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African Women Taking Role as Chief

Powerful females have not been easily accepted, but traditions are changing.

March 07, 2004|Dina Kraft | Associated Press Writer

RAMOTSWA, Botswana — The village elder holds up the skin of a leopard against a vast, cloudless sky and a hush falls over the crowd of thousands. The skin is the symbol of absolute power.

For generations, it has passed from father to son -- but on this day, it spills over the head and shoulders of a woman, who has become the Balete people's first female paramount chief.

As African women take on new roles in modern life, their position in traditional society is expanding into a domain long the stronghold of men.

Chiefs, monarchs and regents across much of the continent have been almost exclusively male in accordance with customs of clearly defined and distinct spheres of influence between the sexes: public roles for men, domestic ones for women.

But beneath animal skins, feathered headdresses and the outer vestiges of traditional power, some women have had a voice.

In Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarch declared that his mother -- the ndlovukati, or she-elephant -- serves as his equal. A queen ruled the constitutional monarchy of Lesotho for 20 years, and female chiefs are common in its rural villages. In Ghana, queen mothers can nominate chiefs, kings and, in some cases, even impeach them.

For the most part, though, powerful women have not been easily accepted in traditional societies.

Those notions of a woman's place also affect female roles in government. In all of Africa's 54 countries, not a single woman has ever been president, and only a few have ever served as prime minister or vice president.

As Cabinet members, women tend to get less visible offices such as health and education. Only a handful have been foreign and finance ministers.

In traditional communities, women often wield their power behind the scenes, negotiating disputes between the ruling men and selecting marriage partners for the royal household.

"Women often mediate rivalry between men; they are often the power behind the throne," said David Copland, an anthropologist at Wits University in Johannesburg.

But the selection of Mosadi Seboko as paramount chief of Botswana's Balete people shows that centuries-old customs are bending. Dressed in pale pink silk and pearls, the former bank manager who reared four daughters as a single mother peered out from under her spotted leopard mantle, heavy with the traditions of her ancestors.

Starting on a new path, she thanked her elders for appointing her. "Many see within me a chance to bring change and the rebirth of our tribe," she said. "Through wisdom and the will of the brave, that new history is being charted."

In South Africa, women have been de-facto chiefs in many rural areas in recent times, serving in place of sons after the deaths of their husbands. Sometimes it is because the sons are too young, or because they are working or studying in the city.

Mathokwana Mopeli, from Kwa Kwa in central South Africa, is one of the highest ranking traditional leaders. A regent who has served for her son, she was recently appointed by the ruling African National Congress as a district mayor. "Women are really serious about their roles now," Mopeli said. "[Men] realize they cannot be without us. They realize we push until the [end] and leave no stone unturned."

Sometimes the source of women's influence in traditional life is spiritual. In Zimbabwe, women are often highly regarded in the community as spirit mediums -- believed to be intermediaries between the physical and spiritual worlds.

The Balobedu tribe in a corner of lush hill country in South Africa is ruled by the rain queen. One of the few tribes in Africa to have a female line of succession, it believes that the queen has magical powers passed on by her mother and other ancestors, allowing her to transform clouds and create rain. So feared were the rain queen's powers through the centuries that the tribe was left in relative peace despite wars raging around them.

Custom prohibits the rain queen from marrying, but she can have relations with men for the sake of procreation. She instead takes "wives" -- women who serve her and whose children are considered hers.

Still, while the rain queen is monarch, decisions for the tribe are made by a council of men.

Women's status is linked to fertility, and many of the important rainmakers on the continent have traditionally been women, said Isak Niehauss, professor of anthropology at the University of Pretoria.

"In agrarian societies, the fertility of the soil is linked to the fertility of women," he said.

In old African societies, women had specific tasks like planting and harvesting, while men were responsible for plowing and raising livestock. Men were not even allowed to make decisions about women.

In traditional societies, "men and women have very different lives.... It was under colonialism that men and women's spheres became the same," Niehauss said.

Often, however, women's status decreased under outside influences, he said.

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