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On Ancestral (Dis)Connections

Que Bloco É Esse?

An excellent post over at Odinani: The Sacred Arts and Sciences of the Igbo People gives advice on “connecting to your ancestry”. I consider connecting with ancestry to be very important, and not just the ancestors that have passed away but the elders who are living and still on this earth. Marcus Garvey said, “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. I can’t say how much this phrase speaks to me, and the importance I attach to knowing where I’ve come from in order to move forward, to having at least some idea of my roots.

At the same time, I see so much disconnection. I’m sure this will not be the first time I’ve mentioned encountering Africans who know next to nothing about their own history. I’ve come to realise that even relatively modern history is at stake. Lately I’ve been plagued with so many thoughts, wondering about how much Africans, generally speaking, know about how those that came before us and how much do we distort their histories. I have also consider how this distortion could affect any forms of connection, learning, and moving forward.

Last week while hanging out with some people I know, I was told that it was expected for a man to hold open doors for women. Because I (obviously) don’t agree with waiting on men to open doors for me I was labelled too “Western”. Now, I’m used to been called Western and I wouldn’t be writing this if one lady didn’t go on to lecture me about how we, as Africans, need to let go of Western thinking while the others agreed with her. Then I was confused, since when did men opening doors become part of an African way of life? I thought expecting men to hold open doors for women was a strictly Western thing.The lady’s words were on replay in my mind, over and over.

Then I watched this short clip and I was surprised at the mention that “in the [Nigerian] past” women were expected to stay in the home and not do anything for themselves. This again struck me as odd, I found myself asking out loud “which past?”. My interest in African history, along with my need to learn as much as possible on women in African history, has resulted in my different view of what live was like for women in the past. Now I know enough to understand that nothing was ever the same, reading on the histories of the Mali Kingdom, or the Ashanti or the Igbo will suggest that women in those times had considerable amount of autonomy and power. However from what I have read about women in the Buganda kingdom had considerably less freedom as they were considered minors and had to have male guardians who were responsible for them in every sense of the word, except when these women were royalty then they had autonomy. Once again African history remains truly diverse and complex.

When Africans talk about the “past”, is this in reference to the past before colonialism, or the past after colonialism? It never fails to surprise me, the ways in which colonialism extremely changed lives and what we remember of the “past”. If in the “past” and traditionally, African women were expected to stay in their homes and serve no one but their husbands, how do we explain the existence of people like Madam Tinubu or Efunsetan Aniwura? How do we explain the women who regularly travelled across West Africa to trade, such as my grandmother who spent most of her life working as a trader in Ghana.

In reconnecting with and trying to understand the ancestors, I do not think it is always necessary to look so far into the past. I know I may be sounding like an old woman but I feel that today, young people are very disconnected from their elders. I’ve sat through meetings where rather than carrying the torch over from the older generations and continuing the proverbial struggle, we were sitting trying to come up with new ways to solve problems, thinking we were the pioneers. When it would have been much easier to pick some pointers from those who had been there before, years ago, and learn from their experience. I see it when I read articles on African politics and/or society, essays that are supposedly “radical” and saying what “needs to be said but all Africans are too cowardly to say” yet people said the exact same thing years ago in the 60s and 70s.

However, back to this issue of me being tainted by Western ideas of feminism. I resent this suggestion that I was sitting down waiting for white Western women to tell me about f*eminism when my sources of inspiration are much closer to home. I do not have to look far back in history, ticking off African women that rose against all odds when I happen to have grown around them. My mother and her friends, the majority of them divorced women or widows living in a society that resents women like them and will do anything to reduce their successes. These are women who raised entire families on their own, became wealthy through their own means and fought the patriarchy the best way they could. And, they are by far the least “Western” women I know in their ideas and life views. I wonder what the lady who told me to wait for a man to open a door for me would say if I told her that the African women I know split bills with their husbands and that no, no big bad Western feminist taught them to do this.

I have recently rediscovered a folder in which I kept academic article, after academic article on women in African history. While I find that what these researchers and academics write about the lives of African women past is extremely different from common lore today that wants to paint African women in history as abused and victimised under the hands of the big bad African man, I have found unusual sources of inspiration. Not to mention my friends who are older than me, in their 30s, 40s and who can sit down and give me advice that other 20 year olds can’t have become invaluable to me as I try to navigate the world as a young Black African woman.

As someone once said to me, thanks to European colonisation, a lot of Africans have become Victorian in their thinking. It is my opinion that sorting through the misinformation and connecting with the past is the best way to understand what exactly is and/or isn’t part of an African philosophy. However, a lot of the work on Africa’s past is done by Western academics, and this could prove a hurdle in reaching people as they could label it as “Western” in the end. But nothing is ever easy.

In conclusion here’s a quote from E. Frances White’s, “Creole Women Traders in the Nineteenth Century”, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1981), pp. 626- 642

As the Nova Soctian women before them, Yoruba women brought to Sierra Leone a flexible attitude towards marital bonds. Robert LeVine and others report that Yoruba women divorce frequently, often seeking more advantageous relations. He maintains that they have the freedom to do this because they are economically independent of their husbands. Although the British expected recaptive men to support their wives, the Yoruba women set about insuring their own livelihoods and contributing to the family economy, a course which must have seemed natural to them. [emphasis mine]


  1. Wonderful post. Its been amazing how some of us have been under colonial influence for so long, that we don’t know anything else but that. I’m pretty sure that if we were able to use a time machine to go back to the past (like 500 years ago), we would be pretty shocked by the “traditions” that we would be observing.

    1. Thank you very much for this comment! I agree with you on the time machine, there was a time when I was ignorant to believe that any African going back in time would automatically become a slave but the truth is so different from that.

  2. Nice reflection…coming from two sides, a black nationalist African American grandfather who longed to travel to the Continent to get a taste of the language and culture that he was “stripped” of, and my Faith Tabernacle pastor Nigerian grandfather, who for sure reaped some benefits in colonialization in the creation and growth of his congregation…it’s interesting to think about who I really am. In a sense, I know more who I am on the Diaspora side than I do the Nigerian side…further back, at least. It’s the grand paradox of it all…

    1. Great paradox indeed. A lot of us are still struggling to make sense of who we are, and adding history into the whole mix usually brings even more complication.

  3. I totally agree that we have a misguided view of our own past and history education in Nigeria is seriously lacking!
    My maternal grandmother is an Egba woman and she had two husbands and did not live with either of them for most of her life. Independence in Nigerian women is not so far back in our history and people need to realise this.

    1. My maternal grandmother is an Egba woman and she had two husbands and did not live with either of them for most of her life.

      This is so awesome, your grandmother sounds like a badass person. Then again Egba women seemed to have the most independence, most of the well-known Yoruba women in history today were Egba.

  4. great post! reminds me of constant arguments i get into with a frat brother of mine from nigeria. he has a habit of labeling things distinctly “african” whenever we get into a debate, and insists that i–with my diasporic afro-caribbean roots–just don’t understand. (never mind that “africa” is a pretty damn big and diverse continent, and that a cultural trait being “african” doesn’t say much, any more than “american” can possibly speak for everyone from nova scotia to argentina) many of the things he lists under the heading “african” just appear to be european/western norms–about sexuality, gendered roles, religion, etc. but as i remind him, i come from a former colony of the union jack as well—and i know a set of victorian era morality hang-ups (i.e., british colonial anti-homosexual laws in uganda bizzarely readapted as modern pan-african resistance), when i see them. i’ve tried to use history and anthro in my arguments, but his ironic reply is —“those were written by westerners and what i have is passed down.” i just always wonder, as you allude to here, passed down since *when?* colonisation…like a russian matryoshka doll, it comes in layers.

  5. mind you, i’m not arguing here for any notion of *authentic* african culture, as i don’t know any such thing as “authenticity” exists and can be pinned down or defined in any culture–given that human societies have long interacted with each other, even before colonialism. african polities and states after all were both being influenced by, and influencing in turn, the european and eastern cultures they had been trading with for centuries. still, what is ironic is people like my frat brother (like those people you meet who talk so assertively about the “past”) insists that he *has* access to authenticity, only it seems suspiciously suited to earl grey and crumpets. still, this is not a one-way street. the metropole was also affected by culture from the colonies. even more interesting, as colonies adapted culture from their colonizers, it provoked issues of identity in the metropole itself. if west indians, east indians, nigerians and iraqis were all sipping tea and acting out shakespeare, what is it some pondered, that made the english distinctly…english? the colonies dominance, and reformation, of cultural traits like cricket especially challenged the metropole’s perceptions of self. there’s a great book by a kenyan author, simon gikandi, called ‘maps of englisness: writing identity in the culture of colonialism’ that explores this reverse direction. interesting stuff…

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. No offense but your frat brother does sound like a perfect example of the “African with Victorian sensibilities”. A lot of us do not acknowledge or believe that we are suffering from identity crises, just like other Africans in the Diaspora, because we feel firmly grounded in our languages and our “traditions”. We ignore the fact that, like Nwa-Ikenga said, if we were able to use a time machine to go back to the past (like 500 years ago), we would be pretty shocked by the “traditions” that we would be observing.

      I have found that when Africans let go of this veneer of superiority that affects a lot of us, they’ll find that we do share so much in common with Diasporic Africans. I wish more of us would wake up and realise that what has been “passed down” is mostly corrupted. It is so strange and frustrating how by trying to distance ourselves from “Western” ideas, we seem to just be allowing an invisible Western hand to guide us through our identities. Like you said it comes in layers, extremely bizarre layers that confuse and confound in turn. We clearly do not know as much about our ancestors are we think we do, and I’ve found that Africans in the Diaspora sometimes have a firmer grip on traditions, especially when it comes to African religion and the way it is practiced.

      Like you, I don’t know if “authenticity” truly exists. The sooner we recognise the flexibility of our cultures the better. Thanks to colonialism, it seems that Africans have always been so rigid in our “tribes”, not welcoming anyone else in. This is such a painful lie because ignoring European and Eastern influences, ideas and customs have been travelling within the continent for a long time. In the past it was possible to effectively “change” ethnic groups, now people cannot imagine this reality.

      I will check out Simon Gikandi’s work.

      1. no offense taken. he has strong victorian tendencies, and i’ve told him as much…though he continuously tries to couch in being “African.” doesn’t mean we aren’t close, but he’s a walking kehinde wiley painting. this is a great convo!

        1. Lol @ “a walking Kehinde Wiley painting”. I’ve been thinking about others ways in which imperialist terms and notions have come to affect the way Africans view each other through our insistence in using the word “tribe”.

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