by Sarah Pusteblume | May 7, 2020 | Africa, Middle Ages (500 - 1500 AD), Morocco |
Today I want to tell you how a Muslim woman paved the way for higher education as we know it. This is the history of the world’s oldest, continually operating university as well as a story about determination and giving back to the community. Let me take you to 9th century North Africa where Fatima al-Fihri was born.
Around 800 AD in the Tunisian town of Kairouan, a merchant and his wife welcomed their first daughter into the world and named her Fatima. A second, Maryam, would follow soon. While it isn’t certain when the family became rich, it must have happened either before the girls were born or as they were growing up, as they enjoyed quite a few privileges.
They did receive a thorough education for example, both scientific and religious, and they were. Apart from this, not much is known about Fatima’s early life, except that she was devoutly religious, as was her sister. So we’re going to fast forward a little.
At some point she married and after an uprising in Kairouan the whole family decided to emigrate to Fez – a city in today’s Morocco on its way to becoming a bustling metropolis of the Islamic Golden Age – and settled in its west where many other people from their hometown were living aready. For now however, life wasn’t all that golden for Fatima. Shortly after her wedding her father died and soon after her new husband as well. There is no mention of her mother at all after this point, so I’m assuming she died before the family moved. So now Fatima and her sister were completely on their own in a new city.
Being the only children to their parents however and with Fatima being a widow, the two women inherited quite a bit of money – most sources use the word “fortune.” But living modest lives, as was expected from Muslims, they didn’t really need that much and wouldn’t it be much more in Allah’s sense to give back to the community that so lovingly welcomed them? Maryam decided to buy a plot of land and supported the Andalusian immigrants of the city (who arrived prior to the wave from Kairouan) in building a mosque which they named Al-Andalus. It is still standing and one of the oldest landmarks of the old city center of Fez. Fatima too purchased land, near Maryam’s, however on her plot there was a mosque already which she tore down with the intention to rebuild it, but bigger and better!
It took 18 years until Fatima’s ambitious project was finished. She oversaw the whole building process and is said to have fasted for the final two years until it was completed. It was planned as a community hub, 1520 m² big with a courtyard with a fountain, enough room for many many books and space dedicated to learning. Although the mosque itself is beautifully intricate and extravagant, she made a point of keeping its construction modest, using only materials from the site. It was a remarkable process really: they dug deep into the earth to find different materials to use and rebuilt a stable foundation after. Finally in 859 AD it was done, the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque (Al Kara-ween – named after her hometown) was complete. Fatima was the first to walk through its doors and pray.
In accordance with Muslim tradition, the mosque also functioned as a madrasa, a place of education and you might remember Fatima’s plan to include enough space for that purpose. She herself took an active part in learning too and attended lectures until old age. She also appears to have introduced certificates for completing studies in a certain subject, similar to our university degrees today! After seeing her mosque flourish and become a community hub, Fatima died around 880 AD, an old woman.
But her story doesn’t end here because it’s her legacy that truly made a difference in the long run. Around 30 years after Fatima’s death Al-Qarawiyyin became the Jama Masjid, the main mosque, of Fez. With time its library expanded and attracted scholars from all over the country and even from across its borders.
By the 12th century not only the Qur’an and Fiqh (Islamic Law) were taught there but also worldly subjects like grammar, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. It still wasn’t officially called a university, but it came pretty close to the system we have today. Many of the people who studied there became influential personalities in the Muslim world and beyond! And not only Muslims went there to learn and it is likely that it was at Al-Qarawiyyin where Pope Sylvester II (before he became pope) learned about arabic numerals which he then brought to the Western world. Even though it had been a hub for learning and scientific exchange, Al-Qarawiyyin didn’t receive its official university status until 1963.
Today the University of Al-Qarawiyyin is still standing and has been recognized as the oldest existing and continuously operating university in the world – it has been teaching for more than 1200 years! And even if Fatima did not really found it as an university, she built it as a place for learning. Thus she not only paved the way for significant progress in her country, but all over the world. Without her, our system of higher education would probably look way different. Just as Fatima wanted, Al-Qarawiyyin became a center of the community, making it better.
By the way: While the university itself is off-limits if you are not a student there, the library can be visited and of course the beautiful courtyard. So if you ever happen to be in Fez, you know where to go!
1: “Fatima Al-Fihriyya Art Nouveau” by Nayzak on DeviantArt (cropped) – Link
2: “The oldest university of the world, Al Qarawiyine university in Fès” by User Abdel Hassouni in Wikimedia Commons, 2015 – Link
3: Fatima al-Fihri by Decue Wu for the Fiercely Female 2019 Calendar – Link
4: “University Al Quaraouiyine in Fès, Morocco” by User Medist in Wikimedia Commons, 2019 – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Feb 28, 2020 | Africa, Ancient History (before 500 AD), Sudan |
This time I’m telling you about the time the Roman Empire set its mind to conquering the Kingdom of Kush where it was met by a fierce one-eyed warrior queen who would continue to fight back for seven years and eventually pushed Rome out of her country. This is the story of Amanirenas and you’re in for a ride.
We’re jumping right into the story as not much is known about Amanirenas’ early years, other than that she was born around 60 B.C. The story is set in the Nubian kingdom of Kush, a relatively small but quite powerful kingdom in what is now Sudan. Amanirenas became Kandake, Queen, of Kush after her husband died in battle around 40 B.C. In inscriptions about her she is titled Qore and Kandake, King and Queen, clearly showing her as the kingdom’s sole ruler. But enough with the foreword, let’s get into the warring bit, shall we?!
Amanirenas ruled her kingdom diligently and apparently without any major problems, but after ten years the Roman Empire took Egypt, their direct neighbor in the north. That alone would have been a blessing for Kush who would have lost their main competitor, but Rome turned its eyes south. Kush was a small kingdom and should the Romans truly wage war on them, their chances weren’t looking too good. However there was a bit of trouble on another front, namely Arabia, so they didn’t attack immediately. It’s not certain whether Amanirenas knew of Rome’s expansion plans, but since that was basically their whole deal, she probably anticipated it. So she struck first.
The first battles began in 27 B.C. but the big invasion came three years later. In 24 B.C. an army of 30.000 marched against Roman Egypt, Amanirenas and her son at the helm. Even though it seems to have been one of the battles that followed in which the Kandake lost her eye, the Kushites were ultimately successful.
They captured the cities of Syene and Philae as well as Elephantine Island, decapitating all the statues of Augustus Caesar they came across. Triumphant the Kushites returned home, with a rich bounty and war prisoners in tow – and at least one of Augustus’ bronze heads. However victory didn’t last long and in the same year the Romans pushed back, retaking their cities and advancing into Nubian territory. They took Kush’s old capital Napata and although they retreated north again relatively quickly it was a debilitating defeat.
Many Kushites were sold into slavery and the newly established Roman garrison at Primis proved undefeatable. But Amanirenas would not give in.
For three more years she waged war on the Romans. There are stories of war elephants as well as about the Kandake feeding war prisoners to her pet lion. The former are likely to be true, although Kush probably did not use elephants as much as Carthage did, while the latter might be an exaggeration but who is to say for certain.
Even though Amanirenas didn’t succeed in reconquering her land, the Romans had to give up eventually. Yes, Kush was small and its military strength inferior to that of their opponents, but it was also too far off to easily call on reinforcements and the goods needed to sustain an army. Add the harsh environment and significant armed resistance led by our heroine and it was just too much to handle.
Around 20 B.C. a peace treaty was forged that strongly favoured Kush. Rome was to retreat from their post at Primis and the surrounding lands (called Triakontaschoinos, the Thirty-Mile-Strip) and there was no tribute to be paid whatsoever. The Romans got to keep a smaller strip of land (the Dodekashoinos or ‘Twelve-Mile Lands’) to establish a military border zone, but apparently there were no subsequent attacks. In fact this peace treaty was honored until way after Amanirenas’ death around 10 B.C. and the Kushite Kingdom thrived for more than 300 years.
You might wonder why all we know about her is related to her military exploits. Well, most of the sources on her that exist are Roman. But even they had to admit she was brave and strong. While Kush did leave a fair share of inscriptions, they had their own system of hieroglyphs that no one has been able to really decipher to this day. They did leave us one obvious message though. Remember the decapitated statues? So, in 1912 a temple that had apparently been dedicated to victory was unearthed in Meroë, the new capital of Kush. In this temple, the archeologists found the bronze head of Augustus Caesar. It was found buried underneath the steps.
1: Map – User Gigillo83 in Wikimedia Commons, 2010 – modified: highlighted the places important to the story, added the modern border of Sudan and Egypt, added “Kush” to Nubia as called in the article – Link
2: Kandake Amanirenas as identified by JC Coovi Gomez on the Barwa’s Beg pyramid No. 6 (*Barwa was another name of Kush at that time. The Pyramids mentioned are located at Meroë.) – Link
3: The Pyramids at the foot of Jebel Barkal, Karima, Sudan (*where Amanirenas was likely buried) by Maurice Chédel, 1884 – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Feb 21, 2020 | Africa, Chad, Contemporary (1914 - today) |
This week’s article is mostly about the death of our heroine and the time shortly before that. She only lived to be 33 year old and much of her early life is unknown, but in her lifetime she made a true difference in her country, going from elite soldier to rebel, opposing a dictator and exposing his inhumane treatment of prisoners. This week I want to tell you the story of Rose Lokissim.
Rose was born around 1955 in a small and remote village in Chad, to one of her father’s wives. Not much is known about her childhood, other than that she was a calm and peaceful child with a strong will. By the time she was twelve, she was able to hold back her father in a fit of fury. Hardworking and ambitious, she refused to let her gender hold her back and by the time she was around 23, she joined the Chadian Army and went on to become one its first female elite soldiers.
When she joined the army, there was a civil war in full swing. The former President had been killed ca. three years prior and around one year later in 1979 rebel forces led by Hissène Habré took the capital, collapsing any kind of authority structure in the country. Now there were armed groups contending for power, the French colonialists (who just had to give up Chad as a colony in 1960 when it gained independence) rapidly lost influence and the whole country was in chaos. Until in 1982, supported by the USA and France, Hissène Habré officially became President of Chad. Violently crushing his opposition he quickly turned his reign into a dictatorship. Soon everyone who dared speak against him was persecuted and the people lived in fear of denunciation. Around 40.000 people were killed during his eight years in power. By 1984 Rose realized she could not be a part of this army any longer.
She began to smuggle information to rebel forces and to speak out against the regime, hoping to gain international attention to remove Habré from office. However on December 14th of the same year, Rose and several others were arrested by the DDS, Habré’s secret police. The arrest was painful, involving electro shocks and a fair deal of violence. They were brought to La Piscine, an underground swimming pool that had been turned into a windowless prison. Rose was seen as a real threat by the DDS as only a day later she was taken to Les Locaux in N’Djamena, a prison for notorious criminals (mostly meaning political prisoners), and instead of a women’s cell was taken to a cell to share with 60 men. Its real name was Cell C but it was known as the Cell of Death as few prisoners made it out of there alive.
Rose survived. It was in that cell that she began to encourage her fellow inmates to endure to see a world after Habré, to continue to fight for this future. As she was tortured, she would not move and being returned to the cell, she would continue to be friendly with everyone, always helping out when she was needed and never loosing her cheerful nature. After eight months she was transferred to a women’s cell, in 1985. She would be the one to unite her fellow prisoners, keeping their hopes for a better future alive. They had friends in the prison too: there were officers who were willing to pass on messages to their families, letting them know they were still alive – or how and when they died. Rose was instrumental in smuggling out those messages.
At some point, the prisoners were given soap by one of those officers and Rose had an idea. She asked her friends to keep the soap boxes intact and give them to her. It were 15 boxes in total. On them she started to write about her experiences in prison in excruciating detail. She chronicled death, burials and torture. She recounted the officers who came to see the prisoners. And she described the abuse, the torture, the beatings, the sexual assault and the deprivation of food. After running out of soap boxes, she continued to write on scraps of cigarette paper and anything else she could find. Despite all warnings of the consequences these notes would yield not only for her but for all the women in her cell, she was determined to leave evidence of the inhumane treatment she and her fellow prisoners had to endure. For one year she kept on writing in secret, hiding even from her friends.
In 1986 Rose was due to be released. However she was betrayed and word about her documentation reached Habré. Immediately her writings were confiscated and she was transferred back to Cell C. Shortly after, on May 15th, she was dragged out of her cell to be questioned. She was executed the same day, only 33 years old, and buried in a mass grave known as Plain of the Dead. However she did put up quite a fight and might even have managed to escape if only her henchmen had not underestimated her and brought more bullets – she stole their gun and wounded two of the five men before her ultimate death.
Finally in 1990, Habré was overthrown by the current President, Idriss Déby, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he was sentenced to life in prison for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during his rule in a charge led by the victims of his regime. Among the documents that sealed his conviction, found in the abandoned DDS headquarters, were files on Rose Lokissim. There was proof that in the two years she was imprisoned, Rose had never faltered, never given in on her position, instead she was vocal about it and considered a true threat by the secret police, even as she was in prison. The files also contained her final words:
“If I die, it will be for my country and family.
History will talk about me and I will be thanked for my services to the Chadian nation.”
So let us talk about Rose Lokissim, a brave woman who stood up in the face of injustice and stayed true to her values, even in the darkest of times. She gave hope to those who had lost theirs and told the story of those who didn’t dare to. Remember her story and pass it on!
If you want to hear more of her story from the people who knew her, many of them fellow prisoners who survived, there is a documentary on Rose that continues her mission of showing the world what happened in Chad’s prisons in the 80s. It is fittingly titled Talking About Rose.
1: MiradasDoc, International Documentary Film Festival, Synopsis for Talking About Rose – Link
2: Screenshot from Talking About Rose, dated approx. in the 70s, Min. 15:05 – Link
3: Screenshot from the Documentary, retrieved from Afrocultureblog – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Feb 14, 2020 | Africa, Contemporary (1914 - today), Tanzania |
This week’s heroine is known as the mother of East African taarab music. Starting a career as a woman over 30 in a male-dominated field held her back just as much as being from a poor family that didn’t speak the “right” language – that is to say, it didn’t hold her back at all. Her name is Siti binti Saad and this is her story.
Born in 1880 to a farmer and a potter in Fumba, Tanzania, she was first named Mtumwa – ‘slave’ – as that was where her parents came from. She grew up learning her mother’s craft and soon was sent to sell their pottery on the local markets. It was there that she first learned that her voice was an unusual gift, carrying over quite a distance. But selling pottery was all that a girl could do at that time. Being under Arab rule at the time, there was no shortage in schools, but those were reserved for boys. Encouraged by a friend who had recognized her potential, Mtumwa moved to Zanzibar in 1911 to pursue a career in music.
Her friend had taught how to accompany an instrument with her voice, but at this time it was still seen as indecent for a woman to join a band and become a musician. She was lucky however and soon after arriving in the city she met Ali Muhsin, a taarab singer whose band even played for the Sultan. He was impressed with her voice and after training her further, introduced her to his band. They must have liked her, because they immediately started organizing concerts and before she knew it, she was invited to play for the Sultan and other rich Arab families.
This might be when she got her name, or rather title. She was called ‘Siti’ (‘Lady’ by an Arab lady at one of the festivities her group played at. That title combined with the patronym ‘binti’ and her father’s name, Saadi, made up what she would be called from now on: Siti binti Saad.
Although Siti was illiterate in Arabic and Roman script, she possessed an outstanding memory that allowed her to sing any song in any language as soon as she had listened to it a few times. Although her popularity began to rise for real when she began applying the same rhythmic and poetic structures to her native Swahili, inventing an entirely new art form. Swahili was also the language that most of the Tanzanian population spoke, as Arabic was reserved mainly for the upper classes, thus she made taarab music accessible for the lower classes as well.
Soon she had made quite a name for herself and in 1928, when she was 48 years old, her big break came. Columbia Records and His Master’s Voice, both famous record labels, had heard of her and offered a trip to their recording studio in Mumbai to record some of her songs. And not in Arabic either but Swahili (although she did do some Arabic songs as well.) Not only was she the first East African person (person, not woman!) to make commercial recordings, she was also incredibly successful, selling more than 72.000 copies in the first two years, which is a lot compared to the average of 900 in the same time. She was so popular in fact, that in the ten years that followed several recording studios would open in Zanzibar, just for her.
Her stay in India held other advantages too. There she was able to attend several concerts herself, absorbing Indian music and dance. She also met with Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who sang one of her favourite Arabic songs, Khaif. Inspired by all these impressions, she introduced an element of dance and mime to her performances that became known as natiki, which probably comes from the Hindu term ‘natak’ – ‘play, drama.’ Turns out she had quite a talent for drama too and her eloquence in Swahili captivated her audiences.
Siti’s career thrived and she continued to make music well into old age. In her songs she was not afraid to make political statements, opposing class oppression and the abuse of women as well as corruption and the legal system. Often she would sing about actual events and everyday life in Tanzania, including the experiences of her working class audiences – a group that she herself grew up in. Over the course of her career she produced over 250 songs and more than 150 78-rpm records, although only few original recordings remain.
On July 8, 1950 Siti binti Saad died at the age of 70. Shortly before her death, she was visited by Shaaban Robert, a famous writer and poet, who interviewed her in order to write down her biography. The book, Wasifu was Siti binti Saad (Biography of Sinti binti Saad) was released six years after her death and is still part of the Tanzanian curriculum today. Although her passing left a huge gap in taarab music, she had paved the way for other female artists after her and turned taarab into the music of her people, while majorly contributing to its international success.
That is why she is known today as the Mother of Taarab.
You can find some of her recordings on youtube – below is one of them. Enjoy!
1: Street in Zanzibar, 1928 – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R30020 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
2: Siti binti Saad and her musicians, ca. 1930 – Link
3: Siti binti Saad; cropped version of the image before – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Feb 7, 2020 | Africa, Angola, Early Modern Period (1500 - 1750) |
It is Black History Month and I am back! This time with a heroine who ruled her country for 40 years and was incredibly successful in defending it from colonization. Her strategic knowledge, cultural wisdom, thorough education and negotiation skills make her an outstanding example of female rulership. I present to you Queen Njinga Mbande of Ndongo and Matamba.
This story begins a little before our heroine’s birth when in 1560 the Portuguese arrived on the shores of Ndongo, a country that is now called Angola. They were welcomed by the King of Ndongo, Njinga’s grandfather, who was suspicious but allowed them to stay …under close surveillance and being forbidden to leave unauthorized. The next five years the Portuguese worked on a beneficial image, teaching the population how to read and write, all the while observing the culture and estimating the country’s wealth. Finally the King made a deal with Paulo Dias de Novais, the leader of the Portuguese exploration, to enlist help in defending his land against the neighboring kingdoms. He allowed them to leave Ndongo to return with an army to help. Bad plan. In 1575 the Portuguese did indeed return with an army, however not to aid Ndongo but instead to seize it in the name of the crown. The people were caught completely off-guard, and despite fighting bravely, they couldn’t compete with the firepower of the invaders. And so the people of Ndongo were forced to retreat.
Fast forward six to eight years to the birth of our heroine. By now the Portuguese colonizers had claimed the coast of Ndongo, established the city of Luanda and renamed the country Angola. After they discovered there to be no valuable minerals, they made it their mission to make Luanda the biggest slave-trading post in all of Africa. It was in these tumultuous times that Njinga and her siblings, two sisters and a brother, grew up. When she was around ten, her grandfather died and her father became King. Njinga was his favourite and she was allowed to sit in on war meetings and other stately affairs, trained in battle and learned to read and write in Portuguese from the missionaries. Often she fought alongside her father and brother not only against the colonizers but also neighboring kingdoms. And so they lived for the next 25 years, fighting for what was left of their home and defending it the best they could.
When Njinga was around 35, in 1617, her father died and her brother Ngola Mbande succeeded him on the throne. However he neither had his father’s charisma nor his sister’s intelligence and he feared her. To make sure she would not plot against him, he had her infant son slain and her sterilized. Afraid for her life, Njinga fled to the neighboring kingdom of Matamba. With his sister gone, Ngola declared war on the Portuguese but suffered defeat after defeat. Finally five years later he gave in to his elders’ advice to send Njinga to negotiate a peace treaty. The land was ravaged by famine and the slave trade didn’t look so peachy either, so the colonizers were quite interested in peace as well. Njinga was the best choice for a negotiator, speaking fluent Portuguese and being well-versed in stately affairs. And so she set out to Luanda to speak for her people. Travelling through the country she met people who had lost their homes and families and slaves who had managed to escape. She sent them all to Ndongo, promising them safety.
Finally Njinga arrived at Luanda and for the first time she saw her ancestral land. It had been completely transformed, had become a crowded city. Not only black and white people lived there, but also their children of mixed race – something Njinga had never seen before. She also saw the slave-trading port, saw her countrymen being shipped of by the hundreds. Upon meeting with the governor, she was welcomed and given a residence for the duration of her stay.
When the time of negotiation came, Njinga found that all the governor was seated in a fancy chair while she was expected to sit on a mat on the floor in front of him. Not having any of it, Njinga motioned her maid to crouch for her to sit on her back – a gesture of power that made clear that she was not here to surrender but to negotiate on equal footing. And so it began. The Portuguese didn’t expect such a formidable opponent who spoke their language so well and thus they came to an agreement that actually benefited both sides: Ndongo was to be recognized as a sovereign state and all troops were to be called back. In return, they would be establishing trade routes with the Portuguese. Since that went so well, Njinga decided to stay a little longer and even converted to Christianity, hoping to strengthen the peace treaty even more. After staying for almost a year, she returned home.
Peace was shorter-lived than her stay at Luanda had been. In the same year the governor of Luanda was replaced and his successor didn’t care much for the treaty. He continued to raid Ndonga and the kingdom of course retaliated, Njinga fighting with her people. One year later, in 1924, King Ngola died. It is unclear how he died; if he committed suicide due to his military failures, or if his sister killed him after all. But however it happened, Njinga became Queen (after killing her nephew who could have objected her claim.) She was 43 years old.
For two more years the people of Ndongo continued to defend their home against the onslaught of the Portuguese, but in 1629 they had to retreat. Partly due to the Portuguese threat and partly because there was an opposition against a female ruler, led by other aristocrats who had their eyes on the throne as well. Njinga took her people to Matamba, where she had once sought refuge from her brother’s wrath. Now she was there to take over the kingdom and by 1630 she had established her new capital. With this new power behind her, she returned to Ndongo and claimed her crown, uniting the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba under her rule.
For more than ten years, Queen Njinga thwarted the Portuguese opposition, building alliances and cutting of trading routes, often charging into battle herself, leading her soldiers. Finally in 1641 she saw a chance to get rid of the Portuguese once and for all. The Dutch had just seized the city of Luanda and there was an opening to regain some of Ndongo’s former land. So she forged an alliance with the Dutch, moving her capital to Kavanga, which was in a territory that had been Northern Ndongo before the Portuguese arrived.
At first things looked good, Njinga scored some major victories and secured her new capital. However in 1646 an army of 20.000 Portuguese soldiers attacked the city and forced the Queen to retreat once more. With the help of her Dutch allies however she was able to come out victorious in the end only one year later.
Unfortunately it was another short-lived victory. When the Portuguese regained Luanda, Njinga’s alliship with the Dutch ended and she once more retreated to her capital in Matamba. Continuing to be a thorn in the side of the colonizers for the next 20 years, employing guerilla tactics and spies, having trenches dug around her land and stocking up on supplies to prepare for the possibility of a siege. Furthermore she made her country a safe haven for all who needed to escape the colonizers.
And so she expanded her power even over her borders until finally in 1657 the Portuguese buckled. They didn’t know what to do in the face of this elderly woman who kept messing with their plans (Njinga was around 70 years old at this time.) And so they finally renounced their claims to Ndongo once and for all.
Now that the war was over, Njinga did all that she could to rebuild her nation, resettling former slaves and using Matamba’s strategic position to make it a major trading power. All the while she kept resisting attempts to either dethrone or murder her until she died peacefully in 1663 around the age of 82. Following her death the nation briefly descended into civil war, but after things had calmed down her legacy was continued.
Today she is called “The Mother of Angola” for laying the foundations for Angola’s resistance to colonialism way into 20th century until it finally became independent. She is remembered for her brilliant leadership, not only on the battlefield but also in diplomacy and and politics. As it is with important figures, there is a street named after her, there was a series of coins and in 2002 a statue of her was unveiled in Luanda. Particularly women consider her a role model as she laid the first foundations for equal rights between the sexes. And even though she had to fight to be accepted as a ruler, her female successors did not have to do so; of the 104 years that followed her death, 80 were ruled by queens.
Until today she remains a symbol of resistance and Angolan identity.
1: “Queen Nzinga Mbande (Anna de Sousa Nzinga)” by Achille Devéria, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Unknown artist; hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s; NPG D34632 © National Portrait Gallery, London
2 – 5: from the UNESCO Series on Women in African History: “Pat Masioni” / “Njinga Mbandi, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba” / 978-92-3-200026-2 – licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO  – Link
6: Queen Njinga’s Statue in Luanda, image from AfrikaNews – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Jul 24, 2018 | Africa, Ghana, Mid Modern Period (1750 - 1914) |
This is the story of a woman who defended her country against the British, refusing to stand down. Called “Africa’s Joan of Arc” by Western scholars, she commanded the entirety of the Ashanti forces in their final war against the colonialists. This is the story of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa.
First, let me take you to the place and time where all of this happened: the Ashanti Kingdom in what is now Ghana. Unifying the individual village-states into a confederacy in 1701, its first king laid the foundation for what became one of the most sophisticated kingdoms in Africa. And of course there was some mythology behind it too. It was told that the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Ashanti throne, fell from the sky into the King’s lap, blessing his reign. Thus the Golden Stool became much more than just a throne – it became a symbol of the undying Ashanti spirit.
And now for the story of the woman who defended it. And it’s not just a myth!
Around 1840, Yaa Asantewaa was born as the oldest of the two royal children in the outskirts of Kumasi, the Ashanti capital, in a town that used to be called Edweso but today is named Ejisu. She grew to become a reputed farmer and cultivated crops on her own land until at one point she married a man from the capital. Following tradition she was but the first wife in a polygamous marriage, giving birth to one daughter. Meanwhile her brother ascended to the throne sometime in the 1880s, making her Queen Mother. You see, that title was inherited just as the royal ones were – and it held just as much influence. During his reign, Yaa witnessed the Ashanti confederacy go through crisis after crisis, war after war, and saw its stability waning. In the 1870s Kumasi was burned and ransacked, a tax was imposed by the British and a civil war was raging. And in the middle of all that her brother died. Making use of her position, Yaa nominated her grandson for the vacant position of chief and he was crowned in 1888.
He wasn’t able to enjoy his position for too long as in 1896 he was sent into exile to the Seychelles and the British demanded the utter surrender of his kingdom. Plus the Golden Stool would be nice. Four years they discussed and negotiated, hoping to a least get their king back for it. And just as the Ashanti chiefs were about to give in, Yaa’s thread of patience finally snapped. Refusing to pay her share of the taxes she gave a rallying speech about pride and courage and bravery. Still the chiefs were hesitant but she won them over quickly by announcing that, if the men are to scared to fight, the women will. And so in March 1900 a rebellion began.
Yaa became the first woman to lead and command the Ashanti forces and her leadership was so a skillful that the following war bears her name. Her first move was to turn her hometown into their base. With many of the men still hesitant to join the army, scared of the British military, she once again turned to the women. After convincing them to refuse to have sex with their husbands unless they fought for their country, most men were quick to join the war effort. For further encouragement, the women were to circle the city everyday, performing victory rituals and thus keeping morality high. For the first time in the Anglo-Ashanti wars, walls and palisades were built around cities and villages, successfully keeping the enemy at bay for the time being. She regained control of the capital by besieging the British fort within it, completely incapacitating its occupants and their allies on the outside. She proceeded to secure the city, deploying generals to monitor and protect strategic points. Yaa also employed psychological warfare against her adversaries, using the traditional talking drums to strike fear in their hearts whenever they heard the drums sing of battles won by the Ashanti.
In the end however the brave warriors were driven back by the British. Village by village, their strongholds were captured and finally Yaa herself was forced to surrender and followed her brother into exile to the Seychelles, accompanied by her generals. Their battle had lasted half a year. Her exile was set to last for 25 years, but Yaa would not see her home again. She died 21 years later.
The British however never got hold of the Golden Stool. It was hidden deep in the forests and only recovered by accident, when a group of labourers happened upon it in 1920. By then, even though they were technically annexed into the British Empire, the Ashanti still basically governed themselves and were not required to report to colonial authorities. And finally in 1957, their indepencence became official – the first African nation to achieve this. So despite her defeat in the end, Yaa Asantewaa’s resilience paved the way for her people’s de facto independence and succeeded in keeping the Golden Stool out of British hands.
1: Asante. Stool (Dwa) – Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund – Brooklyn Museum (22.1695)
2: undated portrait of Yaa Asantewaa – Link
3: Yaa Asantewaa Museum – User Noahalorwu in Wikimedia Commons – Link
The Yaa Asantewaa Museum fell victim to a fire in 2004 and unfortunately has not been restored since. – Link