led the Independence movement of the 1960’s under Kwame Nkrumah – the great Pan-Africanist; was led by women mobilizers like the market women etc. The same for Nigeria under Nmadi Azikwe “Zik”, and even tiny Gambia had market women take on the governor by storming and marching to his mansion, to address their grievances. The list can go on and on in almost all countries on the continent, and elsewhere in the diaspora. In the settler colonies of Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), Guinea Bissau, South Africa etc.; women took up arms in combat and led as commanders in various units, winning many battles alongside their men.
Today, organized African women are fanning the flames of worldwide struggle for freedom, dignity, and justice. They are in the forefront in the fight against physical and mental abuse, forced marriages, and random divorce, confinement to child bearing and domestic work, and restrictions from political and public life. In many areas they have transformed or are transforming Mobilization into Organization; the former is always temporary and the latter is permanent. Just because we find some not politically conscious, does not mean they don’t want freedom. Many understand that in order to be free, you must be unified and liberated.
Almost 50 years plus since the drums for African independence sounded, in the villages and towns of Africa, women have taken the back seat of political leadership; making it male dominated; even though their participation in the first liberation phase has been nothing but exemplary. They organized, agitated, educated, rejuvenated and even lead as commanders in our armed liberation struggles.Many like Josina Machel (Samora Machel’s wife) died in armed combat in Mozambique, and Ernestine Sylla of PAIGC.
In Presidential elections, we have seen how President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf turned the carnage and torture into peace and hope. She was sent to prison but she continued with her conviction to lead a struggle for emancipation of Liberia and her disenfranchised women. She won the Noble Peace Prize for selfless sacrifices and fearless struggle against despotic regimes. In 2005 she became Africa’s first female President, and was re-elected in 2011 for a second term. We must remember her role was monumental, in that Liberia was devastated by two civil wars – (1989 -1996) and (1999-2003), by war lords who will never be forgotten for the evils and destruction of lives and nation.
In electoral politics of the 21st century, there will be game changers and we had better be ready for women taking over the leadership of many countries in Africa, and the world. In 2010 the African Union (AU), declared the ‘Women’s Decade’ to empower WOMEN and to ensure that WOMEN’S ROLE IN SOCIETY IS ENHANCED. The ex-chairwoman set the ball rolling – the first since the founding of the organization (OAU-AU) almost sixty years ago.
Already, in Africa there are more women parliamentarians than any continent. Out of the 10 listed by the U.N. Burundi is in the lead with 51%, then comes Senegal 41%, and South Africa 40%, the latter had Independence only a couple decades ago. Joyce Banda was also President; after previously serving in 2004-204 in place of the deceased President Bingu Wa Mutharika.
She is noted for saying ” Leadership is about falling in love with the people you serve and the people falling in love with you.” She credits her inspiration to serve and/or lead her people in the struggle to move Africa forward, with full participation of the women who were on the forefront of the struggle always.
She notes that “the first time I was privileged to meet Mandela was during his visit to Malawi ….shortly after he was released from prison. I was amazed by his humility and his great sense of leadership……Mandela’s character has shaped my life.”
Next, comes Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia – the first elected African woman president, and Nobel Peace Laureate. The story of Liberia and how she degenerated into a bloody, and brutal civil war, is one for the history books. Africans and mankind; will never forget and for the younger generation of Africans, to remember and learn from what transpired in this part of Africa, when democracy and good governance breaks down; and despotic regimes take over the realm of power. We will spare you the long narrative of what it was like.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf joined the struggle to rid her country of misrule and military despots. She ended up in jail but never gave up against warlords who made the country ungovernable and unliveable. Thousands of the educated elites – doctors, lawyers, professors, academics and technicians – took off to borders of neighbouring countries for safe haven. Business men/women, women, children, youths and the elderly also took to their heels.
In her second term, she said that she would prioritize ‘Women’s Rights’ and ‘Health’ as top on her agenda. After the civil war ended, and guns were silenced, she threw her hat in for President and won. Observers the world over were wondering how in the world can she bring back her country, with all the infrastructure destroyed, and nearly half the population in exile as refugees. Just how can she do it? “Just watch me do it, with everyone on board we can make that change, and she did try to turn things around for the better.”
In one of her speeches, she said “I believe that there are certain attributes in a woman that gives her some advantages over a man. Women usually are more honest, more sensitive to issues and bring a stronger sense of commitment and dedication to what they do. Maybe because they were mothers, and being a mother you have that special attention for family, for the young, for children.”
Probably another less known woman who ascended to the presidency was Catherine Samba Panza. She has been a politician in the troubled, unstable country of the Central African Republic. She became mayor of the capital Bangui, and was later made acting interim president in 2014, when civil war broke and turmoil and hell reigned supreme. The first woman to be nominated by the male dominated National Transitional Council, to help bring peace and law and order amongst the warring factions. She helped silence the guns, brought normal life back to its citizens; and help create a transitional government which included all or most of the ethnic, and religious groups. Problems still linger in the country, but she helped alleviate and stop the bloodshed.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf once said that “…women work harder. And women are more honest; they have less reasons to be corrupt.” “I just think that unless you have that cohesiveness in the family unit, the male character tends to be very dominant, repressive and insensitive. So much of this comes also from a lack of education.”
Let’s shift gears to Wangari Maathi of Kenya, a 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, and political activist and liberation fighter. Her fight to change the mindset of her people, and Africans in general towards the land, which our ancestors knew was the giver of sustenance and life, and freedom; was of utmost importance.
She noted in one of famous speeches that “In the course of human history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. The time is now.”
Graca Machel, another heroic woman liberation fighter, of Mozambique – and shall we add Azania – South Africa ? Her story is worth telling. She fought in the war of liberation in Mozambique .She became Minister of Culture and Education, and was married to President Samora Machel – one of Africa’s greatest revolutionary leaders. After Machel was killed, she got married to President Nelson Mandela. She helped nurture and stay with the old man, until he passed away.
She then was noted worldwide, to be the first woman in the 20th century to hold two titles of First Lady, of two sovereign states — namely Mozambique and Azania (South Africa).No woman (black or white) or any other color, has ever held this honour and title.
She notes in one speeches ” That preventing the conflict of tomorrow means changing the mindset of youth today.” She continues caution and raise awareness of the condition of African women. She would note that in one of her speeches
“We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women, and their communities.” Samora Machel her late husband, has reminded us that “Solidarity is not act of charity, but mutual aid between forces fighting for the same objectives.”
The role of women in the political struggle to liberate Africa from despotic regimes is ongoing, and cannot be easily forgotten or put in the back burner. A people must know their national interest, and as older Pan-Africanist have noted, we cannot forget Gambia’s Mrs. Rushida Roberts; who first came up with the clarion call of a “United States of Africa” almost a century ago. Women in the front line must be joined and met at the bonfires, without them no liberation is possible.