The voices of women in Africa. Love, marriage, slavery, apartheid

Ruth Finnegan

It is “well-known” that in Africa women have both historically and in the present been oppressed, hidden, their voices silent. And it is true that they have suffered, and in many places (even, shockingly –in heritage from the past– in today’s Europe) still suffer the silent horrors of clitoridectomy, the non-individuality of polygamy and in many cases non-presence in the written historical records and the official hierarchies. With a few exceptions, mainly in West Africa, men have held the political power and for centuries it has been their voices that have come through loud and clear in African songs and stories and histories.

This paper addresses this subject from the point of view both of the present and (principally) the past, drawing its examples from three centuries: back to the mid-nineteenth century in the voices of the external (mainly male) observers, and up to the present, partly continuing as it does from the past, with a speculative glance at the time yet to come –the history of the future.

In the often-metaphorical and elusive language of story and song –a source too often neglected or too roughly and literally treated by historians– we can reach out more intimately than in most historical sources, to truths otherwise hidden from us (is there a lesson here, perhaps, not just for women but for all historians?). The accepted powerlessness picture came out strongly in many of the stories that I, a woman, recorded in Sierra Leone in Western Africa in the 1960s, just after the ending in theory, if not quite yet in practice, of colonial rule there. Only one of the scores of narrators was a woman (not for want of my trying). In the tales women are seen as devious, expensive, out for their own ends –a common preconception among men more generally.

Among the Limba people with whom I spent many months this dates back, they say, to the beginning of marriage. They explained it in one of their stories –in a way just a fairy-tale but with its own truth. Marriage began, I was told, because once upon a time a mythic old woman set up a market stall, as West African women do (and very powerful they are too). A beautiful young girl comes by and buys something for the then large sum of £4, soon afterwards a boy does the same. The old woman tells him:

“Follow this path. When you meet a girl standing there, when you meet her, as soon as you see her standing there with her breasts all firm, yakarakara –then don’t hesitate! When you see her, as soon as you reach her, then wupu! fall on her!” The boy went and did so. Then the girl said, “Hey! hey! See, I have bought good merchan-dise”. The man too said, “Hey! hey! See, we bought good merchan-dise from the old woman”.

But –the boy hadn’t paid!The old woman said,

“Very well”. Because of that, that is why you must now work for your wife. We Limba were cursed by that old woman to whom Kanu [God] sold the merchandise. The man refused to pay. Today if you want a wife, you have to give money. If you don’t, you won’t get one. That man used deceit on us. Now if you marry a wife, she just goes off! It was the curse the old woman laid on us. She took the blessing and gave it to the girl. […] Thebridewealth he didn’t pay the old woman, that is what we have to pay for a wife, right up to this day.


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