Tag: African women

Defining ‘the African woman’: Save your labels for Tupperware

(Flickr: James P. Wells)
(Graphic: Flickr / James P. Wells)

If there is one thing that I love to do it’s organise things. There is something wonderfully joyous about clothes that are sorted according to their colours, shoes organised by heel height and e-mails that are slotted into descriptive categories and archived. It’s systematic. It’s blissful! It’s neat, and to me neat means manageable. I love neat like I love Tupperware, shelves and label makers. The problem with this ritualistic tidiness is that it doesn’t translate so well in the real world. People are by their very nature inconsistent and chaotic yet for some reason we often refuse to acknowledge that. Nowhere – in my experience – is there more labelling and identity policing than in the LGBT community.

If one takes a glimpse into not-so-conforming Black Woman spaces, one will find a mess of labels and rituals. There is very little freedom to manoeuver because, oftentimes, you are exiled to a box that defines your mannerisms, behaviour, speech, style and the people you like. I remember being on a date with a woman when she made a comment like “you femmes have it easy”; it stopped me dead in my tracks. At the time I didn’t quite have the language to tell her my thoughts on the subject other than to say “Uh… I don’t like labels, it’s just not something I do but I will call myself African“. In retrospect, after countless accusations about my gender identity and romantic preferences, I realise that statements like that are inherently selfish. It is selfish to tell people who and what they are based on some measure that you have chosen for yourself.

African women are complicated. How we live and love is complicated. Our politics and ideals are woven into the way we are and not because of an adherence to some ideology. There are numerous pieces written about “fat shaming” and body politics, and these are important, but other people actually live body affirmation. They carry their small breasts and muscular arms with pride and are quick to appreciate the beauty of a short round woman with a full belly and child-worn breasts. They acknowledge womanhood in its various forms and do not need words like feminism, queer-theory, discourse and praxis to do so because they live Black Womanhood. They head households, love their partners, appreciate the power of female friendships and do this all while being driven by something internal and unregulated by the outside world.

I sometimes wonder whether it is this fundamental understanding of our womanhood that creates a sense of cohesion among us. At almost all Black Women gatherings one will find that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t the common denominators. There have been numerous times where I was in “mixed company” – in the sense that we didn’t call ourselves the same things or live the same lifestyles. There would be women snuggling their girlfriends in one corner, engaged women, man-eaters, virgins, masculine women, the odd “down for whatever” girl and decidedly fluid women all in one room politicking and relating, just because. This is something that I think we need to work hard at nurturing and maintaining. African Women’s spaces should not become exclusive clubs where people only gain access by being “radical” or well-versed in anything other than living life in this skin, at this time.

People know themselves and it’s up to them to tell us who they are. Increasingly, African Women are more open about the fluidity in their being(s) so it is important to legitimise that fluidity. Nesting people’s “selfness” under rigidly defined labels isn’t cool and seems so counter-intuitive. There are people who are not sexually attracted to other people at all. There are also people who only find masculinity or femininity attractive and only in certain bodies. If one considers how deeply attraction and gender are rooted in the individual then it’s easy to see that it is not easy at all. It is complicated and not something that should confined within hard lines. People are not objects that can be collected, measured up and sorted. Identity necessarily changes and no matter how contradictory the people you have been are, they make sense in your story.

Culture makes things difficult because there is an archetype of who “the African Woman” is. People would describe her as maternal, strong, patient, traditional, long-suffering, soulful and protective. Her life is not her own, it belongs to her family and community. Think about it for a second… we all know who she is because she is the woman that lies in the cradle of our conscience and makes us wonder why we are the way we are. Still there are problems with who she is. She is the ideal but that doesn’t make her perfect. Nearly all of us know that we are not her and many more of us do not want to be her despite the fact that her voice has taught us how to understand ourselves.

However many of us have figured out that there are numerous ways of being a woman and many more ways of living up to the ideal. Since the nature of our self-exploration(s) is very much determined by our societies, what makes us outliers will be relative. In some cases it may be a person’s gender presentation and in others it could be the fact that they have piercings, tattoos and love FKA Twigs. This state of being “not-quite-” or “not-so-” or “non-conforming” is refreshing and it’s time to acknowledge that while our parents have already given us our names, we are also quite free to rename ourselves and respect that process in others.

Tatenda Muranda is a self-identified suit in a feminist activist. She co-founded HOLAAfrica and currently sits on the advisory committee for FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund. When she is not feministing she happily works in private equity in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Africa’s women entrepreneurs take the lead

Madinah Nalukenge recalls the day she set out to sell food on the filthy edges of a bus terminal in the Ugandan capital in 2004. She had just $10 left over from a failed attempt to sell bed sheets.

Now she runs a catering business that makes a monthly profit of up to $3 000, a source of pride for the 34-year-old single mother who spends her days offering plates of mashed plantain and greasy meats to transport operators in downtown Kampala.

“There is a lot of money to be made here,” she said recently, her apron bulging with cash. “I need to stay focused.”

Her competition: More than a dozen other women operating food stalls next to hers.

Madinah Nalukenge serves dishes to customers at her food stall, frequented by transport operators, that she owns on the edge of a bus terminal in Kampala. (Pic: AP Exchange)
Madinah Nalukenge serves dishes to customers at her food stall, frequented by transport operators, that she owns on the edge of a bus terminal in Kampala. (Pic: AP Exchange)

Nalukenge, who did not study beyond grade school, is part of a growing trend in Africa where more women are running businesses on a scale that was unthinkable a generation ago. Africa now has the highest growth rate of female-run enterprises across the world, according to the World Bank.

About 63% of women in the non-agricultural labor force are self-employed in the informal sector in Africa, more than twice the worldwide rate, according to World Bank data, which also shows that necessity – not opportunity – is the main driving force behind female entrepreneurship in poor countries. Women often start by running informal retail or service businesses, but those who are more ambitious have created thousands of jobs in projects that break stereotypes about what women can do, physically and socially, in societies that are still largely conservative.

“Traditionally women would sit at home and wait for the man to return home with a bag of groceries, but this has been changing over time as women’s dependence gradually reduces,” said Thomas Bwire, an economist with Uganda’s central bank. In a sign of the times, he said, Ugandan women now even work at road construction sites.

There are more women than men working in the informal sector in all of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Labor Organization. The UN agency’s most recent survey, released last year, noted that this is unlike other regions, including South and East Asia, where informal employment for women tends to be concentrated in home-based, domestic work.

Some of the food vendors in downtown Kampala have remarkably similar accounts of what sparked their entry into private business: Hungry children, unpaid rent and some violent partners. Most of them have long been single or were recently in failed relationships, an important detail because many insist their businesses are succeeding in part because of their independence on the home front. Many of the vendors have also enrolled their children in boarding school to make more time for work.

“They don’t help and they never want to help,” Nalukenge said of her former partners. “Yet even the little you get they want to take away from you. I was alone when I started this business.”

Force for economic growth
Development economists note that if more women are helped to join the labor force, especially through access to credit, they can be a powerful force for global economic growth.

A report released earlier this year by the investment bank Goldman Sachs urged what it called “giving credit where it is due,” noting that women’s “increased bargaining power has the potential to create a virtuous cycle as female spending supports the development of human capital, which in turn will fuel economic growth in the years ahead.”

An estimated $300-billion credit gap exists for female-owned enterprises, according to the International Finance Corp. of the World Bank, which in March launched a $600-million fund to finance women-owned businesses in the developing world. The venture – dubbed the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility – aims to work with local banks in sharing risks and extending credit to 100 000 women entrepreneurs.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty remains extreme in many parts, stories of successful women entrepreneurs are accumulating. A Kenyan woman, Mary Okello, is feted for starting, inside a three-bedroom house, what has since become a prestigious group of private schools. In Rwanda, Janet Nkubana has been recognised abroad for running a handicrafts company that employs more than 3 000 women whose baskets can be purchased at Macy’s. The Nigerian Adenike Ogunlesi is famous for her “Ruff ‘n’ Tumble” clothing line for children, a business that she first operated out of a car trunk.

In Uganda, where most of the food is grown locally, many women have been drawn to catering, and their food stalls are ubiquitous at transport terminals and open markets. Unable to get credit from banks, often the women start “cooperative” groups in which they pool savings. Then they take turns getting loans.

“The few who have ventured out have surprised themselves by succeeding,” said Ugandan economist Fred Muhumuza, who has been advising Uganda’s government on development policy. Rampant poverty, he said, is driving women to find ways of taking over “core family responsibilities” from men.

Nalukenge, the food vendor in downtown Kampala, said she has kept her children in school and now owns two small plots of land.

On a recent evening, as she prepared to clean up and pack her saucepans, she pondered her unlikely journey from failed hawker of bed sheets to successful caterer with a long line of loyal clients.

“We spend a lot of energy here,” she said. “There’s no resting. But at the end of the day we get our reward.” – Sapa-AP

African women and the marriage question

(Pic: Flickr / David Precious)
(Pic: Flickr / David Precious)

If you’re a single young woman, there’s one question that you’ve come to dread. It comes up at family functions, social events and random interactions, over and over again.

“When are you getting married?”

In the Somali community, this question creeps up on you as soon as you’ve turned the ‘appropriate’ age of 19. My dad regularly reminds me that people will have certain expectations of me once I begin to enter my mid-20s. One of them happens to be marriage. And, at 23, my stock is apparently plummeting by the moment. My mother was younger than me when she married, and was my age when she had me. I am clearly out of sync when it comes to the process of matrimony. What started out as “We won’t put any pressure on you about this” quickly turned into casual jokes about when my mom or younger sister are going to take out their nicest dirac (traditional Somali dress) for my wedding.

Here in Canada, after you graduate, you are expected to begin to worry about savings, retirement, and health insurance – not marriage. You start spending your money on plates, pillows and new tyres as part of your new independent lifestyle. It’s interesting to see how western culture dictates that there is no particular right age or time to get married – it happens when you are fully ready. There is no concern with getting a spouse by a certain age. Yet, being raised in an African household, our traditions tell us something else. Personally, being wedged between two very different cultures has left me feeling really confused.

The reality is that my generation seems to be marrying, buying houses and having kids later than the previous generation; in clear contradiction to the ‘traditional’ African experience. Yet here I am, like many other diaspora Africans, fearing the expectations that come with being older.

I continuously ask myself “Where is my career going?” rather than “Whom will I end up with?” The world I live is extremely different from the one my parents were raised in. The reality is that we cannot be expected to fit old-fashioned moulds of what we should have achieved or who we should be with or how many kids we should have by the time we are 23/27/30/40 years old.

It seems like the expiration date on marriage is non-existent for African males living in the west. They are expected to become financially stable before the topic of marriage is even broached. They can get married whenever they feel comfortable and ready and yet the emphasis is placed on the female to be married before it’s ‘too late’.

Personally, I can’t help but remember why my parents migrated to the west. They wanted us to enjoy the comfort of better education, opportunities and standard of living. Now, to be able to truly obtain their goals, I feel that I must follow their guidelines and succeed rather than feeling guilty about being too old to ever get married.

When we hear our relatives, family friends or even parents tell us that we must get married young ‘because we are Africans’, we must remind them that culture of marriage is only as good as its purpose to people. And, that if we continue to look at marriage from a linear perspective without allowing it to evolve, it will simply become another worthless detail about our civilisation in history books.

Many African women seem to have romanticised the ideology attached to marriage rather than marriage itself. And that, to me, is problematic. How can we uphold the dynamics of family within an African context if we romanticise the ideology rather than truly grasping the responsibilities and expectations that come with it? Marriage involves sacrifice, compromise and all those nice-sounding words that are difficult in practice – it’s not a decision one should make based on a romcom or a persistent parent.

I believe that ever-changing views on marriage have always been a matter of generational differences that affect women regardless of their racial or ethnic background. In fact, one could even say that this is a global phenomenon that isn’t explicitly tied to African women. Here in the west, marriage is not a must-do, it’s a matter of personal choice. As it should be, for women across the world.

Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

‘Our sexual revolution is being blogged’

One of the most popular shows on Ghanaian television in the 80s was Obra. A common scenario in the show was that a young teenage girl would get involved in a relationship with a man and inevitably fall pregnant. This would lead her to drop out of school, the man who had impregnated her would abandon her, the young girl would become an embarrassment to her family, and the rest of her life would be a misery. Whenever we watched this happen, my mum would turn to me and say: “You see what happens when you mess around with guys?”

That was the type of sex education I received growing up in Ghana. Sex as taught to my generation of Ghanaian girls was always ‘bad’, and only ‘bad’ girls had sex before marriage. At the boarding school I went to there were always rumours about the girls who apparently had sex – they were called names like ‘Kaneshie mattress’, suggesting anyone who lived in that area of Accra had slept with them. I myself always believed these rumours about the ‘bad’ girls. How could you doubt stories told with such confidence? It was only when rumours about my own sexuality reached my ears that I began to question these myths.

After a growth spurt one summer holiday, I returned to school with gigantic boobs. One day while walking to my dorm, I overhead a group of girls chatting. “Have you seen Nana Darkoa’s breasts? They have gotten so big. It means she had sex during the holidays,” one of them said. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the following summer a male friend of mine told my boyfriend that he had “fucked me in the gutter by my house”. That was when I stopped believing the ‘bad’ girl myth.

Fast forward to my early 20s. My knowledge of sexuality hadn’t improved greatly. Yes, I had been sexually abused as a child. Yes, I had kissed girls in my boarding school. Yes, I had kissed a boy for the first time in the summer before my O-levels and gone on to kiss two other boys that same summer, but I still knew nothing about sex and sexuality. Until I went to university abroad I had no idea that girls who kissed girls were called lesbians. In my boarding school we called our girl lovers ‘dears’. (Not everybody who had a dear had a sexual relationship with their dear. Having a dear implied an added closeness and relationship with a certain girl/young woman. Your dear, for example, could be a fellow student in your year or a senior who had propositioned you).

I was an avid reader of romance novels while growing up. I would wrap the salacious covers of Mills & Boon, Harlequin and Silhouette novels with old newspaper and read furtively in between classes or in my bed at night. These novels taught me that women could have unimaginable pleasure when tall, dark handsome men ‘took’ them, but they didn’t break down how exactly this happened. When I was 20 and living abroad with my best friend, she seemed wildly mature to me because she was sexually active with her boyfriend and would walk around our shared flat naked. One day she asked me if I ever masturbated. I was beyond embarrassed. She used to tease me that I was going to remain a virgin until I turned 30. When I met my future husband two months shy of my 23rd birthday I knew instantly that I wanted to have sex with him. That was when the process of learning about sex and my own sexuality began. It is an ongoing journey of sexual self-discovery.

Starting Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women in 2010 has been an important part of documenting my own sexual journey. The blog has created a space for African women to learn from and share our stories of sexual agency and the horrific experiences of abuse and sexual assault that have attempted to take away our power.


I was inspired to start the blog after a life-changing holiday to Axim in the western region of Ghana. I was with a group of three other African women. One evening while lounging around the beach we began a frank and open conversation about sex, which continued throughout the holidays. We talked about our sexual experiences, reminisced over past relationships, recounted good and bad sex, and shared our fantasies. I was buzzing with excitement when I got back and rang my best friend in the US.

“Malaka, I’ve just come back from holiday and I had the most amazing time talking about sex. I think we should start a blog about African women and sex.”

“Ha! Its uncanny you should say that. I was just thinking of writing a book called ‘Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women’. If only people really knew what went down in our bedrooms.”

We split our sides in laughter. We laughed because we knew that the images people had of African women’s sexuality were myopic. We recognised that people saw us as victims of female genital mutilation and sexual subalterns or, on the other extreme, as over-sexualised women with extra-large genitalia to boot. We laughed because we knew our stories were more diverse than the outside world knew. We laughed because we knew we were continuously negotiating our sexual agency, while battling with the traumatic effects (in some cases) of child sexual abuse. We laughed because this was our opportunity to tell our own stories.

And that’s exactly what Adventures has succeeded in doing. The blog, which receives about 35 000 visitors a month, is a safe space for African women to share experiences around sex, sexuality and relationships. Many contributors remain anonymous because of the social censure that surrounds women who express their sexuality openly. Readers have told me that Adventures has enabled them to have open conversations about sexuality that they were never able to have with parents, friends or in school. At Ghana’s first Social Media Awards in March, Adventures scooped awards in the categories of ‘best overall blog’, and ‘best activist blog’. I felt especially proud that people recognise that providing a safe space for African women to talk about their sexualities was an act of activism.

African women across the continent and diaspora have boldly taken ownership of the site and share their stories of sexual fantasy, sexual experience and sexual abuse. The site’s policy has been to focus on women’s stories, while allowing the occasional contribution from African men. Roughly 60% of our readers are women while 38% are men and 2% identify themselves as transgendered. One of the most popular posts on Adventures is on how to pleasure a woman orally, written by a male contributor. There are other posts that have aroused anger and sadness and highlighted the need for supporting survivors of sexual abuse. These stories and the large number of comments they inspire show that comprehensive sexual education is important not only for women (and men) to gain bodily confidence and an understanding of their right to sexual pleasure, but also so that children do not grow up with a sense of shame around sex, which can lead to silence when sexual abuse occurs.

The fact that most of the stories on Adventures are based on women’s personal experiences refute popular myths such as homosexuality being a Western import. Here’s one comment from a reader:

It’s very refreshing to find like-minded individuals who speak so freely and openly about homosexuality. I think I’m bi-curious. I have crazy girl crushes and love lesbian porn. Having never been off the shores of Ghana, you know the general perception about these things, so I’ve never really talked about it to anyone .

Now run and go tell that to the African conservatives who claim that homosexuality is un-African.

One of the most popular contributors to Adventures goes by the moniker Voluptous Voltarian. She shares:

The reason why I started reading and writing for Adventures was because the very first comment I read was from a man. I realised that Adventures had created a space where African women and men could have an honest conversation outside of a regular face-to-face context where negotiations about sex can be very conflicted and transactional. I think that’s the real revolution. Adventures provides the space for people to work through this conflict, and for people to be their better healthier sexual selves.

Personally, I am still working on being my best sexual self. I choose to do this openly in a world that still judges women for the sexual choices they make; in a world where calling a woman politician a ‘prostitute’ does not provoke the kind of widespread criticism I hope it would. I do this in a country where the Ghana Journalists Association recently exhorted journalists to adopt an anti-gay stance in their work. As a single African woman I choose to blog openly about my sexual life in order to create community with other African women who were also told that having sex outside of marriage would automatically lead to pregnancy, familial disgrace and a subsequent life of ruin. Today it makes me incredibly proud that our sexual revolution is being blogged.

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah works as a communications specialist at the African Women’s Development Fund, is co-owner of MAKSI Clothing and curates the Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women blog.