African societies have been inherently matrilineal in orientation since the beginning of time. The queens and powerful figures in their own right like Queen Nerfetiti of Egypt, Queen Makeda of Ethiopia, Queen Candace Amanirena of Nubia, the Rain Queen Modjaji and Queen Manthatisi of South Africa… corroborate this enduring social system that has defied the most impossible odds. This socio-cultural construct changed only with the introduction of Islam, Christianity, and the colonial conquest which imposed patriarchal rule.
As is discussed herein, there are several organic features and roots, of a matrilineal culture such as food production, the ruling triumvirate, and healing ceremonies. History not only points to the salient factors that made for the formation of this very vital and organised social system, it also gives reason for its virtual destruction. To enhance my discussion, I offer my own experiences as shaped by an African matrilineal way of life while growing up in the small village of Matamong in the Eastern Free State Province of South Africa. Specifically, I illustrate the function of a powerful triumvirate: Mmangwane, Rakgadi and Nkgono.
Historical Origins During the peak of the Ice Age around 11000 BCE, the Northern Hemisphere, such as Europe, was covered in ice and people lived in caves. Much of Africa, however, enjoyed the sunshine. This climatic difference affected human response in terms of survival adaptation. Two strategies characterized survival, namely hunting expeditions in Europe and land cultivation in Africa. While the Europeans battled woolly mammoths and sometimes got killed in the process, the Africans explored mathematics as confirmed by Dr. Jean de Heinzelin of the University of Brussels in a paper titled “Ishango Bone” published in Scientific American, June 1962. At the time, African women had already developed a lunar month calendar making African women the first mathematicians as reported by Dr. Claudia Zaslavsky in her book Africa Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture.
Control of Food Production
The fundamental premise that allows for a matrilineal society is the unfettered control of food production. European societies suppressed a matrilineal culture because hunting expeditions gave control of food production to men. On account of that control, European men entrenched patriarchal rules which permeated all spheres of social and cultural life, including religion. These patriarchal systems continue to this day.
Conversely, African women’s ownership of land satisfied a mandatory precondition in terms of control over food production. African mothers have always owned the land, which is why the land is referred to as the motherland in contrast to the Europeans who referred to the land as the fatherland. Land ownership equipped African women with the ability to produce food. This survival strategy of land cultivation by women formed the foundation, with respect to the genesis and fortification of an African matrilineal culture.
Control of food production allowed women to make the rules that facilitated a matrilineal way of life. As time progressed, these women built powerful kingdoms, as previously mentioned and mobilized men to defend these kingdoms. Some men, however, rebelled against the sometimes authoritarian rule of the females and went away to live as nomads raising livestock. They developed an independently robust and mobile economy.
The two strategies of food production, land ownership and hunting expeditions, determined the type of gender specificity in the governance of the affairs of the people. While hunting by African men resulted in patriarchal societies to a certain extent, the founders of these societies still carried with them the social memories of the matrilineal societies of their origin, which can be seen through artefacts that undeniably depict an unconquerable femininity in a worshipful sense.
Whenever a man married a woman and took her away from her village, it resulted in an economic loss, since each woman was a food producer. The village calculated her economically productive years and demanded a compensation package in the form of livestock. Thus, the concept of lobola or dowry was born.
The subsequent amicable confluence of the nomadic pastoral culture on the one hand and the matrilineal culture on the other, resulted in a progressive adaptation of a matrilineal culture in which some female rulers were selected from the paternal side and such a figure in the village of Matamong is known as Rakgadi.
Some of the matrilineal societies were built with meticulous attention to detail in order to survive and inflict a counter strike against hegemonic invaders. Alexander the Great is reported to have backed away from the queenly Kingdom of Nubia in his military campaigns. Interestingly, the indomitable African female warriors confronted and repulsed the powerful European armies of the Roman Empire. The surviving historical accounts, written in both Greek and Nubian texts, tell of a never before seen phenomenon of women warriors like Queen Candace Amanirena of Nubia who trounced the Roman soldiers of Octavian and captured his symbolic bronze head, after breaking it from the statue, to be trampled underfoot at the Nubian shrine.
Emperor Augustus omits this fact in his diaries. Dr. John Garstang, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, discovered this bronze in 1910 in the present day Sudan. The discovery unequivocally confirmed that Emperor Augustus had falsified his reports by failing to admit that his armies, under the celebrated Roman General Gaius Petronius, had failed to subjugate the Nubians and were forced to desist. In a war that lasted a number of years, the unconquerable Nubian Queen inflicted fatal blows that destabilized the Roman Empire to an extent that she forced Emperor Augustus to a Treaty of Salmos. The Greek historian, Strabo, tells us that the Roman Emperor complied with all the demands imposed by the Nubian Queen. She gained a well-deserved respect in world history. We are forever indebted to the most eminent scholar to come out of Africa in the twentieth century, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop of the great scholarly tradition of Senegal, who first brought to us these historical accounts along with Dr. Theophile Obenga.
The Ruling Triumvirate
In the village that I grew up in, Matamong, the affairs of the community are ruled by a triumvirate of powerful female figures namely Mmangwane, Rakgadi and Nkgono. These formidable figures are mirrored at the level of individual families as well. All these three figures must agree by consensus whenever major decisions are made.
Mmangwane is a maternal aunt. She wields decisive and veto powers in the matters of the society and must be consulted whenever major decisions have to be made. Mmangwane rules as the matriarch of the house, sometimes overruling Rakgadi.
Rakgadi is an aunt on the father’s side. This paternal aunt is accorded special powers and privileges particularly in the matters of ceremonies and rituals. The internationally celebrated South African gender activist and winner of the United Nations Human Habitat Award, Ms. Mmatshilo Motsei, commented on the role of Rakgadi. She stated, “The role of Rakgadi is even more critical. She is the one who leads spiritual rituals, meaning she is the channel through which a family communicates with their ancestors. A spiritual ritual – go phasa badimo- can never happen without Rakgadi.”
It would appear that, as the patriarchal systems of colonialism and Christianity became entrenched in South Africa, the role of Rakgadi also grew in power. She increasingly became more vocal and assertive, and among some ethnic groups she is the most powerful figure.
The interests of the men in the society are represented through the role of Rakgadi. Some matrilineal societies did not accept males in their administrative structures. Rakgadi, then, became a critical interface that represented a good synthesis of the perspective of the women as well as the interests of the men. This liaison meant that a new brother-in-law was allowed to be represented by his sister who took on the title of Rakgadi.
Nkgono – The role of Nkgono in African societies is to curate the collective knowledge of the society. She commands mastery of the natural environment and considers the natural environment to be critical to the survival of the society. Nkgono is a grandmother, a guru who commands a broad and deep understanding of the indigenous knowledge systems. She is a wisdom keeper and a living library. To ensure her mastery of knowledge systems, Nkgono secures the expertise of Ngaka, a consultant that ensures the correctness and efficacy of her understanding and applied knowledge of the indigenous knowledge systems. Ngaka is an expert in a traditional African society equivalent to a Ph.D. in a Western society.
During colonial times, the rulers and the church sought to crush and denigrate this intellectual class of the African society. Great minds became vilified and ostracised as witchdoctors and quacks; the only ones recognized were those who acquired their education via Western and Christian schools. Consequently, colonialism isolated Nkgono, and she subsequently lost her credibility on account of the absence of support from her expert, Ngaka. The African society thus became brutalized.
The power of womanhood and the cleansing/healing ceremonies associated with it are entrenched in African rituals. As a matter of fact, even many Africans who became Christians or Muslims continue to observe these ceremonies, which are core to communities’ spirituality and wellbeing. In many societies throughout the continent, the majority of priests and healers are female and they keep cleansing/healing ceremonies alive, even today.
At a time when there is an erosion of world peace and the prospects of conflict and war loom large on our horizon, our history proves that the peace making skills of a woman would inject a positive influence on the world stage. Women, by default, have a vested interest in the survival of life. Queen Candace, a warrior as well as a great negotiator, achieved everything she wanted from the Roman Empire despite the fact that the Romans had more armies than she did. Nubia upheld her autonomous Kingdom through women, at a time when Roman soldiers overran many European and Middle Eastern Kingdoms. African cultures are like a compass. If we study our history and allow ourselves to be guided by it, we will find it reveals all the directions for the new generation.