Tag Archives: #Africa

Civic Virtue and Women’s Political Activism

9780299322908Today we are featuring a piece by Goshen College professor and author Jan Bender Shetler, whose book Claiming Civic Virtue is part of our series Women in Africa and the Diaspora.

When we think about women’s activism we imagine protest marches, banners and pink hats. But women have claimed their voice, their right to speak, in public discourse in so many different and unexpected ways over time. One thinks of The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” who in 1977 began showing up in the plaza everyday to demand information about their “disappeared” children.  Another example was older women in Nigeria during the anti-colonial “Igbo Women’s War” of 1929 reclaiming their space of authority by showing up in the thousands to enact the traditional practice of “sitting on a man” which involved chanting and dancing to shame the men. In less obviously public ways, elite women in Qing China wrote and published poetry that asserted their moral authority as wives and mothers who controlled the household economy where boys were first educated and men found retreat after their travels. These are all stories of women who claimed their right as public intellectuals to contribute to civic debates based on an assertion of their virtue as responsible citizens.

But, because of the tendency to universalize our own cultural assumptions, we often miss these claims of civic virtue and see women confined to the home and domestic labor, uninvolved in public affairs.  The quintessential African grandmother telling stories to her grandchildren at night figures into popular, and even academic, culture as a quaint, but a politically innocuous, figure who entertains with animal tales.  My research in the Mara Region, Tanzania, to explore women’s historical knowledge, however, showed that here their narratives asserted a claim of recognition for the value of their own civic contribution.  They told very different kinds of stories about the past than men, who were recognized as the legitimate historians of the ethnic group.  Women’s stories, by contrast, were about the value to the community of the cross-ethnic networks they formed across the region.

During the late nineteenth century East Africa experienced a series of El Niño droughts that resulted in famine, displacement and the spread of epidemic disease from the caravan trade. In the Mara Region young women and girls were often “sold” or pawned to wealthier families for food that would allow the rest of the family to survive.  While some ended up in the slave trade, many more remained in the region and were incorporated into new families as daughters, or wives, becoming part of the family.  The interests of men’s public stories was to forget where these women came from and sever their ties to their original families.  However, the interests of grandmothers who told their stories to grandchildren at night was to preserve their honor as women with kinship ties in distant places that should not be forgotten. The distant networks preserved in grandmothers’ memories proved useful for getting help in times of trouble or finding marriage partners. Women’s counter-memory asserted their virtuous past and ongoing value to the community, precisely because of their network memory.

Does this work of elderly women telling their own versions of history qualify as activism? In order to demand change in the public arena one has to first assert the authority to speak at all. In the case of Mara women they may speak their concerns for the public good in the private spaces of grandmothers sleeping with their granddaughters or around cooking pots but they are heard in the larger public arena because of the moral authority that they claim. The dominant account remains that of elderly men who hold responsibility for “history.”  But women’s alternative narratives of the past crossed ethnic groups in building durable networks of security.  Even though hard to read in our cultural vernacular, women’s assertion of voice in the public sphere is sometimes as close as the stories they tell in defining an alternative version of the past.

Jan Bender Shetler is a professor of history at Goshen College. Her books include Telling Our Own StoriesImagining Serengeti, and Gendering Ethnicity in African Women’s Lives.

Silenced Resistance

Today we present an interview with Joanna Allan, author of the book Silenced Resistance, a compelling addition to our series Women in Africa and the Diaspora.

 

Who and what is being silenced in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea?

In short, I argue in the book that the dictatorial regime in Equatorial Guinea and the Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara (Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa) are committing—and covering up—serious, widespread and gendered human rights abuses with the support of foreign corporations and states, including companies from the USA and UK.  Hypocritically, the responsible parties conceal their crimes with the help of public relations and social responsibility campaigns that claim the regimes and their foreign partners are working to promote so-called gender equality. This is, I argue, “genderwashing.”

 

Saharawi activist Hamadi Zaybour links his son’s disabilities to Moroccan police beating his wife while she was pregnant. He also emphasizes that foreign markets, which pay Morocco to access Western Sahara’s natural resources, have played a role in his family’s suffering.

 

Man looking over Smara refugee camps

Why Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea? 

My curiosity in the two countries was provoked, in a large part, by the lack of information about either of them. My undergraduate studies were in the field of Hispanic Studies, and yet my university was, as far as I know, the only one in the UK to include Western Sahara on the syllabus. Equatorial Guinea did not feature on the course at all. Equatorial Guinea and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic are the only Spanish-speaking African states. I therefore wondered why these countries received next to no academic attention in my discipline (or in most other disciplines for that matter).  Actually, referring back to the title of my book, missing whole countries from our syllabi is one way we collectively silence Equatoguinean and Saharawi women.

Occupied El Aaiun, Western Sahara’s largest city

I remember the first time I heard of the conflict in Western Sahara. It was around the time of nonviolent activist Aminatou Haidar’s second imprisonment. I was astonished that Saharawi women seemed to lead the pro-independence movement in occupied Western Sahara. This contrasted with the Equatoguinean case, where the opposition to the ruling regime seemed, according to information available at the time, male-dominated. I was therefore compelled to explore the reasons behind this divergence in the gendered make-up of resistance movements. Actually, Equatoguinean women are very much involved in resisting the dictatorship, but their contributions—for a range of gendered reasons that I explore in the book—have attracted less attention.

Pro–independence poster at a demonstration in the Saharawi refugee camps

In the book, you also explore resistance to Spanish colonialism in the two countries.

Yes. Historical resistance movements have shaped the gendered dynamics of today’s resistance efforts, I argue. For example, in the Saharawi case, black Saharawi women’s historical internal struggles against racism and sexism have resulted in the egalitarian principles of today’s pro-independence movement.

Housing in Equatorial Guinea

Also, with regards to who is silenced and whose stories are told, I wanted to ensure that women’s contributions to Equatoguinean independence were recognized in the book. During my fieldwork, woman after woman in Equatorial Guinea recounted memories of women’s activism against the Spanish colonisers, but lamented that these women had not been taken into account. Women will remain silenced until we make the effort to listen to them.

 

Joanna Allan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University.

Universal Witchcraft and the Problem of Categories

Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.

 

In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic  of Benin, West Africa.

Sacred objects used in the creation of a deity’s new shrine

In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.

 A healer, right, engages in an Asian-inspired ritual to protect a patient from witchcraft

Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.

 

Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.