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The African Woman in Discussion


The African Woman in Discussion

The picture often read about Africa and women outside the continent has never been fair in my opinion. When I first arrived in Europe in 2010, a conversation ensued that involved a French female. This new friend of mine stated categorically that in Africa we circumcise females. I couldn’t believe such a generalized conception of Africa. That experience (and of course many others) made me think of the image of Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world. Our traditional mode de vie is misunderstood and misinterpreted out there.

Such a view of Africa does not exist independently from the various institutions. It has had a general infiltration into the various world institutions, even in the church. When it comes to the discussion of the ordination of women (OW), the majority of Africans’ disdain of the matter has been judged as stemming from the culture. This notion is wrong, and in my previous article for Spectrum on February 20, 2015, I stated categorically: “I conclude that many Africans' positions against or for women's ordination must be seen as theological.”[1] I continue to maintain this position. Nevertheless, I do not deliberately deny the parochial sexists’ attitudes that often threaten women in some African cultures. This article highlights the status of the woman in Sub-Saharan African cultures.

The social status of African women

Women are human beings and most valuable in African communities. Professor Emeritus John Samuel Mbiti (November 30, 1931- present), a Kenyan theologian and religious philosopher wrote in his book, Flowers in the Garden: The Role of Women in African Religion, "the value of a woman begins when she is born, not when she gets married." Puberty rite for the young woman was a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. It was a ceremony to prepare the girl child for greater responsibilities in life, which is marriage. On the other hand, it was a means of conferring on the female child a public value. Contrary to western criticism as barbaric, puberty rite was the most honorable moment for the girl child, and to the parents, a symbol of good parenting.

Professor Mbiti’s book shares diverse African worldviews about the female gender. He stresses the value of the mother as the most important person in the family “as opposed to the non-married woman.”[2] A woman celibate has no important role in the society until she becomes a mother. Practically, being celibate as a woman was shameful and a pain to an African woman. Social dynamisms today have done little to put away the veil of shamefulness of the single woman without a husband.

Ante-colonial social status of the woman was in the home. Women were the homemakers. The various literatures on the African woman, as noted by Ian D. Ritchie, have touched on the “supportive role of women in African traditional societies, stressing her role as wife, child-bearer and mother.”[3] Even the early years of colonial education for the woman was fashioned to gain domestic virtues.[4] This has changed drastically as a result of modernization in Africa.

Economic status of African women

The majority of women did not enjoy the power of wealth because of their preoccupation as household managers. It is mostly men who worked to provide for the family. Women mostly worked in agriculture or trade but only for subsistence of the family. A woman’s wealth would come from the affluence of the husband. This has had both positive and negative effects on the woman. On the positive side, a woman and her children are taken care of with future prospects such as education, shelter, and better trade should the woman work. On the negative side, the woman becomes subjective or dependent which can lead to tyrannical manipulations from the man — though this is not often the case. And most women suffer loss in the event of death of the husband where a proper will may not have been written.

Things are different today. There are countless independent women who enjoy wealth from their own pursuits in life. Credits would go to the rise of education for women. In Africa today, there are women entrepreneurs and professionals from diverse educational fields. Women are striving to survive on their own even in marital homes.

Political status of African women

African politics is enshrined in the kingship. Kingship is not only masculine. Kings and queens rule in most African traditional societies. Even though democratically elected presidents now rule African states, kinship continues to exert much influence in the social lives of most African societies. In the South and West of the continent, kingship is powerful and the rulers command great authority.

Queens are leaders of power. In most cases, they can exercise absolute veto in matters relating to the kingship. For example, among the Akan people of West Africa, kings are installed by the approval of the queen mother. Without her consent, one cannot rule as a king. This applies also in the removal of the king. The queen advises the king on matters of the kingship.

History records a number of African queen warriors: Queen Amina of the Zaria people of Nigeria helped to expand and solidify the Zazzau kingdom; Candace of Ethiopia was a powerful military queen; Yaa Asantewaa of the Ashante people of Ghana led the Ashante army against the colonial British military.[5] In today’s Africa, many women continue to influence socio-economic and political policies.

African women in African Traditional Religion

Africa’s pre-colonial religion has been termed as African Traditional Religion (ATR). It is the religion of indigenous Africans prior to Christianity and Islam. The ATR involves belief in God, pantheon deities, spirits, ceremonies and festivals, values and moral practices. Functionaries lead the religion. These are individuals who have excellent knowledge about the religion and lead in diverse esoteric experiences.

Most important are the traditional priests. These are mediums of the gods who have received a special call to function as prophets, priests, healers, orthopedists, social reformers, exorcists, and advisers.[6] Mbiti observes: “In many areas there were (and still are) women priests (priestesses); almost everywhere in Africa the mediums (who are so important in traditional medical practice) are nearly always women; those who experience spirit possession are in most cases also women.”[7] There are other women who are singers in the religious liturgy. They play accompaniment instruments, clap, and dance to the music.

African women in African theological discussion

Discussions on women in theological discourses began from the post-colonial era. The Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians held in Accra in 1977 brought forth the need for equal integration of women in the church. The statement read:

Throughout this document, we have referred to the need to struggle against sexism. If that struggle is to be taken seriously by the church, then our seriousness will be reflected in the way we do theology. We recognize that African women have taken an active role in the church and in the shaping of our history. They have shown themselves to be a coherent part of the liberation struggle. But we cannot ignore their exclusion from our past theological endeavors. Therefore the future of African theology must take seriously the role of women in the church as equals in the doing of theology.[8]

The meeting in Accra brought great empowerment to African women in church activities and theological work. In 1989, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (CCAWT) was formed in Accra. Its formation came about when a group of women in the studies of religion and culture met at the World Council of Christian Churches (WCCC) in Geneva to discuss key roles women can play in African theology. The group was led by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanaian theologian and a director of a task force in promoting women theologies in Africa at the WCCC. The CCAWT “has had a profound influence on academic reflections in the discipline of theology, with particular reference to the dignity and role of women in the church and in society.”[9] It’s been noted that “women are prominent and their voices are heard and are taken seriously.”[10]

The voices of women in theology have been channeled through the liberation hermeneutics in African theology called feminist theology. Whereas the whole of the African theological agenda was a reaction to foreign oppression and Eurocentric theology, feminist theology has been a reaction to social injustice and inequality against the African woman from Africans. In the past thirty decades, feminist theology has become one of the transformative tools in shaping modern Africa. The fight against0 HIV/AIDs, child marriage, slavery, clitoridectomy, domestic violence against women, and education for female children are a few of the areas feminist theology has sought to address.

Ordination of Women in Africa

The various discussions on the OW have been driven by the liberational hermeneutics of African theology. Emmanuel Martey, a Presbyterian systematic theologian from Ghana has said: “The Church of Christ in Africa is facing more tremendous challenges than ever before. But to meet these challenges the church must first exorcise its own demons before it can ‘learn to do good, seek justice [and] correct oppression’ (Isaiah 1: 17). For example, the church cannot speak against the discrimination against African women in government or in the civil service if the church refuses to ordain women or excludes them from its hierarchy.”[11]

Accepting OW as pastors, bishops, and, priests is the most challenging feat for African theologians and churches. The continent can boast of uncountable women preachers. Women pastors are also common in Africa. In recent times, several independent churches have ordained women into the gospel ministry. For example, Glory and Hope Ministries International of Ghana in 2014 ordained two female pastors as overseers of the churches’ branches in the United Kingdom and Belgium.[12]

Of the mainstream denominations, a few allow the ordination of women, including the Anglican churches in Africa. According to a survey in 1997, out of 10 provinces of the Anglican Communion, only three are known for prohibiting the ordination of women. It has been confirmed “the question of ordination to the episcopacy Southern Africa and Sudan are both further advanced in the process of acceptance than England, Scotland, Wales, and Australia.”[13] It appears matrilineal societies like the Akan in Ghana and Southern Africa are more open to the ordination of women. However, some patriarchal societies in East and Central Africa, such as in Uganda and Kenya, have ordained women since 1983.[14]

Given the case of the Anglican Church, a contributing factor to the ordination of women in Africa may be attributed to its autonomous regional structure in church organization. The Seventh-day Adventist Church voted down a similar approach to the ordination of women in its 60th General Conference Session in San Antonio in 2015. When the church is independent from foreign guardianship, its decisions tend to solve immediate contextual needs as seen in the liberational movement in Africa.

The uncertainties of ordaining women have affected women’s interest in studying theology. The various seminaries have few or no females studying to become pastors or educators in theology. Theology is non-lucrative to African women.


This article has articulated on the pre-colonial and post-colonial status of women in Africa from socio-political and religious contexts. The objective has been to debunk the idea that Africa’s social experience is unfavorable to the OW. This notion is wrong and nothing more than a misinformation or misinterpretation of Africa’s socio-cultural structures. Women have a place in society, but their role in the pre-colonial era was in household affairs. It has been identified that the mother is the most important member of the family already noted by Professor Mbiti. She was the insurer of virtuous order in the home.

It has been reiterated of the pervasiveness of the queen mother’s role in the chieftaincy. Queen mothers are royal activists who exercise great power over the chieftaincy. As guardians of the institution, they have power to install or overthrow a king. In critical situations, queens have been identified as exercising their feminine abilities as warriors in battle. The queen mother’s role in the chieftaincy is not in isolation nor is it ceremonial. The chieftaincy itself is affiliated to her progeny.

Another aspect spoken about is the role of women in the religious cults. Religion is pervasive and important to Africans. Both men and women participate in the various rituals of the community. Religious leaders are not always male. Both women and men serve as traditional priests and priestesses. Sexism against the traditional priestesses has never been a subject for discussion. If anything at all, that should serve as substratum for OW in Africa and not a tool for criticism.

Lastly, African theology does recognize the contribution of women in the church and in the theological academy. The Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians held in Accra reiterated the role of women as co-equals. To discriminate against a woman from sharing this equality repudiates the whole theological agenda of the Accra conference in 1977.

In all spheres of Africans’ lives, women are considered associates and their respective roles duly recognized. It is true that patriarchal totalitarianism over women in Africa exists, but this is not exclusive from most world societies where women suffer humiliation from men. I again observe here that men’s authority and women’s submissiveness are often confounded to speak in negative terms against African culture, especially when it comes to the discussion of OW. The most important point is this: If Africans would retrieve inspiration from their own culture and the Bible, they would be more favorable to the OW even than the West.


Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi, originally from Ghana, is the pastor of Adventist Fellowship Geneva, and a PhD student in the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Image Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Notes & References:


[2]John Mbiti, “The Role of Women in African Traditional Religion”. ”

[3]Ian D. Ritchie, “African Theology and the Status of Women in Africa [a work in progress]” (May 25, 2001). Last visited 20. 07. 2017.

[4]This has not been only an African phenomenon but the West has to fight against such philosophies in the 17th centuries as seen in the debate between Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. See Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi, “Who Won the Debate in Women Education? Rousseau or Wollstonecraft?”Journal of Education and Practice, vol.7, No.6, 2016.

[5]List taken from: Last visited 20. 07. 2017.

[6]Kofi Appiah-Kubi. Man Cures, God Heals. New York: Friendship Press, 1981, pp. 30-40.

[7]Mbiti, “The Role of Women in African Traditional Religion”.

[8]Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians, December 17-23, 1977, Accra, Ghana.

[9]Rachel NyaGondwe Fiedler & Johannes Wynand Hofmeyr, "The Conception of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians: Is It African Or Western?" Acta Theologica, 2011 31(1), p. 40.

[10]Ritchie, “African Theology and the Status of Women in Africa [a work in progress]”

[11]Emmanuel Martey, 145.

[12]Daily Graphic, “Church ordains two female pastors for overseas branches”.

[13]Ritchie, “African Theology and the Status of Women in Africa [a work in progress]”



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