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Two ‘African feminist’ voices: listening well and the importance of particularity

In the space of a day, Tanzania’s The Citizen newspaper published two articles that could be called ‘feminist’.

One was from a regular columnist, Caroline Uliwa, about a conversation she’d had with some girlfriends about maternal health, and how it’s failing in urban centres because, as Tanzania has ‘modernised’, some of the structures that have nurtured women have been lost and not replaced.

The other is from a Zimbabwean man, Garikai Chengu, studying at Harvard University. He argues that prior to colonialism, many African peoples were matriarchal (but non-violent), and it was with the coming of colonialism, and its marriage to violence and Christianity, that patriarchal and oppressive structures were introduced. While conceding that these practices are contrary to the way of Christ, he says that the way for African women to have a glorious future is to know their glorious past and fight for the respect and dignity they enjoyed prior to colonialism.

Now here am I, a white Australian woman who’s lived in Tanzania for less than three years weighing in. The reason I’m doing so is that there are lots of voices speaking about women in Tanzania. I primarily see my role as listening, but how do you listen well: are all voices equal?

For me, being local is key. Uliwa’s voice stands out here: she’s not seeking to give a general ‘African’ view; she’s talking about a specific situation in a particular place where she actually lives. Meanwhile, Chengu makes sweeping statements about that vast continent ‘Africa’, and about the impact of colonialism and its relationship to Christianity, as if it was a system implemented uniformly across said continent. He takes one single story and seeks to replace it with another. It’s a world where things are black and white, where there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, and nothing in between. It is in recovery of a lost, supposedly better world, where wholeness is to be found.

Contrast this with Uliwa’s approach. She also identifies a problem with western legacy for women: where previously women would have had a village birth attendant and several womenfolk there to support her during birth, in western medical practices, she has none of these and thus is disempowered. However, instead of calling for a re-implementation of the village structures in an urban context, Uliwa looks for a different solution: the inclusion of the father in birthing. She doesn’t see this as at odds with the Afro-feminine; in fact, she sees it as a way to nurture it and see women flourish.

I like a lot of what Chengu has to say. His stuff about the whitewashing of Christ is good; it’s important to acknowledge that many African communities prior to colonialism were far from primitive or unsophisticated; we need to hear stories of alternate ways of ordering society, including matriarchal societies; it’s vital that we westerners recognise the sins of our ancestors and how we perpetuate them, so that we might repent, make amends and change. However, Chengu appears to fall for the myth that Olufemi Taiwo identifies that African societies were not fluid or changing prior to colonialism. Thus Africans are encouraged to look back to a glorious past, rather to creatively looking forward as the innovators they are.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m passionate about how the Bible promotes the flourishing rather than the oppression of women, and I’m keen to think about how this applies in a Tanzanian context too. I take it Chengu would see this as somewhat futile, and as a newbie to Tanzania and Tanzanian feminism, it’s worth me hearing that. But I’m also conscious that Tanzania is not Nigeria or Zimbabwe or South Africa or even Kenya. So I’m keen to hear more from Uliwa and what her feminism is and how it’s shaped by her context.

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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