Transcript: 23. Nkiru Nzegwu on Gender in African Tradition

An interview with Nkiru Nzegwu on matriarchy, sexuality, and gender fluidity in Africa (with a quick chat at the end about her work on African art).

Thank you for appearing on the podcast. Early in the series, so going back a few episodes, we did several episodes on written material from ancient Egypt. And so that's a culture that we've already integrated into the story of Africana philosophy. But we didn't really talk about gender in Egyptian culture, ancient Egyptian culture very much. Do you think that it makes sense to think of ancient Egyptian attitudes towards women as continuous with attitudes about gender and what people sort of think of as traditional African society or in any African cultures other than in ancient Egypt? 

Yes, I would think so. I have to say that in the past, I probably wouldn't have made the kind of statement I'm making now. But through my work in the areas of art history, as well as in philosophy, gender issues, that I've shifted radically to seeing not just assuming, but seeing the connections between ways in which ancient Egyptians saw and treated women and what exists outside in different zones in Africa. A person that pointed my attention to it, at least his work did, was Theophilu Benga, who's been working extensively in the areas of linguistics, as well as the culture in ancient Egypt. He used to be a student of Sheikente Diop. And so Diop's work was also very, very crucial in making those links. And so in one of the works I've been doing and researching is the ways in which the ancient Egyptian cosmology and the cosmological scheme replicates some of what we find in different parts of Africa and ways in which some of those societies, for example, even the Hausa States of Nigeria, the Yoruba, would always talk of coming from the east. Now I don't read those societies as saying that they came from ancient Egypt, but that also prodded me to examine the areas between Egypt and parts of Africa, which is where I began to read about the civilizations and cultures that existed in what today is the Sahara Desert, so that ancient Sahara had gone through at least three periods in which it was called the Green Sahara. So cultures and societies lived there. And you could trace some of the similarities of the cultures, even as far west as Senegal among the Wolof, which is what Sheikente Diop did, but also south to Uganda, the Kingdom of Uganda, and even further south to parts of Congo. One of the core concepts that really stood out for me is the ways in which the female is a very strong and powerful figure in ancient Egypt and also in different parts of the societies, that prior to colonialism, the value and the status that the mothers had was something that is radically different from what exists today. So yes, I can trace the connections, but I can also trace it in terms of some of the institutions, institutions of political governance that were in place in Uganda, even amongst the Yoruba, sometimes some of the divinities, you would see an extension of some of what you would find in the Egyptian cosmogony. 

So the idea is that there would be female figures in the Egyptian stories about how the universe was formed, and these would be reflected or they would resonate with female mythic characters in African religion. Is that the basic idea? 

African religion, but also the political structures, the role of women in political structures. 

So it'd be like a mirroring between like the relationships between the gods and the relationships between human beings. 

And how the women are assigned very important roles within the society. 

Yeah, you mentioned a scholar named Sheikh Anzad Joop just now, and he's one scholar who's pointed to matriarchal societal structures in Africa. Another would be Ife Amadoumi. And I wonder whether you could say something about that. So when we talk about matriarchal institutions in Africa, what sort of thing are we talking about? So is the idea just that the chief is a woman or is it more complicated than that? 

Well, I think it's more complicated than that. And I would say that in the past, I have had problems with the notion of matriarchal, and only because it's the dichotomy or the opposite of patriarchy. So that in this particular environment, that is not what is going on. 

So it's almost sounds like well, men were oppressed instead of women, as usual, which is probably not what we're after. 

But what they are pointing out is the centrality of the mothers, the mother figure within the society. And it's not just the mythical mother figure, but even within the existential scheme, in the political domain, in the family structures, the role of the mothers, there are some societies that are totally structured on the basis of the mother, the connections of people to the mother. For example, in Among the Wall of, to attain a level of prominence politically, even for men, they have to assert who their mother is. So the mother is the line of descent, and the relevance of it is that you cannot but say who your mother is. Who your father is may be a question for debate, but who the mother is, is given. And in most of the societies, the powers of the mother is unquestioned. And the mothers do not utilize those powers in an oppressive negative way, but structuring it to create an inclusivist ideology of oneness and unity. Which is why even in those societies, men did not have problems about the ascendancy of mothers, even though contemporary societies may have an ascendancy of the woman. 

So the idea would be that through the matriarchal line, people can sort of trace their lineage back and that gives them a certain role in society. But in addition to that, the matriarchal, if we want to use that word, the matriarchal influences to bind the whole community together. 

It creates a consciousness of oneness, a consciousness of being that allows the society to operate and to thrive. However, it's not an ideology that is machine, motherhood that you can walk on over. It's a motherhood that has laws and you have to maintain and abide by what it means to be one and unity. So if you want to violate that, that is something that would be seriously repelled. So the notion of mothers being soft and caring, the Gilligan type notion, that's not what the African mother is. The African mothers will give birth, but the African mothers have no problem taking you down, which in a sense parallels the cosmogony that you find in Egypt when you talk of Hafe as the goddess of fertility and Sekhmet as the goddess of vengeance that takes. Both are the same unit, but depends on which side of it is in ascendancy, which depends on the actions of people. Similarly for the Yoruba, you have Oshun and the concept of Oshun and the divinity of Oshun has spread to the diaspora, to the Americas, to Brazil, where this divinity is known as Oshun. In Cuba, Oshun is a very central, powerful female. In Haiti, Erzuli, they see her as the mother, as the symbol of fertility. And there's another side of Oshun, which is the Ajay side, which is the side that you do not want to flout. Don't mess with Oshun. And when Oshun raises her power of the Ajay, she will take down. And amongst the Yorubas, you have to propitiate Oshun all the times by propitiating the mothers. 

So this is a kind of value that's centered on motherhood that would not, for example, exclude warfare. Right. So I mean, maybe it binds together the community, but it's compatible with, for example, conflict with other communities. 

It's compatible with conflict with other communities. But even before a conflict or a warfare, even the warriors have to take orders from that female center. And amongst the Igbo's, for example, you have what is called Omo. Omo is badly translated as the queen mother. Omo is really a Warnak. You have Wobi, which is the male, and you have Omo, which is the female. To go to war in areas where you have the Omo institution, no man will go to war without having the Omo sanction the war and empower them to go. And to ensure that the war is a legitimate war, the Omo leads the war canoe. So she can become a warrior when the need comes, similar to what you have the Dahomey, where you have the women warriors. So warrior ship or being in the military or fighting is not anathema to the female body. In fact, what is oftentimes represented in many of these societies is that don't flout the anger of the woman or the mother, because when they go, they go to war, but they don't go to war easily. It has to be on just legitimate grounds. But if they rise to go to war, they would have made peace with both the living and the death, because the role of the mother is to serve as the intermediary for new beings to be born. So which is why a lot of the soldiers who want to assure themselves that even if they go to war and they lose their lives, that there will be continuity still in place, still going on. And the only one who can validate and assure them of that is the Omo because of her powers, of her reproduction, of her fertility.

Actually that's one of the other things I wanted to ask you about, because one of the pieces I read by you is about this Yoruba divinity, Oshun, who, as you just said, is a goddess of fertility. And so she represents motherhood, but she's also strongly associated with sexuality. So can you say something about what the traditional beliefs about Oshun tell us about Yoruba attitudes towards sexuality? 

I wouldn't want to limit the Oshun conception of sexuality simply to the Yorubas. Yes, Oshun is a Yoruba divinity, but the divinity and the ideology has spread. It has spread to different parts of the world. 

So in the diaspora. 

In the diaspora. And even in terms of the Dahome, they are part of the Fon who have Yorubanized in terms of embrace aspects of Yoruba religion amongst them. They are not necessarily ethnic Yorubas, but they are Fon, but they are also practitioners of the Yoruba religion. And this is to say something about the history of the region when Oyo was the dominant power in the zone prior to the 19th century when it went through a collapse. The values of the Yoruba religion has spread through trade, not by conquest. So if we separate the ideology from the ethnicity, so that we don't necessarily just limit it to the Yorubas, we find that the concept of Oshun also embodies and embraces sexuality, the sexual being of the woman. Motherhood plays a role and that role is valued and validated. But there's also what is often called Oshun's honey. So Oshun is very seductive being. Oshun likes a lot of the trappings of nice things, of seducing a male, of handling a male. So there is in that notion of Oshun, a difference from the mother that plays a role and then the sexual well-being of the female that is validated and endorsed. What I oftentimes find is we're talking about sexuality as an area of studies. You hardly find much work on African women's sexuality. It's always that they're there breeding or nothing happened. They don't have a sexual life or they don't even know what it is. They're being raped by their husbands. So the concept of sexuality is presented as something that is not even indigenous to Africa, but something that African women know and know how to operate. And this is an area where they are par excellence experts, but you will never know it just by looking at them. 

As if Europeans discovered sexuality. 

Yes. Okay. But this notion of sexuality centers the woman. It's not a sexuality that depends on the pleasure of the male. It's a sexuality where the woman's own being has to be validated and has to be pleasured in the same way that she would always also want her partner to feel the pleasure. But her pleasure is very important and he better know that. 

So far we've been talking about all this as if there's a kind of standard accepted gender dichotomy male female, which I guess is something a lot of people find intuitive. But you've actually written regarding another people, the Igbo, who derived from modern modern day Nigeria, that actually I'm going to quote you on this. So you wrote that among the Igbo gender identity is a flexible fluid state of being tied to social roles and functions. And you give some examples. So I wanted to ask you if you could go through some of the examples and maybe say how far you would take this. I mean, would you go so far as to say that for the Igbo, it's just not the case that they classify human beings into women and men or male and female? 

Yes, and no. 

I knew you were going to say that. The philosophers, they always say yes. 

On the one hand, it's very difficult to begin to talk about the male being and the female being or the male sex or the female sex in abstraction, only because of the history of philosophy of theories of ideas that have been set in place by the and I say the Western structure of knowledge, because that's where we are operating. And even within academia, we are operating within it. So there's a huge baggage that any time you talk about a man or woman, you automatically activate a range of ideas, assumptions and things, but we can't get away from it. Now I come from a different place where I can tell people, take all of that out. There is no gender, but still they will hear what I'm saying because of the ways in which even a mental landscape has been calibrated and structured in a hardwired in a way that we see the male body, there's a set of assumption attributes that already are projected onto this person. And we see the female body and a set of attributes that's already projected, which sets us into the discussion of gender and gender identity and all of that. So it's difficult to really shift or find new language to talk about it without people saying, oh, but you are implying this or you are collapsing back into the norm. But in the, it was a society, for example, the social rules that people played were very, very important. So there is no automatic assumption as to what is male or female or this rule belongs to a man or not belonging to a man. So you get into a family. The first thing you're looking at are children are being born. So and when children are being born within the family, they become a unit. Again that ideology of inclusiveness creates this consciousness of oneness and this consciousness of oneness is then the ballpark of that is those who are not part of this family. So those who are not part of this family sets up an interesting way of talking about things. So we will, people will talk about, you know, the wives and the person talking about, no, you wives is a woman, okay, part of the member of the family. And somebody can say, but you're a wife. Say, no, no, no, no, no, I'm not your wife. Those who are married into this, my family, they are my wives and they have to treat me as their husband. 

So a woman is saying that, so she's saying women who are married into the family are wives. 

Her brother will say those women who are married into their family, those are the wives. The sister is not a wife because it's a part of they are the principal members of the family, which tells you that the notion of husband or wife isn't necessarily predicated on the body. It's something to say we are the members of the family. So we have a word called di. Linguists have translated that word as husband. And with husband comes all the trappings of maleness, of things that, of about the body, which then problematizes a woman who utilizes it to describe herself. Because the original meaning of di has nothing to do about body. It has more to say about who are the main members of the family. 

So in a way, what they're doing is dividing up the social landscape according to something other than biological. 

Precisely. Right. They're dividing it up. 

Yes. In the functional way. 

Yes. Functional way that makes sense to them, but doesn't necessarily match up. So the Western notion of family dynamics. 

So speaking of Western notions, I'm wondering what happened to all of these social structures that you've been describing to us when we have the period of colonialism. I mean, to what extent are the assumptions and stereotypes that a lot of people have about gender dynamics in Africa today something that's a genuinely a holdover from many centuries ago in African culture? To what extent is it a result of colonialism? I mean, how much impact did colonialism have? 

I will say that people haven't appreciated the enormity of colonialism in Africa. And here is why they don't appreciate it. The colonials, when they came with the missionaries working with them, they looked for the youngsters. They took the very young, they created the schools. And in the schools, you have children who are coming, very susceptible to impressions, being taught the new ideology. So they learned very early about the divisions. Now you can say, but when they go home, the things would differ. But you're taking a six-year-old child who's growing in the school, and the school is giving a lot of power and validation. And the culture which they come from is viewed as the old and the outdated and the backward. So even the child is being brought up with the notion of self-hate. My culture is substandard. I can't look to the culture. So even though I see certain things about my culture, I can't really accept it because it's inferior. What I'm learning now is the superior language, the superior culture that will lead me to the new, brave new world. So by the time the child gets to teenage years and moves on to become an adult, all those things have set in place. What happens in the old is not valued. And then what they do to address their own self-image is to begin to recast aspects of their cultures to cohere with the new ideology they've imbibed. So for example, in many societies, among the Igboos, women can marry. A woman can marry a man. She doesn't have to be the wife. So the man coming in is more like the wife, okay? They can marry other women. So the concept of woman-woman marriage has always been part of the Igbo society. Now what has happened, and I read some of that even in some of the court cases, the woman dies, the man makes a claim for the property. And they go to court, and the DO, the district officer rules that of course, of course it's the man who has it. Because it's the man who married. She is the wife, even though it was the reverse. 

It was originally the woman's property. 

It was the woman's property, not his. And married into it. Yeah. And so the woman's property is the family property. It's assimilated back to the family. And he, he, he, he, he, he is a different personality. So he then takes part of the family property that he represented as his wives, because he knew the, the Okunita, which one is which, okay? So but you also find young African men who came out of the relationship of woman-woman marriage. And who have now gone into Christianity. And so what they do in the representation is to say, is to deny the existence of the woman-woman marriage, and to present their mothers as being married to a man. So this is one ways in which as education, people become more sophisticated in the educational advancement they begin to rewrite their own societies to accord with what they are seeing. Because that's the one way to make their own societies modern and to make it not inferior and worthy of acceptance. 

So it's not always just a kind of crass case of rejection, violence, oppression. It can also be a matter of kind

of internalized Western values that lead Africans themselves to sort of reinterpret what's been going on in their own cultures. 

And this is what I will call colonial angst with regards to your own identity, who you are, and how do you self represent? And how do you see your own people represented? So you have no problems in many Africans who are with PhDs turning around and dismissing Africans hopelessly hopeless people, really bad people. They are atrocious. They don't have any culture. And you wonder where, how can you, if you come from that culture, represent the culture in this way? So which tells you that there is a self doubt and self shame about the culture. And they're always looking for the negative aspects of the culture to amplify. And so people will say, the problem with Africa is that people come to you at odd hours. There's no privacy. They don't give you privacy, which assumes that privacy is something that is a valued good. And they don't see the genuine nature of the relationship, the familiar, the consciousness that is being expressed by somebody who's coming to see you. Because when you get to England, people have to call you first before they come. And so they come to England and nobody calls them and they're complaining, this is a cold country. Nobody talks to you. It's you can't have it both ways. If you're going to privilege privacy, then understand why you're privileging privacy. But remember that the human connectedness that is being expressed by the person who's coming to see you at any time treats you as one of their own. And I don't need to tell you ahead of time I'm coming because once we are one, I am so happy to see you and I imagine you would be happy to see me. 

So it goes back to what you were saying earlier about the bond of the community. 

Yes, so when people begin to think this way, and so this is not just a case of cross rejection or mental sometimes it's unconscious. People do things unconsciously without realizing the implications of what they are doing. It's only much later that it begins to dawn on them that, oh, this way of seeing things isn't truly good. And that happens when many of them travel and have to live in the West. And one of the biggest complaint is the coldness of the West. Not cold in terms of temperature code, but cold in terms of the human. Nobody's validating you, nobody's recognizing you. Your neighbor isn't knocking on your wall. Come over and have some meal, come and try. It's as if, oh, you keep to your side of the building, I'll keep to my side of the building. And suddenly they want that warmth because that's when they begin to recognize what it does to the human psyche. That part of our humanity of being human is how we are valued and how we are upheld as a member of the family. 

Before we end, I wanted to ask you about one other aspect of your work, which has been on African art because you kind of work in both philosophy and art. And that's something we haven't really talked about much in the series, but I know that you think that artworks from Africa can in a way be read as philosophical texts. So can you say something about that? 

That's another new key that one keeps unlocking. Because oftentimes you would have to stop to ask yourself, what is the meaning of this statue called Ithioku? Ithioku, somebody will say, well, that's the divinity of agriculture and the yams. Okay, so how do you understand the iconography? The forms, the human forms that are there? Because there is a particular kind of proportion utilized in creating the forms, the keen selection of some of the tools and the implements that are there, the ways in which the face, the human face is carved, or modeled, you have to be able to read all of that. And once you begin to read all of that, it's like opening a text into the concept of Ithioku. So Ithioku is not necessarily just a divinity, but it begins to tell you what it is in its various ramifications, the areas of conflicts, the areas in which ideas that are being brought together in the concept of agriculture and human habitation. You have to know which are the forms. Are the forms of the family? So, family-ness is central and crucial to the creation of Ithioku. Now that allows you to begin to analyze the relationship of agriculture to the mode of human habitation and the creation of societies. So what you begin to find is how it's a condensed philosophical text that demands unraveling. So you find one that is called Abiyamu, Ikule Abiyamu, which is a Yoruba symbol, and you find the woman kneeling and probably carrying something on her head. Typical assumptions, oh, the woman is kneeling before the man or kneeling before God or kneeling before somebody. What it's telling you is the priority, the primordial status of the mother, that before any child is born, or as they will say, regardless of the stature of anybody who is in this world, they travel down the vaginal canal. So, and she is the being who negotiates for your arrival into the world and what you achieve, which is what your destiny, your divinity, personal divinity would be. But she has to negotiate with your Uri and Uludumare. So now you are going back to the primary, primordial status of the mother with regards to the societies. So here you have just this form, but it's not a form just by itself. It's a form that's giving you a theoretical rendition of the status of humans in the society, the place of the mothers in the society, your concept of Uri, her own Uri, which is her own head, your own head, the relationship of the Uri in the ontological scheme to all the other Uris in the world. The problem is that most people don't spend long enough to look at the art. They typically think art is just, well, nice object to sit sculpture to put on the table or art or painting to put on the wall. But if you find the Iwo Uri on the wall, you are talking of the cloth that covers the sanctuary or the cloth, so it's like your body. The ways in which humans have the body to encapsulate their Chi or their Uri, you have the murals on the wall as the cloth covering the shrine and containing a message with regards to what is this shrine about? What is the divinity that inhabits this particular shrine? So on the one hand, it's a mural, on the one hand, it's a mural, on the one hand, it's cloth, on the one hand, it's a body. So there are so many layers that's there that the art prompts people to read, but you cannot read it if you don't understand the language or the concepts. And so where people don't understand the language and the concept, they reduce it just to the physical object. And they say, oh, it's a beautiful work of art or it's a badly carved work of art. And we don't know who the carver is because in the concept of Africa, there is anonymity. You don't know who the carvers are because the carvers don't want you to know who they are. Sure, they want you to know who they are. Their carving style is their signature. But the only way you can tell that that's a signature is to know that in this artistic arena, mode of carving is a style and it's a signature. In the same way that if you took the work of Van Gogh and took it to a villager in Nigeria, who doesn't know much about Western art, oh, very nice work, okay, yeah. Oh, the signature of Van Gogh was a part of the decoration. That's not a signature. So you can be blind to the most obvious things staring you in the face. So the only way you can guard against that is really to take some time and begin to understand the culture. And that is what we do for all cultures that we study. When Africans are studying philosophical tracts in the West, they have to learn. Some of them have to learn German to be able to read Hegel because they want them to read it in the primary language. You have to have the language, you have to understand the society so that it will make sense. It's the same when you get to art in the societies. So, and the languages, they're put connected. If you dismiss the language as irrelevant because you have some superior mode of intelligence, you are not only patronizing the society, you are stopping yourself from learning what that society is actually offering you. 

Yeah, that's really important because, I mean, in this series, we haven't gotten into material culture very much, but of course you're right that discussions of language, religious beliefs, philosophical sayings or texts, if there are texts, and material culture, it's all one interconnected culture that can be an object of study. 


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