Gender in Africa and its Knowledge Production Over the Years

By: Bonnette Ishimwe


Western feminism defines gender as a social construct. A social construct that was enabled by the nuclear family structure. In her piece on Sociology of Gender, Dr. Zevallos puts it perfectly; “Women and men are not automatically compared: rather, gender categories [..] are analysed to see how different social groups define, construct and maintain them, on a daily basis throughout major social institutions, such as the family and the economy.” In other words, gender serves as an organizing tool for societies. This notion of the nuclear family structure limits the way in which we think about gender as a categorization of sexes and the connotations we associate with them. It is through this structure that gender roles are created and portrayed being; an uneven distribution of power and responsibilities in households and the society at large. Although the nuclear family structure, as a societal organizational tool, is understood to be a western creation, it has been migrated and implemented into other societies across the globe, such as the African continent, through kinship and lineage, colonization, eurocentrism and globalization, in most cases unwillingly of the recipient’s society. This was rendered possible by leveraging the former rather than the latter as form of societal reproduction through informal trade.

Prior to the western nuclear family structure, several African countries have always had organic tools used to organize and reproduce its societies, mainly through kinship and lineage by blood descendancy to redistribute power, labor, wealth and so forth. However, these tools barely appear in western discourses on gender as a tool of societal reproduction and organization due to the fact that these discourses’ knowledge production have long been obstructed by narratives that do not fully comprehend the differences that exist between gender as a societal organizational tool for the nuclear family and that one of kinship, lineage and descent by blood as the “other” tool that have long worked for communities on the African continent.

In this paper I examine the influence of western perception of Africa’s ‘gender’ in relation to the nuclear family and the way in which it reproduces itself through a themed timeline. I look at three factors in particular that have come to define and shape gender in Africa, i.e. kinship and lineage, colonization and eurocentrism and last but not least the influence of global economics activities on the continent over time. I was drawn by Mudimbe’s approach in The Invention of Africa, (xii) on how to write about the African continent, whereby he makes an effort not to refer to old philosophers of society such as Aristotle, Diderot and Rousseau to name a few, but rather produce a knowledge of Africa that is to a certain extent virgin of western authors and their understanding of the continent. Mudimbe underlines that the narratives from which knowledge is produced, matters. Although writing from a distanced perspective favours the author in a sense that they are able to observe and be critical compared to a native perspective, writing from such an angle can be problematic due to the fact that the author already considers their subject as the ‘other.’ When knowledge is produced in accordance to ‘universal’ standards and scaling methods that fit most, then the outcome will be constrained to fit and mirror a particular conclusion. This methodology will therefore bear dichotomies such as the “tribal,” “primitive,” “exotic,” “poor,” and/or “underdeveloped.” Globalization as the global economy’s end goal has highly influenced these standards and scales through which we define and understand ‘development,’ and as a result continents compete to being the most globalized. This globalization agenda has been understood as a mitigation of ‘primitivity’ to get to modernity on the African continent due to the dichotomies stated above, whereby ‘primitivity’ meant uncivilized even if this led to breaking from traditional organizational tools such as kinship and lineage, thus the very organic tools of society reproduction, and gender.

Kinship and lineage structure

In The Making of Contemporary Africa, Freund argues that “within lineage groups, inequality could and did develop. Elders, the closet living men to all-powerful ancestors, secured control of aspects of production and the distribution of foodstuffs for consumption.” (20). Kinship and lineage were the African society’s tools of societal organization and reproduction. Furthermore, segmentary lineage served as a tool to divide labor and enable access to land through communal lands, trade with other communities and creating connected social groups and alliances. Additionally, there was also ‘marriage,’ which was a way through which the ‘elders’ carried out their society’s reproduction by redistributing women. Some may argue that this was commodifying women for exploitation, whether it’s for labor or reproduction capacity. Nevertheless, they were highly valued since they contributed significantly to the kinship and lineage growth of their society. In fact, in African matrilineal communities whose reproduction was considered through the mother’s bloodline and kinship; women’s rights were even greater in these communities. In different patrilineal communities women still had the upper hand since the hierarchy structure of power was through seniority; therefore the older the individual was in their community the more power and respect they would have. Further proof of how less gendered the African society reproduction was, is the “female husbands” and “male daughters” partnership that allocated the community’s resources through these alliances in order to sustain its society’s reproduction.

This structure was carried on by educating society’s dependents through initiation rituals by the elders and descent groups, lineages and clans pointed out by Dr. Zevallos in Sociology of Gender. Throughout time, kinship took other forms and shapes within newly introduced modern institutions. We see these changes starting to manifest themselves during permechantalism in some African communities when modernity was being equated to civilization. Furthermore, religion such as Islam and Christianity through the continent’s interaction with the atlantic world and the Indian ocean, became huge influences on the kinship structure by nuancing gender divide and advocating for the abolition of traditional and regional rituals and customs. European Christianity in particular required breaking ties with these customs and traditions in order to be the model civilized and Christian African and hence excel the mimicry of the European coloniser.

Colonization and eurocentrism factor

Due to geopolitical disadvantages such as a dispersed and less dense population, it became even harder for African leaders to spread their ruling through kinship or societal groups alliances and connectivity between communities. Therefore under population was a major barrier to state formation and expansion, even so, with a structure through which power is distributed from seniority rather than gender, makes it a more or less dynamic structure through which change could easily be mobilized. In order for kinships to thrive despite these outside forces, the dominance of kinships would have to override or at least come in first place over political power and trade. When trade became the priority, the new world economy had won over the societal African modes of reproduction. Trade and monetization shaped the society’s dynamics; it had required more than the fiscal aspects of monetization, cultural and societal norms were altered for the implementation of the new order.

In Conceptualizing Gender, Oyewumi argues that the sense of personhood and subjectivity changed over time with identity. Prior, there was no sense of individuality, but rather a structure through which one’s relationships were structured communally. Later on, the sense of independence and individuality had pushed away kinship and lineage and made way for a sense of livelihood shaped by competition, thus moving away from the sense of community that significantly affected ‘gender’ in Africa. It is due to the changes and in particular individualization that social reproduction shifted to the nuclear family structure thus introducing patriarchy as a generalized principle and therefore giving the advantage to men through the customary law. This was carried out through indirect rule by the coloniser, giving power to male leaders (local chiefs) in African communities which completely handicapped the structure of hierarchy of power through seniority and descent by blood. Local chiefs became more accountable to the coloniser, rather than the people and this made it easy for the coloniser to carry out their projects such as agriculture based trade that involved forcing the people off the communal lands and facilitating slavery all together.

Reproduction of society through global economic activities  
Globalization has long been the highest attribute countries across the globe aspire to, and it is through colonization that African societies became less autonomous and more dependent on trade, which was in part fueled by Africa’s agency and comparative advantage of agricultural productivity and slavery as a monopolized commodity rather than the act of dehumanizing its people. In other words, mercantilism played a significant role shaping informal economy and trade on the continent. The current infrastructure then made it so that there is an unequal development due to dependence on economic opportunities that did not connect communities through its production process, and it is again by divisive policies and upholding the sense of individuality that indirect rule prospered for the coloniser and the complicit ruling class at that time, which created tensions within formally organized societies through kinships, clans and lineages.

With this new mode of reproducing oneself and monetization supplementing subsistence farming, the people were left with either opting for the production of cash crops or being a (low wage) laborer as choices. The African continent quickly became reliant on economic activity to function. As a result of the local economy integration into the global economy and relying on wage labor and subsistence farming, the peasant’s prosperity was determined by forces of the market hence capitalism. Moreover, since capitalism has a quality of  collectiveness, the African society was reorganized through the collective nuclear family setting and thus reproduction of this chain of supply.

Summary conclusion

Literature that discusses and displays a population influences the world’s interaction with both the discourse and the subject matter. The way in which a people exist through literature will always precede its knowledge production. We have seen this through the three themes examined above. First, knowledge of kinship and lineage that serve as tool to divide labor, provides easy access to land for all. As well as creative ways of trading with different communities and how to reproduce a society through social alliances and partnerships and distribution of power through seniority with the sole purpose of ensuring society’s reproduction. Second, colonization and eurocentrism through personhood as individualism that shifted social reproduction to the nuclear family structure by adapting patriarchy as a general principle in order to easily assimilate the colonizer’s indirect rule and the local governance to finally secure its production niche by influencing the global economic activities during mercantilism, that shaped informal economic activities through colonization and thus less African independence as a result of African societies’ dependency on trade that has long feed into export oriented production.

Having said this, contemporary Africa hasn’t changed that much in terms of acquiring full independence and being autonomous. Capitalism has always been gendered in a way that has for so long limited the African women in different ways. Although the African woman has been neglected it does not take away the fact that she has a lot to offer. Not that this is of any news to the African continent, but we are starting to see that the African women get more opportunities with education, governance, health, finances and so on. Although capitalism hasn’t been the best at being inclusive of women and their empowerment, African women have reorganized themselves through traditional structures such kinship-like structure, whereby they form financial institutions, to name a few, i.e. cooperatives through which they operate and reproduce themselves regardless of the affecting outside factors. Despite the obstacles patriarchy pose, the African woman have been able to navigate and engage in spaces of positions of power and sitting on tables where policies are made; policies that affect the vast majority of the African community, or even so affect the outside viewer. The story of the African woman is starting to look a lot like the senior woman in her kinship who is the head of her lineage again.

In her TED talk The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it very well that “when you show a people as one thing and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”  I believe there is no other outlet other than stories, and storytelling that offers the world a grasp of the authenticity that is hard to find in literature and/or scholarly publications. With theories, hypothesis and philosophies it is very easy to miss the point, because the narrative and perspective through which knowledge is produced is influenced by an “expected outcome” and therefore we run the risk of not really grasping what is at stake, what are the dynamics and what the historical context tells us about the present and future.

Works cited

Zevallos, Zuleyka. “Sociology of Gender.” The Other Sociologist. World Press, 03 Jan. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016. <>.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. “Conceptualizing Gender: The Eurocentric Foundation of Feminist Concepts and the Challenge of African Epistemologies.” Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies 2.1 (2002): n. pag. Print.

Freund, Bill. “Chapter 3: ” The European Intrusion in the Era of Merchant Capital”” The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998. N. pag. Print.

V.Y. Mudimbe, “Introduction” & “Discourse of Power and Knowledge of Otherness.” In his The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp. ix – 23.

The Danger of a Single Story. Dir. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Perf. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. YouTube. TedTalk, Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <;.


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