On being an African woman

by Amwene Etiang

This March, the question of what it means to be an African woman has been on my mind, that is, our peculiarities. In an attempt to find answers, I decided to interview a woman who embodies these peculiarities with boldness and grace. My mother. It was a conversation between mother and daughter; however, I knew there are other African and Black women who need to read this. I hope her wisdom gives you something to think about as we end this International Women’s Month.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be an African woman?

Simply speaking, I’d say a person who is birthed in Africa and has feminine features is an African woman. Also, one can be an African woman by heritage, for instance, the black women born outside Africa but to African parents. It should be noted that the experiences of African women, like women generally, are not homogenous. 

For instance, being African is different from being black. So, Black is a synonym for being African American. The lived realities and culture of women who are black and who are African may appear similar but can differ in many ways. You may wonder how but perhaps to be African is to accept and be immersed in a part of African culture, given that there are over 100 cultures to belong to.

Then, being African is defined by our lived realities. I would describe being African as beautifully complex.

The richness of our culture, food, beautiful landscapes, and weather are juxtaposed with the discrimination we face and the stereotypes about who we are.

And when we add the challenge of being a woman biologically, it’s a lot! To answer the question directly, being an African woman implies that I have to navigate the richness in this juxtaposition while trying to assert myself in a world that tends to have low expectations of me or my continent. 

What would you say are the best and worst parts of being a woman?

In my opinion, the best part of being a woman is experiencing motherhood. The ability to have children is an opportunity and blessing in itself! In particular, the ability to raise, nurture, love and mould another human being into becoming someone who can contribute meaningfully in society.

As for the worst parts of being a woman, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is high up on this list. Thank God for medicine which helps manage it. Nonetheless, it’s necessary if you want to experience the best parts of womanhood.

What do you think is unique about women?

I like to call it ‘fabulosity’. Particularly expressed through fashion – in the variety of styles, patterns, and outfits available for women to experiment and play with. Fashion, for me, is a means of being feminine and assertive. It is a play with power and art.  Also, and this might be a stereotype, having that sixth sense we all call “intuition”, which I believe is the power of women. The ability to sense things before they happen. Maybe it comes from the ability to be still and listen deeply. It’s not a trait all women possess but it’s still present in many. In addition to that is patience and resilience.

Once you’ve carried a child for 9 months, honestly what can’t you handle?

What challenges did you face as a woman?

As a woman, I definitely had to work twice as hard to get to where I am. There were decisions that I made that went against the grain. For example, deciding not to use my ex-husband’s name when I started working.

Choosing not to practice law when that was what everyone was doing.

Choosing to wear kitenge instead of suits when that was the norm.

Choosing to get divorced.

When I did those, it was borderline scandalous. But now women are allowed to make these decisions for themselves without as much scandal surrounding it. Perhaps, it’s just in my nature to be stubborn. But I’m not stubborn for the sake of it, I just want to do and be myself freely. 

Kitenge is an East African cotton fabric printed in various colours and distinctive patterns. It has its origin from Kiswahili kitengele.

(Bella Africana)

But the most challenging part of being a woman I’d say is a continuous conscious or unconscious fight to assert yourself and prove your worth, in light of patriarchy in its many forms.

What advice would you give to women out there?

Regardless of who you are or what position you are in, as a woman you will always be engaged in this fight. The push back doesn’t diminish the more a woman accomplishes, arguably sometimes it grows. When you go against the grain and the norm, there can be a lot of backlash but you can get used to it. Things don’t necessarily get easier, but you learn how to navigate and manage it better.

I learnt a great deal from this discussion with my mother. I have no specific morals or lessons to share but I leave it open to everyone reading this. Perhaps, you can think about your experiences first as an African woman and then as a woman in general. What are your peculiar experiences and how have they impacted you?

My name is Amwene (pronounced Amwen) and I am a second year student from Uganda studying Law at the University of Bristol. Aside from studying Law, I write about a range of different issues from music to law to history to politics. I also play tennis.