As we mark the end of Women’s Month in South Africa, MR SIBUSISO MNYANDA revisits the role some of the most powerful woman leaders in the history of the African continent. These warrior women, as with contemporary women, faced tremendous odds, yet were fierce in battle, astute in thought and influential in their varied leadership roles, changing the course of history.
Women have been at the centre of every civilisation, kingdom and empire driven by Patriarchs on the continent and the rest of the known world. They have led, endured, conquered and developed societies that today we claim to be great contributors to human development and African identity. The new phenomenon of selective amnesia among our modern literates – who harbour the skill to impart anti-female socialisation – is destroying and decaying our moral fibre. Africa has had many revered leaders who were also mothers, grandmothers, wifes, daughters, sisters and aunts. These women were part of nation building and wars of resistance against imperialism. In this text, we will focus on those originating from the regions south of the Sahara: Queen Nzinga Mbandi of Angola; the Ahosi (kings wives) of Benin; and Queens Magogo and Nandi of Azania (South of Africa).
Queen Nzinga Mbandi
Angola – with a port linked to the East India trading route that connected Europe and Asia – was a default interest for anyone looking to trade with African states in the interior during the 17th century. It is with this backdrop that Empress Nzinga would emerge as a force by 1647. The Portuguese crown had succeeded in infiltrating the coastal state in 1557, and the then ruler (or Ngola) of the Ndongo nation, Ndambi, had aligned himself – just like Nguni chiefs would do in the 1820s with the British in Southern Africa – through Christian conversion. Whether by choice or by force, revolt was imminent, as Portuguese interests were more than just Evangelic philanthropy, but naturally, enslavement and land grabbing. By 1618, the heir of Ndambi and ruler of Matamba, Mbandi, Nzinga’s brother, led an intense revolution against the Portuguese establishment. The Ndongo nobles were executed and the dynasty was uprooted, but the rebllion was neither successful nor totally disastrous,sparking a general liberation culture in the Angolan people. One can argue that this was the forbearer to the guerilla spirit that would continue long after her time, resulting in the armed resistance that liberated Angola in 1975.
The legends about Nzinga begin with the infamous meeting with Portuguese officials as Ndambiis’ envoy. The traditional European arrogance of enforcing a dehumanising stance toward African culture and leadership as an inferior one was always at play. Even though Angolan royalty had been accommodating to Portuguese customs of worship and education – ceding land to help them set up forts and embassies – at point did the Portuguese have any intention of being an ally to Angola. Instead they sought dominion and slaves.
They were human mines for their industrial exploits in the region and elsewhere. They had already done so with the Kongo further inland, led by Mr Bento Cardoso, a Portuguese official. Nzinga was appointed as an ambassador to the royal crown, and a meeting between her and Mr João Correia de Sousa was arranged. The goal was to seek independence from the European occupation, while still maintaining the diplomatic links that benefitted both nations. The English, Dutch and French were threatening Portugal’s stranglehold on some of Africa’s lands, so seeking friendship with Angola was a good tactic. Nzinga had to restore the Ndongo dynasty with guile and pride even though the Portuguese were intent on mocking and undermining the would-be monarch. Famously, she was never offered a chair during this notorious negotiation, she chose to use one of her subjects as a replacement.
Even though Nzinga herself would embrace Christianity in an attempt to secure an alliance with the Portuguse, the agreed upon treaty with de Sousa in 1621 was never honoured and her country was raided, sacked and colonised. She controversially assumed power as Regent of the Ndongo upon her brother’s death, her detractors claiming she had poisoned him in order to assume the throne. She is also rumored to have killed her son Keza, her heir. Nevertheless, in 1624 she assumed the title “Queen of Andongo” (rainha de Andongo).
Propaganda about her rise to power was always a tool that was used by the Portuguese to discredit her rule as it threated their colonial effort. The Neighboring Imbangala were susceptible to this propaganda and colluded with the Europeans against Nzinga. She also had a rival, in the form of Hari, a Ndongo, who was opposed to a woman ruling. Hari influenced corrupt nobles to impeach Nzinga. She fled east and her sister, Kifunji, was set up as a dummy chief. By 1625, the Portuguese forces, together with Hari, who swore vassalage to them, defeated Nzinga’s army, forcing her to retreat from Luanda to the forests. She would then form an allegiance with the Dutch, who saw an opportunity in assisting the monarch. She wrestled back some areas of Matamba in 1629 and started opening up pockets of forest refugee camps for escaped slaves. In 1641, the Dutch, working in alliance with the Kongo, gained control of Luanda from the Portuguese. Nzinga saw her opportunity and with the assistance of the Dutch defeated the Portuguese army at Ngoleme in 1644. There would be a ping pong of wars between the two forces till 1647, when Kifunji was murdered by Portuguese. She had apparently been working as an informant to Nzinga all along, leading to their demise 1647 at the Battle of Kombi.
The wars would not end and Nzinga would not back down from serving her nation’s liberty, rallying her warriors in battle into the advanced age of sixty. Her work continued beyond the wars and focused on humanitarian programmes of rehabilitating former slave. She was obsessed with restoring order and traditional governance of her people. It is said that one of the reasons she was so influential is that her men fought to the death to spend the night with her and, after a single night of lovemaking, were put to death. It is also said that Nzinga made her male servants dress as women. Today, she is remembered for her diplomatic prowess and unmatched guerrilla military tactics that revolutionised the fight against colonialism. Regardless of the countless attempts by the Portuguese and their allies to assassinate and dethrone Queen Nzinga, she died peacefully in her eighties on December 17, 1663.
The Ahosi (King’s wives) or Mino (our mothers) was an all-female 17th Century military regiment of the Fon nation of the Kingdom of Benin. Misconceptions fueled by devilish European narratives refer to the soldiers as “Amazons,” based on what they thought to be a similarity to the semi-mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia. By doing this they were deliberately romanticising the might of these women, to denounce the military prowess of an unknown African military formation.
Well trained and highly skilled, the Ahosi are said to have been intensely vicious. They were deadly fighters and are said to have specialised in decapitating their opponents during a fighting sequence. Even though killing has no rules, it seems that the manner in which the Ahosi went about their business was supposedly unwomanly.
The legendary Ms. Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh is a revered warrior leader of the Ahosi. In 1851 she led an army of 6,000 strong in the mighty battle of Abeokuta against the Egba, who had equipped themselves with European artillery and guns. This would impose a military power advantage for them as the Ahosi used bows and arrows, spears and other military inferior weapons. But the Ahosi strategies and simple will to fight for their liberty would overcome the Egba armies, repelling them. But this came at a cost, leaving only about 1,200 surviving. European encroachment into West Africa gained pace as the scramble for Africa gained momentum, thanks to the French and the Belgians. In 1890, then King of Benin Behanzin used the Ahosi together with the conventional male soldiers in the wars against the French forces during the First Franco-Dahomean War. The French would lose many battles against Benin’s forces, primarily because of the almost godly like fighting guile of these Ahosi warriors.
The Zulu nation is easily the most influential and most well-known of the Nguni nations in the Southern African region. It was once a small nation amongst colossus nations like the Ndwandwe, Zwide and Mthwetha who dominated East African coastlines in the 17th century. This is mainly because of the role this nation has played in the long-standing fight against colonial domination and are examples of the burning will of humankind to fight for self-determination and social independence. Naturally, the men that led these armies are remembered by history, yet these great warriors were born of natural birth regardless of their sometimes-godly characterisation.
Queen Nandi of the eLangeni tribe of the Mhlongo nation was a mother to one of Africa and worlds’ greatest warriors, Shaka Zulu. Nandi, the daughter of Bhebhe, was a feisty and strong willed young girl, she had her own way. She was also an incredible beauty, a 19th century Aphrodite. It was not long before she caught the eye of a Kings’ son, Senzangakhona kaJama of the Zulu. Folklore, reinforced by Zulu shaman Satayi, predicted a son would be born from this couple’s union, and he would symbolise a sickness that would fall upon the Nguni. The Dung Beetle sickness, ishaka.
A child was indeed born, and Shaka was his name. Nandi negotiated her own dowry – she demanded 50 cattle – as Senzangakhona accepted her into his kraal as his chief wife, even though there were some detractors and protests from the elders. Throughout their stay at the amaZulu kraal, they never got accepted. Shaka was seen as a bastard, as his parents never wed after the dowry payment. This was Senzagakhona’s way of taming the raging fire in Nandi. Nandi and her son returned to the Mhlongo nation and settled at Bhebhes’ kraal until his death. Famine, drought, attempted assassinations and jealousy were their daily hurdles. Braving and fighting these obstacles together fuelled and cemented Nandi’s bond with her king in waiting. He was close to worshiping his mother, with the promise to avenge.
It is said that Nandis’ scourn for Senzangakhona manifested in the wrath that Shaka would unleash as he took the throne from his siblings after Senzangakhona’s death in 1818. It would also manifest in the preferred mode of rule Shaka applied, complete subjugation or death. Shakas’ ascendance to power also meant Nandi would be the queen Mother, Indlovukazi. It was her advice that Shaka spent time in the Mthethwa kraal from 1816 as commander of the armies of Dingiswayo, who he had met years earlier whilst fleeing his father and protecting his mother and grandmother. The Mthethwa would be a military giant and Shaka would forge his bull horn formation war tactic under the Mthethwa confederacy.
Effectively, she was the highest decision maker in the land, and soon she would be for all south-eastern Africa, as her son unleashed a unification effort (some call this iMfecane, a dispersal and migration of large masses of Africans from the Congo basin right to Cape Point) of all Nguni against the advent colonial conquest by the Portuguese, coming through Delagoa Bay and the British coming from the Cape Province 1820 settler mission. Shaka united all Nguni in the region of modern day KwaZulu-Natal into the single amaZulu nation we know today. All of Shaka’s decisions were vetted with the Queen mother. All major military and political achievements were accomplished with Nandi as chief advisor to the King of Kings. One legend that symbolises Shaka’s high regard for his mother is that of the Amanzimtoti River gaining its name.
“Effectively, she was the highest decision maker in the land, and soon she would be for all south-eastern Africa, as her son unleashed a unification effort of all Nguni against the advent colonial conquest by the Portuguese and the British.”
The uttering of the Queen Mother’s name was forbidden and when a soldier of the amaZulu regiment proclaimed that ‘’Lamanzi amnandi”-meaning this water tastes good – whilst quenching his thirst at the rivers banks, his execution was ordered. The word mtoti has since become a synonym for mnandi. When hair dye was introduced by Mr Henry Francis Fynn to an ageing Nandi, its effect was thought to have rejuvenated the queen mother. Seeing her seemingly rolling back the years by camouflaging the grey hair highlights of a mature age, galvanised her mythical-like presence and hold on the crown.
Upon her death in 1827, according to Mr Donald Morris, Shaka ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year of mourning, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, although the killing was not restricted to humans: cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like. Shaka’s love for his mother allowed Nandi’s spirit to drive him to unleash vengeance, even beyond her mothers’ grave. What this fighting spirit would do for the culture of being Zulu was unprecedented. AmaZulu represent anti colonialism fight against all adversities right up to the Bambatha ka Zondi rebellion in the early 1900s.
Princess Constance Magogo Sibilile Mantithi Ngangezinye kaDinuzulu Cetshwayo (1900–1984) was, as her name suggests, the daughter of the last Zulu Monarch, King Dinizulu KaCetshwayo. She took the title of Queen when she married King Mathole Buthelezi in 1926. She is the mother of former Bantustan leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and lifelong leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Unlike other warriors, her fight was not invested military action, but sociocultural, through the composition of Zulu classical music. By default, a singer and a poet, she embodied her artistic expressionism with cultural elements that preserved the glorious ways of the mighty amaZulu. Her work was made largely from existing Zulu songs and folktales, and she extended them into music accompanied by ugubhu. Using these traditional instruments (ugubhu and isitolotolo) that were spiritually linked to its people, the dead and the heavens as it were, she was the complete representation of amaZulu culture in the colonised Africa of the 20th century.
In a rapidly changing world, where Africans were transitioning into a predominantly European patriarchy that had black women at the bottom of the human hierarchy, Magogo continued developing her music to a level where she became an ambassador of the sacred skill. This would make her a pioneer of not only Zulu Classical Music, but general traditional music of the continent, at a time when music was becoming a professionalised. As a woman, this would be challenging, among her people and the global community, as Africans were still seen as inferior and not at any point seen as social scientists or professional musicians who could inform the international and institutionalised community of music, let alone protest art. Through the training of many young singers she made an unprecedented contribution to the preservation of traditional music and became an authority on Zulu music and on traditions, history and folklore.
“In a rapidly changing world, where Africans were transitioning into a predominantly European patriarchy that had black women at the bottom of the human hierarchy, Magogo continued developing her music to a level where she became an ambassador of the sacred skill.”