This is an extract from Chapter 21 of A History of Africa by Lutz van Dijk.

We know very little about the women who “made history” in Africa a long time ago. There are legends, but documents in this regard are few and far between and we possess hardly any record of statements made by female figures in Africa’s ancient history.

Among the women of antiquity, the most prominent were Nefertiti (14th century BCE) and Cleopatra (69-30 BCE). From Nubia there was Tiy (circa 1415-1340 BCE), who seems to have played an influential role during the reign of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Images of her, along with those of the pharaoh, appear in many temples and she is mentioned in all the ceremonial records of the pharaoh. In more recent times there were apparently two West African queens who played a role in the struggle against European colonial conquerors. In Angola there was Queen Nzinga (circa 1582-1663), who opposed the Portuguese. In Ghana, the Ashanti queen Yaa Asantewaa (1863-1923) inspired her people in the struggle against the expansion of British colonial rule.

The phenomenon that almost no information is available about the role of women in history is not at all unique to Africa. On other continents, biographical details of historically important women from bygone times were also documented only in exceptional cases, even though there undoubtedly had been such figures through the ages. In most cultures the emancipation of women came about only very late – mostly due to the efforts of women themselves who faught for their rights to self-determination and to be able to express their experiences in their own way. When Africa and European women talk to each other about these matters, it is remarkable that the African women often their attitude to tradition in a more nuanced way: In many instances they regard themselves as the guardians of good traditions, without denying the negative aspects of others.

During such discussions between women today, hardly anyone still defends the physical mutilation of girls, the practice of “circumcision” which – depending on the customs of the ethnic group – may involve the sewing up of the vagina or removing the clitoris. Fanatical traditionalists in Somalia and Sudan, where more than 90 per cent of girls are “circumcised” to this day, maintain that this is done for the women’s “own protection”. According to statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 100 million women are subjected to this practice. Most of them, about 80 million, live in Africa. As early as 1984, African Unity (OAU) – now the African Union – and collaborates with various United Nations agencies for the protection of women.

By contrast, the tradition of lobola (the bridal price which the future husband has to pay to the bride’s family) is still taken for granted by most of the black peoples of South Africa. The same applies to the tradition in some North African Islamic countries of forcing women to wear veils, but the women affected by this practice increasingly express soundly reasoned arguments for and against this for themselves. In 2002, an unuual burial ceremony took place in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. For many women this occasion was not only a symbolic recognition of the injustice they had had to endure for so many centuries but also of the restoration of their human dignity.

Sarah (“Saartjie”) Baartman was born in 1789 in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, died in Paris, France, in 1815 and was laid to rest on National Women’s Day, 9 August 2002, in South Africa:

We don’t know what Sarah Baartman’s real name was. Also known as Saartjie, she was born in the Eastern Cape as a member of the Khoikhoi, one of the oldest ethnic groups in southern Africa. These people were derogatorily called “Hottentots” by the European settlers. Her Christian baptismal name was given to her either when she was a child or a young woman. Her family later moved to Cape Town, where Sarah worked as a domestic servant. Here she caught the attention of a visiting English ship’s surgeon, who somehow acquired her and took her with him to London, in 1810.

In England the doctor had her displayed at fairs in cities and towns as the “Hottentot Venus” because of her “protruding posterior”. This humiliating spectacle grew in notoriety and later Sarah was even displayed in a cage on Piccadilly, one of the main streets of London. This led to objections from opponents of slavery. The doctor therefore decided to get rid of Sarah by selling her to a French animal dealer in 1815, who carried on with the same spectacle in Paris. She died of few months after her arrival in France, barely 25 years old, presumably from venereal disease.

This was, however, not to be the end of Saartjie’s via dolorosa. Hardly a day after her death, her body went to a highly acclaimed anatomist, Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). He did not only examine her body, but systematically dissected it, with particular interest in her genitalia. The purpose of the examination, it was claimed, was to determine whether Sarah Baartman was a human being or an animal. In his pseudo-scientific report of sixteen pages, Cuvier came to the conclusion that she should indeed be regarded as human. He had casts in wax made of the remains of her body – except for the brain, the skeleton and the labia, which were prepared for display and donated to the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris where they could be viewed by the public until 1974.

In 1995, one year after the first democratically elected government came to power in South Africa, the South African government, in response to requests by the Khoikhoi and san, started negotiations with the French government to have Sarah’s remains brought back for burial in her home in Africa. These negotiations, which even caused a debate in the French parliament, dragged on for six years, before permission was at last given to hand over her remains. More than 8 000 people took part in the solemn internment on 9 August 2002, which received worldwide media coverage. And so Sarah (“Saartjie”) Baartman eventually was laid to rest in a dignified manner in Hankey in the Eastern Cape.
Her grave was declared a national monument.

Miriam Makeba, born in 1932 in Johannesburg, also known as “Mama Afrika”:

Another South African woman, who – unlike Sarah Baartman – was able to return to her home country in her lifetime, is the world-famous singer Miriam Makeba, known to many simply as “Mama Afrika”. Her singing talent first become known across South Africa and neighbouring countries when she went on tour with a popular black South African jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers. Shortly afterwards, having just turned 25, she started her solo career and established a female trio.

In 1959 she was invited to appear in a musical film in the USA. While still in South Africa, she was already and outspoken opponent of the apartheid policies of the white minority regime. After her arrival in the United State, she also criticized the discriminatory “race laws” which at the time were still enforced in many parts of that country. This in no way harmed her growing popularity, but the South Africa government increasingly viewed her as an “unacceptable nuisance”. In 1960 she was banned by the apartheid regime from returning to South Africa – a ban which was to last for thirty years, until the end of apartheid in 1990.

Miriam Makeba lived in the United States for many years, but because of her growing disaffection with conditions there, she later moved to West Africa. As a delegate of the West Africa state of Guinea she spoke out vehemently on two occasions in the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York against the injustice of apartheid in South Africa. By fusing African music with her personal dedication to human rights, she repeatedly had the opportunity at her international appearances to meet leading politicians like the then president of the USA, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), and the Cuban head of state, Fidel Castro (*1927). In 1990 she returned to South Africa, where she was welcomed back in person by Nelson Mandela. She continued to perform internationally and has remained politically active. She is particularly involved in building a democratic society in South Africa and during an interview in 2001 she said: “We must fight against unemployment and the AIDS disease.”

In many of Africa’s fertility myths women do not only play a passive role as recipients, but occupy an active, creative position as well. Women are often represented in these traditions as goddesses, worthy of adoration and endowed with spiritual powers. The Ninavanhu-Ma (“Great Mother” or “Goddess of all Creation”) occurs under different names in several Bantu beliefs. These myths are not based solely on spiritual experiences. In large parts of Africa they are based on solid facts. This becomes clear from critical examination of anthropological reports on the gender-specific division of labour in early African Society. Such reposts must always be evaluated exceptionally carefully because it often only becames clear at a second reading to what a great extent anthropology as a scientific field of study is dominated by males. Facts are frequently presented in such a way that they reinforce stereotypes, such as the representation of the man as the hunter who ventures out into a hostile world, while the woman stays passively at home tending the children and the fields.

An example: In 1966 the highly acclaimed Harvard University in the United States presented a conference in Chicago on the subject of “Man as a Hunter”. About 90 per cent of the conference delegates – among them some of the world’s leading anthropologists – were men. They presented their latest research results and were basically unanimous in their view that “our present intellectual and social abilities are based on the further development of everything that man as a hunter has contributed to the history of mankind”. But the facts tell a different story. It is true that most man in ancient societies were hunters and often indeed roamed far away from home for days on end. One of the organizers of the conference, Professor Richard Lee, had, however, observed an interesting phenomenon among a San group in South Africa, something which was true for many other ancient communities, namely that the man four times out of five come back empty-handed from their hunting forays. By contrast, the women always bring something back when they go on their daily search for food. On average the women contribute two and a half times more to the feeding of their group than the men. Without taking note of these facts, the papers presented at the conference were nonetheless later published in book form as Man as a Hunter.

Because of such historical ignorance women must spend an exceptional amount of energy and effort to be heard at last and to put their view on the agenda. Exactly how much effort this requires becomes clear from the personal recollections of Graҫa Machel, the first minister of education of Mozambique after independence.

“What I experienced in my youth, millions of women still experience today, millions upon millions on the continent of Africa.”
– Graҫa Machel, born in 1945 in Mozambique, in 2002

“To this day it still makes me sad to say this, but I was born twenty days after the death of my father, who was a migrant worker on the South African mines. My mother brought us what little she could manage from her domestic work. Both parents were illiterate . . .

“My eldest sister took me from my mother at the age of six, far away to the village where she was teaching, because it was the only way I could start school at the right age. She is my second mother. And she was a good mother to me, as well as my mother. She managed to make me feel secure although I was far from my mother . . . My sister opened my eyes to knowledge, to science. She is typical of those women who take charge of their siblings as their own children . . .” Thanks to a bursary from the Methodist Church, Graҫa Machel could attend high school. As one of the best pupils in her class and with the support of an American missionary, she obtained a further bursary to study in Lisbon in Portugal. In 1968, at the age of 23, she enrolled for a course in foreign languages. At the end of her studies she could speak four languages fluently.

“I wouldn’t be what I am and wouldn’t have learned the lessons I have learned about caring for others without the example of three women – my mother, my eldest sister, and an American missionary from Pennsylvania who afforded me the opportunity of going to university . . . Many of the girls I grew up with, never reached adulthood, dying of various diseases, later also during the war . . .[And of the others] most did not reach secondary school. Now they are in their 50s like me, but they look as if they’re in their 70s, drained by all sorts of suffering . . .
“As the only black student in my class I was made to feel like an outsider, later, witnessing the humiliation of my people forced me to get involved.”

At the age of 28, Graҫa Machel joined one of the resistance groups which had suffered most from brutal persecution by Portuguese soldiers. That was FREELIMO (the “Front for the Liberation of Mozambique”) led by Samora Machel (1933-1986). When the Portuguese secre service started looking for her, she fled to Tanzania, where she underwent military training. Upon her return to Mozambique she again joined FRELIMO, but was sent back to Tanzania to teach at a FRELIMO school for child refugees. Here she got to know Samora Machel personally, “but at first nothing happened. We gradually become attracted to one another and fell in love.” Samora Machel’s first wife, Josina, who was also involved in the freedom struggle, had died two years before and left him six children.

Graҫa Machel was 29 when, in 1974, Portugal’s dictatorship finally collapsed, and Mozambique could become free from colonial domination. She was designated to become the first minister of education of the newly independent Mozambique. She remembers: “When I was told I was to be minister I went white. I was terrified by the challenge . . . Education was a key issue for FRELIMO and moreover, as the only female in the cabinet, I felt I represented all women. I actually took to my bed and wept for days. If I failed, they’d say: ‘You see what happens when you give a woman responsibility.’ So I declined. But of course, Samora, being Samora, said he wouldn’t hear of it . . . What could I do? I dried my tears. I took the job.”

In 1975 Samora Machel became the first president of a free Mozambique. Afew months later he and Graҫa were married. She suddenly became the mother of the six children from his previous marriage and they themselves had more children.

From 1976, very soon after Mozambique had become independent from Portuguese rule, new problems arose. An underground opposition movement, RENAMO (an acronym for the Portuguese word meaning “National Resistance Movement of Mozambique”), which was supported financially and materially by, amongst others, the white minority government in South Africa, began launching terror attacks on the young government and its supporters. This caused the death of some 100 000 civilians in the years to come.

Graҫa Machel madeit her personal goal as minister of education to provide the children of her country, which had been plagued by so many years of civil war, with the best possible educational opportunities. The number of pupils in primary and secondary schools doubled during her years as minister of education (1975-1989). As chairperson of the UNESCO commission for Mozambique, the fate of the thousands of children orphaned by the war was an issue about which she felt particularly strongly.

In October 1986 a shock wave hit Mozambique: Samora Machel was killed in an aircraft accident in South African airspace. Until today it has never been finally determined to what extent the apartheid government of South Africa at the time was or wasn’t responsible for this accident. Besides the president of Mozambique, the ambassadors of Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as 32 other passengers, were killed. Despite this deep personal tragedy Graҫa Machel remained in her post until 1989.

Graҫa Machel devoted the years thereafter mainly to international work for the rights of children and women. In 1994 she was asked, as an independent specialist, by the than secretary-general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (*1922) of Egypt, to write a report entitled a “UN study of the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children”. From 1994-1996 she focused on countries that had suffered heavily from the effects of civil war. Her final report remains a unique document in the history of the United Nations. It also led to the establishment of a special commission for children and young people affected by civil war. “At the beginning, when most of the conflicts were interstate, only about 10 per cent of casualties were civilians – 90 per cent were soldiers . . . Today the relationship has changed completely: 90 per cent of casualties are civilians and only 10 per cent are soldiers. To put it in another way: War nowadays are against civilians, against defenceless people in the villages, in streets, in schools. Half of the refugees in the world are children . . . In the many countries I have visited, it is neither possible nor realistic [to try] to provide justice for everyone who has suffered injustice. It is unrealistic because the depth of the damage is so enormous. How do you build a society in which everyone feels that we are building a way of living and sharing which gives us a sense of justice? How do you build a just system in the way of living in which people will feel that all of us together, as a nation, are building a society in which justice prevails?”

The first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, met Graҫa Machel for the first time during a brief visit to Mozambique shortly after his release from detention in 1990. They met again two years later, when Graҫa Machel received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town. Mandela and his wife at the time, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (*1936), who had remained loyal to him during the long years of his imprisonment but was later repeatedly called to answer charges of abuse of some of her young followers and also of corruption, had at this time become estranged from one another. After they had divorced, Graҫa Machel and Nelson Mandela were married, on his eightieth birthday, in July 1998. Graҫa Machel’s involvement with child welfare continues as strongly as ever.