African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview

1
Peasant Women

For centuries the family was at one and the same time the locus of production, consumption, and domestic life. This was not the limited family called "nuclear" of the contemporary Western world (father, mother, and children, with perhaps grandparents and at most a few close cousins) but a larger group known as a lineage. A lineage is a group of individuals who recognize themselves as descendants of a known common ancestor. Where knowledge is transmitted orally, the lineage can be extremely extensive; one can with reasonable accuracy trace one's descent back nine or ten generations, involving a considerable number of relatives in a long series of lineage branches or segments. But the term "lineage" can be misleading: it exaggerates the importance of biological affiliation, whereas over the course of generations the extended family incorporated a large number of social allies, whose descendants then became part of the family: children and adolescents given to the family to work against forgiveness of a debt or an offense, adoptees (far more common than in our modern societies, with their exacting regulations), slaves, dependents, and others.


Women, Family, and Household

To understand women's place in ancient African societies, we must of course examine their place in the family as just defined. But the African continent, with its vast expanses and its multitude of historical-social-cultural or "ethnic" groups, spans a broad spectrum of types of familial communities. There is no one model that describes "the African family," much less a "position of women" in such a family. Nonetheless, one can discern certain main tendencies, colored by regional differences.

If we exclude the early colonization of South Africa, which created cities and mining towns, until about the middle of the twentieth century the great majority of Africans were rural people. They were cattle herders, farmers,

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