Hymn to Isis
For I am the first and the last
I am the venerated and the despised
I am the prostitute and the saint
I am the wife and the virgin
I am the mother and the daughter
I am the arms of my mother
I am barren and my children are many
I am the married woman and the spinster
I am the woman who gives birth
and she who never procreated
I am the consolation for the pain of birth
I am the wife and the husband
And it was my man who created me
I am the mother of my father
I am the sister of my husband
And he is my rejected son
Always respect me
For I am the shameful and the magnificent one
– 3rd or 4th century CE, “discovered” in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, 19471
Not a Fairy Tale
All tales ostensibly have a beginning and an end. Some sagas continue in endless cycles of narration, like waves in the ocean, drawing energies from the infinite collective. This essay is one such story, drawing on the wisdoms of the past and present, and hoping to offer at least one spring daisy to the future. The many herstories of anti-patriarchal struggles should highlight the endurance of matricentrism before and during patriarchy, the plethora of diverse societies across the continent, and fractals of indigenous matricentric societies around the world.2
African feminisms have historically largely opposed, ignored or skirted the reality of matricentric societies, with all their contradictions and other survival mechanisms. As recently as twenty years ago, several renowned African feminist academics based in Cape Town at the time, fearful of being written off by patriarchy, asserted that then-nascent studies into indigenous matricentric societies were illusory, that the matricentric was a myth. Yet the ancient family stories and realities lived not only in indigenous heads but in our very bones. These stories and realities are now increasingly finding their ways into publications by diverse African feminists all narrating their matrilineal societies.3
This article will reflect on some of the many African societies that are matricentric today, some of the central tenets of their egalitarianisms, and how we can mainstream these learnings into our thinking and practices for co-creating alternatives to the dominant capitalist heteropatriarchy. This essay deploys decolonising methodologies common to indigenous feminisms – including those of elders Ifi Amadiume4, Linda Tuhiwai Smith5 and Barbara Alice Mann6 – as indigenous African feminists continue to develop our own publications that reclaim the matricentric.
Most mammalian life stems from a womb, from the maternal. The English word “mammal” is derived from the Latin mamma or “breast”. Human life springs from the womb, from the mother, mitochondrial DNA a genetic gift from mother to daughter ad infinitum. Based on these matrilineal genes, geneticists, archaeologists and other scientists assert that all human life stems not only from the vast continent of Africa (such as East African “Lucy”) but specifically from the Kalahari or Kgalagadi, a semi-arid region that straddles six southern African countries.7 An area that some 200,000 years ago is said to have been an oasis, literally and metaphorically. Since the onset of genocidal and other depredations of European colonialisms8 in the region, the Kalahari has been the habitat of the San people, pejoratively known as “Bushman”, or people who live in the bush. “San”, however, means human, person, Homo sapien.
Quentin Atkinson, a biologist and linguist from New Zealand who analyses the basic elements of words, called phonemes, postulates that human language stems from the Kalahari San, based on the proliferation of click sounds.9 Tracing the first human, the first woman, and the first language to the Kalahari San is important for a number of reasons. The San societies are known to be matrilineal, matrifocal and matricentric, centred around the feminine. Lineage is traced from mother to daughter. This is distinct from patriarchal societies where lineage is traced from father to son, a hierarchical society in which the feminine is reviled in favour of the phallic. By contrast with patriarchy, the matricentric San practice social and gender egalitarianism, with elected rather than hereditary leaders of any gender.
Chicken or Egg: Mater Pater Arche
The word “patriarchy” is derived from its Greek roots, pater and arche, which can be translated as “father rule”, and interpreted as the rule of men over other men, women and children. The rule of men over land, seas, skies. This dominating attitude is encouraged and codified in the three Abrahamic monotheisms that strongly influenced the constitution of the colonial mind when reading their religious texts (the Torah, the Bible, the Koran). This hierarchical devaluating pattern is explicitly stated in the Bible, that men’s responsibility is to dominate the Earth, women, children, slaves, animals and other possessions (Gen. 1:28).
Heide Goettner-Abendroth argues that, since women are the sources of all human life, women do not need to rule over others, as the men who generate patriarchy feel the need to.10 For Goettner-Abendroth, the meaning of matriarchy is not to be understood as “mother rule”, but as “mother in the beginning”. Also derived from Greek roots, mater and arche, but arche is interpreted in the alternative definition of “in the beginning”, “in the principle” or even “at the origin.” In other words: this womb from where we all root. I prefer to avoid using the term “matriarchy”, since it is usually assumed to be the opposite of patriarchy, with women oppressing men. Instead, I deploy the more descriptive word “matricentric” to refer to women-centred societies that exist around the world to this day, despite patriarchal onslaughts.
Indigenous is Not One Village, Africa is Not a Country
Decolonisation and the restoration of our ancient and existing indigenous knowledge are significant, given the matricentric communities that still exist across every continent, and notably in Africa, including Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
As the second-largest and second-most-populous continent after Asia, Africa covers 6 percent of the Earth’s total surface area and 20 percent of its land area. Its over 1.3 billion people account for almost 17 percent of the world’s total population.11 With more than 50 countries, and up to 3,000 different languages still spoken, Africa is an embodiment of diversities. Having faced patriarchal colonisations from different parts of the world and over various time periods, Africa has shifting herstories and political-economic geographies. These rainbows of matricentricity are visible in the blue-eyed Kabyle or Berbers of the North African deserts12, the tall Dagara or Dagaaba of West Africa, and my own matrilineal San of the Kalahari.
The Algerian Malika Grasshoff (pseudonym Makilam) demonstrates that women’s magic was expressed in every domain of their Kabyle lives, their traditional society incapable of functioning without women who ensured its material and spiritual unity.13 Malidoma Some14 and Sobonfu Some15 of the Dagara variously discuss their matrilineal and gender-fluid culture, as does Nigerian Ifi Amadiume and increasingly more people across this immense birth continent of humankind.
Given the vastness of diversities and herstories, patriarchal colonisations, slaveries and dispossession, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007), in Article 31, affirms that:
- Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions…
- Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures.
Thus, when I speak of my mother’s healing herbs and her people’s matricentricity, it is my chosen identity or membership, in a moment in all its heterogeneous polymorphous polyvocality. Ironically supported by the United Nations and UNDRIP since at least 2007, we indigenous speak for and define ourselves.16
For some twenty years, we indigenous matricentric women around the world have explored the concept of Rematriation:
Rematriation of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and natural and other resources, instead of the more Patriarchally associated Repatriation. Going back to Mother Earth, to life and co-creation, rather than Patriarchal destruction and colonisation. As a restorative imperative, it is most relevant to feminists in general, since we, like Native peoples, need to reclaim our Feminist ancestry, feminist spirituality, feminist culture/s, knowledge and control over natural and other resources. We need to chart paths that are not mere alternatives to HeteroPatriarchalCapitalisms, but entirely reconfigure our cosmos, Rematriate our societies.17
Two decades later, in 2020, delightfully, there are websites and other publications devoted to Rematriation as an indigenous imperative.18 The key principles of Modern Matriarchal Studies, according to Heide Goettner Abendroth, are: it is concrete rather than abstract in the world; it is not mother rule but non-hierarchical; it is based on consensus through systems of councils that are grassroots, consultative, participatory democracy; distribution (sharing) versus accumulation (hoarding); meeting needs versus power over; compassionate rather than selfish; radically oriented towards life rather than the patriarchal war industries; with political action always spiritual rather than the patriarchal detachment of the Enlightenment. Science, politics and spirituality are all connected.19
Ifi Amadiume speaks of matriarchitarianism, which she sees as less of a totalitarian patriarchal Eurocentric equivalent or opposite, and more as an alternative social structure deeply rooted in indigenous and African kinship20, a “paradigmatic pluralism in thought systems and social formations”21. She uses the term “matriarchal umbrella” to refer to inclusive traditional societies of protective women’s culture, headed by matriarchs: women-generated socio-cultural institutions that historically have empowered and benefited all women in specific societies and cultures in Africa through women’s solidarity.22 Amadiume speaks of the necessity for feminist indigenous scholarship to be interdisciplinary and intersectional, including spirituality, and even prophecy. For Amadiume, “the matri-centric unit is the smallest kinship unit. Its material basis is concrete and empirical, while the material and ideological basis of patriarchy embodies a contradiction. Patriarchy is disputable since fatherhood is a social construct.”23 Amadiume advocates for matriarchitarianism as an indigenous movement, rematriating activisms back to our centre, our core, our African calabash.24
There is often confusion about the patriarchal hierarchisation of genders and sexualities, which in indigenous societies has always been considered fluid and dynamic. Similarly, with notions of parenting, motherhood, fatherhood and kinship, none of the roles are rigid or exclusive. To transcend the myriad of issues around any biological essentialism of “mother”, Genevieve Vaughan proposes “motherer”, so that anyone, irrespective of gender identities, can choose or be elected to “mother”, to be a motherer, nurturer, or to raise children. In many indigenous societies, including across Africa, the maternal uncle raises the boy children or male-identified children, at times called a “male mother”. Amadiume uses the gender-neutral Ibo term ya. Evo Morales from Bolivia refers to himself as a “matriarchal man” from an indigenous matriarchal people.
Zambia and Malawi are two other countries with matrilineal, and arguably matricentric, peoples, where a person is described through their relatives. For example, if I am related to the male in the family, I will be called by masculine terms irrespective of my biological sex, and I become an uncle, and so on.25 Thus indigenous genders, and indeed sexualities, are fluid.
European anthropologists record up to 13 genders in some Native American societies. That is typical nonsense. The varieties of expressions of genders and sexualities are dynamic and infinite and beyond colonial abacuses.26
Matricentric social structure and social values are inextricably interdependent. Egalitarianism and fluidities of all things are at its core: social, gender, generational, sexualities, all ad infinitum.
Patriarchal colonisation ideologically imposed gendered hierarchies and reviled beyond-heteronormative sexualities. So, too, the notion of a male human being or humanity (e.g., Rights of Man) as the centre of the cosmos, and even a male god (e.g., patriarchal Abrahamic monotheistic religions and patriarchalised ancient religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which at root are either multi-gendered or beyond gender). Like the Dagara and many other indigenous peoples, the Kalahari San have female deities or dual-gender deities.27 One Kalahari healer, Ma Meneputo, describes her carefree childhood hunting small animals like rabbits and young buck with a bow and arrow, and making and playing with dolls.28 No Euro-formed binaried colour-coded games for her. When she does healing circles, it is her lifelong male partner who holds a space for her, gently offering her water as she emerges from the trance state, a form of care that patriarchy inverts to have the domesticated enslaved wife care for her conqueror hero Prince Patriarch.
In several African countries, especially older childless women enter into traditional marriages with younger women, procreate and raise children, an arrangement that transcends heteronormative patriarchy, and is extensively written about by Amadiume and others.29
Many Euro-formed social scientists studiously count genders in indigenous societies, always trying to label and classify, box, imprison. The notion of LGBTQQIA+ (referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and other related identifications) in human rights advocacy and research is also disconsonant with indigenous fluidities, where a human can potentially love other humans at any moment in time and circumstance. We are left trying at best to act freely within a rigid oppressive patriarchy that restricts our choices to alphabet letters when life in reality is a continuous series of breaths, or like the indistinct colours of the rainbow that flow into one another like drops in liquid. For the indigenous matricentric, fluidity is preferred to hierarchies and domination.
Nonviolence and peace, carefully codified through centuries of complex conflict-resolution methodologies, are intrinsic to matricentric societies, as evinced in the plethora of colonial texts referring to, for instance, “the peaceful Bushman”. Cooperation and collectivity rather than competition and rampant individualisms. Creativities rather than the rigidities of Roman-Dutch law, rules and roles.
The Gift Paradigm, in which needs are met through unilateral gifting, without patriarchal reciprocity or bartering, is a critical element of matricentric societies.30 Here, generosity is practised over patriarchal selfishness and greed. Connected to all of this is Love or Compassion, “com-passion”, feeling-with, akin to the African notion of Ubuntu, in which I am because I belong, I am because I care. To be compassionate, to love, one needs trust and respect. Love of self and all can be contrasted with patriarchal self-loathing and systemic distrust and hatred of all, seen for example in the proliferation of firearms and mass shootings, especially in the United States and mostly perpetrated by white men.
One needs women, and motherers of all varieties, at the centre of societies, co-creating social values and practices that are humane and nonviolent, that nurture and foster individual and collective growth, that heal and care, that do no harm and definitely do not exploit. Interconnectedness and interdependence can be juxtaposed with psychotic patriarchal cleavages, separating the head from heart, top from bottom, the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” versus an indigenous “I care and belong, therefore I am”.
Indigenous societies have compassionate spiritualities at their core, with feminine or dual-gender deities rather than a vengeful, raging patriarchal deity that inspires fear over love. Indigenous people are often called naïve for being trusting, honest and transparent. This indigenous behaviour is very different from, for example, a Viennese masked-ball31 artifice that relies on masks and layers of obfuscation. The “naïve” Native relates to other indigenous as kin, rather than the extractive gazes and practices of the colonial. These are some of the basic elements of the indigenous matricentric for which our burning planet is in desperate need.
In conclusion, someindigenous scholars and activists have for decades wrestled withmainstream feminists,including in Africa, perceiving the latter asresistant, elitist,deeply immersed in patriarchal institutions of the academy and donor-funding, and thus fearful of upsetting their careful positionalities and hard-won privileges within the patriarchy. We must continue to challenge the ways in which even the African feminist mainstream centres the normative: for example, the patriarchal abhorrence of the matricentric and of gender and sexuality fluidities, as well as the ways in which other intersectionalities (including socio-economic class and education) are privileged and advanced in leading African feminist circles.
Not only should we rematriate our historically derided indigenous siblings, but so too we should critically review our relationship with the majority of women everywhere, majority women dispossessed by patriarchy and at times exploited for their knowledge and experience by the academy, NGOs and activists. These (even unintentionally) elitist African and other feminisms should of necessity re-centre the majority of women who have been historically marginalised by intersectional oppressions. Liberation, rather than transformation, will only be attained through concerted actions by and for the majority. Thus, privileged African and/or indigenous feminists, including I, should relinquish power and work in solidarity with the majority of “ordinary” women hitherto ignored, exploited and abused, quotidian women who must and will lead the struggles towards post-patriarchal egalitarianisms. Women, including the indigenous.
In the words of Ma Meneputo, Kalahari San healer:
The San people found power in the light of the moon. The ancients made a queen and hoisted her up into the sky where she became the moon. The people danced in the light of the moon. This is where we found (find) our healing power.32
May our Moon inspire us to continue Rematriation, a return to the Mater, the Mother/er, the Uterus, where beginning and end are all one.
- Translated by Paolo Coehlo, https://paulocoelhoblog.com/2012/05/30/hymn-to-isis-3rd-or-4th-century-bc/. Isis is an ancient African deity whose worship spread to the Greco-Roman world from the 4th century BCE.
- See, for example, the work of Ifi Amadiume, including Afrikan Matriarchal Foundations: The Igbo Case (New Jersey: Red Sea Press, 1987/2005); Male Daughters,Female Husbands: Gender And Sex in an African Society (London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd, 1987/2015); Reinventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture (London and New York: Zed Books, 1997); Daughters of the Goddess, Daughters of Imperialism: African Women, Culture, Power and Democracy (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 2000).
- For example, Yaliwe Clarke and Chaze Matakala from Zambia, Namibia’s Elizabeth Xhaxhas, and Mozambican Paula Assubuji.
- Ifi Amadiume, “Gender, Political Systems and Social Movements: A West African Experience,” inAmadiume, Reinventing Africa (1997): 109–143; “Religion, Sexuality and Women’s Empowerment in Nwapa’s The Lake Goddess,” in Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa: Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by M. Umeh (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998): 515–529; “Blood Solidarity, Bodies of Power: Framing Sexuality and Agency in African Matriarchal Cultures” (Keynote Lecture, for section on Body Languages – Body Signs, Bremen, International Women’s University, IFU, Hanover, Germany 2000); “Bodies, Choices, Globalizing Neocolonial Enchantments: African Matriarchs and Mammy Water,” Meridians 2, no. 2 (2002): 41–66; “Prophecy, Authenticity, Oppositional Models: Writers and Politics in Africa,” The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 5–25; “Let My Work Not Be in Vain: Doing Matriarchy, Thinking ‘Matriarchitarian’ with Africa in the Twenty-first Century,” in Africa and the Challenges of the Twenty-first Century, edited by Ebrima Sall (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2015); “Women and Development in Africa,” SGI Quarterly (January 2005); “Theorizing Matriarchy in Africa: Kinship Ideologies and Systems in Africa and Europe, in African Gender Studies: A Reader, edited by O. Oyěwùmí (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005): 83–98.
- Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London and New York: Zed, 1999).
- Barbara Alice Mann, “Rematriation of the Truth,” presented at Women’s Worlds, Ottawa, Canada, 6 July 2011; Daughters of Mother Earth: The Wisdom of Native American Women (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006); Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (New York: Peter Lang, 2004).
- Michael Slezak, “Found: Closest Link to Eve, Our Universal Ancestor,” New Scientist, 8 October 2014, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429904-500-found-closest-link-to-eve-our-universal-ancestor; Garvan Institute of Medical Research, “The Homeland of Modern Humans,” phys.org, 28 October 2019, https://phys.org/news/2019-10-homeland-modern-humans.html; Shaun Smillie, “Origins of Modern Man Revealed: Africa is in Us All,” Daily Maverick, 29 October 2019, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-10-29-origins-of-modern-man-revealed-africa-is-in-us-all.
- Colonialisms is used in the plural to reference its different forms, i.e., British, French, Portuguese, German.
- Nicholas Wade, “Phonetic Clues Hint Language is Africa-Born,” New York Times, 14 April 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/science/15language.html?_r=1.
- Heide Goettner-Abendroth, Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past Present and Future (Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009); “Matriarchal Society and the Gift Paradigm: Motherliness as an Ethical Principle,” in Women in the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview is Possible, edited by Genevieve Vaughan (Toronto: Inanna, 2007).
- Worldometer, Population: Africa, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/africa-population, accessed 14 September 2020.
- Malika Grasshoff (Makilam), http://www.makilam.com.
- Malika Grasshoff (Makilam), The Magical Life of Berber Women in Kabylia (New York: Peter Lang, 2007).
- Malidoma Patrice Some, The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community (New York: Putnam, 1998); Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman (New York: Penguin, 1994).
- Sobonfu Some, Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community (Novato, CA: New World Library,1999); The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships. (New York: Harper Collins, 1999).
- “Ironic” because the very formation of the United Nations and its precursor, the League of Nations, served as vehicles for victorious post-war colonial powers to carve up the world, its peoples and their resources.
- Bernedette Muthien, “Rematriation of Women-Centred (Feminist) Indigenous Knowledge” (PowerPoint presentation at Women’s Worlds Conference, Ottawa, Canada, July 3–7, 2011), http://www.gift-economy.com/articlesAndEssays/rematriation.pdf.
- See Rematriation Magazine: Returning the Sacred to the Mother, https://rematriation.com; Rematriating Borikén, https://rematriatingboriken.com/rematriation.
- Goettner-Abendroth, Societies of Peace.
- Amadiume, Afrikan Matriarchal Foundations.
- Amadiume, Bodies, Choices.
- Amadiume, Afrikan Matriarchal Foundations; Reinventing Africa.
- Muthien, “Rematriation”.
- Riane Eisler’s “chalice” is a European equivalent; see her The Chalice & the Blade: Our History, Our Future (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988).
- Yaliwe Clarke, “Re-imagining Fluidity: Gender and Africanity” (presented at the Colloquium Celebrating 30 Years of Ifi Amadiume’s Award-winning Text: Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, Rhodes University, South Africa, September 2017); “Considering ‘Gender Fluidity’ in Zambia and Uganda: Femininities, Marriage and Social Influence,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies (forthcoming).
- Bernedette Muthien, “Queerying Borders: An Afrikan Activist Perspective,” in Twenty-First Century Lesbian Studies, edited by Katherine O’Donnel and Noreen Giffney (New York: Routledge, 2007): 321–330; “Playing on the Pavements of Identities,” in Performing Queer: Shaping Sexualities 1994–2004, edited by Melissa Steyn and Mikki van Zyl (Cape Town: Kwela, 2008); “Heteronormativity in the African Women's Movement,” Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights Newsletter 79, no. 2 (2003), http://www.engender.org.za/publications/heteronormativity.html.
- Bernedette Muthien, “The KhoeSan and Partnership: Beyond Patriarchy and Violence” (Master’s thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2008).
- Marlene Sullivan Winberg, Healing Hands: Interview with !Xun San Healer Meneputo Manunga, South African San Institute, Kimberley, n.d.
- E.g. Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands.
- Genevieve Vaughan, Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview is Possible (Toronto: Inanna, 2007). See other resources at Gift Economy, http://gift-economy.com
- Julia Teresa Friehs, “Viennese masquerades,” The World of the Habsburgs, accessed 17 December 2020, https://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/viennese-masquerades.
- In Winberg, Healing Hands.