|“ENDING THE SERVITUDE OF LIFE GIVERS: THE LIBERATION OF EAST AFRICAN WOMEN SINCE NYERERE’S EQUALITY CALL”
PAPER DELIVERED BY HON. (PROF) PETER ANYANG’ NYONG’O EGH., MP, MINISTER FOR MEDICAL SERVICES, KENYA AT THE MAKERERE AFRICA CELEBRATIONS ON DECEMBER 2ND, 2011
Introduction: Men Are Biased Against Women, But History Tells them Off
Whatever sociologists say, and in whichever language, men have always “put women in their place” throughout history. The notion that women are beings of a lesser stature permeates legends and social mores,1 yet moments have also arisen in history where women have performed miracles, led nations into war, propelled societies into social and economic progress unknown before and presided over social transformations that remain landmarks in the history of the human race.
If that were not so, then tales would not have been told about legendary African women who won great battles fighting side by side with men. Or those who built empires and ruled for years like Amina Queen of Zaria in the sixteenth century or Mumbi the mother of the Kikuyu nationality in Kenya. Nelson Mandela, in his book Conversations with Myself 2, adds to this list of great African women Mantatsi, the regent of the Batlokwa in Lesotho who reigned from 1813-26 and underlined the centrality of women in Basotho politics to this very day.3
Mandela, in this letter, tells his wife Winnie the following:
You will be quite right to regard 1979 as women’s year. They seem to be demanding that society lives up to its sermons on sex equality. The French lady Simone Veil has lived through frightful experiences to become President of the European Parliament, while Maria Pintasiglo cracks the whip in Portugal. From reports it is not clear who leads the Jimmy Carter family. There are time when Carter’s wife Rosalynn seems to be wearing the trousers!”
Joan of Arc, nicknamed “the Maid of Orleans” provided leadership to the French army to several victories during the Hundred Years’ War which paved the way for the coronation of Charles the VII in the fifteenth century. She was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, tried by an ecclesiastical court, and burned at the stake when she was only 19 years old. Twenty five years later Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr.
No doubt Joan of Arc inspired many women down history lane, across continents and across cultures; and her accomplishments and martyrdom inspired writers and politicians alike, from William Shakespeare to Bertolt Brecht and George Bernard Shaw. Much closer at home in Uganda the exploits of Alice Lakwena of the Lords’ Resistance Army could perhaps be an incarnation of an African Joan of Arc who failed in her mission, leaving behind a history few can be proud of, let alone inspire any religious order to declare her a martyr.
But in terms of bravery that could easily surpass that of men in similar circumstances, Alice Lakwena has no doubt made it into the pages of Ugandan history as a daring and brave woman.
Recently the world lost an African icon in the person of Professor Wangare Maathai, the first African woman to receive a Nobel Prize; and as if to immediately pay homage to her for “blazing the trail”, the Nobel Committee awarded two more African women the prize before the fire that reduced her to ashes could actually quench. We now have two more African women Nobel Laureates: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian President, and Leymah Gbowee, a woman social worker in Liberia who, like Joan of Arc, led the women of Liberia to rise up against the oppression and dictatorship by men at a time when it was not so easy to do so. To share the same Nobel Prize with the two African women was Tawakkul Karman from Yemen. As a journalist and a pro-democracy activist, Ms Karman has been a leading figure in the protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh for some time, raising the bar for good leadership in Yemen and asking the authoritarian Saleh to quit the scene and allow democracy to germinate.
The Nobel Committee said the three women had been chosen “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The Committee went on to assert that “we cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Both Sara Hlupekile Longwe4 and Zenebework Tadesse5, in contributing to the NEPAD debate in 2002, came to the same conclusion in two different but related essays. A good governance discourse that is based on a procedural conception of democracy conceived as separate and apart from socio-economic rights and structures—as does NEPAD-has extremely limited transformatory potential for a new and gender just Africa6, argued Tadesse.
Today that kind of pronouncement may look very ordinary and quite acceptable. But in the nineteen sixties when the three East African Community countries became independent these words were not so obvious or so easily accepted by the male dominated societies of East Africa.
A popular song in Nairobi to which we danced heartily as teen agers said:
Akili ya bibi haiwezi kupita ya bwana!
Akili ya bibi iko sawa mtoto mdogo!
(Meaning: a woman’s intelligence is much less than that of a man; a woman is as intelligent as a kid).
However, when I went to Tanzania several years later in the mid eighties, I found a band playing at the Mount Meru Hotel which reminded me of the critique of the Kiswahili chauvinist song I had danced to in Kenya in the sixties. This band’s lyric went something like this:
Akili ni nywele kila mutu ana yake kichwani!
(Meaning: intelligence is like hair on the head; every one of us has it (i.e. intelligence) in the head—hence women are no exceptions!)
I am not surprised now that this song was being sung in Arusha at a time when Mwalimu Julius Nyerere had ceased to be President. In other words, in Tanzania at least, the ideology that Africa ni Moja na Binadamu wote ni sawa (Africa is one and all human beings are equal) had actually sank in notwithstanding Mwalimu’s departure from the Presidency. Mwalimu is known to have made social justice, equality and freedom of all human beings the cardinal principles and cornerstones of Tanzania’s development. In that regard he abhorred the servitude of women in African traditional society, and could not see any meaningful development without the total liberation of women and the implementation of human equality in post-independence Africa. After all, whichever way one looked at it, women are the givers of life everywhere, and quite often the bearers of the biggest load of work within the family and in the production of life in general.7
Nyerere’s concept of democracy did not begin with looking at the procedure or form first; it started by defining the purpose of society, and hence what democracy would do to promote this purpose. This purpose—the promotion of the right and dignity of all human beings—then informed the structure and function of government, what Tadesse in her essay referred to as the “socio-economic content” of structures of democratic governance.
Importance of Ideology, Political Praxis and Culture in the Liberation of Women
In this lecture, therefore, I am going to focus more on what we need to do to liberate our women, assuming that we should no longer question the reality of human equality. As is in the preamble of the American Constitution, we should hold this truth to be self evident: that men and women are born equal. That whatever governments do is not to deny this equality but to promote, consolidate and institutionalize it. What, therefore, are the ideological and cultural
prerequisites for creating an atmosphere for the advancement of our women and how far have we, in East Africa, striven to do this since the alarm bells were rang by Nyerere as early as the fifties?
I am not going to bore you with the litany of reciting how many women Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda or Burundi have been elected to Parliament since independence as a way of measuring how far our women have gone to achieve or not to achieve equality with men. While these figures are important, the reality is that we have not done as much as we should though our declarations and intentions point in the right direction. Rwanda, a much smaller country within the region, has done much better when we look at women’s roles in public offices, decision making organs and to some extent in the economy. This again could be explained by the fact that Rwanda has a much more progressive political leadership born out of the painful struggle to respect human rights, the equality of all people and the need to keep at bay social bigotry that can easily land a country into such tragic incidents like the Rwanda genocide.
But there is also another side to the Rwandan achievement. In Europe, for example, late democracies in much smaller countries have tended to do much better with regard to female emancipation than older democracies in formerly feudal societies. Hence the Scandinavians have done much better in female emancipation than both England and France. America, though not feudal from the beginning, was founded on a racist and patriarchal ideology that kept both women and people of color outside the mainstream of political life. In East Africa, it was Julius Nyerere who was conscious of the dangers of both patriarchy and social bigotry as enemies of social progress and raised the alarm bells for female emancipation at independence.
As early as 1960, after decrying the servitude that African women were subjected to in traditional society, Julius Nyerere exhorted the Tanganyika women to rise up and assert their equality with men when he said: “If women want to take their rightful places in the community and if they do not want to be looked down upon, they have to prove this by leaving behind old practices and prejudices which push them back into the kitchen…They have to prove that the confidence placed in them is justified since the party and the government have given full support for women.”
This support was not simply given in form, i.e. through formal equality in law; it was also expressed in concrete programs and projects that the independent government initiated to empower women. One such program was the adult education program. In 1962, 75% of those who enrolled for adult education in the then Tanganyika were women from the countryside. This was to give women the power to compete with men on an equal footing in the political, social and economic market place.
There is obviously a big difference between the worker offering his or her labor for a wage in the market place and a slave tied to his or her master and providing serf labor: serf labor is un-free and chains the laborer to the “employer” without any freedom to change the conditions of work. The family is one such institution where women virtually give slave labor, especially where laws have not been established to provide women with inalienable rights within the family. Wage labor, however, provides the worker with the freedom—at least theoretically—to offer his or her wages to the best buyer: whether the worker is a man or woman since the qualification to work is given by skills acquired through education and training. 8
Nowhere in post- independent East Africa had women been as prominent in politics as in Tanganyika at independence. It is here that one read of Bibi Titi Mohammed, Lucy Lameck and Tatu Nuru playing important roles in national political leadership at the dawn of independence. Although they were few in number in national politics, they were many in number in local politics, particularly through the power that the Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania played in both TANU and CCM, the ruling party for more than two decades in post independence Tanzania. But Nyerere was not satisfied with this: the liberation of women was not to be measured simply by how many rose to prominent positions, but more by how many were empowered to compete as men did in the market place of employment, of business and in the professions, hence his emphasis on advancing socialism through universal primary and secondary education.9
Increased access to education has indeed seen more women elected to parliament and local government authorities, and so on. How many women occupy top positions in the civil service, or are academics of outstanding ability, or are in the leading professions? While all these measures are important, and indeed indicate the extent to which equality of opportunity exist in society for either gender, it is important equally to start with the cultural revolution that begins to tackle the age –old male dominance over women and their relegation to beings of a lesser kind. How does this cultural- revolution manifest itself in the first place? For without this cultural- revolution, these achievement by women, and the legal edifice that quite often provide the political shell, may come to naught in the personal lives of women within the family, social institutions and the work place.
The Revolution Begins at Home: Inculcating Confidence in Self
President Barack Obama, in his Letter to his daughters, has clearly demonstrated that this revolution starts with fathers recognizing and appreciating their daughters as individuals who can be and can achieve all that is great, and forms the ethos, of their society. In the epic entitled Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters,10 Obama writes moving tributes to thirteen groundbreaking Americans of all races and gender, and their contributions to the ideals that have shaped the American nation. Through these great achievers, he tells the two girls that they are creative like Georgia O’Keefe the artist; smart like Albert Einstein of the famous E=mc-squared; brave like Jackie Robinson the baseball player; healers like Sitting Bull the Sioux medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises and created peace among sworn enemies; talented in poetry and song like Billie Holiday who sang beautiful blues to the world and asserted her right of choice to sing to her heart’s content because that was her God-given talent, insisting that “if I go to church on Sunday and to cabaret on Monday, a’int nobody’s business if I do”; strong like the blind Helen Keller who fought her way through long and silent darkness and gave others the courage to face their challenges; appreciative of the achievement of others like Maya Lin who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial to remember those who have sacrificed to make America what it is today; kind like Jane Addams who fed and help find jobs for the poor, opening doors of hope to the dejected and neglected in society; resolute and determined to fight for justice and freedom for the oppressed like Rev. Dr. martin Luther King Jr.; explorers into the unknown like Neil Armstrong who was the first to walk on the moon; inspiring to the oppressed like Cesar Chavez who showed American farm-workers, immigrant or not, that they had the power to determine their future against all odds, and gave Obama the now famous rallying call, “Si se puede!” “Yes, you can!”; unifying like Abraham Lincoln who, against the odds of racism and bigotry, asserted that all of America should work together and was assassinated for holding such principles in difficult times; proud to be American like George Washington who believed in liberty and justice for all, and led the Continental Army which ushered in the American Revolution and the new Constitution giving birth of the United States of America.
I know that in East Africa we have such girls and women who are great achievers, some we have recognized and celebrated and many we have simply wished away and appreciated only in passing. It was not until the Nobel Committee recognized Wangari Maathai that Kenyans notices her great achievements. Before then, however, like Jesus of Nazareth, she was persecuted for her good deeds and despised for her principles, simplicity and concern for the common human being.
But there have been others like her: Professor Micere Mugo, the great play-write, literary critic and fighter for democracy. She was once detained in a police cell in Nairobi while breast-feeding her few months old baby. Following the vicious repression by the Moi regime in the 1980s, she has lived abroad, and now teaches at Syracuse University. Creative like Okot p’Bitek, brave like Dedan
Kimathi, eloquent like Ali Mazrui and determined to save her people from oppression like Raila Amolo Odinga, we have lost Micere to the USA where talent and teaching prowess are both appreciated.
When the African American Scholar, Jessie Carney Smith published her powerful study on Powerful Black Women in 1992, she went beyond the realm of politics to see such women in the world of family life, the arts, development, education, music, journalism, athletics, games, beauty, unionism and religion. She defined power as “victorious, tenacious, responsible overseers of home and families, educators, lovers and partners, beside a lover, beside a partner (not behind); protectors of families and friends; annihilators of obstacles; splendid shades of cream, caramel, ebony, honey, chocolate; respecters of life because life blooms in our bodies; resplendent straight, curly and twisty hair textures; political, business, and community leaders; activists, peacemakers and those through whom the human spirit has prevailed.”11
How have women provided the medium through which the human spirit has prevailed in East Africa?12
The pioneering work by Okot p’Bitek stands tall in the study and appreciation of women in holding together the human spirit in African societies at a time of political and cultural transition that put great pressure on men in particular. The Song of Lawino depicts Lawino as the Acoli woman capable of seeing beyond the futility of the struggle among men for political power, seeing the Democratic Party and the Uganda People’s Congress, drawing their political strength from both religious and ethnic differences, as “mere men, eating each other’s livers while the pythons of sickness swallow the children, the buffalos of poverty knock the people down, and ignorance stands there like an elephant!” It is the woman, despised by men “as village pumpkins”, men who think they are “modern and civilized”; it is the woman who sees beyond the horizon of the present glamour, and knows that all that glitters is definitely not gold when “we can lose our souls but gain the whole world with its earthly treasures and all”. So the biblical message finds its home in the soul of Lawino, the keeper of society, and not Ocol the blind achiever with the ambition to gain political power at all costs while losing the family and living a culturally empty life. Yes; nothing wrong with power, but only when it springs from the homestead and does not uproot the village pumpkin. By not cultivating confidence in the soul of the homestead—Lawino, Ocol was going nowhere. In our time as students at this university in the late 1960s, we saw our Lawinos in Thelma Awori, Rose Mbowa, Elvania Zirimu, Rose Ayuru and, of course, Miria Obote.
With the onset of non-communicable diseases like cancer in Africa, we now realize, even more clearly, the significance of that village pumpkin and its centrality to our lives. Modernity came with all its glitters, with processed foods and hard spirits that burn the lips so that they look like fire flies during the night! Okot saw all this so long ago, and called for respect and preservation for both the African woman and the village pumpkin; not that modernity should pass them by but that they should come forward intact with their inner beings so that the African ubuntu could for ever define and give meaning to the African being.
In other words, development needs to be engulfed into a cultural revolution that gives it proper roots in the African soul and appreciates women as human beings and not as charlatans or slave labor for men, either as husbands, employers or colleagues in the work place. Who, for example, is going to win in a race: the man who carries his wife on his shoulders or the one who runs with his wife side by side?13
The Women in East Africa: Who are carrying High the Banner of Womanhood since Independence?
So which women stand out in East Africa since independence as the Lawinos of our time, the Maya Angelous who “know why the caged bird sings”, and through various pressures, disappointments and tragedies in life have become symbols of profiles in courage, diamond who show that resoluteness is the essence of struggle?
We have mentioned Angara Matthau and Micere Mugo. What about Marjorie Mbilinyi and Fatma Alloo in Tanzania? When shall we celebrate and honor Winnie Byanyima, Rose Ayuru, Elvania Zirimu and many more? Those who rise up to social and political prominence are not the only women heroines of our times.
We should not forget many other women who should be equally celebrated. These are our women in rural areas and the urban slums who have given birth to the majority of our people, have fed and looked after the workers and peasants who keep our economy going at great risk to their health and at great cost to their power to work. As long as we have the astounding levels of poverty in our society and the benign neglect we give to the cultural life in rural areas and the urban slums we shall continue to consign our women to indignities, slave labor and human sufferings unequal to that of men who live in the same environment. Not that we should make both suffer equally, but that we should liberate all. But when the male side of the equation does a little bit better than the female side under the same circumstances, then gender parity must indeed be called into question.
We need to do first things first within the context of our time. In order to make progress towards gender equality, we have to empower our women by eliminating gender disparities in the enrolment in primary and secondary education and in access to higher education and learning in all professions. In the reproductive cycle of society in which women play the central role and bear the most burdens, maternal and child mortality must be reduced to near zero and access to reproductive health services ascertained to all women of child bearing age.
What happens, for example, when a child falls sick in a family in the rural areas? It is usually the responsibility of the mother to take care of the child: treat the child with herbs or take him/her to the nearest dispensary or health center. Since the 1980s, with the onset of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), most African governments withdrew social funding for health care and education, and in many cases introduced “cost sharing” as a condition for access to public health facilities. Where mothers are too poor to afford cost sharing, they have to face the tragedy of their children dying in their arms notwithstanding the tremendous love and care they have for them. The frustration and pent up agony, bottled in the mother for a long time, very often leads to such diseases as cancer, diabetes and heart failure; hence the ever increasing incidence of maternal and child mortality in East Africa. We need to at least celebrate the mothers, daughters and sisters who have withstood this predicament to continue to reproduce the family in the rural areas and urban slums, giving us our doctors, lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, business people, farmers, mothers and fathers under these very difficult times.
But the celebration should not end in mere words. As Karl Marx said many years ago, “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”14 I recognize that all the East African countries—at least in their constitutions and laws—have embraced the equality of men and women and have taken steps in education and access to opportunity to deal with the inequality between men and women. What is missing, however, is what Nyerere used to call “the attitude of mind.” When Nyerere said this he was criticized for reducing socialism to metaphysics. I do believe, however, that social change cannot really be successfully undertaken without profound ideological and cultural change at the level of ideas, beliefs and social mores. Although the Cultural Revolution in China erred in its excesses and violent content, it had the right intention: to tackle the ideological backwardness and lack of understanding among the people regarding what socialism meant in real life among human relations.
Likewise, legal equality in the East African constitutions will only make sense to women if it translates to concrete changes in male behavior regarding the dispensation towards women in the family, the work place and society as a whole. The struggle for this should not and cannot be left only to “women movements”; that in itself continues to stigmatize the problem as simply a “women’s problem”. It is a social issue; a problem that engulfs both men and women in society, within the state, in civil society organizations and in political formations. As Zenebework Tadesse puts it in the essay I quoted earlier, we must all be “in search of gender justice”15 if indeed we are going to be part of this Cultural Revolution. As things stand today, we are a long way to go; and the call for this Cultural Revolution should be treated with the urgency it deserves.
A Luta Continua.