Academic journal article History In Africa

Writing African Women's History with Male Sources: Possibilities and Limitations

Academic journal article History In Africa

Writing African Women's History with Male Sources: Possibilities and Limitations

Article excerpt


Colonial sources can provide historians with a wealth of information about African lives during the colonial period, but they must be read against the grain, filtering out valuable information from the biases and prejudices of European officials. The task of studying African women's history using colonial sources is even more complicated, as women were not often the focus of the colonial agenda, and contact between colonial officials and African women was relatively limited, and often indirect. Particularly in those arenas of African social, cultural, and political life deemed as women's spheres, colonial officials had little incentive to intervene. As a result, historians of later generations are faced with relatively sparse documentation of women-centered social activity during the colonial era. For their part, African women guarded cultural and political spheres under their influence from outside intervention, thus making it difficult for Europeans, and particularly European men, to gain a full and accurate understanding of women's individual and collective experiences under colonial rule.

This paper will examine colonial research and documentation of African women's birthing practices to illustrate both the potential for using these sources to understand some basic elements of women's experiences, and the limitations of this source material in providing deep and accurate insights into African women's history. Using an example from colonial Cameroon, we will see how European interest in women's birthing practices was motivated by colonial economic and scientific agendas steeped in racism and sexism, preventing European researchers from obtaining a balanced and accurate understanding of this women's sphere of social life. On the other hand, the documents reveal efforts of African women to prevent the colonial infiltration into women's arenas of influence.

Two studies of birthing practices in colonial Cameroon will be examined. The first is a report published in 1945 by two French doctors, Georges Olivier and Louis Aujouiat, detailing their work as obstetricians in Cameroon.1 As employees of the colonial regime, these doctors reflected the ideological and political agenda of the French government in Cameroon, and their work was deeply tied to the broader culture driving western imperialism. As will be seen, a multitude of biases underscored the hypotheses, methodologies, and conclusions of these doctors' work. The work of Olivier and Aujouiat revealed little regard for the social context within which African women operated, and instead targeted women's bodies as experimental grounds, sources of data, and targets for change. While it is possible to sift through the documented results of their research to uncover traces of information concerning African women's beliefs and practices, Olivier and Aujoulat's work ultimately reveals more about their own biases than about the women studied.

The second study, published in 1947, was written by a western-educated Duala man, Stephane Ekalle.2 Ekalle endeavored to present a local, African approach to obstetrics, and thus represents a compelling alternative to the study of the French doctors. Indeed, Ekalle's work does reflect a deeper understanding than that of Olivier and Aujouiat of the role played by reproduction in the larger social context. But, written by an African man and a western-educated researcher, Ekalle's work straddles the methodology and discourse of western science on the one hand, and the institution of African patriarchy on the other. Both postures make it necessary to approach Ekalle's work with caution, aware of those biases and barriers blocking him from a full view of local women's experiences.


Beginning in 1933 doctors Georges Olivier and Louis Aujouiat conducted a study on fertility, pregnancy, and birthing, and the report describing their findings and conclusions was published in the Bulletin de la Société d'Études Camerounaises in December 1945. …

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