We grow up in countries within the continent and almost everywhere we see women regularly beaten. Their word is devalued, their opinions are belittled. They are constantly judged, tirelessly defined – regardless of their success in society – by the fact to be married or not.
They do not receive inheritance and are most likely to live in material insecurity. They are generally absent from political and economic decision-making circles.
In the face of these numerous and repeated abuses, and given the strong masculinity of men, we end up thinking that it is in the very nature of Africa to make the majority female, a group of second-class citizens. We end up by concluding that, we have always been a patriarchal and sexist society.
And when one delves into history, as we did, one discovers with stunning amazement that not only did authentic Africa define equality between man and woman, but had actually made the latter – in agreement with men – the most valuable gender.
Let us return to the sources of matriarchy to discover that this cultural feature, the single most ingenious that came out of the thought of our ancestors, was shared, at one time or another, by the whole black continent. We will also briefly see how we have regressed to the current situation.
To grasp the whole of this article, the reader should first collect information about the African Spirituality, the African philosophy Ma’at, the African monogamic tradition and the true origins of male and female circumcision.
Back to the origins: Ankh (life)
Our ancestors had theorized that at the beginning of everything was the Nun, the disordered primordial water full of germs, from which the creation would spring. One of these germs (Imana) became aware of His-Her existence and engendered creation, putting in order the potentials of life contained in the Nun, and overcoming with His-Her energy the initial disorder.
Imana (God) continued the creative work by making the born evolve to perfect creation. All these principles and events that led to the creation of life by Imana, were called by the Egyptian Ma’at.
The Sun also bears these principles of Ma’at. The Sun liquefies waters, orders and develops plant life, and is the maximum energy perceptible by Humans. The Sun (Râ) is therefore the Messenger of God. Our ancestors thus called the Creator Imana-Râ (Amen-Râ).
Since God created beings, then God is male and female, because only a couple can give birth and create life.
The whole universe is composed of contrary and complementary principles: sky-earth, water-air, woman-man etc…. The Creator was therefore unique before dividing into a male and a female principle. The woman and the man have therefore each inherited a part of the Creator.
The woman is more orderly, more faithful, more stable and it is in her womb containing also water that life evolves. When the child is born, it is still she who feeds him to continue his development. Man is physically stronger and is superior in terms of energy.
It stems from this that the man and the woman received equal parts of the one Creator’s intelligence, but above all God put in the woman His-Her moral values and ability to generate and make life evolve, and put in man above all His-Her energy which serves to defend this life. Our ancestors therefore agreed that the woman is more a bearer of Ma’at than the man, that is why Ma’at is represented by a woman.
The woman is morally superior and gives life. The man is energetically superior. In harmony, then, the woman and the man must unite and complement each other in order to recreate the oneness of God and realize His-Her goal, which is to continue life. The woman will ordain and give life. The man will defend this life.
This divine order was codified by the writing of the myth of Isis and Osiris. Isis by her moral values begins to restore the good. She gives birth to Horus son of Osiris, whom she makes grow and who, once an adult, by his physical strength, consecrates the restoration of the good.
Matriarchy was reinforced by the end of nomadic life and the start of sedentary life. In the first villages and cities, men went to war, to hunt, it was women especially who took direct care of the community. They have therefore been defined as the pillar.
The child bears the name of his mother, belongs to her family and is placed under the male tutelage of her brother. The uncle defends the rights of his sister and ensures that his nephews and nieces remain attached to their mother’s family.
At the level of power it is the woman who holds the rights. She is the Royal Mother, the highest figure in the state. She has her son the King executes the power and hands over the rights to her daughter, who bears the title of Royal Sister. The King is head of politics and head of armies. At his death he is succeeded by his sister’s son. Thus power passes from mother to daughter and is exercised by their respective sons.
The Isis is the Royal Daughter when she is born, Royal Sister when her brother becomes King, Great Royal Wife if she marries him, and Royal Mother when her own son becomes King.
Some argued that if the king in Africa chosed his sister’s child to succeed him, it was because he was sure that the child was of his blood, when he could not swear it for his own child. If that certainty has played a role, it’s not the only reason. If this had been the case, the king’s sister would have been a powerless person, charged only with giving birth to the heir. Now it is attested that she was particularly powerful.
Cheikh Anta Diop said so in 1959 in L’Unité Culturelle de l’Afrique noire, page 111 “In Egypt it is the woman who inherits political rights but (…) it is her husband who reigns”. 60 years later, respected novelist and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said about the Igbo people of Nigeria “Men were generally more powerful, but women had power” .
The divine order of matriarchy was thus applied throughout the whole Africa.
Matriarchy in Southern Africa
In the prestigious civilization of Zimbabwe, the Mwene Mutapa (the emperor) was crowned by his mother and married his sister. The Namwari (Royal Mother) was the highest figure in the state.
Among the Venda of South Africa, the king ascended to the throne assisted by the eldest of his sisters (Khadzi) and his brother (Ndumi). When he died, his own son became king, the Khadzi became Makhadzi (Royal Mother) and the Ndumi became Khotsimunene (Royal Father). The king thus reigned with his paternal aunt and uncle. When the three could not agree, the Makhadzi had the last word.
In the kingdom of eSwatini (former Swaziland) until today, the king reigns with his mother who bears the title of Ndlovukati. She takes up this position on the day of the coronation. When the King (Ngwenyema) is unable to exercise power, the Ndlovukati reigns.
About baTswana, the majority ethnic group of Botswana, Radcliffe-Brown and D Forde say in 1953 “In particular, a related maternal uncle must be consulted in all cases involving the children of his sister; his opinion is so important that sometimes, at the moment when the marriage is arranged, his veto can be decisive”.
In the refined Kuba kingdom at the south of the DR Congo, it was the matriarch who appointed the king and could remove him from the throne. The King was succeeded by his sister’s son.
Matriarchy in East Africa
During the Swahili civilization in Kenya-Tanzania, the absolute height of the region’s history, the King (Mfalme) ascended to the throne by marrying a royal princess.
In the kingdom of Buganda, the king (Kabaka) succeeded his father or his paternal brother, but reigned with his mother (Namasole) and was under the protection of her family. It was probably so also in the kingdom of Rwanda, hence the intrigues between women to see their respective sons rise to the throne.
Sudan undoubtedly represents the absolute climax of the African matriarchy, with the Royal Mothers (Kandake/Candace) of the Pharaonic era, who will also hold the office of King 2000 years ago. This tradition will continued even during the Orthodox Christian era, where the king was succeeded by his sister’s son.
In Ethiopia, the black queens of Sheba in the south of the Arabian Peninsula also ruled the country.
In Somalia, where women are sometimes stoned to death under Islamic sharia law, the Reer-Cambaro and Reer-Mayran clans are named after their female ancestors. These are the remains of an almost extinct tradition.
Matriarchy in Central Africa
Around Lake Chad, the gigantic empire of Kanem-Bornu flourished. The King (Mai) reigned with his mother (Magira) – the highest figure in the state – and with his sister.
Among the Bamileke of Cameroon, the Royal Mother (Mafo) had precedence over her son the King. The foundation of the Bamun kingdom, for its part, begins with Queen Yen. Until the time of the famous King Njoya, his mother Nzabdunke was powerful.
Among the Fang of Cameroon-Gabon-Equatorial Guinea, the children were named after their mothers. Thus, large families in the city of Yaoundé (Mvog Atangana Mballa, Mvog Tsoungui Mballa, Mvog Fouda Mballa) are named after Mballa who was a woman.
In the Kongo Empire, the King venerated his mother and married his sister. In some Kongo clans to this day, men consider their sisters’ children more important than their own children.
Matriarchy in West Africa
Founded by the Soninke people in Mauritania-Mali, it was the Empire of Ghana, probably the richest State in the world in the 10th century, that inaugurated the Imperial era. The emperor (Tunkara) ruled with his mother and was succeeded by his sister’s son. If we do not know the extent of the powers of the Tunkara’s mother well, we can deduce them from the tradition of the Akan, who are of Soninke origin.
Among the Ashanti, an Akan people of today’s Ghana, the Asantehemaa (Royal Mother) appointed the King. Osei Tutu, venerable founder of the Ashanti Empire, was appointed by his grandmother. The King was succeeded by his sister’s son.
Among the Wolof of Senegal, it was a woman (Lingeer) who named the King (Brack), who was her husband, brother or son. The privileged relationship with the sister’s children was the rule.
In the empire of Mali which succeeded to ancient Ghana, the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta reported in the 14th century that the children were named after their maternal uncles. Mansa Kanku Musa, the illustrious emperor of Mali and the richest man in history, was named after his mother.
In the case of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, when the sovereign (Mogho Naba) died, it was his eldest daughter who held the title of King during the funeral, the whole country came to bow down before her.
In the Kingdom of Danhomé in current Benin, the two prime ministers, Migan and Mehu, were under the tutelage of two Royal Mothers. In the magnificent kingdom of ancient Benin in Nigeria, the King (Oba) although succeeding his father, reigned with his mother, no major decision was made without her consent.
The Hausa, for their part, gave the matriarchy all his nobility. There are 17 reigning queens before Islam. The King ruled with his mother (Madaki-Magadjiya) and his sister. The Royal Sister Amina, the greatest of the Hausa queens, thus assumed the functions of King and Madaki at the death of her brother Karama.
Matriarchy also existed among the Fulani. It is still the rule within the non-muslim Wodaabe clan. It is the woman who chooses her lover or husband.
Matriarchy in North Africa
In Egypt Pharaoh reigns with his mother and marries his sister to legitimize his power. He is succeeded by his own son, who is therefore also his uterine nephew, that is, his sister’s son. In homes it is up to the woman to establish order and rules. She is in front of the law equal to the man. She inherits like him.
Finally, among the Berbers of Libya and the Maghreb, who were originally black, the leaders ruled with their mothers and sisters. The inheritance was given to the uterine nephew, a tradition that astonished Ibn Battuta.
Note on matriarchy in the rest of the world
As Africans have inhabited every continent, they have exported matriarchy everywhere. It was therefore found in South Asia, Southern Europe and Oceania. This is why people of Asian origin who today live in Africa (Madagascar) traditionally practice matriarchy.
Matriarchy among the Amerindians is due to the mixed origins of this people. They are – essentially – a mixture of Mongols from Asia, and original American blacks, themselves from Oceania and Asia. The continent was then civilized by the Egyptians.
Ancient America, culturally, religiously and when it comes to civilization, was an extension of the pharaonic African world.
When Blacks – in the early times – arrived in the north of Eurasia, the glacial and food-poor climate forced them to a nomadic life and a warrior culture to monopolize scarce resources.
In these regions where the Black will become white, the woman is a burden for these constant movements. She is also less able to wage war. The woman’s physical disadvantage will be retained only, her moral role will have no value here. That is how she was seen as inferior.
This misogyny was inscribed in the white and patriarchal religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
So it was Islam and the colonial laws of Christian Europe that destroyed matriarchy in Africa. Everywhere the colonists had women’s institutions banned.
The distinguished African-Caribbean historian Sylvia Serbin said „At the time when matriarchy was at its peak in black Africa, the woman had power. With Islam and Christianity, the political role was taken away“ .
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie adds, “The arrival of colonialism was accompanied by Victorian Christianity, which contained the terrible, white idea of women’s submission and the idea that the woman’s place was the kitchen and the bedroom”.
Since European women made their feminist revolution in the 20th century, we thus arrive at an incredible reversal of history, where women in the West are free and in Africa they suffer many discriminations.
It must be said that it has only been a century since the West started seeing women as human beings while Africa from the beginning considered them superior.
The behaviour of some African men in the face of Africa’s matriarchal past
While many black men are swollen with pride in this past, the evocation of the matriarchal tradition provokes angry reactions in others. They grew up in a society that glorifies them as all-powerful and gives them social and economic privileges.
The eternal and supposed inferiority of women is the moral foundation of the unequal system which benefits only them, and which they intend to maintain. If they are not at the root of the current unfair system, they are living it very comfortably.
Just as the white world has built and takes advantage of the supposed inferiority of Blacks to have economic and social privileges, these African men hold this physical inferiority of women to secure their advantages.
Just as so many white people know that the history of Blacks civilizers of the world is destroying the moral foundations of their privileges, these African men know that the glorious past of the black woman destroys the foundations of inequality that only benefit them. Everyone feels threatened by their unjustly acquired privileges.
Racism and sexism ultimately have the same goal: to drive away respectively the Blacks and women of the human species, to build an unequal system, and justify the natural and effortless obtaining of privileges.
The complementary system of matriarchy, derived from Ma’at, was regarded as the organization willed by God. Matriarchy was never imposed on African men, but accepted – in the reading of Creation – as Imana’s will and defended by men.
Once again Ma’at is everywhere, absolutely everywhere in ancient Africa, in every theory, every act. To have gone from the only laws of Creation to build everything is absolutely remarkable.
Africa therefore does not need feminism to solve women’s problems. We must return to our spirituality and philosophy. We are going like our ancestors, to solve these problems in harmony.
By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)
- L’unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire, Cheikh Anta Diop
- The role of Makhadzi in traditional leadership among the Venda, Pfarelo Eva Matshidze ; University of Zululand.
- D’hier à aujourdhui, la puissance du féminisme africain ; Angeles Jurado ; Courrier International.
-  D’hier à aujourdhui, la puissance du féminisme africain ; Angeles Jurado ; Courrier International.
-  L’unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire, Cheikh Anta Diop, page 68
-  Ces grandes dames qui ont fait l’Afrique, Natacha Appanah ; Jeune Afrique