Our human ancestors had long decided to leave the chimps and gorillas behind and were busy progressing from Homo habilis to Homo erectus, when around 2 million years ago, another ape branched off the line of the chimpanzees: Our cousin, the bonobo. Bonobos look like small and slender chimpanzees and live in groups comparable to them. They were, in fact, held to be chimpanzees until the early 20th Century. Also stemming from the chimpanzee, the bonobos share 98.5 of their DNA with us. But of their genome, only something over one percent is closer to ours than to the chimpanzees. And overall, they are in many ways different from the chimpanzees and very different from us modern humans.
Bonobos are known for using tools, sharing everything, and having rampant sex. They have straight sex, gay sex and lesbian sex, group sex, oral sex, and sex with children. And like us, they have face-to-face sex and they tongue-kiss. But the bonobos’ hyper-sexuality has not only evolved for procreation and pleasure, it is also their means of communication about social relationships: They greet and form social bonds by having sex. And they substitute sex for aggression, using sex for decreasing excitement and social tension, for the suppression of violence and for conflict resolution.
While bonobos seem to follow the motto ‘make love not war’, their in-group aggression remains high. Bonobo males are maybe half as aggressive as the chimpanzee males, but they still fight each other over rank and access to females. And in the absence of male alliances, they have less incentives to hold back than the chimpanzees: Missing fingers, torn ears and poked out eyes amongst the males are numerous. But bonobo females are more aggressive than their chimpanzee ancestors and the mauling of a male bonobo could also come from a gang of allied females fending off a too forceful suitor of one of them. This being a society of dominant females and female alliances, the female bonobos will defend their prerogative of selecting at their own leisure their mating partners. And showing how far this goes, high-ranking females have been observed coercing the male of their choice into having sex with them.
In direct male-female interaction, the male bonobo is dominant. But at the top of the group hierarchy is an old, experienced female who has earned her rank by forging alliances with males and other females, using sex rather than aggression and physical intimidation. And under her, there is overlap of male and female hierarchies, whereby high-ranking males – in coalition with the alpha-female – may take initiatives in coordinating the group. The mother is of the essence for male bonobos. A mother will support her grown son in conflict with other males and help him select the right females for mating. And the mother’s social status will largely determine the status of the son in the male hierarchy.
So, apart their sexual communication, the bonobos social order is complicated. Some say, they live under female leadership, so it’s a matriarchy. Others say that given the existence of male hierarchies, it’s better described as female-centered and egalitarian. And yet others say that it doesn’t matter because matriarchy – and patriarchy, for that matter – only apply to human social organization.
From the bonobos and early humans in the Stone Age fast forward: In the last decade or two, feminists have started defining men and women only socially rather than biologically and socially. In that perspective, they denounce the gender inequality and injustice that patriarchy had installed. They claim that in prehistoric times of human development, matriarchy was the social order. And in Africa, they say, it lasted up to the colonization of the continent by the Europeans who introduced suppression and patriarchy. Since then, the men are not only sexist and patriarchal but also colonial and racist. They skip the bonobos and chimpanzees, and even the early humans who were hunter-gatherers. They see the evidence of matriarchy in African woman warriors, in the queens of some tribes in West Africa, and in myths and legends. And to those findings, they add hefty portions of ideology and wishful thinking.
The best-known matriarchy is, of course, the one of the Amazons which belongs to Greek mythology. The female warriors, skilled in the arts of combat and hunting, courageous, physically agile, and strong, live in a female society that is completely closed to men. Amazons only raise their daughters and kill their sons. The fathers are kept in fear and the Amazons only meet with them for reproduction. The Amazons are emblematic for matriarchy and barbarism. This leads me to two personal comments: First, it’s easy to run a matriarchy if you exclude the men. And two, I prefer the bonobos who substitute sex for aggression.
On two counts, Amazons are said to have made an appearance in Africa: In 1980, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya resigned as head of state and became the ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya’. For his personal security he appointed an all-female elite troop of bodyguards. Their official name was ‘The Revolutionary Nuns’, but they were commonly known as his Amazonian Guard. The Libyan Amazons underwent training in firearms and martial arts, had to take an oath of chastity, and were hand-picked by Gaddafi to serve in the guard. On his official travel, fifteen of his Amazons would always accompany him, for security and housekeeping. – No sign of matriarchy. More showmanship and penchant of Gaddafi to surround himself with young women. And he had two wives and nine children. I think he was a patriarch.
The other appearance dates back to 1823: ‘The African Kingdom of Dahomey is at a crossroads. A new king, Ghezo, has just taken power. Their enemy, the Oyo Empire, has joined forces with the Mahi people to raid Dahomey villages and sell their captives to European slavers, an evil trade that has pulled both nations into a vicious circle. The powerful Oyo have new guns and horses, but the young king has his own fearsome weapon: An elite force of female soldiers, the Agojie, led by a general, Nanisca. Now, these warriors are all that stands between the Oyo and Dahomey’s annihilation.’ These are the dramatized historical facts in the text of the trailer for the 2022 film ‘The Woman King’. In the history books, the Agojie are known as the Dahomey Amazons and the film sells itself as ‘action-packed historical epic’ and ‘female empowerment story’. It delivers lengthy fight scenes with the women of Agojie winning their battles over the men of the enemy. And of course, in the end, the female general Nanisca, in single combat, slays the Oyo leader. I know it’s only a movie, but I don’t think that equaling male aggression will actually empower women.
In the same year as the film went into the cinemas, the Benin government in Cotonu, inaugurated a 30-meter-high statue of Queen Tassi Hangbe who was the daughter of the first king of the Kingdom of Dahomey. She ruled for a short period, up to 1718, and according to oral history, she was the first Dahomey Amazon. She empowered women to engage in activities that were traditionally reserved for men, like elephant hunting, and she installed the Agojie. First, as a female royal guard and then, as an all-women battalion. The Agojie went on to serve the kings that came after Queen Hangbe. And the film ‘The Woman King’ is set a hundred years later. At that time, King Gezo, who was himself a slave trader, had run out of men for his troops. So, he extended the Agojie to become a regiment of his regular army and started recruiting women. Foremost the recruits were captives from the villages he raided for male slaves, and from his own kingdom, some women registered voluntarily, others were forced to enroll.
So, was the Dahomey Kingdom a matriarchy? I don’t think so. Queen Hangbe was the only ‘woman king’ the kingdom ever had. And technically, the Agojie were the king’s wives, the men called them ‘our mothers’ and they held a spiritual status in the Vodoun belief in gods, spirits, ancestors, and magic. While in service, their social life was restricted, they were not allowed to marry or even have sexual relationships – again, that link between sex and aggression. As veterans however, they could rise to positions of social and political influence and come to fortune. In the cosmology of the Fon, the ethnicity of Dahomey, the duality and interplay of male and female is fundamental. The supreme deities in the Sky and the lesser deities, priests and priestesses, men and women, and all things of the Earth reflect this duality of male and female, united into one. Women were regarded as coequals of the men and did not come under their authority. A woman could establish her own compound. She could ‘marry’ other women who would live with her, befriend dignitaries, notables, and influential men of the kingdom, and lead a free sexual life.
In spite of being patrilineal, the Dahomey Kingdom had the institution of the ‘queen mother’. This is a political institution which is found throughout Africa. It is related to African cosmologies, like the one of the Fon, in which the binary opposition of male and female is central. But as it should be when it comes to man and woman, the opposites are equal complements to each other. The queen mother is, of course, also related to the political organization in kingdoms. Foremost queen mothers are found in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana of West Africa, but also in Uganda, in Nubia of Sudan, and in southern Africa, in Eswatini. A queen mother is not necessarily the mother of the king, she can be appointed out of the royal family or even freely. And she will not be a ruler herself but rather a co-ruler of the king, or at the local level, of the chief. The role of queen mother brings women into social and political leadership positions and comes with or without specific responsibilities.
There is no doubt that colonialism broke the customary social and political organization of Africa and stifled the traditional roles of women more than the ones of men. The Kingdom of Dahomey put up a particularly vehement fight for its independence. From 1890 to 1894, it fought two wars against the French. In them, one or two thousand of the Agojie fought on the sides of the male soldiers and their boldness, courage, and audacity took the French aback. But the feminist’s ‘queen’ who made history in the African struggle against colonization was a queen mother from Ghana. At the end of the 18th Century, the Ashanti were also fighting against colonization. To break their resistance, the British deported their King to the Seychelles and as ultimate humiliation, demanded the surrender of his throne, the Golden Stool. As the Ashanti chiefs and elders were afraid to go to war against the British, Queen Mother Asantewaa with an impassioned speech to the Council changed their minds and then took it upon herself to lead an army of 4’000 men into combat. Two years later the Ashanti were defeated and became part of the British Gold Coast colony. Today, the Ashanti Kingdom is a traditional state within the Republic of Ghana and still has the institution of queen mother in its political organization. The Ashanti are matrilineal but out of their royal and noble families, their councils have never elected a queen.
Apart the woman warriors today referred to as ‘Amazons’ or ‘Queens’, African myths and legends abound of heroines and goddesses who wield authority and power over natural forces and human destiny. But this has nothing to do with matriarchy. These female figures control death, birth, and all creation owing to their sensuality and reproductive powers. In the African egalitarian understanding of the different roles of men and women in life, they symbolize the power of motherhood as a spiritual and magical life force for the whole society. Procreation for the survival of the species. Female sovereignty outgrows the gender binary of man and woman and gives women their own social authority and freedom.
As the feminist ideology of the West denies the gender binary and heterosexuality, more and more, African women refuse to go along with it. They refuse to be identified simply as ‘women of color’. They refuse the projection of western ideology onto Africa. They ask how compatible white feminism is with notions of self and society, in Africa, and where its identitarian divisions cross communitarian values. Thereby, African feminists do not appropriate or dismiss masculinity, they see men as a fact and not primarily as a problem. And they build feminism on their femininity, as African women.