Academic journal article History In Africa

Gender and Ethnic Relations in Sierra Leone: Temne Women in Colonial Freetown

Academic journal article History In Africa

Gender and Ethnic Relations in Sierra Leone: Temne Women in Colonial Freetown

Article excerpt

Abstract: The article explores the role of women, particularly non-Western educated Temne market women in shaping the socio-economic history of Britain's oldest colony in colonial West Africa. It addresses the neglect of women's participation in the economy of the colony inherent in the androcentric literature. The article also highlights the cultural foundations of Temne women's activism in colonial Freetown. It argues that the role played by various subjects and actors should be fully integrated in the historical literature of the Sierra Leone colony.

Résumé: L'article explore le rôle des femmes sur le marché du travail de la plus ancienne colonie britannique d'Afrique de l'Ouest pendant la période coloniale, examinant en particulier l'influence des femmes Temne, non exposées aux valeurs de l'éducation occidentale, sur le caractère de l'évolution socio-économique du pays. Cet article expose la manière dont la littérature androcentrique perçoit la négligence de la participation des femmes dans l'économie de la colonie. Il met également en lumière les fondations culturelles de l'activisme des femmes Temne dans le Freetown colonial. Il soutient que le rôle joué par divers sujets et acteurs du marché économique devrait être considéré dans son entièreté par les archives historiques de la colonie du Sierra Leone.


The historical literature concerning the Sierra Leone colony makes scant reference to Temne women's roles in the economic and social life of the colony. The conventional history of Britain's oldest West African colony emphasizes the role of men, and to an insignificant extent, Western educated woman, especially Creole or those who descended from former slaves settling the colony from the late eighteenth century.1 Scholars working in other African contexts have drawn attention to the androcentric biases in the historical literature of colonial Africa and the strategies for uncovering the history of illiterate subjects. I draw inspiration from these works, and use extensive interview data I collected in Sierra Leone, to argue that Temne women contributed significantly to the socio-economic formation of the colony. The article begins with a review of the literature and its overall neglect of women's participation, particularly Temne women, in the economy of colonial Freetown. The final section analyzes cultural foundations of illiterate Temne women's activism in the Sierra Leone colony. This instance of women's involvement in Sierra Leonean history was, to me, merely one thread in the broader participation in the colony by women of various ethnic backgrounds.

Historiographical Review

As noted above, the neglect of women's involvement in the socio-economic formation of the Sierra Leone colony prompted scholars to draw attention to the androcentric bias in the literature. Susan Geiger makes reference to "the accumulation of androcentric bias in written records both primary (produced by colonial officials, missionaries and travelers) and more recently, secondary (produced by Western as well as African scholars) (...) in African history."2 In support of Geiger's point, Sylvia Ojukutu-Macauley posits that Sierra Leone history is still male-dominated: "Apart from references here and there, the main focuses of these [sic] have been male-oriented."3 It is notable that where the androcentric literature refers to women's role in shaping the economic history of the colony, they are portrayed as powerless. As Andrea Cornwall notes about such androcentric scholarship in African historiography, African women are usually and easily portrayed as "powerless, inviting intervention on their behalf," though other works have challenged this perspective.4 Other scholars, such as Frances White, LaRay Denzer, Adelaide Cromwell and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch also draw attention to the fact that Sierra Leone historiography downplays the economic and political activities of Sierra Leonean women. In their various works, they effectively highlight the contribution of women in shaping the political, social and economic history of the colony. …

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