African culture and history is unique in many different ways. One way is the traditional roles and responsibilities of women in different pre- and post-colonial communities on the continent.
In many cultures around the world, women have long had domestic and nurturing responsibilities. Except for Queens in monarchies, political and military power was usually given to men. Only in the last few decades have women in western countries gradually been allowed to serve in a greater number of political and military roles. Even today, only a small number of women serve as Generals and Admirals, and in the United States, women hold only a small fraction of elected offices.
African women also have domestic and nurturing responsibilities, and served as Queens in monarchies. In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba - a kingdom in the coastal regions of modern-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen - visited King Solomon of Israel. The Ethiopian national saga, Kebra Nagast, names the queen Makeda, and says that her son by Solomon was Menelik I, founder of a dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for over 2,900 years.
But throughout the history of Africa’s tribes and kingdoms there is also a common and recurring theme of female warriors, who exhibited a sense of collectiveness and intense militarism. In the thick vegetation, rugged terrain and mountains of sub-Saharan Africa, and the deserts and mountains of North Africa, these women fought fearlessly and often successfully to protect their people from other kingdoms, slave traders, and colonialists. Even the legends of ancient Greece included the Amazons, a brutal and aggressive army of women who lived for war – and multiple historians said the Amazons had originated in Africa.
As we reflect upon the role and contribution of women in the world today on International Women’s Day, I would like to introduce some of the women warriors and leaders of Africa, from ancient times to the present day. To begin, here are a few scattered across the centuries before the time of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism.
Several years after the Romans expelled the Greeks from Egypt in 33 BC, they began trying to conquer the neighboring kingdom of Kush and its capital city of Meroë, in what is now Sudan. The Empress of Kush, Amaniremas, led her army into Egypt to counterattack, and despite losing an eye, defeated the Romans in three battles. After five years of war, a treaty was negotiated on terms favorable to Kush – Caesar received no tribute from Kush, and the Roman border was withdrawn some thirty miles.
In 690 AD, Dihya became Queen and war leader of the Berber tribes in the Aures mountains of modern-day Algeria and Tunisia. The Arab Islamic armies of the Umayyad Caliphate were pushing west across North Africa at the time, and soon defeated the Byzantine Greeks at Carthage in Tunisia. When they reached Algeria, Dihya and her army defeated them so soundly that nicknamed her al-Kahina or “the soothsayer,” believing that she had supernatural advance knowledge of their attack. They retreated to eastern Libya for five years to regroup and await reinforcements before returning to kill her.
Yennenga was a 12th-century princess of the Dagomba Kingdom, in what is now northern Ghana. She joined the army at the age of 14, and led her own battalion against the neighboring Malinké of the Mali Empire. King Nedega, refused to let her marry, preferring to keep his daughter as a warrior. Yennenga eventually fled the kingdom, found a husband and bore a son who founded the Mossi Kingdom, now Burkina Faso.
In the 1400s, the Portuguese began exploring the Atlantic coast of West Africa, and the historical tribal practice of keeping prisoners-of-war as slaves began giving way to a much larger trans-oceanic slave trade. Warriors and leaders now faced the challenge of ensuring that their armies weren’t the ones being captured in battle and sold into slavery.
|Amina of Zazzau
In what is now central Nigeria, the Isadshi-Koseshi, women warriors of the Nupe tribe, are said to have repeatedly repelled parties of men from the Fula tribe, who would raid the Nupe in hopes of acquiring cattle or slaves, especially women. But their success against men, didn’t prepare them for another woman, Amina of Zazzau, who some accounts say conquered them in the 1500s. Amina was a Muslim warrior queen from the Hausa who was said to lead an army of 20,000. She also conquered trading cities in the northern Kano and Katsina regions and collected tribute from them.
By 1580, explorers had described standing armies of women in the Congo. One warrior queen, Llinga, fought the Portuguese in 1640. She was said to be capable of beheading a man with one swing of her sword, and also carried a bow, arrows and an axe.
Ana Nzinga Mbande was queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in modern-day Angola. A skilled politician and diplomat, she negotiated treaties first with the Portuguese, then with the Dutch. She was also an excellent military tactician, who launched repeated skirmishes against the Portuguese between 1644 and 1657, until they requested a new peace treaty.
|Nandi- Mother of Shaka Zulu
Nandi of the Zulu, was the mother of the great chief Shaka Zulu. She raised him as a single mother, protecting him from enemies, assassination attempts, and the great famine of 1802. When Shaka became ruler of the Zulu kingdom, he made Nandi clan Queen and his advisor. The military settlements of the Zulu kingdom included regiments of youth of both genders, and if you see the Zulu warrior dance performed, you will notice that both men and women have similar warrior moves.
|A woman from the Herero Tribe
Priestess Nehanda Nyakasikana was a spirit medium of the Shona people of present-day Zimbabwe. When British colonizers imposed taxes in 1894, the Shona and Ndebele peoples revolted. Nehanda and other mediums preached that white colonists were the cause of all the troubles that had come upon the land. The British eventually captured her, convicted her of ordering an associate to chop off a Commissioner’s head, and hanged her – but it took them three tries.
Taytu Betul was the wife of Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II. Italy had already colonized neighboring Eritrea and most of Somalia, but when it attempted to colonize Ethiopia in 1896, she persuaded the Emperor to declare war. At the Siege of Mek’ele, the Empress had her men cut off the water supply to a fortress full of Italians, who surrendered ten days later. A month later at the Battle of Adwa, she and her husband each led their own battalion on the front lines and the Italian forces were decisively defeated. She is also remembered for persuading her husband to move Ethiopia’s capital to its present site of Addis Ababa, financing the first hotel in that city. It is said that Empress Taytu’s battalion included female warriors – each escorted by men bearing red parasols to shield them from the sun.
|Portrayal of Sarraounia Mangou, in a movie
Sarraounia Mangou was a chiefess of the Azna subgroup of the Hausa kingdom, in present-day Niger. In 1899, the French Voulet-Chanoine Mission came to her area, attempting to conquer terrorities for French control. It is said that Mangou wrote Voulet a letter full of insults and provocation. The French marched to the village of Lougou, finding some of the Azna standing in ranks, while others hid in thick bush. When the French fired grapeshot at the Azna, they scattered into the bush as well. Attempts to attack the bush were less than fruitful, and several French riflemen were killed or wounded.
|An artist's portrayal of Yaa Asanteewa
Yaa Asantewaa was Queen Mother of Ejisu in the Asante Confederacy of present-day Ghana, in the late 1800s. After her ruling brother died in 1894, she nominated her grandson to become king, but British colonial authorities exiled him to the Seychelles and demanded that the Asante surrender the symbol of their nation, a golden stool. In a meeting of remaining Asante leaders, there was disagreement on how to secure the return of their king. Yaa Asantewaa declared, “I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.” Regional kings agreed to make her war leader, and she led the Asante army to besiege the British fort at Kumasi for most of 1900, until 1,400 troops were sent to end the siege. She and 15 of her supporters were captured and exiled to the Seychelles
|Dahomey Amazons- Benin
Perhaps Africa’s best-known women warriors were the Mino of the small Kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin. Their name means “our mothers,” and from their beginnings in the 1700s as an all-female palace guard, they grew by the mid-1800s into a military force of 6,000 dubbed the “Dahomey Amazons” by Europeans. Some carried guns, others machetes. They trained intensely and did battle with larger neighboring kingdoms, under the motto “If soldiers go to war they should conquer or die.” In 1889, Dahomey attacked a village under French protection, and when the village chief showed them the French flag, the Mino beheaded him and carried his head home wrapped in the flag. France declared war, and with the help of the French Foreign Legion conquered Dahomey in 1894, but the ferocity of the Mino impressed French soldiers. One wrote home about seeing his best friend decapitated by a single swing of an Amazon’s machete. Another soldier knocked the machete away, and she threw him on the ground and tore out his throat – with her teeth. A rumor common in the French occupying army said that captured Mino allowed French officers to lure them into bed, then slit their throats with their own bayonets once they fell asleep.
Muhumuza was one of the wives of Kigeli IV Rwabugiri, the first king of Rwanda to encounter Europeans. Rwabugiri selected his adopted son Rutarindwa as his successor and appointed another of his wives, Kanjogera, as his surrogate mother. When Rwabugiri died in 1895, Kanjogera led a coup that put her own son, Musinga, on the throne. Muhumuza became active in a rebellion that tried to make northern Rwanda independent, but German colonizers arrived and backed Musinga, who was a young teen and easily manipulated. Muhumuza moved north to join the Bakiga, the people of the mountainous Kigezi region of present-day Uganda, and adopted Naybihingi, an anti-establishment religion popular there, named after an 18th-century queen of the Mpororo kingdom whose husband had her killed. She rarely attacked European colonizers directly, but went after chiefs and leaders who were their puppets. In 1908, she was captured by the Germans and imprisoned for two years. After she and her supporters ambushed the Anglo-Belgian-German Boundary Commission in 1911, the British launched a surprise attack in 1913. About 40 Bakiga were killed, and Muhumuza was wounded in the foot and arrested. The region had not come under British rule, so no one had the authority to subject her to a trial. Instead, she was deported with her servants and cattle to Kampala, where she could be kept under the watchful eye of the British and not pose a danger to chiefs who cooperated with the colonizers.
|Mekatilitili Wa Menza- CNN
Mekatilili Wa Menza was a charismatic and respected woman in the tradition of woman prophets among the Giriama people of coastal Kenya. She defended traditional ways of life, speaking out against forced low-paying labor on British plantations, colonial hut taxes, seizures of fertile land, and restrictions on the consumption of palm wine. A widow, she drew attention to her cause by traveling from town to town performing a funereal dance, then encouraged people to take oaths vowing to never cooperate with the British. In 1914, after British troops destroyed a ritual center and a Giriama woman was raped by a soldier, the uprising turned violent. Giriama archers shot at British forces, and the British responded by shooting Giriama on sight even if they were not hostile, confiscating livestock and burning dwellings. Mekatilili was twice arrested, imprisoned in exile, escaped and walked back.
|Mekatilitili Wa Menza
In 1929, the colonial government in Nigeria announced a plan to tax women. Angry at the idea of being taxed by a government they couldn’t participate in, thousands of women dressed ceremonially and marched on a district office, singing protest songs, dancing and demanding change. More than two million people were inspired to protest across three provinces. In one region, women looted European shops and Barclay’s Bank, broke into a prison and released the prisoners. By the end of the “Igbo Women’s War,” sixteen courts were burned down and numerous officials were forced to resign.
|Libyan Female Guard
This list is by no means exhaustive, but shows that it is nothing new or unusual for African women to organize and even take up arms against injustice or threats to their communities. Today, women in Africa may not go to battle, but they still lead. Several African countries have had female heads of state or heads of government in recent decades. Many women, encouraged by the Millennium Development Goals, have joined government. Today, 55.6% of Rwanda’s legislators are women – the highest percentage of any country in the world – and dozens of other African countries have higher rates of female parliamentarians than the United States.
Some of the stories I have just told you may sound like they belong in an action movie or comic book. Sadly many people, even among those of African descent, do not know the real historical truth of Africa’s women warriors and leaders, and how they influenced the political, economic and social lives of present-day Africa and the rest of the world.
In his book “Something Torn and New,” the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo wrote, “The unity of the dead, the living and the unborn is broken… There is no healing, no wholeness; only a dislocation of the national psyche, for in not remembering the past, there are no inherited ideals by which to measure the excesses of the present.”
This quote is relevant today, when we are only shown make-believe female African warriors in movies, and most of the world thinks the word “Amazon” means an e-commerce company or a river in Brazil. But as you have just seen, when it comes to women warriors, the futuristic fiction of Black Panther looks much like Africa’s very real recent past.
I hope you have been inspired by the stories of these historic, heroic African women warriors.
Vivian Kobusingye Birchall
Vivian Kobusingye Birchall