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The Great Mother: Femininity In Africa

Artwork titled ‘Creation of God’ by Harmonia Rosales.

“..At the very dawn of religion, God was a woman. Do you remember?” by Merlin Stone from her book When God Was a Woman.

African women are the bedrock of the African family, community and society. I’ve often found myself in conversations with my female friends or colleagues where the common rhetoric is “I don’t want to have kids,” “I am more than just a baby-making machine” or “I don’t want to get married.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting children or marriage. After all, everyone has their right to choose. However, I often find that these beliefs are often rooted in the perception and misconception that aspiring to be a mother or a wife is less than the image of becoming a career woman or businesswoman for the capitalist machinery. In my search for the meaning of womanhood and femininity that is devoid of Western or European influences, I have found that the very biological attributes that are often equated to “reducing” a woman’s existence are the very attributes that make women God in the African context.

In ancient and pre-colonial times, women were the economic juggernauts and powerhouses of Africa. In his book ‘Echoes of the Old Darkland: Themes from the African Eden’ author Charles Finch details that early man did not know the link between sex and birth. Therefore, it was believed that new life was created by the woman, the mother alone. It was perceived that all life in nature emerged from women alone. When the first concept of God was developed, the female served as the model of the Supreme Being. A similar parallel can be drawn and found in ancient Egypt and Nubia, where the importance of the mother was seen in the fact that the children took their surname from the mother. The mother controlled both the household and the fields. In Nubia, the Queen Mother had the right to choose the next Pharaoh or Ruler of the people.

Matrilineal communities or societies or matrilineal succession are not foreign concepts or ways of life to Africa. Author Cheikh Anta Diop in his book ‘Pre-colonial Black Africa’ details that in the African custom of matrilineal succession, very strict rules were observed. The heir of the throne was not the King’s son but the son of the King’s first-born sister (the King’s nephew). It was said: You can never be sure who the father of the child is; but of the mother you can always be sure.

Prior to providing a more in depth exposition below, it’s important to take a brief moment to acknowledge and point out that the underlying principles of ‘patriarchy’ were to separate and control.

Historically, we can find a few examples which can be traced back to Ancient Kemet, the Dogon of Mali, Nubians of Kush, the Asante (or Ashanti) of Ghana and the Makonde of South East Tanzania. In these societies and cultures, women are the custodians of culture and caretakers of tradition; the women were responsible for teaching tradition and oral history to the next generation. In these cultures women regularly passed down the traditions and histories of their respective societies, beliefs, and family trees/lineages through images painted on hides and homes, pottery, cloth, basket weaving, and beading, jewelry, and finger weaving.

Reflection of The Goddess

Nomkhubulwane the Nguni Goddess of fertility, rain and earth (who is referred to as Auset in Kemetic Mythology) is the greatest of all the Neteru (the Gods) because she is the great mother, who has the power to bring forth life into the earth. Each year the Zulu tribe of South Africa holds a celebration in honour of Nomkhubulwane. Virgin girls and women take prayers to uNomkhubulwane to ask for rain. In my adolescent years, I was taught that such a celebration is “oppressive” because as feminists say “women should have autonomy over their bodies” so having a ceremony that priotises the virginity of women is quite a problematic conundrum for the ‘sexual liberation’ movement.

My experience, however, and which is uniquely my own, of the young women who participate in this festival was the complete opposite. At the young age of 16, I had never met young women who were so proud of being women of tradition and culture, who understood that they carried a womb, and that it was sacred. Young women who were taught that preserving their feminine energy is their autonomy. This is African culture.

In the Dogon mythology tradition (Griaule, 1970, 24), it is said that the one God Amma created twins (the Nommo or Nummo pair) who were complete beings of both sexes. From the original twins came four males and four female Nommo or Nummo (descendents) who were able to fertilize themselves due to their dual nature. Many Dogon myths say that they are the descendants of these eight Nommo or Nummo.

In ancient Nubian history, emphasis was on matrilineal lineage as the core of society and the family heritage was divided and distributed according to the woman’s lineage. Kushite royalty came from a matrilineal society that emphasized the role of women, and kings stressed their kinship to highly honored royal women. At times, Nubian queens ruled the land in their own right.

The Makonde are an agrarian kin-based and matrilineal society. The Makonde are a nation found in South East Tanzania, northern Mozambique and Kenya. The Makonde are said to follow and live by an ancestrally based spirituality, despite pressures to convert religiously and adjust economically to the capitalist market. The Makonde’s matrilineal social structure, meaning ancestry is traced through the female line, is rooted in their creation story, which speaks of the first man who sculpted a woman out of wood. This woman became real and gave birth to the first man’s many children and as a result became the venerated and celebrated ancestress of the Makonde people. Because of this, the female figure is an important protective symbol in Makonde society and in their art, as seen in the body mask.

Credo Mutwa writes in the book called Indaba My Children that the first God who gave balance and order to creation was the Goddess Ma and she was the first mother of human civilization. Again, she is the greatest of all the God’s because she has the power of creation itself- to bring forth life into existence.

In the Asante people of Ghana, who are also referred to as the Akan, matrilineal descent is the basis for their way of life. Every member of the Asante people belongs to the mother’s clan. All successions are matrilineal and members of the royal family found in areas occupied by the Asante are descended through the lineage of their mother like all other Asante and they locate their identity to an early ancestress.

African women are a reflection of the Great Mother, the first mother and Nomkhubulwane. A Goddess, who creates and cultivates life of all forms from deep within the soils and the cosmos of this planet. As such, a woman’s womb is a sacred organ that is capable of bringing life into this world. Some call it a portal. A magnificent being of infinite proportions capable of carrying two or more souls in her body. We, women, are the embodiment of the cycle of life. Seeds are planted, and from our bodies they bloom. Is this not a profound honour?

An analysis of the role of women in African cultures reveals several similarities. Women harvest, farm, spin, weave, care for, and teach the children. They are culture custodians, who pass the history, religion, ritual, and ceremony to their children and grandchildren. Each culture has female deities based on the female principle. Ancient Kemet, Nubian and West African women were depicted as goddesses. Similarly, West African women were priestesses, medicine women and healers, who played (and continue to play) an essential role in sustaining balance and harmony in their communities.

The Deterioration of Femininity in The Modern World

It is wrong to believe that the current status of women in the modern world is reflective of African traditional societies and cultures. In fact, the status of Black and African women has deteriorated and declined gradually throughout the years. One of the reasons for this decline, is the advent of missionary activities and the desire of European missionaries to reshape the African family into a monogamous and isolated family unit. Isolated from the concept of community and growth.

‘Patriarchal’ societies of the modern era are in fact un-African. Our cultures honoured women because of our unique ability to bring life into existence- the very attribute of the Creator. In today’s world, women’s rights organizations would be appalled at the notion of ‘The Mother’ being the greatest blessing of womanhood. What they fail to see is the gift of creation that has been bestowed upon women.

The current capitalistic system does not thrive or work without the decline and erosion of the importance of Black and African femininity. If we had to rebuild Africa in the image of ancestral memory it would reinstate the Black and African woman as the image of ‘God’ and the values that would be upheld would heal and restore our relationship with ourselves. We live in a world that seeks to undermine the divine creation of women, a world that reduces our super-natural abilities and qualities. African women are sacred. They are the healers of the home, family and community. The Egyptian Book Of The Dead: The Book Of Coming Forth By Day, which is regarded as containing ancient texts on spirituality, provides the following important point of view and affirmation for women:

“I am the woman who lightens the darkness. I have come to lighten the darkness…it is lightened. I have overcome the destroyers. I am there for those who weep and hide their faces, and for those who are sunk down. They looked upon me then. I am a woman. I am a healer.”

References and Sources:

Indaba My Children by Credo Mutwa.

The Egyptian Book Of The Dead: The Book Of Coming Forth By Day.

When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone.

Echoes of the Old Darkland: Themes from the African Eden by Charles Finch

Conversations with Ogotemmêli by Marcel Griaule.

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