The experience of women in Africa Nigeria

The African continent is made up of myriads of cultural and tribal entities. Each tribe has its own cosmology and way of relating to it. Consequently, we can safely say that the place and dignity of women in Africa differs according to individual and tribal set ups. While not denying the hallowed experience of women in matrilineal societies, and also of women who have enjoyed influential privileges in African history, in most African cultures, especially the patriarchal ones, a woman is regarded as a bona fide property of the man  and subject to him[1].

A wife graduates from her father’s custody into her husband’s assertive authority and control, just as we find in the Jewish and Greek cultures. Daughters do not inherit their father’s property unless there is no male heir, and in some places, after the death of a husband, the wife has no share in his property. A wife is still considered a stranger, no matter the glamour of welcome associated with marriage ceremonies. Generally, according to Ikenga-Metuh, “Women are represented by their husbands or brothers”[2], this qualifies them as nameless actors on the stage of life; there is no law in Africa, oral or written that upholds the equality of sexes[3]. The children are the children of the man, and if any becomes a failure, the husband refers to him or her as the child of the wife and not his. Even today, the African woman compared to the man, is not altogether free and architect of her own life and future, she is still regarded as a second class citizen.

Women, although the sources of life, as far as conception and giving birth to children is concerned, are also seen as sources of danger; the blood of menstruation and childbirth are seen as capable of polluting or defiling a person. As such the woman is set apart from other people until she is ritually made clean. When it comes to ritual practices women who are menstruating are denied access to the shrine, and were not allowed to touch religious objects of persons, because menstrual blood is believed to be impure and dangerously harmful to sacred objects. And in the olden days, women who were menstruating were moved to an outer apartment were unclean people were kept and were not allowed to cook for their husbands.

The traditional outlook in the African traditional society that relegates women to the background has infiltrated into the Christian churches in Africa. The situation is worst in those parts of the continent where Islam is a major religion. The Koran itself clearly states that the sexes do not enjoy the same dignity, and even though it is incorrectly asserted that the Koran denies that women have a soul, Karl Peschke asserts that women’s concrete social condition in Islam is one of great restriction on their freedom and total subordination to the authority of the husband[4].

This is not to say that the African completely has no regard for the woman. No! The place which the African woman occupies is expressed in the Ghanaian proverb: ‘A Woman is a flower in a garden, her husband is the fence around.’ Women in Africa are reverenced as the sources of life[5]. There are so many other proverbs that speaks of the woman in African culture. Women in Africa are not just the givers of live; they nurse life, cherish it and give warmth. They care for life since all human life passes through them[6]. Just like in the Greek culture, women in Africa play important roles in personal rituals of status transformation. According to Kenneth Kojo-Anti, “at childbirth, women express gratitude to God with prayers and sacrifices, and at death they sing dirges to express their sorrow”[7].  During most festivals in African traditional religion, which are the honours of divinities and ancestors, the singing and dancing is done by well-dressed women[8].

[1] Cornelius Tagwai, Women in Pauline Epistles: A Reflection on the Dignity and Role of Women in the Church in Nigeria, Theses for Bachelor’s Degree in Theology, May, 1997, p. 45.

[2] Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies of African Traditional Religions, Onitsha, Nigeria: Imico Publishers, 1987, p. 138.

[3] Cornelius Tagwai, Op.Cit, p. 47.

[4] Karl Peschke, Op.Cit, p.433.

[5] Some myths speak about an original Mother of mankind, from whom all people originated. For example, the Akposso (of Togo) tell that when Uwolowu (God) made men, He first made a woman on the earth and bore with her the first child, the first human being. The Ibibio (of Nigeria) say that human beings came from the divinity Obumo, which was the son of the mother-divinity Eka-Abassi. It is told in eastern Africa about a virgin woman Ekao, who fell on earth from the sky and bore a son; the son got married to another woman and founded human society. Other examples are mentioned by Baumann. The main idea here, is to link human life directly with God through the woman. She is created by God, and in turn becomes the instrument of human life. She rightly becomes the one who passes on life. This is beautifully illustrated in a myth of the Tutsi (of Rwanda). They tell that the original pair of human beings was in paradise. But both the man and woman were sterile, they could not bear children. So they begged God to help them. God mixed clay with saliva and formed a small human figure. He instructed the woman to put the figure into a pot and keep it there for nine months. Every day the woman had to pour milk into the pot, mornings and evenings. She was to take out the figure only when it had grown limbs. So she followed these instructions and after nine months she pulled out what had now become a human being. God made other human beings according to this method, and these later increased on the earth. The pot is here a symbol of the womb of a mother, in which a baby takes shape and after nine months it is born. The woman shares directly with God in a personal way, the secrets and mysteries of life and birth. This role of the woman in sharing in the mysteries of life started already in the mythological time. Cf John Mbiti, The Role of Women in African traditional Religion, In a few myths, it is told that the woman was made by God out of the man’s body, or after the man had been made. Perhaps behind these myths is the wish and practice on the part of males (men) to dominate women. For example, the Kwotto (of Nigeria) say that God made the first human beings out of the earth (soil). God made (created) first the husband, and when He had become tired, lie then made the wife (woman) who turned out to be weaker than her husband. Cf John Mbiti, “The Role of Women in African Traditional religion”,; Bannerman, J.Y., Mantse-Akan Mbebusen (Ghanaian Proverbs), Accra, 1974, p.19 ; Baumann. H ., Schpfung und Urzeit des Menschen im Mythus der afrikanischen Vlker, (2 ed.), Berlin, Reirner, 1964.p. 138, p. 180.

[6] “Wives and oxen have no friends”. This indicates that a wife is so valuable that she cannot be given over to even the best friends of her husband. For that reason, another proverb reminds us that: “A woman must not be killed”; “Did you buy me with elephant tusks?”, if the husband is ill-treating her. She reminds him that he really cannot buy her, she is not a commodity for sale like elephant tusks or slaves. “It is better to be married to an old lady than to remain unmarried”. There are areas of human life which only the woman can fulfill. “To beget a woman is to beget a man”. This saying carries with it the hope and expectation, that after marriage, the wife will bear both girls and boys. “The baby that refuses its mother’s breast, will never be full”. Other people may feed the baby or the person, but their food would never satisfy as well as that provided by the mother. Cf John Mbiti, “The Role of Women in African Traditional religion”,; Barra, G., 1.000 Kikuyu Proverbs, Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau-London, Macmillan and Co., 1960, p.2; Ibid., p.62.; Okot p’Bitek, Acholi Proverbs. Nairobi, Heinernan Kenya Ltd, 1985. p. 6; Kalugila. L. Swahili Proverbs from East Africa-Methali za Kiswahili toka Afrika Mashariki, Uppsala, Scandinavian Institute of African Studies. 1977. p. 5; Massek Ol.OloisoIo, A. – Sidai. J.O.. Enjeno oo Linaasai – Wisdom of Maasci, Nairobi, Transafrica Publishers. 1974, p. 42; Dalfovo, A.T., Logbara Proverbs. Rome. M.C.C.J. 1984, p.214; Junod, H. Ph. – Jacques. A.A. Vatlhari Bya Vatsonga. The Wisdom of the Tsonga-Shangana People, Pretoria, Central Mission Press. 1957, p. 179;

[7] Kenneth Kojo Anti, “Women in African traditional religions”, A Presentation for the Women’s Centre Eastern Washington  University.

[8] Ibid.

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