Generalizations about the role and status of women in traditional African societies, as for other aspects of African life, are not easy to make because Africa is not one cultural area. It is marked by great cultural and linguistic diversities, and any statement which can be made about one trite may to altogether inapplicable to another, even in one geographical sub-region. A proper understanding of the status and role of women in traditional African societies therefore involves an appreciation of the different cultural patterns within which they are brought up, and of the family and tribal customs in each of those multitudinous societies which decree the exact place given to each member, the respect duo to each and the duties und privileges which membership of a family confers. It is in this regard that this essay compares and contrast the role of a woman in traditional and in modern African societies after which supply reasons for the former roles being side-lined today.
The fact remains that no degree of stereotyping against women existed in traditional Africa. The woman possessed the power to organize the family and the society at large. There was an enormous task and responsibility conferred on womanhood. In fact the responsibility of both men and women were seen as complementary to one another “there was a co-dependence and a balance that existed” (St. Clair, 1994: 27).
In various traditional African societies, the African woman possessed the power that binds the society together. In fact the survival of the family and the future of marriage depended a great deal on the African woman. This is why Leith (1967: 34) emphasizes that: Culturally, African women were the transmitters of the language, the history and the oral culture, the music, the dance, the habits and the artisanal knowledge. They were the teachers and were responsible for instilling traditional values and knowledge in children. Men were also essential in the transmission of knowledge to the youth because they had a different type of knowledge of the earth and environment, and also of ceremonies and traditions that were performed exclusively by men.
What Leith explains in this regard in the fact that each gender had its role and responsibility which helped in the formation and upkeep of the family, particularly, as it affects the essential upbringing of children. Furthermore, Leith (1967:40) points out that the Woman had extensive knowledge of the natural environment; they were gatherers, which meant that their communities depended on them to provide nourishment or they would face starvation. Indigenous women in Africa held vital knowledge of herbs and medicines that also ensured the survival of their communities, they were the healers. The indication here in that women’s role in traditional Africa is a sine qua non to societal development. The impacts of the women were felt in every aspect of life of the society. Thus, the African woman played a key role in the education and the teaching of children social, ethical and moral values which were part of the cultural standards for evaluating proper societal behaviour. Evaluating the status and position standing of women in traditional Africa, Hafkin and Hanson (1976: 59-60) reiterate that:
Women were treated with unparalleled respect because they were seen to be closer to the creator than men ever had the potential of being. This is because women themselves had the ability to create due to the fact that they were able to give birth. As creation of life, they were charged with the sacred responsibility of caring for the needs of the next generation, and because of this, they can be regarded as the originations of the idea that is now known as sustainable developments. Buttressing the above quotation, it is an in controvertible fact that societal sustainable development depends essentially on a solid family structure. In every society, the most important aspect of life and survival was a family. The...
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