Gender, Authority, and Identity in African History

Heterarchy, Cosmic Families and Lifestages
  • Christine SaidiEmail author
  • Catherine Cymone Fourshey
  • Rhonda M. Gonzales
Living reference work entry


This chapter covers categories that have historically shaped authority, responsibility, and identity among Bantu-speaking communities in Africa’s Bantu Matrilineal Belt from the precolonial to the contemporary era. The societies that contribute to this analysis were primarily matrilineal. In such societies, women were hardly excluded from positions of authority, but rather maintained considerable authority even where and when patrilineal models or even patriarchy crept into the social system. Through practices of heterarchy, familial relations, and lifestages, women welded authority equal to and often greater than men.


African feminism Bantu Cosmic family Heterarchy Lifestage Matrilineal Precolonial Gender 


This handbook aims to summarize and analyze the corpus of research and writings to date on African Women’s Studies. The goal of this chapter within the handbook is to use seminal works as a platform for proposing new ways of analyzing relevant identities and markers of authority specifically within Bantu-speaking communities, with an emphasis on the shifting role of gender in the periods prior to enduring contact with the west – the pre-1500s. Historical eras prior to 1500 are best understood through multimethod approaches to history. Thus, this chapter draws upon and models the kinds of historical evidence that provides meaningful insight into categories that led one to paths of authority and responsibility as well as shaped people’s identities in early history. This examination of a breadth of case studies from pioneering works along with a growing body of African feminist scholarship raises the question--does gender matter in how people identify everywhere in Africa – or anywhere – prior to the nineteenth century? Has gender historically or contemporarily been an avenue to achieve or grant positions of authority or status broadly in Africa? As historians of precolonial times, the authors contend that before colonial regimes imposed a hegemonic, gender-based system in occupied lands, categories other than gender determined identity, power, authority, and influence in all realms of life.

In their efforts to understand identities and gender in precolonial Africa, historians face a dual challenge of few written sources expressly by or about women and few written documents in most regions of the continent for historical eras prior to 1800. Fortunately, there are multiple approaches to historical research. While many historians examine written sources collected in archives, this chapter employs studies that go beyond the written word. It models best practices in social history of early precolonial Africa, drawing on works that employ spoken vocabularies, oral traditions, and material culture to reconstruct and understand power flows in the deep past. Reflecting on studies that use the abovementioned methodologies, this chapter reclaims significant categories centered on epistemologies and vocabularies used, redefined, and adapted over historical time by people in many different Bantu speech communities. In its deconstruction of gender as a critical category, this chapter presents new lenses for focusing on the positionality of people vis-a-vis authority and status among speakers of Bantu languages. Conceptually, the way Bantu-speaking people have spoken, contemplated, and understood relationships among people and people’s obligations to responsibility, authority, and hierarchies within their worlds 500, 1000, and even as far back as 2000 years ago did not privilege gender. People speaking one or more of the approximate 450 Bantu languages live in two/thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa. These languages are spoken across a geographical space that stretches from southern Cameroon to South Africa as well as further north and east across central and eastern Africa as far north as Somalia. Many Bantu-speaking communities have maintained elements of matrilineal institutions into contemporary times that are rooted in histories dating to 3500 BCE. With more communities and families resting on matrilineal principles than any other world region, the Bantu Matrilineal Belt provides an illustration of societies that operate outside the hegemonic paradigm introduced in coastal regions of Africa during slave trade and solidified in interior regions under colonial rule. This region with a deep history of matrilineal institutions and matrilocal practices exhibits social, political, and economic organization and thinking where authority and responsibility have long been held most commonly by elders and specialists irrespective of gender. Two major issues this chapter grapples with are the ways in which African feminist scholarship has suggested the historical past informs modern concepts of authority and status within various societies and the methodologies scholars employ to recover histories of whole communities – women and men, elders, and youth – all critical in worldviews centered on multivalent authorities, extended families, and generational cycles.

There has been robust debate about feminism in Africa and whether or not it is an appropriate paradigm for examining what occurs on the continent, and yet despite the debates, there is African feminist scholarship. Drawing on the larger body of work that followed American anthropologist Sacks' path-breaking 1979 work Sisters and Wives, this chapter asks readers to consider both the value of excavating the history of African feminisms but also the importance of using African perspectives in scholarship to pose questions and to build new knowledge about women, men, and gender as categories in people’s thinking and lived daily experiences specifically in Africa. By the late 1980s, a number of African-descended feminists began to pose entirely new questions that interrogated both gender and its universal significance in people’s self-identity and societal authority. Some of these scholars pointed to the ways in which colonial and postcolonial male-dominated politics negatively impacted women’s aspirations for the futures of their own communities. Though male and female divisions had long been accepted and remained largely unchallenged in Africanist scholarship, the works of Nigerian-born anthropologist Ifi Amadiume, African American anthropologist of Ghana Gwendolyn Mikell, and Nigerian-born sociologist of knowledge Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, and several other scholars – in the decade between the late-1980s and the late-1990s – marked a shift in thinking about social categories of identity, power, and privilege as a hierarchy of lifestages and family relations (Mikell 1997; Oyěwùmí 1997; Ongundipe-Leslie 1994; Amadiume 1987).

Amadiume was the first of this group to contest Western gender categories in her 1987 book, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. Amadiume used examples from Southeastern Nigeria to demonstrate that “roles were not rigidly masculinized or feminized.” Under certain circumstances, in precolonial and pre-Christian hegemony in the nineteenth century, a woman could be classified a husband but still be biologically a woman, because sex and gender were not conflated in this region. Following Amadiume, Mikell challenged biosocial determinism, with her edited volume African Feminism. She noted the considerable variation in gender roles (Mikell 1987). Mikell pushed readers to look beyond gender as a category of consequence in the longer trajectory of African history (Mikell 1997; Oyěwùmí 1997). She pointed out that indigenous cultural patterns provide important models for postcolonial African women to draw upon and reassert their rightful place in societal decision-making (Mikell 1997). Around the same time, Oyěwùmí, in The Invention of Women, raised fundamental questions about whether “woman” and implicitly “man” were valued categories, above others such as mother, sister, daughter, etc. (and likewise, father, brother, son, etc...), among Yoruba speakers historically. Amadiume, Mikell, and Oyewumi opened the door for scholars to rethink the many assumptions about social categories related to gender, sexuality, and identity. Ostensibly those very questions about gender, identity, and power are valid for asking in research all over the world.

From anthropologists to sociologists to historians, feminist scholars of Africa have pointed to precolonial and contemporary indigenous practice rooted less in gender binaries and far more in the importance of family relationships and culturally linked forms of public participation that cut across gender categories in determining power, privilege, and status. Both western and African-based scholars looked to feminist theory and action to challenge gender oppression and binary categories. In demonstrating the diversity of African feminist work, Maxwell Shamase (2017) turns back to early feminist scholar activists on the continent such as Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, the late Nigerian nationalist and feminist icons Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi. Shamase then moves forward in time toward contemporary African feminists like Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Sierra Leonean feminist scholar and critic Filomena Steady, who contend that precolonial and even colonial African societies had strategies for correcting imbalances, including those that arose from shifting distribution of authority across gender (Shamase 2017; Ogundipe-Leslie 1994). Even in postcolonial times, when, according to predominant narratives, women are supposedly highly oppressed, African women have continued to be authorities with or without the permission of patriarchs. Shamase pointedly noteed in 2017.

In short, feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit any specific group of women, or any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. On the contrary, it is a movement that has the power to transform the whole of society in a meaningful way. Feminism challenges the ‘patriarchal’ conception of male and female roles in the society. It also draws a distinction between sex and gender in order to redefine male and female roles. The movement also confronts sex oppression in domains such as reproduction, production, sexuality and socialization.

The feminist critique of patriarchy and women’s oppression being universal or indigenous in Africa has been challenged also by literary scholars indicating how widespread the discussion is across disciplines. In tracing this African feminist history, it is important to recognize the diversity of perspectives and positions that have developed in the last four decades.

As seen from the above examples, African feminist scholars have consistently contended that gender is not the most critical marker of identity in Africa, yet there is a need for more research across Africa on gender in light of the erosion of rights – particularly rights of people gendered female – during the twentieth century (Mikell 1997). With an edited volume of essays authored by scholars from various fields (anthropology, history, law, political science, and sociology), Mikell demonstrates that in different parts of Africa across time, social and political structures forged primarily around family institutions created spaces and opportunities for women in a variety of professions and positions. Though her volume focuses on the postcolonial nation-state, not deep history, Mikell’s edited volume challenges rigid categories and makes a case, more broadly across Africa, that various forms of female authority or gendered activism enacted by women has long existed on the continent. As such Mikell’s work as well as those written in the 1980s and 1990s serves as an excellent foundation for rethinking gender and women’s histories. Prior to the nineteenth century, women across Africa held positions of authority that were regulated by professions, age groups, kinship relations, and secret or religious societies. Women from Tswana in Southern Africa to the Dogon and Soninke in Northwestern Africa to rural women in Ethiopia have long employed various networks to mobilize resources, produce knowledge, and spread information widely, a fact that challenges the false notion that all women globally, and particularly women of Africa, have never been power brokers or wielders of authority. A detailed example existed among Makhuwa of Mozambique, a Bantu speech community, where the pyamwene, a senior woman of each matriclan, was crucial to societal functions, she represented the original womb of the matriclan, protected the ancestors, and performed religious ceremonies for deceased chiefs (Declich 2015). She was a pivotal power broker and liaison from one generation to the next and was the head of the lineage. The authority and responsibility of the pyamwene had less to do with biological gender and far more to do with relationships to members of matrilineages within the matriclan. No ruler, male or female, in Makhuwa society was granted authority without the consent of the pyamwene.

Despite popular belief, what becomes clear from feminist scholarship on Africa is that power, influence, and authority dynamics were complex and often transcended gender. One result of the increasingly patriarchal nature of political and religious institutions was the weakening of local cultural models that historically afforded women greater participation and central roles in processes of decision-making. Since the rise of colonial rule in the late 1800s, African women have maintained less authority over and within the wider society economically, politically, and socially, as evidenced by the many late twentieth and early twenty-first century projects to empower, or more appropriately re-empower, women.

Considering the propensity for change over time within human communities, precolonial Bantu speech communities must have ascribed authority and responsibility along very different lines than present day patriarchal nation-states do. This is because as a concept patriarchy was absent or rare within Bantu languages in precolonial eras. In fact, language evidence and oral traditions as well as ethnographic studies reveal that in Bantu-speaking communities, family relationships were more salient than biosocial gender, and people in many of these societies saw the flow of power and authority as outgrowths of knowledge specialization and elderhood/age seniority.

Gender in Africa is an ambiguous category when examined over the long-term in regions where Bantu languages are spoken because lineages communally held power and biological sex alone was not a means of deciding who could make decisions or wield authority. People certainly recognized biological distinctions expressed in people’s bodies; they just did not ascribe authority based on gender difference, but rather they based it on generational differences and valued knowledge and influence accumulated. Moreover, gender balance and even discussions of intersected attributes predominated, and reference to sex or gender in Bantu speech communities around power- imbued events like iron production, installation of leaders, and honoring ancestors. Clearly, power and authority are not inherently mono-gendered, but rather they unfold and are expressed in multiple sites within any given society. These multivalent and multi-sited pockets of power and authority reflect heterarchal (complimentary, competing, and overlapping centers of authority) rather than simple vertical hierarchical systems.

With a geographic and topical focus on what several scholars have referred to as the Bantu Matrilineal Belt of Africa, this chapter argues for the ambiguity and problematic nature of gender as a sole or primary concept to understand social history. This chapter takes the position that common frameworks of analysis that center on power, family, and lifestages in the study of history are incomplete, because they rest on an assumption that gender and women and men’s roles were primary to determining relative authority and status. The categories that have greater relevance include heterarchy as a model of power, cosmic family as a representation of social power and connections, and processual lifestages as transformational processes that shape access to authority and status in a Bantu historical context (Fourshey, Gonzales, and Saidi 2017). We suggest that elaborating these common concepts helps to better illuminate social and cultural history in Bantu Africa.

The following sections examine some ways – beyond gender – that people conceptualized their world creating categories, social connections, and iterative ceremonies to assess status, authority, and responsibility in regions and locations where matrilineages held a great deal of influence over social, economic, and political decisions (Smythe 2015). The focus is on the culturally relevant categories of heterarchy, cosmic families, and processual lifestages, which are evidenced more relevant than gender in determining power and authority in the Bantu Matrilineal Belt.


Authority and power come in many forms and are found in multiple loci in any given community. While historians and other social scientists often assume hierarchies and concentrated power as typical, another organizational structure exists – heterarchy. In eastern and central Africa, power and authority are differentially held and distributed across families and generations in ways illustrative of heterarchy. Heterarchal organization can include hierarchy but is also more complex than hierarchy because it reflects multiple interdependent systems functioning simultaneously. A heterarchy is a system of organization where the elements of the organization can be unranked (non-hierarchical) or where they possess the potential to be ranked a number of different ways.

Much of African feminist scholarship combined with the research that has employed multidisciplinary methods to excavate deep early history reveal that societies were organized in ways that brought balance to the distribution of power; virtually all privileged age seniority and specialized knowledge (de Luna 2013; Stephens 2015; Smythe 2015; Kodesh 2010; Klieman 2003; Schoenbrun 1998; Ogbomo 1997; Sacks 1979). The connections and interactions of individuals fashion between the units that constitute the heterarchal system represent multiple intricate linkages that create non-linear paths rather than tiered, hierarchical ones with direct lines of authority. Those with the greatest authority in one unit of the heterarchy may hold little or no authority in another powerful unit of the heterarchy. Heterarchies consist of flexible structures that can shift over time and as circumstances change. Because they are constituted of interdependent bodies that individuals direct and manage, authority and decision-making can circulate within a heterarchy in ways not always welcome in hierarchies.

Heterarchy did not begin as a concept applied to humanity but as a concept in computer programming (Cumming 2016). Forty years ago, Carole Crumley applied the term heterarchy to a historical case study, in her archaeological work on the Iron Age (Celtic) hill fort at Mont Dardon in Burgundy, France. Prior to Crumley, heterarchy was used exclusively to describe and explain biological systems and corporate environments (Crumley, Plieninger, and Bieling 2012).

In 1999, Susan Keech McIntosh took up heterarchy in Africa in her book, Beyond Chiefdoms. With a few exceptions, such as Holly Hanson’s Landed Obligation (2003) and her more pointed exploration in “Mapping Conflict” (2009), Kathleen Smyth’s Africa’s Past, Our Future (2015), and Shadrek Chirikure et al. in “No Big Brother Here” (2017), scholars of African history have hardly pursued this line of analysis in explaining authority and power across Africa (Chirikure et al. 2017; Fourshey et al. 2017; Smythe 2015; Hanson 2003). Yet heterarchical organization seems to be widespread across the continent, in studies of ritual power, and perhaps it is endemic in societies that historically embraced non-centralized systems of political and economic organization. Heterarchy may capture (1) what Kairn Klieman referred to as tripartite power between ancestors, Batwa firstcomers, and Bantu lineage heads; (2) the power of Bacwezi religious institutions that counterbalanced the political centers of power Bjerke explored; as well as (3) what David Lee Schoenbrun noted as instrumental or creative power of bajinji, basámbwa, and kubándwa (Klieman 2003; Schoenbrun 1998; Bjerke 1981; Chrétien 1985).

Each of these studies employs methodologies that incorporated oral traditions, historical linguistics, and/or archaeological data to dig into the deep past well before colonial rule. They each reveal that authority was neither hierarchical nor the domain of a single gender. Likewise, McIntosh, Hanson, and Chirikure et al. each contend in their studies that even in highly centralized societies like Western Africa’s urban Niger River trade circuit, Eastern Africa’s powerful Great Lake kingdoms, and Southern Africa’s hilltop stone enclosed power centers such as Great Zimbabwe and its neighboring hilltop states, distinct practices of heterarchy are exhibited. The analytical framework heterarchy offers helps to explain a great deal about unseen sites of power and the internal and external relationships that communities build through overlapping interlocking systems of authority. Heterarchy may mediate the ill effects of concentration of power in the hands of very few, when people employ it to create multiple sites of authority that are interdependent for society to function well. Though in many cases they are interlocking and intersect, these institutions of power can fiercely compete for loyalties.

In this chapter, heterarchy is a critical analytical framework to explore the historical nature of gender and its proper place as a category in studies of Africa and particularly in regions where matrilineal values have had some influence in people’s worldviews. The framework of heterarchy helps to explain relationships and categories meaningful in these regions. Heterarchy also decenters notions that men are always in power and that patriarchy is natural and reaches every corner of society. The case this chapter makes by thinking about pioneering historical methodologies and African feminist scholarship is that there are key sites of power both hidden and in plain view that suggest heterarchal authority was a norm, authority rotated, and people of all generations – regardless of gender – were afforded spaces of authority and domains of responsibility.

With a lens focused on the complex heterarchal practices and ways of thinking in deep history and contemporary times, one can ask new historical questions about gender and look for new answers to old queries: How primary was gender to identity and authority in different precolonial eras and different regions of Africa? To what extent were politics and economy shaped by gender if at all? What social roles did men and women have rigidly assigned to them based on biology?

Applying heterarchy as a lens of analysis allows the historian to challenge widely accepted generalizations and understandings of precolonial history regarding authority, political maneuvering, and gendered roles. Multiple forms of authority that have each challenged other competing and complementary forms and certainly sites and purposes of authority have overlapped in different spheres, yet all have been critical in shaping history. The competing, overlapping, and complementary forms of authority have certainly shifted in importance, meaning, and uses over several centuries. For example, matrilineal and patrilineal forms of organization, management of generational ceremonies, and control over labor are all arenas in which common ideas about gendered roles and women’s disempowerment and secondary status are notably challenged by multiple examples of critical social, political, and economic authority possessed, embodied, and enacted by women.

G. S. Cumming contends, in an analysis of the history and application of “heterarchy” in neuroscience, ecology, archaeology, multiagent control systems, business and organizational studies, and politics, that a great deal is missed by scholars analyzing societies without a consideration of heterarchies. Cumming states:

Social-ecological systems research suffers from a disconnect between hierarchical (top-down or bottom-up) and network (peer-to-peer) analyses. The concept of the heterarchy unifies these perspectives in a single framework…Recognizing complex system architecture as a continuum along vertical and lateral axes (‘flat versus hierarchical’ and ‘individual versus networked’) suggests four basic types of heterarchy: reticulated, polycentric, pyramidal, and individualistic. Each has different implications for system functioning and resilience. Systems can also shift predictably and abruptly between architectures. Heterarchies suggest new ways of contextualizing and generalizing from case studies and new methods for analyzing complex structure-function relations (Cummings 2016) .

Cumming’s theory applies as well to historical studies of human communities, particularly in terms of gender – where ignoring both the nuances of ascribed authority and people’s actual understandings of identity – reinforces not only misunderstandings of who the many key historical actors were but also perpetuates the idea of unbalanced power. Scholars of Africa and feminist scholarship must continue to work with innovative methods to reveal women’s roles, not because gender is at the forefront of identity in all societies but because relying on the standard methods means privileging male voices in the colonial and postcolonial era. Ultimately, ascribing all achievements, change, and power to those gendered males misses a large segment of the historical picture.

Cosmic Family

In the early twentieth century, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers examined the concept of family as a site of importance in the context of community, responsibility, and power. After 1950, sociologists focused on the organization of families and urbanization in the postindustrial eras. In 1955, sociologist Gideon Sjoberg noted the lack of attention to preindustrial cities, suggesting that sociologists must understand pre-industrial cities to understand and analyze the acculturation processes that they claim occurred in postindustrial times. Though Sjoberg is on point in the need to understand the social forms of family, his presumptions about the important variables, even with regard to family, in pre-industrial contexts fall short of deep consideration of families not definable when using European assumptions and measures. He offers brief examples or mention of Korea, Japan, and North Africa family types but ultimately concludes “… extensive industrialization requires a rational, centralized, extra-community economic organization in which recruitment is based more upon universalism than on particularism, a class system which stresses achievement rather than ascription, a small and flexible kinship system….” Sjoberg notes that families are based on vertical and hierarchical power rooted in patriarchy, where women become true women after marriage. Sjoberg’s premise negates and ascribes these attributes to pre-industrial cities versus industrial cities, which, in his view, embody a progress construct and are the way toward progress. For Sjoberg, cities evolve from a nebulous peasantry who comprise the lowest strata of society in early cities. He argues that peasants and their kin-based families and culture are steeped in primordial and unsophisticated histories whose rationale, worldview, and outlook are focused on magic, divination, and nonscientific medicine, lacking mass communication and education.

In 2012, historians Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Walter’s The Family: A World History brought an ambitious historical lens and scope to the concept of family, viewing it as a historical subject using a big history approach. It accepts that “people have always lived in families, but what that means has changed dramatically over time. The family is a historical institution, not a natural one.” There is general agreement with their intent to frame family as a historical and varied institution, yet they ultimately proclaim a universal definition of family that is limiting:

Families are small groups of people linked by culturally recognized ties of marriage or similar forms of partnership, descent, and/or adoption, who typically share a household for some period of time. This co-residence is necessarily temporary and varies over the stages of the family cycle.

An important point to critically analyze is whether family is always synonymous with household. Though relationships might change, ties are not broken when people do not co-reside. They highlight, too, that living in the same household does not define kinship. Turning to research in LGBTQ scholarship, there have been efforts to note the ways the family construct has morphed to fit changing social expression and law, showing that non-heterosexual nuclear families can simultaneously reproduce and transgress traditional family values. Folgerø writes, “In different ways and to a variable extent the accounts contribute to destabilizing the notion of seemingly stable, constant, consistent, and homogeneous categories like “man” and “woman,” “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”

The focus on urban history and family forms subsequently and throughout the twentieth century centered on a similar approach to define and understand structure using the pre-industrial and postindustrial family as one way to prove progress. In centering on the family within that context, the focus remained on defining the evolving, modern, nuclear family as a symbol of progress. The notion of the nuclear family and its relevance continued to be a point of contention. How was it defined? Who was included or excluded? What comprised the nuclear family? What was its connection to tenets of religion? What function did it serve for blood-related folks? Was the nuclear family designed in service of labor and law? The assumption that the construct of the nuclear family, which assumed a relationship built on a male and female parent and their biological offspring, was questioned as valid or generalizable across time and place. Others asked about the implications for the rights of extended family or of family across generations – wondering if grandparents have rights over grandchildren. While the interrogation of family as a construct continues, rarely are questions about family definitions or members examined at an epistemological level. Because the notion of the nuclear family is tied to ideas of modernity, to interrogate its altered forms challenges core assumptions about progress. But in fact, the construct of family is one with a history, and assumption about form purpose, composition, and more must be understood in time and place.

The current authors suggest an alternative way to examine family that has application for deep historical time and broad geographical contexts. The idea of the cosmic family closely conveys the dynamic and important elements of a most significant social institution within Bantu-speaking Africa. The phrase cosmic family helps researchers show that the family consists of people alive today, people who have become ancestors, and people not yet born – all three parts of the family are entwined spiritually and shape the past and potential of future generations. Moreover, they form the foundations for lineal affiliation, status, responsibility, and reverence throughout society. This understanding of family is in part exemplified in the Tonga word, nkunkunyenze, which means both an unborn child and a group of elders. Tonga people of Southern Zambia are matrilineal, cattle keeping/agricultural people, located centrally within the Bantu Matrilineal Belt. Tonga, in using one word to indicate two lifestages that seem quite different, suggest that within their communities, elders, who are the closest to the ancestors, and unborn people, who are gifts from ancestors, are conceptualized with one word, embodying one dimension of the cosmic family.

Processual Lifestages

As previously discussed, Bantu-speaking societies believed in and practiced different forms of heterarchy; thus no one section of society had exclusive power or total influence over everyone. This chapter argues that within these heterarchical structured communities, gender was not a primary determinant of status and authority but processual lifestages were. The research, based on linguistic data, ethnographic studies, and oral traditions, argues that control and prestige were attained as individuals proceeded in life from one socially marked lifestage to another. The crucial social institution that nurtured each individual through these lifestages was the cosmic family.

Few historians of early African history have used “lifestage,” as a central theme of research, thus the scholarly work of anthropologists and sociologists tends to be more informative. The first anthropologist to write about lifestages was van Gennep who in 1909 published Les Rites de Passage, in which he proposed using a classification of this ritual as a basis for the study of various institutions within each community. His work was based primarily on his readings of ethnographic studies of European peasants and the writings of colonial anthropologists on the peoples of Asia and Africa. He writes in an era where social evolution or the evolving of social institutions was how scholars studied the societies of the “other.”

Since then anthropologists and sociologists have debated the significance of lifestages in studying human activities. In one recent study on Bantu-speaking women, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, a sociologist who studies educated mothers among the Beti in Cameroon, argues that lifestages are “rarely coherent, clear in direction, or fixed in outcome [and this] dramatically limits the usefulness of the life cycle model.” She is basing her argument on the current social environment among the Beti and singling out educated mothers, who are often caught between vying ideologies – one more based on African-centered understandings and the other on the Western worldview. The discussion of lifestages in this chapter is based on a historical period prior to the arrival of the West; thus the example of post-independence educated Beti women raises quite different issues. But Johnson-Hanks does suggest an important point that there is not only flexibility within lifestages, as not everyone moves from one stage to the other in the same manner.

One classic anthropological study of lifestages that has had a major impact on current research is that of Karen Sacks’ Sisters and Wives. Through studying and deconstructing ethnographic studies of several patrilineal Bantu societies, she was able to note that a young woman had two distinct and different lifestages within patrilineal Bantu societies. She was a young wife with little authority in her husband’s village since she was living away from her family, though her position improved once she started having children. Significantly when she returned to her home, she became a sister and a daughter and had status over some people within her community. Sacks’ work is crucial to current understandings that lifestages are fluid, and within one specific period of life, there are roles that give one status and authority as well as roles that require a person to submit to others’ authority.

Some historians of early African history have focused on male life cycles and rituals but rarely on those of female lifestages as a major theme of their research. A notable exception is A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700–1900, in which historian Rhiannon Stevens has employed historical linguistics to research the institutions of motherhood and how this lifestage has changed over time in the precolonial kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro. This significant study of the early Bantu social institutions of motherhood focused on one particular lifestage and how the institutions of motherhood transformed as the social institutions changed, rather than the entire life cycle of the women or how the community viewed the process of their moves from one lifestage to another. Stephen’s work demonstrates the immense authority of motherhood as a position in life and as a social role, an argument that challenges both the notion that gender was a primary identity and the idea that those who were women did not possess authority in centralized African societies.

Language evidence, so far, has been the best source for understanding processual lifestages within the Bantu Matrilineal Belt. In societies where linguistic terms for various lifestages have been gathered and analyzed, an interesting pattern has begun to materialize. The vocabulary used to describe the life cycles from birth to puberty are often non-gendered words, while the life cycles named during the reproductive years from puberty to parenthood often represent both the social and the biological role of the person such as mother and father. As a person ages beyond the reproductive years, again the words used for lifestages are non-gendered. This does not mean that there are not gendered terms for young children or the elderly. This evidence raises interesting questions about role of parenthood, since terms referring to a particular gender seem to predominate when describing lifestages in which a major focus is producing and nurturing children. The cosmic family is in charge of honoring members who have passed, but equally important is their role in creating new members. While most Bantu-speaking societies can create family members socially, usually the main way to increase their numbers involves the very biological act of conception, then pregnancy, and finally birth. Birth and the nurturing of young children are considered a crucial element of the life cycle and that biological gender was recognized as significant for communities historically. Conversely, as an individual moves toward elder and ancestor status, one’s gender seems to be less important. Elders are usually the ones making the community decisions, and since gender seems irrelevant in the attainment of elder status and power, authority was gendered heterarchal. Ethnographic studies on this region have shown that women past menopause would often rise to important positions or even chiefhood status (Gonzales 2008; Saidi 2010); thus these societies honored women’s biological roles as mothers but also their status as elders and leaders.

For the cosmic family as well as the community as a whole, producing a new generation is a fundamental goal. And this goal is honored and celebrated in initiation ceremonies that record the transition from childhood to potential parenthood. For Bantu-speaking matrilineal people, lifestages themselves were not viewed as a personal achievement in a person’s life; rather the processes or movements, commonly referred to as rituals, from one crucial life marker to another throughout a lifetime were essential to identities of both the individual and the community. Each transformation of a person into a new lifestage was a social act, organized by the cosmic family, but also members of the community participated in various ways. The transitions involved teaching the younger generations certain ideological tenets of that society that were observed and respected.

For many, female initiation was the major religious ceremony. It was a necessary transition period to prepare a young woman for motherhood and was presided over by the entire community as well as by initiation experts. These initiation experts often made crucial decisions for the community on issues of birth and could, under certain circumstances, control the political ruler, thus one branch of the hierarchal power structure. In addition to the private ceremonies supervised by experts, there were also public events. The entire community celebrated key moments in the lifestage transition event with feasts, music, and dancing. A young woman would pass into physical puberty on her own, yet her transition to potential motherhood would involve her family and the entire village or society. Female initiation ceremonies were so crucial that it was believed in many societies that if a young woman got pregnant before completing the rituals, it would cause misfortune to the entire community.

There is linguistic and comparative ethnographic evidence that there was a specific lifestage that includes female initiation and can be traced back to proto-Bantu times, 5500 years ago, Yadi (Saidi 2010). Yadi is a lifestage from the first menstrual period to the first pregnancy or the birth of the first child. From a geographically diverse group of matrilineal Bantu-speaking people, this Yadi lifestage is celebrated by two or three initiation ceremonies that start at the first menstrual cycle and ends at first successful pregnancy. Marriage and associated ceremonies would take place during the Yadi lifestage, but would not signify a lifestage transition. Until about a thousand years ago this widely distributed lifestage, among almost all Bantu-speaking peoples, indicated that while initiation was crucial to progression in one’s life, marriage was of less importance.

Around 1000 to 500 years ago, some Bantu-speaking communities began to develop strong patriclans which created conflict with powerful matriclans. These contradictions were resolved in many different ways: some societies became patrilineal; some remained matrilineal with strong patriclans, and still others worked out forms of heterarchy to maintain stasis within the community. Among some of the societies where patriclans begin to dominate, there is a loss of both female and male initiation. Among the Nyamwezi of Central Western Tanzania, at least since the mid-twentieth century, there is no longer a female initiation ceremony. Instead young girls move into a dormitory, the maji house, and are instructed informally (Allen 2000). While there is no longer any formal initiation ceremony, linguistic evidence hints that in earlier times, a young girl’s first menses may have been celebrated, since in Nyamwezi the word for family and lineage is igongo and the word for a young girl’s first menstrual period is ngongo, both concepts from the same word root gongo, thus indicating at some period these people linked a young woman’s first menses with the family – a decidedly matrilineal ideology since it is the women who produce a new generation for the family, lineage, and clan. Thus, the Yadi lifestage concept remains even if it is just a faint specter.

Bantu-speaking societies have long organized people within their communities into a number of lifestages that have varied to differing degrees across time. Each shift in lifestage was marked by a processual transition. Lifestages that have shaped peoples’ status and authority were primarily socially created; it was rare that biology or gender were privileged. In order to understand these lifestages, life cycles, and ceremonies of transition in the African past, scholars need to examine, analyze, and deconstruct various ethnographies written about colonized Africans prior to independence. For historians it is very useful that colonial ethnographers recorded everything they saw and heard. For example, comparing various ethnographies written about Bantu-speaking people comprising the Ruvu subgroup of languages in Tanzania suggests that infants and young children held a liminal state between the realm of the ancestors and personhood. Similarly, the above Nyamwezi example of the Bantu word root gongo shows elders and unborn are similarly conceptualized and are part of a continuing regeneration of cosmic families. Thus, continuing the cosmic family was the goal of a person’s lifestages and transitions.

Even though the cosmic family saw lifestages as continuous, for those alive at any given time, lifestages played a significant role in determining positions. As a person went from a parent to a grandparent to an elder, they gained more status and authority. A simple example of this is found in many Bantu languages where siblings are identified by their birth order not their gender. The older siblings were given respect by the younger ones, regardless of gender. Since lifestages represented a person becoming older and reaching life milestones, seniority, which is an aspect of lifestages, also tended to be more important in achieving status than gender was.

Many scholars of African social history have remarked on the significance of one’s seniority within particular communities. A few have argued that age is a more relevant indicator of status and authority, than gender. One root that may well indicate that this is true for these societies back thousands of years is the reconstructed root ∗-kúdù, (also attested over time and space as ∗-kúlù) meaning big, person of high status, adult, old person, old age and the prefix ∗kúd- to modify a noun meaning grown-up. In the Bantu Matrilineal Belt, this same root appears as “kulu,” with the common phonetic shift of /d/ to /l/, and has various meanings such as grandparents, older siblings, puberty, joking relationships, and to be old or barren. While some of the terms could overlap with biological gender as understood in contemporary times, in fact they all represent positions of authority in these societies for all genders. There is ethnographic and oral evidence indicating that age is more significant than gender in determining status – ∗-kulu is one piece of evidence indicating this was an ancient belief among Bantu-speaking peoples. The root word ∗-kulu may be a clue that this was an ancient belief, possibly dating back over 5000 years, among Bantu-speaking peoples.

Using the study of lifestages and transitions as a major focus for determining authority, status or even responsibility raises fundamental questions about Bantu-speaking peoples’ worldviews. What was the purpose of individual lives and their roles within their communities among Bantu-speaking peoples? Does this research into the lifestages, life cycles, and transitional stages of Bantu-speaking people over the longue durée of Bantu history offer a new approach to understanding social history especially among the many societies within the Bantu Matrilineal Belt? How was gender used to categorize people and what impact did that have on Bantu speaking societies over long term history? And finally, will an understanding of the role of lifestages and lifestage transitions furnish a more Afrocentric and deeper understandings of Bantu African women’s history?

Conclusion: Future Research

The intersections of identity that might hold great personal and social weight in various communities have been masked in unidimensional patriarchal paradigms. Understanding this helps shed light on contentions made by African feminists including Oyěwùmí (1997, 2005) and historians like Onaiwu Ogbomo (1997, 2005), about categories that mattered most. For Oyěwùmí, motherhood was more salient than womanhood as a category among twentieth- and nineteenth-century Yoruba in Nigeria. For Ogbomo, present-day gender power does not reflect historical realities, in his words, “contemporary gender relations in Africa is not a true reflection of women’s exercise of power and influence on the continent in the past.” Both men and women in Owan communities of Southern Nigeria played critical roles and had political, social, and economic standing dating back at least to the fourteenth century. While feminist scholars have often focused on debates about womanhood, wifehood, and motherhood, it is problematic to essentialize these as the only categories any individual or society privileges. Challenging established norms and suggesting alternative ways of thinking about categories do open up new possibilities to see what has mattered historically to people in different communities not only in Nigeria or the Bantu Matrilineal Belt but also potentially other parts of Africa and the world.

Binary gender (female-woman or male-man) has become central to how people self-define and identify within Western societies (though that too is currently in flux). This hegemonic perspective has long dominated much of the world since the nineteenth century, yet one must ask how such an approach limits understanding of the past. This handbook chapter aimed to challenge readers to question constructions of gender, power, and responsibility both by presenting feminist scholarship from several Africa specialists along with several examples from Bantu-speaking communities. Readers hopefully have been able to reimagine how historically people may have prioritized identities differently. It is challenging to develop an effective way to present communities of people who do not use gender as a major concept for power to people who do.

To date much of the groundbreaking research on the validity of gender within precolonial Africa has focused on non-Bantu societies in Western Africa. The authors of this chapter have researched gender and gender roles within Bantu-speaking societies for over 20 years and have concluded that historically gender was not a major construct for determining who attained status and authority within Bantu-speaking societies prior to 1900. Instead, researching the networks and structures of heterarchy, cosmic family, and processual lifestages are key to understanding how Bantu-speaking peoples conceptualized authority, status, and responsibility over the longue durée of history. An important area for future research is to examine many other societies through non-binary gender paradigms and explain – in qualitative and quantitative ways – the complexity and nuances of power, authority, responsibility, and identity.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christine Saidi
    • 1
    Email author
  • Catherine Cymone Fourshey
    • 2
  • Rhonda M. Gonzales
    • 3
  1. 1.Kutztown University of PennsylvaniaKutztownUSA
  2. 2.History and International RelationsBucknell UniversityLewisburgUSA
  3. 3.The University of Texas at San AntonioSan AntonioUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political Science and Public AdministrationBabcock UniversityIlishan RemoNigeria

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