Celebrating Africa’s Pink Leadership Wave, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
Currently, Africa is experiencing a pink wave of women’s leadership that needs to be celebrated and emulated. Specifically, Ethiopia and Rwanda are positioned to lead the rest of the continent out of the present male-dominated dead-end governance we’ve been saddled with since independence. Half of the Ethiopian cabinet is now female.
The African Woman trope here is well known. Until recently when African female writers, international bureaucrats, and highly-accomplished female immigrants started becoming visible on news outlets and social media, academia and the media clung to a character called the “African woman”, who is usually dispossessed, malnourished, and impoverished. This character is the same, regardless of what part of Africa she lives in, or what century she comes from. You would not recognise your businesswoman mother, or your weaver grandmother, or school mistress aunt in this character constructed to represent half of the people who live on the continent of Africa. She’s never been to school and does not seem to influence her environment or take advantage of the opportunities her society offers her. Thankfully, things are changing for the better. This is not to overlook or minimise cultural practices that are inimical to African women’s growth and contributions, but narrating the lives of African women as a perpetual disaster, either out of willful ignorance or racism, just to strengthen the argument for Africa’s underdevelopment is dishonest and nefarious. Scholars and writers who engage in these fantasies follow the Western model of writing about Africa for the last five hundred years. I go to a beautiful small library in Durham, tucked away in a sleepy suburban housing division. It hosts a tiny collection of books on Africa which have titles like “Prisoner in the Garden,” “First Jihad,” “Scramble for Africa,” “White Man’s Conquest,” “Shackled Continent,” “Troubled Heart of Africa,” “Somebody’s Heart Is Burning,” “Country of my Skull”; jarring words that paint Africa negatively as a place of danger and distress. Any of my fellow Durhamites who knows nothing about Africa and wants to learn about the continent will be introduced to it by this sort of books. No other continent is this maligned.
Currently, Africa is experiencing a pink wave of women’s leadership that needs to be celebrated and emulated. Specifically, Ethiopia and Rwanda are positioned to lead the rest of the continent out of the present male-dominated dead-end governance we’ve been saddled with since independence. Half of the Ethiopian cabinet is now female. Meaza Ashenafi, a lawyer and women’s rights advocate has just been appointed the president of Ethiopian Federal Supreme Court, the highest court of the land. She was the founder of Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and the first Women’s Bank, which makes loans to support women’s entrepreneurship. Also, Ethiopian lawmakers unanimously voted for the first woman, Sahle-Work Zewde, to be the president of Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Airlines, probably the best in Africa, regularly has an all-women crew. A few years ago, this crew flew the Addis Abba-Lagos route, and since then have flown international long hauls to Brazil, Thailand and Argentina, piloting the Boeing 787 Dreamliner capable of accommodating three hundred and thirty passengers. The CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, Tewolde Gebremariam, in remarks, said women are the most important untapped resource on our continent, a perspective full of wisdom that needs to be imbibed by male leaders in Africa. Zimbabwe and South Africa are also countries with all-female flight crews. Captains Chipo Matimba and Elizabeth Simbi Petros, proud daughters of Zimbabwe, were pilots of an Air Zim 737 flight from Harare to Victoria Falls.
In Rwanda, women make up more than half of the parliamentarians, a feat unknown anywhere in the so-called developed world. One of the theories about Africa’s underdevelopment is that historically we had no highly developed civilisation within the continent to influence its rest, that we all slept with our heads in the same direction, that we had no princely neighbours in shining armour to show us examples of good governance and technology and influence our thinking, like the Greeks or Romans did for Western Civilisation or China in Asia. We are in the 21st Century, and two African countries have made the commitment to elevate women into high office, a decision that would determine and change the direction and priorities of those countries. The rest of us cannot pretend not to notice. It has implications for every single country on the continent, especially for Nigeria, which has the highest population of black people in the world, and calls itself the “Giant of Africa,” a title reeking of buffoonery because the only thing that seems to be giant in Nigeria is stupendous corruption, incompetence, and a lack of vision. We cannot be a true “Giant” unless we have a developed country with women participating at all levels of government. As it is now, male leadership has failed the country.
We need to harness the power of women on our continent. The changes in Rwanda and Ethiopia should be the light leading us out of the reign of sit-tight, anti-democratic men who care nothing for their people while they and their cronies gorge on the national patrimony.
Chairman Mao Zedong said women hold up half of the sky, a proverb that affirms the critical importance of women in development. In the Yoruba mythological story of creation, the goddess Osun was the only female Orisa among the original seventeen sent to earth to kick-start life on the planet. All the male orisa ignored her as they embarked on their testosterone-driven work to create life on earth. Well, things were not going well. Nothing was right, no matter how hard they tried, so they went back to Olodumare, the high God who sent them on this errand. They told Olodumare of their unsuccessful efforts and he asked them just one question, “Did you include Osun?” and they all said No. He asked them to go back and include their female peer and thereafter they met with great success. It is an allegory for female inclusion.
Encouraging women to participate in governance and development does not take away from men’s contributions. Nations and societies lose a great deal when women’s talent and perspectives are not included in decision-making. Women are generally less likely to be corrupt as men, many of whom are under tremendous pressure to steal public resources to acquire houses, cars, boats, jewelry to show off to their fellow men and exercise patronage over their minions. They also need to support their wives, concubines, and girl-friends, and the many children sired from these unions. Women are less likely to experience these ego-driven pressures, and are more likely to care about the real issues that affect people, and work hard to make a difference. The hands that rock the cradle are also the hands sorely needed to build a strong nation.
Last year, out of 161 students of the Nigeria Law School who graduated with First Class, 113 of them were women. In the United States, there are now more women than men in medical schools, and 60 per cent of American lawyers are women. A Japanese medical school, Tokyo Medical University, has cheated and manipulated the test scores of women applicants for years, so as to reduce their numbers in favour of male applicants with much lower test scores, dashing the hopes and dreams of brilliant and hardworking girls. Setting women back is a great loss for any nation. The late Dr. Stella Adadevoh was the physician who saved Nigeria from Ebola by quarantining Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian man who brought Ebola into Lagos. She made the ultimate sacrifice by this courageous and intelligent decision. Women save their nations when they are educated and empowered to do so. Nigeria has had a few outstanding female public servants, professional and civic leaders, but there needs to be a significant increase in the number of women in governance in local, state, and national levels.
In the United States this week, over one hundred women were elected into the House of Representatives in a historic election which helped the Democratic Party become the majority party in Congress and rescue America from the dangers of one-party rule. Among the women elected are a Somalian-American Muslim, Native Americans, African-Americans, and lesbians, all from minority groups that are usually excluded from high office. All the nineteen African-American women who contested for the position of Judge in Harris County in the state of Texas won election, an unprecedented success that would make the judiciary diverse and fairer to everybody, especially minorities who have historically experienced injustice in American courts because of racism.
Education is crucial to the endeavour of female inclusion. A woman, or a man for that matter, cannot be an effective participant In modern society without proper education. Several of the women elected here this week are scientists, teachers, lawyers, and medical providers.
We need to harness the power of women on our continent. The changes in Rwanda and Ethiopia should be the light leading us out of the reign of sit-tight, anti-democratic men who care nothing for their people while they and their cronies gorge on the national patrimony. Cameroonian president, Paul Biya is 85 years old and has just won a seventh term to the presidency. He spends practically all his time in Geneva and other locales in Europe, while his country faces an increasingly violent separatist agitation. What does an 85-year-old man who has been in power for 36 years have to offer his nation? Leaders like him bleed the country of all vitality and turn the dreams and aspirations of the youth to ashes.
Some may argue that Ethiopia and Rwanda are only two countries and therefore do not represent the whole continent. I beg to differ. If major media establishments here could place on their front page a cultural practice in a tiny village in the small country of Botswana as an “African” story, representing the extremely diverse billion people in Africa, certainly Rwanda and Ethiopia have more than earned that honour with these important policy changes in gender and power. Some scholars and researchers here who study Africa default into narrating it as the exotic other in their books and conferences. Custom and practices in tiny African villages studied by them are trumpeted and codified as the real Africa, the more outlandish and unrecognisable within the realm of collective human experience, the better. I’ve even heard scholars here who refer to our cities as not the “real Africa.” The real Africa for us are women leading in the courts, in medicine, and in the cockpits, working with their male counterparts to develop this our continent filled with abundance.
Education is crucial to the endeavour of female inclusion. A woman, or a man for that matter, cannot be an effective participant In modern society without proper education. Several of the women elected here this week are scientists, teachers, lawyers, and medical providers. Some parts of Nigeria still engage in child marriages. It is one of the most destructive and harmful practices in any society. A girl deprived of education and coerced into marriage and child-bearing is not prepared in any way to take on these burdens or contribute to her society. Her rights as a human being to develop her talents and skills have been forever truncated. She exists only at the pleasure of the husband who uses as a sexual object and servant. A child bride is condemned into a life of poverty, misery, and powerlessness, raising children who could not benefit from the advantages of education because she herself never enjoyed them. Women are the custodians and transmitters of culture. What culture could a child bride give her children but that of ignorance, illiteracy, and poverty?
Evidently, for women to be a part of governance and leadership at the highest levels, they need the support of enlightened men, fathers who need to educate and encourage them, classmates, colleagues, husbands and policy makers, who are there to support their leadership. “Owo kan o gberu dori” is a Yoruba proverb which translates roughly to one cannot use one hand to lift a heavy load to the head. It’s a call for cooperation. Women also need to support each other by putting aside petty jealousy and insecurities which make some of them undermine their fellow women. Ethiopian and Rwandese men have brought enlightenment to our continent. Nigerian men should follow suit.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: email@example.com