In 1987 Nigerian anthropologist Ifi Amadiume published the book Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, a study on the Igbo people in Nnobi, eastern Nigeria, where she argued that in this society, “the gender ideology governing economic production was that of female industriousness”. She said that while Nnobi culture was understood as patrilineal, it demonstrated “a matricentric principle in household organisation”.
Amadiume’s work dispels the assumption that matriarchy or “matrifocality” can only exist in the absence of patriarchy. Importantly, her work shows us that definitions of womanhood, ubufazi, and motherhood in many African societies, rely on a woman’s capacity to show that she is able to run an independent economy that contributes to the building of the household, umzi or ikhaya. Thus, while the woman in the West is expected to give up her labour for marriage, an African woman’s marriageability is shaped by her ability to work hard to help build and sustain the household.
In the book Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa (2010), a study based on interviews with women and men in Mandeni, KwaZulu-Natal, Mark Hunter notes that in defining love and partnership, “for men, emotional bonds understood as love were also entangled with the joint but contested project of ‘building a home’… From men’s perspectives, key to finding a wife was watching an actual or potential girlfriend’s behavior to see if she showed respect (had inhlonipho) and was hardworking (khuthele). To most men, these attributes signaled her potential as someone who might vusa umuzi kababa (build up a father’s homestead)…”
The notion of ukukhuthala (diligence, activity) is also central among the Xhosa people’s conception of a woman’s industriousness as umfazi (a wife). Amadiume’s work has enabled me to better understand the central role of my grandmothers, my mother and generations of women in my family. In the context where my grandmother was not formally employed, but survived on subsistence farming, I have long struggled with labelling her as a “housewife”, because, to her own children and the many grandchildren that she raised, she was the economic heartbeat of our household. Her industriousness extended to others in the community as she participated in farming rituals, borrowing her labour to her peers and vice versa, and distinguished herself as a pillar of her community in being relied upon to offer support during various ceremonies in church, coming-of-age ceremonies, funerals and so forth. All of these activities define much of black women’s labour in the rural and peri-urban areas in South Africa today.
Amadiume’s book builds on Senegalese scholar Cheik Anta Diop’s work, which includes the text The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity (1989), where he argued that patriarchy originated in the North, in the Indo-European societies that led a nomadic life, whereas matriarchy developed in the South, in places such as Africa that relied on agriculture. Diop argued that in the North, where societies lived a nomadic life, “in this existence, which was reduced to a series of perpetual migrations, the economic role of the woman was reduced to a strict minimum; she was only a burden that the man dragged behind him”. In this regard, Diop argued that ecological factors in that society meant that women had a “smaller economic value”, whereas in the sedentary and agricultural societies of the South, women contributed “substantially to the economic life”.
Amadiume notes that in African societies such as the Nnobi, “whether in the past or today, women are essentially seen as producers, be it in the management of subsistence production or in biological production”. I would argue that in South Africa this is largely the same. As Amadiume argues further, “there is, then, a clear interrelationship between ecological factors, economic production and gender ideas”.
This historic understanding of African matriarchal foundations allows us to challenge contemporary ideas that seek to suggest that women are important in the economy of the African family because of the legacies of the colonial migrant labour system, which have eroded men’s ability to play the role of the provider of the family. While is true that the migrant system relied on women’s ability to provide economically in order to compensate for the miserable salaries of miners, it is important to acknowledge that African women, here and in the diaspora, have always worked. Unlike Western women, African women’s entry to the labour question is not about access to work but the quality of the conditions of their labour. In what ways can this be attributed to historic matriarchal foundations?
Furthermore, how do we have a conversation about matriarchal foundations in the context of the cheapening of women’s labour in neo-liberal South Africa and the world? In his conception of the “changing political economy and geography of intimacy”, Hunter argues that the focus on the male migrant labourer has hidden the reality that increasing difficult conditions in rural areas have forced women to seek better futures in the urban settings. The result of this migration to the urban areas has also informed the informalisation and cheapening of women’s labour, and the particular dominance of women living in informal settlements and squatter camps, which has profound impacts on women’s material and intimate lives.
Amadiume’s focus on the matricentric organisational principle of some African societies also allows us to understand African women’s ways of mothering and the work of mothering in historical terms. In this context, the work of mothering is a shared activity and collective activity among mainly women in an extended family. Taking matrifocality seriously allows us to understand the central role played by grandmothers, aunts and siblings in everyday mothering for African women. In his appraisal of Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi’s work in the paper Re-appropriating Matrifocality: Endogeneity and African Gender Scholarship (2010), Jimi Adesina argues that their work shows us that “the institution of social parenting provides us with the basis for rethinking identity” because in these contexts, mothering and parenting “is grounded in a commitment to the community rather than biological certainty of genetics”.
The African-American feminist Patricia Hill-Collins writes about the constant presence of “other mothers” in the collective upbringing of African-American children. Like many African children, African-American children grow up knowing that they have many mothers. Many of us only found out later who our “real mother” was. Growing up moving between your aunt, mother and grandmother meant that any of one of them could be your mother, and indeed, they all were.
These matricentric strategies to mothering have sustained under the difficult contexts of rapid migration, unemployment and the increasing numbers of would-be school-going young girls conceiving children who are raised by grandmothers and aunts. Recently, when I was at home, I heard of a story of a woman who dropped off her less than two-week-old baby with her mother and returned to her place of employment in Gauteng. Daughters and sons leave several children to their ailing parents, often due to the high costs of employing help in urban areas. In what ways can we celebrate the tradition of shared motherhood without further burdening grandmothers who are raising grandchildren in the increasing absence of subsistence farming and other methods of building the economy of the home? How do we recognise these matriarchal foundations of mothering without then excusing father absence in the lives of children?
Finally, to examine questions of motherhood today means that we take seriously the reality that life is increasingly precarious and commodified in South Africa. The structures that have made collective mothering possible are under severe strain and threatened in ways that will soon make the ability to mother a luxury for those who can afford it.
Dr Siphokazi Magadla is a lecturer in the political and international studies department at Rhodes University