In honor of International Women’s Day, I want to bring attention to the tremendous contributions that African women have made to our collective liberation. It’s impossible to truly document the contributions that African women have made to the struggle for African liberation in a short article, so I have decided to highlight just some of the many examples.
We can start with the fact that played a significant role in the struggle against colonialism in Africa. One of the most famous examples of this is Nzinga, who fought a decades long war against the Portuguese to maintain the independence of her kingdom and to protect her people from the slave trade. One Portuguese account of Nzinga gave the following description of her: “Who ever heard of a woman general, leading her armies in person? The truth is that she is the greatest military strategist that ever confronted the armed forces of Portugal. Her tactics keep our commanders sweating in confusion and dismay. Her aim is nothing less than the total destruction of the slave trade.”
Other examples of African women resisting colonialism includes the 1929 protest of Nigerian women against colonial taxation. Women in Togo engaged in a similar protest in 1932 and in 1958 women in Cameroon also rose up in protest against colonial policies. In Kenya there was a protest in 1922 following the arrest of Harry Thuku. The British officers had a difficult time breaking up the protest because the women involved taunted the Kenyan men who attempted to leave. Colonial reports later complained that it was the “jeers of the women” which prevented the British officers from peacefully terminating the protest. Women in Kenya also played an important role in the Mau Mau rebellion, which led to the British colonial administration targeting women as part of their attempt to destroy the Mau Mau.
Yaa Asantewaa led the Asante people in their final war against the British. The war was sparked when the British Governor of the Gold Coast demanded to sit on the Golden Stool. This was a great offense to the Asante people given that the Golden Stool was a sacred representation of the Asante nation. It was so sacred that not even the Asante king himself actually sat on the Golden Stool. Although Yaa Asantewaa was eventually forced to surrender and was exiled, she achieved the objective of her war by successfully protecting the Golden Stool from the British. Apart from her role as a military commander, Yaa Asantewaa was also remembered by the Asante people as a very kind and caring ruler. The state of Ejisu under Yaa Asantewaa’s leadership was poorer than other Asante states because Yaa Asantewaa would use state funds to pay for the debts of some of her citizens.
Constance Cummings-John and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti were organizers in the anti-colonial Pan-African movements of the 1940s and 1950s. Cummings-John, who was born in Sierra Leone, is best known for being the first woman mayor in the history of Freetown. Cummings-John also participated in Pan-African organizations such as the League of Coloured Peoples and the West African Students’ Union (WASU). Funmilayo Kuti was also a member of WASU. Other organizations that Funmilayo were involved in included the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the Nigerian Women’s Societies, and Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies. In 1949, Funmilayo organized woman in a march against Ademola II, who was the king of Abeokuta at the time. The women chased Ademola into exile because he was serving the interests of the British colonialists in Nigeria. Funmilayo was also the first Nigerian woman to drive a car.
In South Africa, Winnie Mandela fought tirelessly against the brutal and racist apartheid regime. Winnie was frequently arrested and detained for her activities, but she continued resisting. In Guinea-Bissau, Titina Silla served as a soldier in the war for independence against the Portuguese. She was killed in combat and is today remembered as a martyr in the fight for Guinea-Bissau’s independence, along with Amilcar Cabral who was also killed in the struggle.
The role that Caribbean women have played is not very well-known or very well documented, but we can still point to examples such as Nanny of the Maroons who resisted slavery in Jamaica. In Haiti, Sanité Bélair was executed by the French for her role in the revolution. La Mulâtresse Solitude was part of the rebellion against slavery in Guadeloupe. There is a statute in honor of La Mulâtresse Solitude which depicts her with a pregnant belly because she was executed shortly after giving birth.
Amy Jacques Garvey, who was married Marcus Garvey, worked as the editor for the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s newspaper, the Negro World. In the paper she also had her own column titled “Our Women and What They Think.” Amy Jacques continued Garvey’s message of Pan-Africanism and African empowerment after his death. She was especially critical of the neo-colonial situation in Jamaica.
Women have also been on the front lines of the fight for racial justice in the United States. This has included abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery and guided dozens more to freedom as well. Harriet served as a spy for the Union Army in the Civil War and led the Combahee River Raid which freed 700 enslaved Africans. Harriet Tubman remained committed to her cause, despite her skeptics. Her husband, who left Harriet for another woman, told her to “give up the nonsense of freedom,” but Harriet refused to listen and did the opposite instead. On another occasion Henry Highland Garnet told Harriet that he did not believe emancipation would come in his life time, to which she told him “you’ll see it soon.” The Emancipation Proclamation was signed three years later. Sojourner Truth was another woman who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist, as well as an advocate for women’s rights.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a contemporary of leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Wells-Barnett does not appear to be as well-known as her male counterparts, but her work was no less significant. Wells-Barnett was an anti-lynching crusader who exposed and denounced the lynchings of African Americans. Wells-Barnett was also a proponent of self-defense, declaring that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” In this regard Wells-Barnett was a forerunner for Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Robert F. Williams, Huey Newton,and others who advocated armed self-defense for African Americans.
Fannie Lou Hamer was an organizer with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Hamer’s civil rights work included organizing African Americans to vote and challenging the racist policies which prevented African Americans from voting. For her work Hamer was arrested and savagely beaten by police officers, but after recovering from her injuries Hamer continued her work.
Rosa Parks is best remembered for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, which sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, but what is lesser known is that Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist. She was tasked with investigating cases of sexual assault against African American women, which included investigating the rape of Recy Taylor. Apart from her role as a civil rights activist in America, Rosa Parks also spoke out against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.
Most of the contemporary Pan-Africanists that have influenced my work have been women. As a college study I became very interested in studying psychology after listening to lectures by Amos Wilson. I also studied the work of psychologists such as Bobby E. Wright, Asa G. Hilliard, and Na’im Akbar. The psychologist who had the biggest impact on me was Edna Roland from Brazil.
As a student activist Edna opposed the military dictatorship in Brazil, which forced her to cut ties with her family and abandon her post-graduate studies. After democracy was restored in the 1980s, Edna became more actively involved in the Afro-Brazilian struggle. She was one of the founders of the Geledes Institute of Black Woman and in 2001 Roland participated in the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, where she called for reparations for the African descendants of the slave trade in the diaspora. As a social psychologist, Edna has worked to document and expose the racial inequality in Brazil, which the Brazilian government has denied for several years.
Tchaiko Kwayana was an educator and activist who, along with her husband Eusi Kwayana, worked as an organizer for the Sixth Pan-African Congress which was held in Tanzania. I was in communication with Tchaiko through social media for some months before her transition. She provided a lot of encouragement and inspiration for me. She was especially interested in the research that I was doing on the African influence on diaspora creole languages because this was research that she had done herself. Tchaiko began her teaching career in the United States, but she also taught in Nigeria and Guyana as well.
Finally, the two Pan-Africanists that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for are two women that I’ve had the honor of working with: Farida Nabourema and Afrikan Esq.
Farida is an activist from Togo who has been fighting against the oldest military dictatorship on the African continent since she was a teenager. Farida is a committed Pan-Africanist who is fighting for a unified Africa that is free of dictatorship and free of foreign exploitation. Despite facing numerous threats and being forced into exile, Farida remains a tireless advocate for democracy in Togo. When I interviewed her in 2017, Farida explained to me: “ When I said Faure Must Go almost 8 years ago, people called me all sort of names in Togo. Many thought I was crazy or foolish but I did not give up. I faced the attacks, fought them, kept preaching and today it became the slogan of the struggle.”
Afrikan Esq is one of the co-founders of the Federation of Afrikan Liberation (FAL) and the person who recruited me to assist with forming what was to become the FAL. I would consider Afikan Esq the unofficial spokesperson of our organization because she uses her platform on YouTube to spread a lot of the Pan-Africanist ideas of our organization. Afrikan Esq, who covers issues that impact African people in the United States and abroad, provides very a insightful and unique approach to addressing the issues that are facing African people around the world.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.