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Black women as leaders



As we emerge out of Africa Day which we celebrated on the 25th of May, there is need for us to go beyond our great black men who are constantly talked about and start to highlight also the exploits of some great black women in history.

Growing up I often heard stories about Queen Nzinga and her heroics against the Portuguese somewhere in present day Angola. Before the telephone and the car came to Africa, a black woman could be deployed by her people to outwit the outsiders whose eyes were set on Africans and their resources.

Nzinga was born about 1583 to the king of the Ndongo people. At that time, they lived around present day Luanda in Angola. Oral tradition says that as a child, the girl Nzinga proved to be intelligent and charismatic.

When Nzinga’s father died, her brother took over as ruler. His name was Mbandi. It so happened that he was a cruel king. For example, Mbandi killed Nzinga’s son because Mbandi considered the boy a threat to his throne. As a result, Nzinga and her husband fled Ndongo.

But years later, Mbandi felt that he needed Nzinga’s help. His kingdom was under attack by Portugal. Portuguese colonisers targeted the Ndongo people, looking for those they could kidnap and enslave. The Portuguese also believed there were silver mines in the region.

Mbandi knew Nzinga was a skilled diplomat. In or around 1623, it is said that Mbandi asked Nzinga to meet the Portuguese leaders and negotiate a way forward. Nzinga agreed. She met Governor Joao Corria de Sousa in the nearby Portuguese settlement.

When she arrived at the meeting place, Nzinga noticed something odd. There was only one chair in the meeting room and it was for Corria de Sousa. He expected Nzinga to either sit on the floor or remain standing throughout the meeting.

There was a plan by the Portuguese to downgrade Nzinga starting with the sitting positions.

It is said that Nzinga quickly motioned to the strongest of the Ndongo men who accompanied her. This man knelt down on his hands and knees as if he were a chair. Nzinga sat on the man’s back at an equal level with Corria de Sousa throughout the meeting.

This baffled the Portuguese!

In this meeting Nzinga was able to stop the Portuguese from the practice of kidnapping the Ndongo people and selling them in the slave trade. But she managed to get the promise to continue trade between the Portuguese and the Ndongo people so that they could acquire weapons.

In return, the Portuguese abandoned a fortress on Ndongo land. They also released several chiefs they had taken as prisoners.

When Nzinga’s brother died in 1624, she became Queen. By 1626, though, the Portuguese had gone back on their word. They recognised a different person as the Ndongo leader, a man who aligned with Portugal’s mission. The Portuguese continued to raid Ndongo lands, capturing people and selling them into slavery.

Nzinga and those loyal to her fled westwards. They founded a new state and called it Matamba. There, Nzinga welcomed people who had escaped enslavement and others wronged by the Portuguese.

In 1641, Nzinga’s forces were able to push the Portuguese out of Ndongo. They did so with help from the Netherlands. However, the Portuguese returned and retook control in 1648. Nzinga then focused on building her power in Matamba.

Over the next two decades, Matamba became a well-established state that negotiated on equal footing with European powers because of the genius of Nzinga.

Nzinga lived to the age of 81, dying in 1663. Her sister, Kambu, replaced her as ruler. Today, Nzinga is remembered as an example of a great black woman, a rare African queen who stood up to European colonisers and did her best to protect her people from the evils of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The trading of enslaved people ended in Angola in 1836.

In the land that is called Zimbabwe today lived a woman called Charwe. She is often called Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana because she was considered to be a medium of Nehanda, a female Shona mhondoro (powerful and revered ancestral spirit).

Nehanda was one of the major spiritual leaders of African resistance to white rule during the late 19th century.

Nehanda Charwe, along with the mediums of two other mhondoros, Mukwati in Matabeleland but especially Kagubi in western Mashonaland found herself organising and directing her people’s resistance to assaults and take over by the British colonialists.

Charwe Nehanda is remembered as a dominant influence during the uprisings of 1896-97, particularly in the Mazowe area of present day Zimbabwe. Charwe is renowned for executing the Native Commissioner of the Mazowe district, Pollard, in protest over the ill-treatment of the indigenous people.

Although she was later executed for her actions in 1898, she has been renowned for being the one responsible for fuelling the liberation war struggle. Charwe’s resistance later led to her execution by hanging whereupon she made a declaration that ‘mapfupa angu achamuka’ (my bones shall rise). This declaration has become well known across the black world, from Africa to the Caribbean region.

As a result, when black people started to become more organised against the white settlers in the 1970’s till Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Nehanda became an icon of this struggle which is often called the Second Chimurenga.

Some people have even argued that the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe was borne from the labour pains of this woman called Nehanda. Through Charwe, it can thus be argued that women were the first to resist white colonial rule as she played a very influential role in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

Despite the fact that she was a woman, she nonetheless became the icon of the struggle.

In Harare today, a three-metre high statue has been erected at the centre of the city in honour of Nehanda Mbuya Charwe. Construction of this statue began in June 2020 and portions of Harare CBD roads including Samora Machel Avenue between Leopold Takawira Street and First Street and Julius Nyerere Way between Sam Nujoma Street and Kwame Nkurumah Avenue were temporarily closed.

In the US itself, a woman, Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave led many slaves to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. After escaping slavery herself, Tubman made some 13 missions to rescue enslaved people, including her family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses.

Born in Tubman Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by various enslavers as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an angry overseer threw a heavy metal weight, intending to hit another slave, but hit Tubman instead.

The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hallucinations which occurred throughout her life. Tubman began experiencing strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God. These experiences, combined with her Methodist upbringing, led her to become devoutly religious.
She later said about the incident,

“The weight broke my skull … They carried me to the house all bleeding and fainting. I had no bed, no place to lie down on at all, and they laid me on the seat of the loom, and I stayed there all day and the next.”

Seeing an opportunity when her enslaver, Edward Brodess, died, Ms. Tubman fled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the next decade, she returned to Maryland 13 times to liberate family and friends from bondage. Dubbed “Moses” for leading her people to freedom, she famously never lost a passenger on her secretive, night time escapes.

She carried a gun for both her own protection and to “encourage” her charges who might be having second thoughts. She often drugged babies and young children to prevent slave catchers from hearing their cries.

As shown in great African-American novels like Black Boy by Richard Wright, if you were a former slave in the US, during Emancipation there was the Jim Crow matter to consider. The emancipation of the slaves in 1863 angered the defeated whites of the South who had benefitted immensely from slave labour.

One of the white judges called Jim Crow, drafted laws that pretended to define the rights of the freed slaves and yet these laws limited the freedom of the former slaves.

For example, no blacks were allowed in white places. Blacks were not supposed to vote until further notice. It took up to the Second World War before blacks could vote in America. Blacks could not secure the same seats and carriages with whites on the buses and trains.

These became normal American practices up to the 1960’s when they were abolished through the civil rights movements led by women like Correta Scott, Rosa Parks and others.

For instance, Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her actions inspired the leaders of the local Black community to organise the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks became a nationally recognised symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of going to the back of the bus, which was designated for African-Americans, she sat in the front. When the bus started to fill up with white passengers, the bus driver asked Parks to move. She refused.

Her resistance set in motion one of the largest social movements in history.

Many have tried to diminish Parks’ role in the boycott by depicting her as a seamstress who simply did not want to move because she was tired. Parks denied the claim and years later revealed her true motivation:

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Parks courageous act and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott led to the integration of public transportation in Montgomery. Her actions were not without consequence. She was jailed for refusing to give up her seat and lost her job for participating in the boycott.

A more contemporary great black woman is Samora Machel’s first wife, Josina Abiathar Machel (nee Muthemba). She tragically died on 7 April 1971, at the very young age of 25. She was a poet and a key member of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO).

It is not known how many poems of Josina have survived, but she was a distinguished guerilla and “an exemplary educationist and a high quality cadre…” During the struggle for the freedom of Mozambique, Josina was to write a poem that has actually gone viral over the years. It is called “This Is The Time.” It goes:

“This is the time we were waiting for
Our guns are light in our hands
The reasons and aims of the struggle
Clear in our minds

The bloodshed by our heroes
make us sad but resolute.
It is the price of our freedom
We keep them close in our hearts…
revolutionary generations
are already being born.
Ahead of us we see bitter hardships
But we see also
Our children running free
Our country plundered nomore.

This is the time to be ready
And to be firm.
The time to give ourselves
to the revolution”

Josina was born in Vilanculos, Inhambane, in the southern part of Mozambique into a family committed to anti-colonial activism. She once observed:

“The colonialists wanted to deceive us with their teaching; they taught us only the history of Portugal, the geography of Portugal; they wanted to form in us a passive mentality, to make us resigned to their domination. We couldn’t react openly, but we were aware of their lie; we knew that what they said was false; that we were Mozambicans and we could never be Portuguese.”

At the age of 13, while at school, she became active in politics. At the age of 18, the politicised Josina fled the country with other students in order to join FRELIMO in Tanzania. Among her comrades were the future President of Mozambique Samora Machel, Armando Guebuza, and seven others (both young men and women).

Josina went to Nachingwea, the name of the military training camp in southern Tanzania for training in 1967.

It was in the liberated area of Cabo Delgado in Northern Mozambique where Josina trained that she met Samora Machel. He was director of the training centre in the province. In May 1969 she married Samora Machel in Southern Tanzania. In November of that year they had a son named Samito. She died in Dar es Salaam from leukaemia.

Josina’s photographs are often used as iconic embodiments of what a woman can do and achieve if she sets her sights to it. Together with Samora Machel, they scribbled a few poems in the middle of the night for Mozambique Revolution, FRELIMO’S official organ/journal and these have survived to the present day.

All these black women make us realise that the struggles of black people in this unjust world were sometimes fought and led by very strong black women.

Memory Chirere

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