By Sifiso Maposa
In my travels, I have faced many questions about ‘Africa’.What is it like to live in Africa? How do I perceive these foreign lands and ways? On my last trip across the Atlantic, in the midst of bright minds at a young leaders conference the question about the role of women in African societies was thrown at me. It started out as casual talk ,about the perceptions held about women in general. When this conversation started I knew it was going to end up being directed my way, because well, I represented a society largely misunderstood and people will always take an opportunity to ask when they can. I must confess, I like when people ask questions like these instead of assuming things, based on stereotype visions painted by misinformed media. Here was a chance to skip the media and here it from an African woman herself.
How are women perceived in African societies? Are they expected to be domesticated and work in the home while the men go out to work? Or are ideals ‘progressive’, allowing women to venture into the work place and get their own?
I started out my answer like I always do, by making sure that everyone listening in on this conversation was aware that Africa is a continent not a country and therefore not one homogenous area. So naturally there wouldn’t be similar ways and ideals in all these countries. That said, I knew the ‘right’ answer might have been to reinforce the wrong but common ideal of the African society as traditionalist and somewhat ‘backward’. But that would have been a lie. Because the truth for me is I grew up with a working mother, working aunts and female teachers. I started working straight out of high school. Partly because I have always had a thing for making my own money so I can spend it how I want. But also because, I wouldn’t have been able to attend college otherwise.
As in many other countries, I grew up in a culture that encouraged everyone to stand on their own feet and make a living. There were certain roles designated to men and women. Of course these roles were not set in stone, they could be crossed. My father didn’t always have to drive, my mother could tend the garden sometimes. I grew up in a famiy where my father could cook, but never cooked…because my mother and us, his daughters were always there. I learnt to cook at a young age and up to this day I enjoy cooking. It is not something I perceive as a duty , but something I can give as a gift to family and friends. Everyone loves a nice warm home cooked meal, right? There were times when my father would cook. Let’s just say on those days we ate way more than the regular daily portion and oil recommendation. Thank you anyway baba!
I have always said, I am neither pro nor anti feminist.
Case in point : I was taught to respect men. I still kneel ( sometimes) , when I serve food to older people and especially men. Why? Because it s a sign of respect. To me , it has nothing to do with being treated unequally or anything like that. Sometimes I feel that we abandon our ways of showing respect due to the pressures of conforming to ‘progressive’ ideals. Kneeling is a common show of respect in my culture but that does not hold true for other cultures. So, it follows that other people may perceive this act differently than I would. I told my friend once about the ‘kneeling thing’ and she found it totally absurd. I wonder what she would say if I told her about the marriage ceremony that will happen when i do decide to settle down.How I won’t even be present in the room as the male elders of the family name a price for my hand in marriage. (Ps: The more educated the girl child, the higer the price). Its tradition, do not judge.
On the other side of my somewhat ‘domesticated’ persona lies an ambitious spirit that loves to learn and create. I am sure this split personality exists in many women not only in Africa but everywhere in the world. We all have certain things that awaken our curiosity; arts, medicine, engineering, teaching, retail, finance, business, fashion, journalism, politics,..the list is endless. I have met some remarkable women making big and positive impacts in different sectors. Women who juggle their jobs and their families succesfully. One of the women I admire is the current African Union (the equivalent of the European Union for Africa) chairperson, her honorable Dr Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma.
This does not dispell the fact that there are still societies in existence that uphold the traditional roles of women where only the men work and the women take care of the household. My hope is that this decision would have been taken amicably and mutually. I have also seen women who choose to give up their careers in order to take care of their families full time. This also deserves honour.
African societies are communual and centred around the family unit. The family unit includes the extended family by the way. Women are like the pillars of these societies. Holding together the strings alongside the strong men in the family.
African women do all kinds of things. They can be found in boardrooms, on stages all over the world, in hospitals and universities, homes taking care of families and in many other places. I always laugh when I see foreigners and tourists visiting the continent for the first time, snapping pictures of women balancing all kinds of things on their heads. I never quite mastered this art and envied my cousins who lived in the village with my grandmother and knew how to balance a whole pail of water on their head, on the long walk from the borehole/well back to the house. Did i mention, no hands? This art strikes me as a figurative symbol of all that women not only in Africa but everywhere carry on their heads, juggling and multi- tasking.
Women are extremely valuable in the sight of society. Not only do they bear life, but they nurse, and they cherish. A father with many daughters is a wealthy father. Daughters figuratively represent wealth that will come into the family when the daughters get married.(if they get married). Whereas, the more sons you have the more wealth will be dispersed to the families of those they marry. This is all subjective of course, a theory that once rang true. Nowadays some marry non- Africans who do not demand brideprice. How easy it would be if the movie style ‘lets get married’ script was truly that easy. I am not even talking about the logistics of a wedding, I am still at the ‘let’s get married/engaged’ part. Before anything happens my culture demands that I summon my aunties , who will then tell my father,..who will then summon his brothers and uncles to draw up all the requirements for the intending suitor to fulfill before any talk of a white wedding. But that is a story for another day.
So how does the African society perceive women? As women,embodying femininity and grace. As jewels,valuable to the family unit and to the community. A home without a woman is like a barn without cattle. – African proverb
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