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East Africa

The Oxford Encyclopedia Women in World History
Rhiannon StephensRhiannon Stephens, Iris BergerIris Berger

East Africa 

This entry consists of two subentries:


Women in East Africa are often marginal in the literature, yet when one looks at different aspects of social, economic, and political life in the region, it is obvious that this is a misrepresentation. Women, like men, used their relationships to negotiate access to political power, wars affected women as participants and victims, women made up a disproportionate share of the slave population, and free and slave women contributed as much to economic life as did men.

Women and Political Power.

The greatest variations in women's access to political power were between more and less centralized areas. In places with centralized governments, there was a stark contrast in political agency between elite and commoner women, with commoners having little or no access to power structures. Those with access to power were born or married into the ruling family, had direct political authority, created alliances between states—or power was transferred through them. In less politically centralized groups, women often participated directly in politics. Iteso women in Uganda participated in clan and peaceful interclan meetings, while the Kikuyu in Kenya had a council of mature women with disciplinary power over other women. Patriarchy also shaped access to power: pastoral women in Somalia had no direct access to formal political institutions.

In the Funj Kingdom of the Sudan from the early sixteenth century, the king had to be the son of a woman from the royal clan. To ensure such an heir, the king married a girl of the royal clan during his succession. Ideologically at least, the king's legitimacy derived from the female founder of the royal clan. As the Funj Kingdom became more Islamic from the eighteenth century, this changed, and kings claimed legitimacy through their fathers. In Tanzania succession among the Fipa also depended on the royal blood of the mother, for by the eighteenth century the heir was the son of the chief's sister. And among the Hehe, also of Tanzania, in the nineteenth century one chief successfully claimed a neighboring chiefship through his mother.

In some states women actively participated in selecting the new ruler. In 1508 Empress Eléni of Abyssinia together with the Christian patriarch chose Lebnä Dengel to succeed his father. Eléni could do so because of her great wealth and authority. Because Lebnä Dengel was still young, Eléni

East AfricaClick to view larger

Hippolyte Arnoux. A daughter of the King of Abyssinia, c. 1880. Photo Verdeau/Adoc-photos/Art Resource, NY

served for many years as regent, furthering her power. In the nineteenth century a powerful woman ritualist at the Rwandan court ensured the contested succession of Gahindiro by attesting to his legitimacy. Such interventions were not always successful. In the Patongo Kingdom in eighteenth‐century Uganda, an attempt by the wives of the deceased king to have their preferred candidate enthroned was foiled by his brother. In Shambaa in Tanzania, also in the eighteenth century, Mboza Mamwinu, the daughter of the dead king, attempted to have her full brother crowned in place of the designated heir. She failed and with her brother formed a second Shambaa Kingdom in Mshihwi. Farther west, a succession dispute between two Fipa brothers again resulted in the formation of a new polity. Here the succession passed to the chief's sister's son. One sister, Mwati, succeeded in making her son chief, but his cousin soon defeated him, and he fled with Mwati to found a separate chiefdom. In 1786 in the Sudanese kingdom of Darfur, the king's principal wife Kinana conspired to control the succession so that she retained her powerful position. Her work was undone when she was executed for conspiring against the new sultan.

Queens, queen mothers, and queen sisters.

Women's interventions in succession disputes were often motivated by political ambition, especially where they stood to become queen mother, queen sister, or queen. Such women wielded significant power, sometimes overshadowing their male counterparts. In sixteenth‐century Hadeya in Ethiopia, for example, it was the queen who asked the Abyssinian emperor for assistance against an attempt to oust her husband. In Mazäga in western Ethiopia the chief's sister Ga’éwah kept his death in 1525 secret until she had ensured the succession of her nephew and her own position as regent. In Funj in the 1690s the young king ruled under the guidance of his mother and a viceroy, while in Darfur the sultan's favorite sister had the powerful position of iiya baasi (royal mother). Zamzam ruled Darfur after her brother went blind in 1856.

Elsewhere queen mothers acted as a check on the king. In nineteenth century Fipa the queen mother could pardon anyone the king sentenced to death. She could also dethrone a king whose conduct was unacceptable, and in the 1850s the queen mother unseated King Kampaamba for cruelty. In eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century Shäwa in Ethiopia, the queen mother and the church were the only checks on the king's power. The queen mother herself ruled half the kingdom and, besides having a powerful influence over her son, could revoke his commands. In Ankole in Uganda the queen mother vetoed executions, decided judicial cases with the king, and was consulted in questions of war and peace. The queen mother of Burundi was also consulted on all important matters and ruled the country herself if her son was a child when he became king.

The Ugandan kingdom of Buganda had two powerful women at its core: the queen mother and the queen sister. The queen sister had her own palace and estates. She was crowned with the king, and together they took an oath to rule the kingdom well. The queen mother, before acceding to office, was actively involved in ensuring that her son, rather than another prince, succeeded his father. Once in power she advised her son on matters of government, including warfare. In the nineteenth century Queen Mother Muganzirwaza wielded significant power over King Mutesa in the early years of his reign, though he later reclaimed much of that authority. In Rwanda the queen mother was also powerful and often central to her son's accession. In the seventeenth century King Ndori's mother was key to legitimizing his reign. Queen mothers were most prominent in the nineteenth century, notably in the succession struggles after the death of King Rwabugiri in 1895. Rwabugiri had selected an heir whose mother was dead and appointed Kanjogera as the future queen mother. Kanjogera, however, had a son, Musinga, and initiated a coup to replace the heir with Musinga.

The position and influence of mothers of rulers extended down the political ladder. The mothers of chiefs in nineteenth‐century Shambaa acted with their brothers to limit the powers of their sons and reported them to the king if they became tyrannical. In nineteenth‐century Ethiopia several women used their connections to secure political positions for their sons and then wielded power through their influence over them. For example, Weleta Teklē secured the governorship of Qwara Province for her son in 1827 and played an important role in his administration.

Women rulers and alliance makers.

Occasionally women ruled in their own right. A queen ruled sixteenth‐century Wäj in Ethiopia; in seventeenth‐ to nineteenth‐century Nyamwezi in Tanzania, though most chiefs were male, some were women. In 1892–1893 Isike, the female relative of a Nyamwezi chief, supported the Germans in deposing him and became chief in his place. Earlier in the eighteenth century a woman named Mabokela Kiume was chief in Kimbu, Tanzania. And in southern Sudan the Dinka have had at least two female leaders. Acol was chief in the Bahr el‐Ghazal in the 1860s, and Atiam led six Dinka clans as they moved east of the Nile, overseeing their transformation into a united group, the Paweng Dinka.

Women were also important in creating alliances through marriage. In sixteenth‐century Ethiopia the marriage of Empress Eléni and Emperor Bä’edä Maryam united a Muslim dynasty with the Christian empire. In the 1820s in southern Ethiopia, the Galla king Abba Bagibo married, for political reasons, several daughters or sisters of surrounding rulers. In Sudan during the seventeenth‐century migrations, a Dinka leader gave a girl to the neighboring Yibel people to end intermittent fighting. After this there was much intermarriage between the two groups to maintain the peace. The Shambaa king Kimweri ye Nyumbai, who ruled from the early nineteenth century until the 1860s, married women from different chiefdoms; the eldest sons became chiefs in their maternal lands. In Buganda the king married women from each of the clans to ensure their loyalty.

Princesses occupied special positions in their societies. In Shambaa women of the royal lineage were treated as men, undergoing male initiation rites and choosing their husbands in contravention of usual norms. In Buganda princesses were addressed as “sir,” and men knelt in their presence. They could not marry or have children but had sexual freedoms not shared by nonroyal women. Some became the wives of deities and wielded significant power on the basis of this religious authority. In neighboring Bunyoro many princesses ruled regions of the kingdom, but they too could not marry or have children.

Women and Warfare.

Women's encounters with warfare were on various levels, from being particularly targeted for capture to the transient life in military camps and active participants. One woman could experience all three aspects, particularly as those who were present at battles were vulnerable to capture if their side was defeated.

Women were targeted by armies as captives to enter the households of rulers and soldiers or to be sold because women were favored over men as slaves in East Africa, both internally and for export to Arabia. By raiding neighboring states, the Rwandan kings from the late eighteenth century consolidated ties with chiefs by giving them women and girls. Women were also captured to be sold in the external slave trade. In Buganda a rapid increase in the number of slave women in the palace reflected a period of expansionary warfare beginning in the eighteenth century, and as in Rwanda, some captive women were traded to the Swahili coast. In Tanzania from about 1840 the Ngoni often raided weaker opponents to seize women and children. Whereas some were incorporated into Ngoni households, others were sold into the slave market.

Women were also aggressors in warfare, mobilizing soldiers and participating in battles. In the 1532 Ethiopian war between the invading Imam Ahmäd and the Christian ruler of Bali, the wives of soldiers of both sides were on the battlefield. When Ahmäd's troops were victorious, women captured prisoners and boasted of how many they had taken. In Hamasén to the north three centuries later, women entered the battlefield to encourage the soldiers, and among the Shaygiya in the 1820s Sudan, two girls, Safiyya and Mahira, were famous for leading the Shaygiya into battle against Turco‐Egyptian invaders. Others focused on mobilization, such as Maasai women, who prayed for and encouraged warriors in battle, and Tegré women in northern Ethiopia, who called men to fight.

Women formed a significant proportion of the occupants of camps during times of war. In Ethiopia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, women formed up to half the camp. Some were wives or consorts to the leaders and soldiers; others carried loads, cooked food, and brewed alcohol. This was not a unique phenomenon. In nineteenth‐century Buganda the wives of chiefs followed them to war, and in Rwanda the army camps included many women.

Women and Slavery.

Women had long predominated in the slave population within East Africa as well as among those exported, but during the nineteenth century the nature of slavery changed with the growing demand for slaves for export and to work on coastal plantations. From the ninth century several hundred enslaved East Africans were traded annually to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Subcontinent. The majority of enslaved people, however, remained in the region and were usually incorporated into households. In the eighteenth century demand for plantation slaves in the Indian Ocean and the Americas began to grow, peaking in the mid‐nineteenth century at tens of thousands exported per annum. This, combined with the new demand for slave labor for East African coastal plantations (up to 100,000 slaves lived in Zanzibar alone in the mid‐nineteenth century), resulted in the expansion of the slave trade into regions that had been largely isolated from the coastal trade, including Uganda and Rwanda. Despite this new demand for plantation labor, many slave women remained part of palace retinues or ordinary households. And conversely, some women owned slaves.

Dār Fūr in the Sudan was known as a source for female slaves in 1663, but it was in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century that enslavement became significant throughout the region. By 1770 Muslim Baggara were raiding Nuba and Dinka communities for slaves, targeting women and children. In Buganda in the eighteenth century expansionary wars generated a rapid inflow of women into the kingdom as slaves. Some of these were concubines and servants in the royal palaces, others went to chiefs or joined the households of soldiers. In the nineteenth century the demand for slaves for export increased the number of raids on neighboring areas, and in Buganda unmarried women were increasingly sold by male relatives. In nineteenth‐century Shambaa and among the Digo of Kenya, unmarried women were also often pawned by male relatives. With the rise in the external slave trade, pawned women who previously could have been redeemed were more often sold to the coast and lost for good. In central Kenya by the 1880s, even for those enslaved women who stayed in the region, the people selling and buying viewed the transaction as involving the actual woman and not her labor. This situation was intensified by the famine in 1897–1902, whereas the famine of 1894–1896 pushed the Iteso to sell their sons and daughters for food.

From the sixteenth century the Funj royal family had many slaves. The slave population was reproduced in two ways: all children of slave women and free men and all illegitimate children of free women became slaves of the king. In Buganda slaves were also a feature of the palaces from early on, and one of the slave women's main tasks was producing and preparing food for the palace. In nineteenth‐century Ethiopia, Shäwa and Galla palace populations included several thousand slaves and concubines. The slave women were responsible for providing food and brewing alcohol. In nineteenth‐century Shambaa courts slave women were concubines and were also responsible for food production, whereas in Islamic Dār Fūr under the Masalit Sultanate, one of the main duties of slave women was to expand the sultan's kin group by bearing him children, the advantage being that a concubine who bore the sultan a child would be freed.

Many slave women belonged to individual households. In seventeenth‐century Rwanda women slaves performed household tasks. In seventeenth‐ and eighteenth‐century Funj all traders and merchants had slaves for domestic work, with important merchants owning several, often sending slave women into towns to work as prostitutes. Along the Swahili coast women predominated among field slaves. Many worked in terrible conditions on sugar plantations, while others were nursemaids in patrician families. Domestic work was preferable for many slave women, but they also had to provide sexual services for male members of the household. For Swahili elites, slave ownership allowed the luxury of purdah, because only those who had slaves to cultivate for them could remain secluded. Similarly in nineteenth‐century Ethiopia slave women collected water and firewood, allowing seclusion for married women. In many places slave women had little chance of changing their status, though in Muslim areas concubines who bore children to their masters were usually manumitted. In less centralized communities, such as the Kamba, Kikuyu, and Meru of Kenya, however, slave women were often integrated into society and suffered little lasting discrimination.

Women and Work.

Women worked inside and outside the home, for the benefit of the household and for personal gain. Although the precise nature of the division varied across ethnic and class lines, work was often divided according to gender.

Women and men participated in food production, often performing different tasks. In seventeenth‐century Rwanda women in pastoral households neither herded nor milked cows but stored the milk and churned butter. Eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century Maasai women milked cows but did not herd them, while Chagga women on Kilimanjaro collected grass to feed cattle. Nineteenth‐century Tegré women did not milk livestock, some Amhara women milked, and Oromo and Galla women tended the livestock while men cultivated. Shambaa men cleared the land for the first planting, and women harvested the crop. Sowing and weeding was done by both. Women fed their children from their fields and traded any surplus, while men supplemented their wives’ harvests and planted crops for trade. Nyamwezi and Nyakusa men helped prepare fields for sowing, but the rest of the work fell to the women. In Ngoni only women and slaves worked the land. Food preparation, in contrast, was almost always women's work. In Ethiopia from at least the sixteenth century, women spent several hours daily preparing the staple bread, but in Buganda, where the staple food was steamed bananas, women spent less time on food preparation.

Class divisions in labor were most evident in urban centers, but anywhere where elite women could control the labor of slaves, their burden of manual labor was much reduced. In Somali city‐states middle‐class women wove, embroidered, cooked, and spent hours beautifying themselves in seclusion, while their lower‐class counterparts labored for others. A similar situation prevailed in Swahili city‐states and Ethiopia, where seclusion was a privilege of those able to command others to work for them.

While much craft work, such as pottery, basketry, and weaving, was for domestic use, it was also skilled work performed for trade. In nineteenth‐century Ethiopia pottery was made by a distinct class of women and men, while women were the potters among the Nyiha, Fipa, Kikuyu, Kamba, and Maasai. In northwestern Tanzania, Haya men were the pot makers. Basketry and mat making were female activities in Ethiopia, the Swahili coast, and Buganda, where women generated surplus income from trading baskets. For the Nyiha these were male activities. Iron smelting was generally a male activity throughout the region, but women were often involved at different stages of the process, and in Pare it was done by women.

While long‐distance trade was predominantly men's work, women were part of nineteenth‐century Nyamwezi trade caravans as wives and children accompanied Nyamwezi porters carrying ivory to the coast and goods such as textiles and guns to the interior. Women were also important in regional and local trade, especially in the trade in foodstuffs, pottery, and basketry. In sixteenth‐century Ethiopia women predominated in markets, and some specialized in measuring grains and salt. In the nineteenth century itinerant women traders moved unhindered even during times of war. Elsewhere too women were the primary market traders, such as in the Swahili town of Siyu and the Pare and Chagga markets in northeastern Tanzania. In nineteenth‐century Geledi in Somalia, women were the principal traders at the local level. During the nineteenth century men across the region sometimes took advantage of the new opportunities in long‐distance trade to dominate trade at all levels.

Women and Family Politics.

Ultimately family and lineage politics helped determine whether women had access to political power, whether they became slaves or slave owners, and what type of work they did. These were not static, however, and were affected by broader social issues, for example, the expansion of the external slave market in the nineteenth century.

In most of this region polygyny was an option, but its practice varied according to social status. During the sixteenth century in the Christian empire of Abyssinia, while the general population largely adhered to the rules of monogamy, the emperor had several wives and concubines. In Buganda polygyny was most common among the elite, but with the influx of captive women during the wars from the eighteenth century onward, the practice became more widespread among commoners. In Burundi and neighboring Buha in the 1880s, the trade in women as commodities led to their fathers “selling” them in marriage to the man who offered the most extravagant bride wealth or dowry.

Wives were generally expected to show deference to their husbands. Emperor Gälawdéwos's wife Säblä Wängél was praised for her obedience to her husband, and in Bunyoro princesses could not marry, for showing the required deference to their husbands would undermine their status. Senior wives had more authority than their junior counterparts in the household. For example, in Rwanda young wives without children had no authority, but more established wives who had their own houses and children controlled most of the household activities. In Swahili towns, in addition to showing deference, wives were supposed to lead lives that generated respect for their husbands.

In sixteenth‐century Ethiopia marriages were secular affairs, and divorce was common, particularly among nobles. This was facilitated by the tradition of couples keeping their property separate. Elite Swahili marriages were also fragile affairs, but again women retained their property, and so divorce, though difficult, was not economically devastating. In Buganda men could easily divorce their wives, who then returned to their natal homes, leaving their children behind.

Where descent was patrilineal, such as in pastoral Somali societies, women had to negotiate belonging to their fathers’ lineage while living in their husbands’ lineage. Their rights were in their natal lineage, but their labor and children belonged to their husbands, reducing the interest of their natal lineage in them. Women in eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century Swahili towns faced similar problems, especially when they wished to leave their husbands but their fathers or brothers were unable to support them. In Shambaa women who were rejected by their natal lineage and mistreated by their husbands could either join a chief's court or make an oath while breaking a cooking pot, after which it was expected that they would die along with anyone named in the oath.

When patrilineal lineage ties and marital ties broke down, women sometimes formed their own households. While not the majority of households in Ethiopia, they have been noted there since 1520, and in Swahili coastal towns they were fairly common. Swahili women, aware of the fragility of marriage, maintained strong alliances with the female kin group so that if they were both divorced and rejected by their brothers, they could survive by moving into female‐headed households. This was possible because Swahili women could own and inherit property, and patrician women were given at marriage usufruct of a house belonging to their lineage that they retained throughout their lives.


Beswick, Stephanie. Sudan's Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity, and Slavery in Early South Sudan. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2004. A book that goes beyond narratives of migration to discuss the political and social history of South Sudan.Find this resource:

Feierman, Steven. Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Mainly focused on male intellectuals in Shambaa but has some good discussion of women.Find this resource:

Hanson, Holly Elisabeth. Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. The early chapters give good detail on women and political power.Find this resource:

Horton, Mark, and John Middleton. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. A helpful overview of Swahili society.Find this resource:

Koponen, Juhani. People and Production in Late Precolonial Tanzania: History and Structures. Helsinki: Finnish Society of Development Studies, 1988. A synthetic history of nineteenth‐century Tanzania with good discussion of gender relations.Find this resource:

O’Fahey, R. S., and J. L. Spaulding. Kingdoms of the Sudan. London: Meuthuen, 1974. A good introduction to both the Funj and the Dār Fūr kingdoms in Sudan.Find this resource:

Pankhurst, Richard. A Social History of Ethiopia: The Northern and Central Highlands from Early Medieval Times to the Rise of Emperor Téwodros II. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea, 1992. A helpful overview of Ethiopian history for the nonspecialist with considerable discussion of women's history.Find this resource:

Reid, Richard J. Political Power in Pre‐Colonial Buganda: Economy, Society, and Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: James Currey, 2002. Includes discussion of women's political power and economic lives.Find this resource:

Roberts, Andrew, ed. Tanzania before 1900. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House, 1968. A good overview of several different societies.Find this resource:

Vansina, Jan. Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. One of the few books on precolonial Rwanda in English, and it includes women in the analyses.Find this resource:

Webster, J. B., C. P. Emudong, D. H. Okalany, and N. Egimu‐Okuda. The Iteso during the Asonya. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House, 1973. An overview of Iteso history. Women are present but hidden in the text.Find this resource:

Willis, Roy. A State in the Making: Myth, History, and Social Transformation in Pre‐Colonial Ufipa. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1981. A specialist book but with considerable discussion of the prominent role of women in the Fipa states.Find this resource:

Rhiannon Stephens

Twentieth Century

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, following the Berlin Conference of 1884 when European states divided up the African continent in what has become know as the “scramble for Africa,” all of East Africa (apart from Ethiopia) came under the direct colonial rule of either Britain, Germany, Italy, or, in the case of Sudan, joint British-Egyptian domination. The fluid social, economic, and political environment in the wake of conquest created the social space for a few exceptional women to attain prominence by opposing colonial rule. The priestess Muhumusa in northern Rwanda and southern Uganda and the Empress T'aitu Bitoul in Ethiopia combined traditional claims to spiritual or political authority with unique personal strengths. The empress, educated unusually well in the Ge'ez and Amharic languages, took to the battlefield against Italian troops, while Muhumusa's connection to the powerful spirit Nyabingi aided her struggle against both the European take-over and the central Rwandan state. Mekatilili, a leader of the Giriama uprising in eastern Kenya, combined personal charisma with an ability to articulate women's deeply felt fears about losing control over land.

Once colonial administrations were established, patterns of change in gender relations depended on many factors: whether white settlers expropriated local land, how missionaries interacted with particular communities, and how officials pressed their claims to labor and taxes. But the most powerful cause of economic dislocation for women came from the disproportionate reliance on men to work in urban centers and on European-owned farms and plantations, as well as to build the colonial infrastructure of roads and railways. Though these new opportunities for men left many rural women at a disadvantage, Luo women in western Kenya seized the chance to experiment with new crops and agricultural techniques and to expand local trade; the most successful female innovators, often Christians, were able to convert their agricultural surplus into large herds of highly valued livestock.

Similar variations in opportunity occurred among urban women, depending on the size and function of towns, the political economy of the colonial territory, and the consequent division of labor by race and gender. Despite the paucity of formal wage-earning opportunities for women, many in urban areas found niches that served them well. Most notable were the Nairobi prostitutes and beer brewers who took advantage of a skewed demographic situation to garner considerable savings, which they shrewdly invested in urban housing. Estranged from their rural kin, many of these women converted to Islam in the quest for a new source of community.

Capitalism, Christianity, and the Reconstruction of “Tradition.”

The close of World War I ushered in an era of fully developed colonial rule. As capitalism, Christianity, and imperialism made deeper inroads into African life, colonial states began to formulate new ways of controlling those outside the boundaries of recognized “traditional” authorities. Thus this period combined continued erosion of precolonial economic and political institutions with efforts to reconstruct the social controls inherent in those relationships. In the process, both colonial administrators and local rural authorities began to conceptualize women as inherently immoral and in need of regulation.

Though the larger colonial cities remained areas of gender imbalance, increasing numbers of women were attracted to them. With formal employment still extremely limited, women continued to sustain themselves and their families by marketing produce and prepared food, brewing beer, and selling domestic and sexual services. As the female population in towns began to increase, so did the concerns of both colonial officials and African male authorities. Since many of the women who migrated to cities were deliberately escaping the controls of husbands, elders, or fathers, they sought urban relationships such as informal marriages that left them some degree of flexibility. In older cities such as Mombasa on the Kenya coast, women's dance societies reflected and expressed the changes of the period. Newly popular lelemama dance associations took on names such as “Kenya Colony” and “Land Rover,” and their leaders assumed European titles.

In rural areas of Kenya, Luo women continued to experiment successfully with new crops and tools. But as economic security came to rely more on formal education and wage employment outside the home than on farming, these women lost ground compared to men. For Kikuyu women in central Kenya, where European settlers had appropriated vast areas of land, the women who picked coffee on European farms held the most menial, lowest-paying positions.

Colonial ideologies of social control, generally expressed through mission-sponsored education, aimed to cast African women in the mold of late-Victorian wives and mothers. Aspiring to shape a generation of married, Christian African mothers, missionaries sought to control coming-of-age ceremonies and marriage in an effort to keep their charges from the shame of premarital pregnancy. Where older rites of passage to adulthood remained actively practiced, as in the Kikuyu area of Kenya, missionaries condemned excision and related rituals. In attacking practices that were fundamental to Kikuyu identity, they incited conflict with early nationalist organizations and with individual local leaders, such as the country's future president Jomo Kenyatta.

In response to cultural challenges from missionaries, less orthodox forms of Christianity often were more appealing than the established churches. In the Kigezi district of southwestern Uganda, the highly successful balokole revival movement responded to women's tensions over issues of family life and sexuality, as well as to individual difficulties at meeting the rigid standards of official mission churches. Through new families created among communities of converts, women also sought refuge from the pressures of more traditional non-Christian relatives.

In an era of wide-ranging popular protest, women played a fuller part in local resistance movements than in formal nationalist organizations. Nonetheless, women were not absent from political action, particularly in Kenya, where female coffee pickers organized labor stoppages to press for higher wages and an end to physical and sexual abuse. Their efforts led the East African Association (EAA) to make the oppressive conditions on coffee estates one of its concerns in the early 1920s. In 1922 when the EAA gathered to protest the arrest of its leader, Harry Thuku, the women in the crowd reviled the men for being too hesitant and led the assembled crowd to the police station. When European settlers and police fired on the crowd, the women's leader, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, was the first to die.

Economic Restructuring and the Push for Independence.

During the 1950s both women's authority and their economic position continued to erode. They suffered a particularly decisive setback in areas making the strongest effort to modernize agriculture in response to such problems as soil erosion, overstocking, and presumed agricultural inefficiency. As colonial states increased their assistance to local male farmers and gave individual land title to male family heads, men's control over land and new technology and their easier access to government finances and markets made many rural women more economically dependent on their husbands.

During the postwar period, larger numbers of women moved to cities, shifting the urban demographic imbalance to more equal proportions of women and men. In most cities, some new female jobs in the wage economy began to open up, but the vast majority of women continued to work casually and independently. As an African middle class developed in both numbers and self-consciousness during the years leading to independence, very small numbers of Western-educated women began to work in the acceptably female professions of teaching, nursing, and social welfare and sometimes began to opt for the culture of domestic dependency that was growing among a select group of Christians.

This small female elite reflected the colonial effort to promote the “advancement” of African women and to supply educated men with suitably trained wives by more actively promoting girls' education. The curriculum for girls combined academic subjects with a heavy emphasis on cooking, sewing, hygiene, and child care. Simultaneously, a network of official and voluntary programs developed to promote women's “domestication” on a European model. These organizations all conveyed a morally laden message emphasizing that women's primary place was in the home and with the family. Such ideas were by no means unwelcome, however. Some groups, while initially run by Europeans, were rapidly taken over by African women.

As anticolonial protests swept the continent in the late 1940s and 1950s, women joined in voicing their grievances. In 1945, Pare women in northern Tanzania marched to the district headquarters to oppose new taxes seen as disruptive to family and agricultural life. Similarly, in Bujumbura (Burundi) in the late 1950s, Muslim women organized an effective revolt against a special tax on single women, incensed at the implications that all widowed, divorced, and polygynous women were prostitutes. In the Meru area of Kenya, located on the northeastern slopes of Mount Kenya, thousands of young girls defied a local ban on clitoridectomy by attempting to excise each other.

Women also were drawn into wider anticolonial struggles. In Tanzania, women organized through dance societies became the strongest supporters of TANU (the Tanganyika African National Union). In the Sudan, the local Communist Party organized women into the nationalist movement, and the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya from about 1952 to 1960 drew in some Kikuyu women as armed combatants but drew in most as helpers funneling food, information, and medicine to the forest fighters.

The Ambiguities of Change, 1965–2000.

The struggle for independence involved many women in new forms of political activity. But its attainment no more solved the problems of African women than it did the other pressing problems of poverty and economic dependency. Formal independence did lead to more widespread female education at all levels as governments responded to insistent demands for improved opportunities. But the tendency—when they addressed women's issues at all—for development projects to accept the existing sexual division of labor as unalterable, or to exacerbate this division, meant that little transformation occurred in the lives of most poor women. And political leaders in the majority of independent African states, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary, continued to express ambivalence about women's equality.

Throughout East Africa, independence brought conflicting demands for modernization and for the preservation of tradition. With the patriarchal vision of tradition constructed during the colonial period as a model, subordinate and domesticated women have at times come to symbolize “African custom.” Pressures to bear children remained strong, and most women continued to consider large families as central to their emotional and economic well-being. Therefore options were often limited for those who wished to restrict the number of children they bore, with abortion illegal and contraception a contentious subject.

Attitudes and policies toward marriage remained complex, often combining efforts at increasing women's rights with a reluctance to upset customs such as bride-wealth, polygyny, and excision. Some studies suggest that the resulting contradictions in legislation may have increased a tendency to prefer single motherhood to the constraints of marriage. In Tanzania, the Marriage Act of 1971 led some women to avoid marriage in order to maintain custody of older children in case of divorce. In Kenya, the all-male national assembly voted in 1969 to repeal an act that had required men to contribute to the support of illegitimate children. The Ethiopian civil code, although affirming that spouses owe each other respect, support, and assistance, recognized the husband as head of the family, meriting obedience from his wife. In the Sudan, sustained pressure from women's groups led to legal reforms in women's economic and family position, although without attacking the most extreme form of genital surgery. By contrast, in its campaign against excision the Somali Women's Democratic Organization gained the support of many women and, for a time, the government.

As education expanded the ranks of teachers, nurses, and secretaries, while others rose through well-chosen marriage partners, class divisions among women widened. In Uganda in the 1970s, for example, tension was quite open between elite women and their female domestic workers. Yet from among these educated women have come a prominent minority of writers, artists, and other professionals, some of whom have taken considerable risks on behalf of poor women. They include physicians and health workers who have organized locally against antifemale violence; women who have identified with the goals of a global women's movement, working to define and create specifically African forms of feminism; environmentalists such as the Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai in Kenya who led a grassroots movement of women to protect the land on which their livelihood depends; and the writers and artists who have articulated the conflicts that many women feel.

Grace Ogot stands out as perhaps the best-known woman writer in East Africa, although the work of others has also attracted attention, including Barbara Kimenyi (Uganda), Martha Mvungi (Tanzania), and Rebeka Njau and Charity Waciuma (Kenya). In her novel The Promised Land (1966) and in some of her short stories, Ogot addresses the conflict between the limiting effects of traditional attitudes toward women, including submissiveness to men, and the positive attributes of a spiritual and communal heritage.

Even where national politicians made efforts to increase women's participation in nation building and development, they too often conceptualized women as domestic rather than economic beings and guided their assistance under the aegis of community and social welfare agencies. This was the case in Tanzania, where the ruling party supported the development of a women's organization at the time of independence. Although participants in the Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania (Tanzanian Women's Union) gradually included economic as well as domestic activities and goals, women remained peripheral to conceptions of public policy. Furthermore, the female activists so critical to the success of TANU in the 1950s nearly all disappeared from the political process. Rarely well educated, most were unsuited to assume positions in the new government. Similarly, after the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia, rural women's groups were subordinated to larger peasant associations, with little interest in women's perspectives. Exceptions to this pattern usually came in cases of armed revolt or national trauma. Women in the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), struggling for autonomy from Ethiopia, were particularly successful in promoting gender-balanced land reform, education for Muslim girls and women, and more egalitarian marriage relationships. Following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, women's political organizing earned them nearly half of the seats in the national legislature in 2003.

The 1990s brought new challenges and new opportunities. Though the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS, the mandates of structural adjustment programs, and periodic crises (as in Somalia and Rwanda) threatened women's economic position—and often their lives—the continent-wide push for democratization opened up new possibilities. When Kenya restored multiparty politics in 1991, women's organizations immediately launched campaigns to educate women on democratic participation and to elect women candidates on both the local and the national levels. With a variety of dynamic women's groups in many countries of East Africa, issues such as sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence took their place alongside political participation, clean water and sanitation, and access to land as issues that prompted women's organizing.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, afforded African participants the opportunity to formulate and voice a strong agenda on behalf of women and girls. The appointment of a Tanzanian, Gertrude Mongella, as secretary-general of the gathering heightened its importance to gender awareness on the continent. Yet all the East African delegates were vocal against including sexual and reproductive rights in the final declaration. That such issues remain contested points to the variety of women's voices in the region. It also highlights the efforts of some women to respond to the disruptions of the twentieth century by seeking to define and preserve distinctive features of African family life.


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Iris Berger