O U R   A F R I C A N   H E R I T A G E 

T H E   M A T R I A R C H A L  H I S T O R Y
O F   T H E    B A N T U - P E O P L E S


The repeated assertion that matrilinearity is simply a matter of inheritance, and nothing else is clearly false, rather it is "at once a political economy and a religious system"  - that is, "a worldview".Wherever it occurs, matrilinearity strenghtens the personal and social power women hold.

Carla O. Poewe

The history of Africa is sadly and shamefullty neglected in the same way and of the same reason as the history of women; it simply doesn´t seem to exist at all, and / or is described as the result of European or Asian cultural influences. And many anthropologists share this disregarding attitudes; often making the mistake of viewing the contemporary African societies as reflecting there own African traditional history and not to be the devastating result of colonialisation. (In other words the same lack of  logic as usual, eminently exposed in Claudia von Werles analysis of the delusion of patriarchy; Patriarchy as Negation of Matriarchy )

As the traditional African culture to such great extent though, has been coined by matriarchal traditions and still is, its been double up invisible to the andro-and etnocentric colonial gaze, which not at least has been stressed by its own anthropologists such as for example:

sociologist / anthropologist If Amadiume / Nigeria, 

anthropologist Wilhelmina J. Donkoh, Ghana, 

Dr. Yvette Abrahams, Khoekhoe (Namibia, South Africa, 

Bernedette Muthien, Khoisan (South Africa) 

and last but not leat the 

historian, anthropologist, physicist and politician Cheikh Anta Diop

who unluckily died young, depressed from having been neglected and not listened to by the Western academics in the middle of the 20th century.

By then it was the theories of Claude Lévi Strauss who broke through - he who by some scholars is recognised as “The father of modern anthropology”, which seems quite adequate as his structuralist theorising, about half a century after the French structuralists and hermeneutic scholars repudiated it as completely unsubstantiated and far too vaguely ambigious - frequently is taken into account, at least in many Swedish academic institutions as I have exposed at my page about that ». And one may ask, if not even his theory about the origin of society also still is pursued by the “majority” of the established scholars and thus representing “consensus”. Although it may have had relevance to some patriarchal societies its generalising has really never been substantiated, and seen in this African light its lack of credibility becomes glaring.  But Claude Lévi Strauss never showed any interest in Africa, he was never there himself and completely neglected his French colleague´s great interest in African masks.


The English anthroplogist Chis Knight has a chapter in his extensive work: Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, namely chapter four with the heading The Sex Strike: in which he makes a survey over the evolutionary findings in the last decades, displayed in the investigations of the behaviour of different kinds of primates , by which he convincingly shows that there is no support for Lévi Strauss´ notion about females as passively subduing under Alpha males rule, as a generalised pattern. Quite the contrary the variety in behaviour differ a lot between different kinds of primates and even if the male dominance may seem total; there is always a lot of contracting strategies among the females to balance that. I will return to this so highly interesting research later as it convincingly give a hint of how the evolution from the primates to the branch of hominids from which Homo sapiens may have evolved and why, by the females creating egalitarian cultures instead of the hierarchical ones prevailing among the schimpanzees, such as the ones further developed by the so called Pygmé-peoples in the rainforests in Africa and Asia with the means of music,dance, drama according to the African Ngoma koncept, I have have made a rough attempt to to ouline here ».


Bemba mask

Anyhow, as is shown by Heide Göttner Abendroth in her great tutorial work, translated into English; Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 2012, there are still many regions in Africa making up the home to people who have organised their societies along matriarchal principles and whose women enjoy economic authority and hold political office, still wielding their matriarchal traditions since times immemorial; in Central Africa by the many different Bantu-peoples as cultivators of the land, in West Africa by the Akan people and others with their highly developed urban and market economy; and i North Africa by the nomadic cattle breeding Turareg, which reflects the wide variations among economies represented by matriarchal social structures, even if  most often represented by agricultural economies as well as hunter and gatherers.

The common male biased anthropologists have  neglected its women, though, and therefore, after only interviewing the men, totally omitted the fact that these peoples wield a special African kind of dual matriarchy,  in which men govern their own realm of every day´s life and  women theirs, but with matriarchs in the most authoritative superordinate  positions, choosing the chief or chiefs, which in his or their turn cannot make any own desicions concerning the entire group of both women and men, without consulting the matriarch or matriarchs before. In critical situations of war and other threatening catastrophies, or if the chief doesn´t meet with peoples expactations, he might be removed from his post and be replaced by the matriarch /  priestesss queen herself. Its remarkable how frequently it is a female ancestor who is worshipped as the great saviour of her people as a warrior Queen and Goddess, defending it against the colonisers or other enemies and / or leading it out of an unbearable situation of enslavement and oppression by invading aggressive patriarchal people, using the typical peaceful matriarchal strategy of avoidment, the same as have been used in so many other areas in the world, why the matriarchal peoples still alive mostly inhabit remote and inaccessible places high up in the mountains or far out in the sea, as for example in Mali by the Tuareg and in the Pacific Ocean by different kinds of micro - and polynesian peoples.



 T H E   B A N T U  

Matriarchal structure of Central African Bantu peoples are very ancient going back to Early Neolithic times. And as seems to have been substantiated by the research of Jerome Lewis and others about the rainforest Pygmé-peoples in Africa and Asia, it would perhaps even have had its roots in their culture from very early paleolithic times. (But that I don´t know, its just my own guess). Early neolithic agriculture began around 3200 B.C. E in northern Africa and spread to Kenya. In Sudan and West Africa it began around 2000 B C. E. Within this cultural period the northern half of the continent was settled by indigenous people who practised crop cultivation and were matriarchally organised.


Quoting Göttner-Abendroth:

"Between about 300 B.C.E. and the beginning of the Common Era, numerous Bantu Peoples were forced to migrate from their homes on the Benue River in West Africa. They moved southward and settled in the humid aavannas of Central Africa, ideal for plant cultivation. Ultimately, the reached as far as Cameroon and the mouth of Congo River, whose waterways allowed them to spread out over the entire Congo Basin Here they lived side by side in peaceful co-existance with the hunter-gatherer Pygmy people.

At the same time; that is from 1000 B.C.E. Until the beginning of the Common Era ancient Malayan peoples reached Madagascar and the East African coast from Indonesia, having made their way across the Indian Ocean in their seaworthy outriggers. From their homes in Sumatra they brought crops that were ideal for the tropics; Yams, taro and bananas; they also brought their own matriarchal social order. Their successors are the Merina, who still live in the mountains highlands Madagascar, speaking a Malayan-Polynesian language. Their precinct gave new impetus to the Bantu plant cultivation; ion addition to their traditional crops odf millet, maize and sorghum they produced East Asian fruits acquired through trade with the Malayan migrants who inhabited Madagascar. This enrichment led to a second rapidly spreading population of Bantu peoples whose territory now stretched across the southern half of the continent from coast to coast"

karta centralafrika 1

During this expansion the more than one hundred different Bantu peoples settled in different regions in a vast area in Central Africa ( see the map!) It is among the Eastern Central Bantu area that the traditional matriarchal social patterns have been most intensely maintained, whereas in other Bantu regions these patterbs only occur in some individual tribes, the majority having been more or less patriarchalized.

Eastern Central Bantu inhabit a huge region extending across the continent from Congo delta in the west to Lake Nyassa in the East, including present day Congo, Angola, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi  - an enormous area inhabited by peoples whom ethnologists have called "matrilinieal" such as the Yombe, Songo, Congo, (in congo); Ondongo, Okavango, Mubundu (in Angola); the Bemba, Luapula, Bisa, Lamba, Lele, Kaonde, Ila, Tonga and others (in Zambia); and the Nyanja, Yao and Cewa (in Malawi).

Most of these peoples haven´t yet been extensively researched , particularly as far as women are concerned, whom are rarely mentioned in the ethnological literature due to the field work being done mostly by men.


Quoting Göttner-Abendroth:

"All these peoples determine relationship and inheritance hrough the mothers line. This is significant, because in Africa the concept of relationship is still so central that the social principles are based on it, with economics, politics and spirituality in subordinate roles. Relationship defines the space in which each gender fulfills its responsibility  to society; it defines the status and rank associated with various religious duties, and it determines the patterns of distributing goods.


The repeated assertion that matrilinearity is simply a matter of inheritance, and nothing else is clearly false, rather it is "at once a political economy and a religious system"  - that is, "a worldview". (Carla O. Poewe) Wherever it occurs, matrilinearity strenghtens the personal and social power women hold."


Masks from Congo

Some of the very few western anthroplogists who, beyond the African anthropologists themselves, have recognised this specially kind of African dual matriarchal structures, are the female anthropologists Audrey Richards, Karla O. Poewe  and  the anthropologist Annie Lebeuf.

It must be regarded as very ahistorical to neglect the fact that it is highly plausable that this kind of matriarchal patterns very well could have made up the primordial core of our overall evolutionary cultural heritage and origin of society, as lately also is shown to be the fundamental pattern in  the extensive research about the so called "Pygmy"-peoples in the African or Southeast Asian rainforests of the world, by evolutionary scholars as well as anthropologists as Jerome Lewis  et. al. - a member of the organisation The Radical Anthroplogy Group, led by Chris Knight.


Furthermore Heide Göttner-Abendroth  comments:

"The excellent critical work by Audrey I. Richards,  Karla O. Poewe, Annie Lebeuf provides very good insights. In contrast, the work of Lucy Mair is influenced by the theory of Claude Lévi Strauss, in which women are seen as nothing more than objects for exchange between men, without any sphere of action on their own. While this may be the case in certain patriarchal societies, the generalisation is unsubstantiated. This leads Lucy Mair into numerous confusing and contradictory assertions. Male ethnologists see African women´s  situation much more negatively or don´t see it at all - a lack that is corrected by the research by Richards, Poewe and Lebeuf."

These matriarchal traditions, still in use in the middle of the 20th century when Audrey Richards et. al made their anthropological fieldwork among them, is however rapidly disappearing  due to Christian mission, who imposes an opposite patriarchal lifestyle on the people, as well as foreign economical interests in the country, not at least due to its copperminining absorbing the young men by paying them with money, which is not used among the matriarchal selfsufficient societies and therefore breaking up their tight relationships and fundamental cohesion based on mutually egalitarian giftgiving economical principles.

As the former chiefs choosen by the elder matriarchs and equipped only with a formal kind of executive power of representing his people outwardly, also gets more and more absorbed into the Western patriarchal capitalist system, it gets increasingly difficult for women to keep  their own ageold traditions and the former cohesion together, whereby the capitalistic system drive a wedge between men and women, as is done in the Middle Ages in Europe in a process of landgrabbing and producing a working proletariat for the grewing industry, analysed by the Italian scholar Silvia Federici in her Taliban and the Witch,  2004 in which she also argues that the witch hunt induced by this process, now also is carried out in Africa.


Bemba mask

As representative to the type of matriarchy wielded in Central Africa by the Bantu people, Göttner Abendroth makes a more close presentation of the Bemba and Luapula tribes in Zambia. They share a proud historical past as the bearer of the Lunda realm, which once was a powerful state in this area and made up a complex system ruled by a sacred queen and king. But after the Luanda queendom was conquered by the European colonisers, they had to return to a very simple lifestyle again regarding the material aspects. But as in the case with also the "Pygmé"-peoples and most others matriarchal peoples living on a very simple material level, nevertheless the psychological, spiritual and philosophical level seem to be the more complex and elaborate. After the colonisation the hunt for slaves, placed this people and dispersed them in the surroundings; today they live scattered over a vast territory , in villages of 30 to 50 dwellings.


Sudarkasa. 1986