So, who is the African Woman?

Article written by Marcelle Mardon, a Zimbabwean architect based in the Basque Country, for the Pro Africa Group in commemoration of Africa Day

So we all agree, the future of Africa is the woman, across every country we see her depicted working in the fields, building homes, selling vegetables in the markets almost always with a baby on her back and another at her feet. This is an all too familiar story that is mostly portrayed as a sad one, one that often presents a nameless person, time and time again, in a different setting but always with the same intention: the need to be saved from poverty. While this is indeed a true reflection of her reality, it is not her only one. What we have is a case of, in the words of the Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The danger of the single story. Surely there is more to the narrative? Who is this woman really? Where does she get her strength from, what drives her? Does she have a community? Behind the faces of so many women is a much more meaningful and complete narrative.

The story also requires a look at context, we are accustomed to seeing the African woman reflected against a rural background, while at the same time we also acknowledge the increasing pull of Africa´s growing cities, currently home to 472 million inhabitants and expected to double in the next 25 years according to UN-Habitat.

From the city we see a positive image of the African woman, forming part of the Africa Rising narrative, the business woman, politican and leader, represented in Rwanda’s 50/50 parliament and even reaching international levels, like Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka currently heading UN-Women. We can breath a sigh of relief and say ´finally, an African woman! ´

We love the stories of activists rising, from being a poor rural girl to receive a Noble Peace Prize, acknowledged by name, like Wanghari Mathaai, while unpronounceable to some, is now totally recognizable to many. We are so grateful to these incredible women, shining examples and important role models for the aspiring new generation of young women across the African continent.

And yet, there is another growing space occupied by African women equally as important, those living in the slums, carving out an existence, earned on a daily basis. A situation much closer to home for a growing majority of young girls and women on the continent. These women make up just over half of Africa’s urban population of which 70% are living in slums and shanty towns, interwoven and encircling every major city across Sub- Saharan Africa.

Life is tough for a large proportion of women living there, they are single, widowed or have left bad family situations behind in rural homes, and many are heads of their households. Work is mostly found in the markets selling vegetables or washing clothes, meaning that children are left at home with older siblings or even tied to a chair to stop them from moving.

Once again, It would be easy to take this one-sided view but afforded a closer examination we are presented with a striking and unexpected surprise. One view captures the role that many women have begun to play through their creation of community, a powerful tool that sees groups of women mobilize themselves to create networks and cooperatives supporting others with microfinance, to start businesses and even bring change to their neighbourhoods for the benefit of the whole community. The power of Ubuntu, I am because we are!

One such example of this is ZIHOPFE, a women-led federation that now extends nationally and through the technical support of a local NGO, Dialogue on Shelter, has brought local government representatives and grassroots communities to the same table to tackle the issues around neighbourhood improvement schemes and, more importantly, the issues that are specifically gender related. They are the ones that mobilize, lead and never give up. In another example, a women’s community group Wise Women, living in the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, decided to change their water situation and, acting as agents and leaders for their communities, have managed to secure a better water supply and are even earning a living out of selling it.

Another view would be to see even the poorest of African women in the slums in their roles as innovators and entrepreneurs. Technology through mobile phone ownership and access to various applications has revolutionized the life of many women in slums, now able to carry out businesses, access to finance and even keep them safe when moving around at night. Most importantly, behind that is a woman with a strong sense of hope, pride and dignity and even a new consciousness of place in a globalized and interconnected world and this is the new African woman empowered to tackle her own situation of poverty.

These are the role models we often don´t hear or read about. She is the ordinary and often poor African woman empowering herself and helping others to do the same, despite the odds. These are the women whose stories are easily replicable and to whom the growing majority of women can relate to. In turn, they are the women that act as agents, the backbone and with access to skills to support development in their neighbourhoods and cities. She is yet another great African woman!





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