Remembering the sheroes who fought back

2014-08-23 06:00

After the British colonised the Asante in Ghana in 1896, the colonialists’ representative, Arnold Hodgson, visited an area known as Kumasi and demanded to sit on the Golden Stool, which, to the Asante, symbolised the soul of the people.

This story is documented in an essay titled Spirituality, Gender and Power in Asante History by Emmanuel Akyeampong and Pashington Obeng.

When the British made this demand, Akyeampong and Obeng tell us, the Ghanaians were thrown into confusion and paralysis. It took a woman, Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa, to mobilise the nation.

Speaking to men in particular, Yaa Asantewaa asked how it could be that once proud and brave people stood by while an arrogant white man humiliated them.

Yaa Asantewaa then delivered words that struck a raw nerve and galvanised the men of Asante: “If you, the chiefs of Asante, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments.”

Those were the days when to be a man was not synonymous with merely having male organs. Being a man meant having values, one of which was the consciousness that men had the obligation to provide for and to protect women (when the need arose).

This was not because women had less capability. Sensible and sensitive African men recognised that creation had already imposed on women the responsibility of pregnancy and providing for the babies after their birth.

Women, as the pages of African history so well demonstrate, had the ability to provide for themselves through agricultural activity and to protect themselves by fighting in wars.

In Africa, we have had military commanders such as Yaa Asantewaa of Ghana, Queen Nzinga of Angola and Mbuya Nehanda of Zimbabwe. Had it not been for the fact that some failed to heed Yaa Asantewaa’s call to the war that lasted seven months, history’s pages might be reflecting a different story. But it was not to be.

Yaa Asantewaa was captured and committed to exile. But it is her words that haunt me as if I was there.

As she was being led away by her captors, she said: “Asante women, I pity you.” Upon hearing these words, someone asked: “What about us, the men?” Sharply, Yaa Asantewaa retorted: “Which men? The men died at the battlefront.”

As I learn from media stories and conversations with fellow Africans that some African men in strategic positions demand sex in exchange for jobs from vulnerable women, Yaa Asantewaa’s words reverberate in my mind. I see clearly that people who do such things are not men but merely males.

Men are human beings who have minds to think and appreciate other human beings’ humiliating condition, and seek to help alleviate their suffering. Males are animals that, when they have a desire for sex, chase women in full view of everyone.

The act of demanding sex in return for jobs is an act of stripping naked – figuratively and literally – our female compatriots.

It is no different from the act that was carried out by apartheid’s security police, who stripped naked the female Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) commander Philani Ndwandwe, who they executed in 1988.

On learning of her efficiency as an MK cadre, their initial plan was not to kill her but to turn her into an informer. They offered her money – she refused. They stripped her naked in order to humiliate her.

Ndwandwe could have chosen to swallow her pride and sell out (she had a small child to look after). But she refused to exchange her pride and dignity – the only things she had left – for money. The system failed to break her.

It appears as if some among us who were in the liberation movement were not fighting against the exploitative system as such, but wanted to fill the positions of the oppressors.

When confronted by such males, women like Yaa Asantewaa and Ndwandwe must resist, refuse and retaliate. These males are not invincible. They can be defeated like the captors of Yaa Asantewaa and the tormentors of Ndwandwe.

Apartheid oppressors have now been reduced to zeroes and the fighters have become our sheroes (not heroines).

When times are tough, our sisters must remember the example of these sheroes and fight back courageously.

Sesanti is an associate professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s department of journalism, media and philosophy

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