On 30 August 2011 Wambui Otieno Mbugua passed away in her home country Kenya, after a life of dedicated and fearless activism. She may not have been a household name of the variety beamed through our television sets across the globe, although she certainly was a household name in the hearts of many an African activist. And yet the landscape of the battles that she fought and the issues she fought for are now given audience in mainstream policy forums. As a young leader in the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule she risked her life in the name of her people’s freedom, facing sexual violation at the hands of a British colonial officer. She was adamant that silence was not an option, and called for her rapist to be prosecuted. Throughout her life Wambui Otieno continued to question the masculist pen in which the rules of society were written - choosing against the logic of ethnic nationalism to marry a man of a different ethnic group, challenging customary rules that deemed her without a right as a woman to decide on where her dead husband would be buried, and later withstanding public criticism at her decision to choose a second husband decades younger than her. Eulogies by contemporary African activists such as Muthoni Wanyeki - former director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission - attest to brightness of the flame that Wambui Otieno lit.
The figure of Wambui Otieno Mbugua evokes the memory of another trailblazer, Nigerian Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. As discussion on the legacy of musician/activist Fela Kuti is revived through the Broadway musical about his life, we are also reminded that it was his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who laid the foundations of much of his resistance politics. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was an indefatigable voice against the injustices of her time. In the 1940s she successfully organised the market women of Abeokuta, the city in which she lived, against a tax levied on them by the colonial-backed traditional ruler of Abeokuta (an event framed as the Egba Women’s War). In the same collectivist spirit she co-founded a number of mass-based women’s organisations in Nigeria. In a literal embrace of freedom of movement, she was the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti fought as a woman and as an African seeking emancipation, knowing that the two were inextricably linked. She formed alliances with the Communist East - aligned at the time with African anti-colonial movements - and was a member of the delegation that negotiated Nigeria’s independence from the British. And it was for her political beliefs that she eventually died in 1978, as a result of injuries sustained after being thrown off a balcony by Nigerian military officers in a raid on her son’s compound.
And so the forest grew
At the start of the twenty-first century we see trees growing on the ground that visionaries such as Wambui Otieno Mbugua and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti bravely began to clear. The UN Security Council is now engaging the hitherto “private” violations of women’s bodies in conflict as an agenda for dedicated public action. Discriminatory laws regarding women’s property and inheritance rights put in place across Africa during European colonisation are gradually being rewritten. The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, is a landmark in this regard, obligating states to rectify unequal laws while acknowledging women’s right to participation in defining what constitutes “culture”. Collective mobilisation in the vein that Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti encouraged remains a critical driver of change, with women joining forces at community level on a range of issues affecting their lives. And as with these two figureheads of African women’s resistance, African women continue to challenge and transgress norms regarding choices in their private lives, questioning heavy handed moralism on issues such as abortion, sexual orientation and the rights of sex workers. There is growing debate around the role of Christian fundamentalists in attempting to mould women in the image of Victorian domesticity, and equally problematic growth of political Islam and efforts to expand the role of religion within African states.
While the Achilles heel of political will persistently slow down realisation of full rights for African women, precedents have nevertheless been set. Indeed in a hopeful turn of events, African Union heads of state have given their blessing for an African Women’s Decade (2010-2020) focusing policy efforts and resources towards advancing African women’s rights and development agendas. A year in, and for the first time in history, five African countries - Cameroun, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia - will be going to elections with women presidential candidates.
Why Africa, why women?
In many respects Africa is a region that defies generalisation. It is, after all a continent with a billion people, living in 54 countries - with the Republic of South Sudan born only a few months ago - and in a range of economic conditions, from extreme poverty to decadent wealth. Despite this diversity, there are a number of persistent “single stories” about African women - to borrow Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s phrase - the uneducated rural farmer, the girl who has undergone Female Genital Mutilation, the HIV+ woman, the victim of armed conflict, the Diasporic refugee, the “great African housewife”. While all of these certainly form part of African women’s experience, the dire lack of agency in these framings inspires ire in the minds of many an African activist.
It was, for example, Liberia’s women, through persistence and creative determination in the face of civil war who were able not only to force Charles Taylor to his proverbial knees, but also to ensure that a peace agreement was reached. More recently, street-based action in the North African nations of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have challenged dictatorial regimes. Although frequently framed as “Arab” uprisings, we must not forget that all of these countries are set in the geo-political space of the African continent, and have a long history of engagement with regional political structures such as the African Union as well as histories of women’s mobilising - the Egyptian Feminist Union, for example, was founded in the 1920s, while Tunisia took the step to legalise abortion in the 1950s. These uprisings were also undisputedly gendered, both in terms of women’s participation and intellectual leadership during, and in the sidelining of women’s voices and agendas in planning for post-dictatorial governance. In making this point, my intention is not to paint a tale of glorified womanhood, resilient against all odds- yet another of the problematic “single stories” framing African women’s experience. Rather it is an exploration of the variety and rigour of African women’s opinions and actions on the major predicaments of our time.
A question of perspective
In launching Our Africa on Open Democracy’s 50:50, we aim to provide a platform profiling the perspectives of African women thinkers and doers in Africa and its migratory Diasporas. Writers on the platform are likely to use words such as “patriarchy” and “power” which rarely make it into official analyses of the problems facing the African region, but are potently clear in the gendered cartography of violation and marginalisation. Our Africa writers are likely to disagree with each other, and to offer varied analyses of the same problem. In fact it is our hope, and editorial challenge, to ensure that the content resonates with complexity of what we know to be African women’s views and actions – the full breadth of political concerns, and the range of considered opinion from dissident and mainstream.
Our views on the landscape of history always depend on where we stand. Our Africa is an invitation to a wide range of readers to engage the many vantage points from which African women stand, and the many views that we see as we look on and participate in reshaping the world. As we launch the platform, we also give credence to women such as Wambui Otieno Mbugua and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who serve as enigmatic reminders of the tremendous intellectual and political contributions that African women continue to make in grappling with the texture of democracy and the rather grand, but nevertheless compelling, concept of liberation.
To read other articles in openDemocracy 50.50's new platform Our Africa - a changing continent through women's eyes click here
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