What is the role of women in African societies? How do we understand the ways in which these roles have changed over time, and how they are evolving today? What knowledge “counts” when we talk about women’s roles in Africa?

These are just a few of the questions the distinguished historian Nwando Achebe tackles in her remarkable new book, “Female Monarchs and Merchant Queens in Africa.” In doing so, Achebe unapologetically argues that those who study social organization and power relationships on the African continent must take seriously forms of knowledge production from Africa itself. It is not enough to read written documents prepared by colonizers and take them at face value. To form a complete picture of the past, we must look to oral traditions, storytelling and the role of the supernatural realm alongside any formal documentation that may exist.

Following recent works like Panashe Chigumadzi’s “These Bones will Rise Again” and Clapperton Mavhunga’s “Transient Workspaces,” Achebe takes seriously the role of spirituality in her analysis, arguing that we cannot understand how African women conceive of, exercise and share power without accounting for the spiritual realm. Indeed, the world literally cannot be explained without references to the unseen.

Achebe begins with the spiritual realm

The bulk of the book consists of a series of case studies from across the continent, and the spiritual leadership chapter shows the ways that African women have always and continue to exercise power over this essential realm. Pointing out that most traditional African conceptions of a supreme being typically view God as genderless, Achebe shows the many ways that women act as mediators between the visible, physical world around us and the invisible, spiritual world of the spirits.

Women serve as priestesses, diviners and spirit mediums, helping to resolve disputes and guide decision-making in their communities. From the rain queens of southern Africa’s Sotho-language-speaking areas to the prophetesses of Senegal and Gambia, women play a remarkably consistent role in mediating between the connected physical and spiritual realms across the continent and its more than 3,000 societies.

In subsequent chapters, Achebe cites hundreds of examples of women’s political and economic leadership. Women serve as queens and kingmakers, advising leaders or leading themselves. Some women, like Dahomey’s Tassi Hangbè, who ruled in the early 1700s in what is present-day Benin, were the sole monarch and were even called “female kings.” Likewise, the Merchant Queens of the book’s title amass fortunes through business savvy, whether rising to the ranks of leadership among traders of different types of food in Ghana’s massive Kumasi Central Market or building a monopoly to sell expensive and highly sought-after Vlisco wax print fabrics in Togo and across West Africa.

Colonialism broke women’s traditional roles as leaders

Achebe makes a compelling case for a pan-African vision of women’s traditional and contemporary roles in society. She contends that African societies have long viewed gender as much more fluid than it has historically been understood in the West. Citing countless examples of women who dressed as men to lead militaries and kingdoms, women who married other women (known as “female husbands”), women who relied on their husbands’ other wives to handle child care and home responsibilities so they could work outside the home, and women who exercised political and economic power by taking on masculine identities and roles, Achebe definitively shows that the idea of homosexuality or gender-fluid identity as a Western import has no basis in Africa’s history. In fact, homophobia and transphobia are the imports, brought in by Western colonists and missionaries to this day.

Colonialism, Achebe notes, marked a fundamental break in women’s traditional roles as leaders in society. When the colonists arrived, they brought with them misogynistic and exclusionary notions about who was fit to lead, and impeded the ability of women to lead, particularly in the political and religious realms. Achebe argues that the postcolonial project has largely been one of restoring women’s leadership roles, pointing to the hundreds of women elected to parliaments, as prime ministers, and as presidents, especially since the early 1990s. Likewise, women are rising as spiritual leaders in new ways, particularly in the charismatic/Pentecostal Christian tradition and in Islam, where women have more power than stereotypes might suggest. Achebe cites the example of Morocco’s mourchidats, educated women who memorize the Koran and serve as spiritual advisers to Muslim women in their communities, as one example.

A brilliant, thoroughly engaging and accessible book, “Female Monarchs and Merchant Queens in Africa” is a fascinating and quick read that shows the many, many ways that women across the African continent have always led and continue to lead. It lays permanently to rest the notion of African women as passive or powerless and shows that women play key roles in every sector of society. It also makes a powerful case that African societies have more in common in this regard than differences, despite the continent’s size and diversity. Finally, Achebe makes a welcome contribution to efforts to bring analysis of queer identities to African Studies, showing definitively that notions of gender and sexuality have long been fluid and adaptable on the continent.

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