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From papadop@peak.org Fri Jan 14 07:56:49 2000
Date: Thu, 13 Jan 2000 22:55:30 -0600 (CST)
From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org>
Subject: Le Monde diplomatique-Jan 2000—3 Items re: african women
Article: 86653
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
X-UIDL: 4da31667b2b630be0e783a065a8f1b3a

Africa’s forgotten tribe: Who would be a mother?

By Elisabeth LeQueret, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2000

Seventeen hours a day: that is how long an African woman works on average. But the continent’s towns and villages can tell you much more about this than statistics from international organisations. African women work on the marketplaces of Bamako, the dusty red earth of Faso, the pavements of Lagos, the beaches of Dakar. They sell things: three cola nuts, five cigarettes, ten lumps of sugar. They barter: 15 mangoes for a pagne (length of fabric), a dried fish for two bars of soap. They hoe, they weed, they sow—in a field the size of two pocket-handkerchiefs, a plot of barren ground no-one would give a thank-you for.

A machine for fun and a machine for farming: the expression coined by the Cameroon writer Rene Philombe is true in all parts of the African countryside. In West Africa growing and harvesting rice in the paddy-fields is sometimes entirely women’s work. In Fulani country, they are given the animals to look after. In general, women represent 80% of the workforce used for producing food; theirs are the thousand and one small hands that toil to fill the continent’s stomachs. They are anonymous hands, long ignored by the statistics and the development plans. Invisible hands, unpaid, kept away from access to land, property, credit and inheritance. They are there to do their master’s bidding on land that doesn’t belong to them and that, if they are divorced or their husband dies, will be taken away from them at once by his family.

With a few exceptions (Namibia, where the Himba women own most of the cattle, and the Zulu lands where they also own their granaries and fields), the old Fulani adage that the land is a father that doesn’t recognise his daughters holds true. As Georgette Konate from Burkina-Faso has written, the wife, generally looked on as a stranger-to-be by her own family and a real stranger by the one she marries into, cannot aspire to own and control something as invaluable as land (1).

Their sisters in the towns, scarcely better off, also end up with the hardest and least remunerative tasks. Lack of education (2) has driven them en masse into the informal sector. In sub-Saharan Africa 60% of women who work do so on their own account—the highest percentage in the world. They may run a small vegetable stall, sell (more or less adulterated) medicines, distil alcohol from manioc root, sell iced water, and so on. In Africa, for a woman, working is not a matter of choice, and even less of personal fulfilment or emancipation: it is a matter of survival. Meeting the family’s day-to-day needs depends on the few coins brought home each evening. Often they are barely enough to fend off the misery of absolute poverty. In West Africa 30% of households are headed by a woman on her own, and these are the poorest, according to 1995 figures from Cote-d’Ivoire economist Ginette Yoman.

The crisis has sharpened competition between men and women. It is a merciless one in which the latter are seldom the winners. It is seen in agriculture, where restructuring programmes have, by favouring cash crops and the appropriation of land for privatisation, dealt the country women a savage blow.

In the formal sector, women were the first to be laid off (they have, comparatively, suffered more than men from budget cuts). In the informal sector, too, women market traders in the towns have also been ravaged by the restructuring programmes that have reduced their customers’ buying power and also thrown on the streets tens of thousands of unemployed men who are now competing with them and trying to grab the most lucrative activities away from them. Ironically the crisis has both highlighted how insecure the work of women is—and making this worse—and also shown up the crucial role they play in the African economy.

What else can they do but work, when their husband has been let go? In the 1980s, when savage budget cuts threw thousands of Congolese civil servants out of work, it was the women who turned to the marketplace as a way of putting food in the family’s mouths. When did the international organisations notice that every other African is a woman? To be truthful, not all that long ago. It was only from 1975—declared The Year of the Woman—and the following decade that women’s role in development began to be recognised and brought to the fore.

Yet awareness (in any case very relative) of women on the part of the international and non-governmental organisations has done little to improve their daily lives. While everyone recognises their ability as managers, access to credit is very hard to come by.

Negotiating a loan is still an assault course, most often with a blunt refusal at the end of it: to borrow money, you have to have sufficient funds and be able to put down something as surety—two conditions that disqualify them from the start. In Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Zambia, women receive under 10% of the loans made to small business owners. In the agricultural sector it is even worse—less than 1% (3).

Even in areas where they do well, women rarely have control of the whole chain of production, and even less often can they get to where the decisions are made. It was in Togo that a handful of women realised 30 years ago that money was the sinews of the war of the sexes. By signing shrewd contracts with big European import-export firms (for exclusive models of pagnes to be paid for only after sale), they made a fortune.


Nicknamed the nanas-benz (the Mercedes ladies) after the luxury saloons they are driven around in by young chauffeurs who, so it is said, also act as gigolos when required, these modern-day Amazons, single, widowed or divorced, keep a firm hold on their own real estate, shops and Swiss bank accounts. Today, even though financial crisis has cut the profits they make and forced them to abandon the pagne for Nigerian batik, which costs less, they are said to account for half the country’s economy.

The Mercedes ladies have a predecessor; Madame Tinubu, who gave her name to one of the squares in Lagos, Nigeria. An emblematic figure in Yoruba history, during the 1850s this businesswoman built up an economic mini-empire in the arms trade and wielded a decisive political influence (she is said to have financed the wars against the kingdom of Abomey).

A woman being an arms dealer didn’t shock anyone in those days, explains Corine Mandjou, a journalist from Cameroon and author of a monograph on the political history of women in 17th-19th century Africa. In the pre-colonial era, women owned capital and the labour-force. The condition of the African woman as it has always been presented by Westerners is one big fallacy. It’s wrong to say that the African woman is an inferior and doesn’t take any part in decisions. Those who wrote about Africa from the 19th century on were well-off young men who brought all their class prejudices with them. The people they talked to were the village chieftains, and just because they didn’t see the women, they assumed that they held no power. But in traditional African societies the women are always asked for their opinion before a decision is taken, even though they never speak in public. What’s more, in traditional African society the queen mother and the first wife play a crucial political role. Nowadays the situation is very different. The men have grabbed power for themselves, and women are having to fight on every front. Especially as there are very few women’s movements, and those there are generally owe allegiance to the political parties.

Does this mean, then, that the transition from laws based on custom to modern legislation has—far from improving women’s lot—made things worse for them? The Senegalese law on rural communities demonstrates how legislation that is in principle gender-neutral can, when it comes down to it, still act against women. Through the stipulation that one rural councillor in three must represent a cooperative, whereas the most widespread groups are women’s communities, women have found themselves automatically excluded from the decision-making process. The result is that in 1994 only six of the country’s 4,000 rural councillors were women. To offset the apathy of the public authorities and the (often hypothetical) results of support policies, women are grouping together and putting their solidarity to work. The banks don’t like the idea of lending them money? Then they set up tontines and mutual benefit societies; it is no mere chance that nowadays young African women are keen on all kinds of training that have to do with banking systems and financing structures. The men block access to the universities? In Cameroon and Ghana some women’s groups are even using the profits they make from their own work to fund the education of poor girls in their village (4).

The Mercedes ladies have demonstrated that it is controlling the supply channels that matters. In Ghana, both the Congos and Nigeria, women occupy a central position in the networks of trade, Corine Mandjou says. It starts with pagnes, and very soon it’s moved on to import-export in all kinds of products. In West Africa, 95% of the ready-to-wear market is run by women. They’re the ones who are doing all the business travel, to France and Italy, and nowadays to Singapore and Taiwan. Even in areas like agribusiness they play a big part. Officially men are in control but in fact they’re the ones who are running things.

In Nigeria Yoruba women traders use their contacts in the villages, calling if necessary on family connections to get information about future crops. In Cameroon, the bayam sallam (buy and sell, in pidgin) crisscross the country buying up surplus produce from the farmers and employing young peasant men as their bodyguards. In Burkina they are setting up farm collectives. In Senegal some women traders negotiate direct with the foodstuff producers and sometimes have their own plots of land. In Lome the major women fish-traders own two-thirds of the port’s fishing vessels. There is strength in unity: at Ibadan, women have got together in Cowad (the Committee on Women and Development) to group their buying so as to get lower prices.

Little by little resistance is getting organised. Like women’s work, it is often informal and progresses by tiny steps. There is a long, long way to go and innumerable obstacles to overcome. In Cameroon, a country of businesswomen, a woman still can’t leave the country without her husband’s permission.


(1) Georgette Konate, Femme rurale dans les systemes fonciers au Burkina Faso. Cas de l’Oudalan, du Sanmatenga et du Zoundweogo, Ouagadougou, Royal Netherlands Embassy, 1992.

(2) According to the World Employment Report 1998-99 from the International Labour Organisation, more than 50% of girls aged 6-11 were not attending school in 1995.

(3) Jeune Afrique Economie, Paris, December 1995.

(4) Codou Bop, Quelle cooperation internationale en Afrique?, Politique africaine, Talence, March 1997.