Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana was a Mhondoro, a medium of Nehanda the ancestral spirit of the Zezuru Shona people in Zimbabwe. She was influential in leading a revolt against British settlers in what became the First Chimurenga or Second Matabele War in 1894.
At the end of the 1897 uprising, she was captured and charged with the murder of a British Commissioner Pollard. On Wednesday 27 April 1898, Nehanda sent anguished cries into the early morning sky in Salisbury. A prison warden covered her head and face with a black pouch-like cloth, tying it at the head. The rope caught her throat in mid-cries, her spirit left to meet those of her ancestors. For a moment, no one moved. Then she passed away.
Before Nehanda’s assassination, the Rhodesia Herald reported that “the stoical effrontery and natural romancing powers she exhibited during the trial, and with which she is largely gifted, were no doubt the best qualifications in the eyes of the Mashonas [the Shona people], for the profession she had adopted.”
The newspaper article and transcripts from the court hearings reveal the violent ways in which powerful white men denigrated women, by portraying them as historically never belonging to power circles in Shona history.
And so began the “invention of a gender tradition”. It demonstrated an ignorance of the historiographies of African women; a kind of deliberate historical amnesia – purposefully intended to erase their power in African politics. Such falsification of history – mostly by white men and or colonial apologists – frames the historical discourse on “gender” through a donor-driven lens.
International institutions are failing
International donors have also long sought to improve the political and socioeconomic position of women in Africa through an approach focused on “gender.” But this donor-driven strategy, like its colonial predecessor, is acontextual and so has often failed. The intersections between race and gender – sometimes referred to as the gendered race (PDF) – reveals the startling ways in which these stereotypes affect our decisions in development across all sectors.
Countless development narratives stereotype women as “the privileged focus of poverty and disease eradication programmes,” or as “the face of disenfranchisement and victimhood” – especially in sub-Saharan Africa. While the focus on poverty eradication and gender inequalities brought substantial attention to some of the challenges that many women face, it also reproduced a generalised image of women as victims.
The institutionalised and all- pervasive jargon of gender programmes also fosters inaction from what is often patriarchal civil society, NGOs and governmental organisations.
Failure to include power-wielding women in gender discourses has largely framed women simply as victims of patriarchy. Although the depiction is grounded in painful empirical experiences, it focuses on the suffering of women, viewing them as disenfranchised, and fundamentally as victims. The disenfranchisement discourse provides a rationale for “giving” women much-needed assistance. Women also tend to play the “game”, presenting themselves as victims to become eligible for aid, backgrounding identity, political agency and self-governance.
For this reason, multiple international organisations consider engaging women in development programmes as a leap towards promoting women’s rights. Although well-intentioned, these assumptions are problematic, and they too often box men and women into stagnant categories.
This siloed approach fails to see gender as being about relations of power that, like everything else, are cast into disarray during development processes.
Gender roles interweave with other intersecting political, economic and social identity markers. They are deeply ingrained in and reproduced by the workings of cultural values, geopolitics, socialisation, governance practices and religion.
Gender has become firmly synonymous with the high-level politics of international relations. Women like Nehanda, who experienced violence, shame and humiliation at the hands of men, become associated with poverty and oppression – mostly in low- and middle-income countries.
Development jargon has made gender a “box-ticking” phenomenon
My experience leads me to believe that the gender approach is failing. Reports are replete with “gender capacity-building”, “gender gender and stakeholder analysis” (PDF) and “gender cross-cutting frameworks” (PDF). Many in the development sector argue that such conceptual standardisation saves time otherwise wasted by having to explain the meaning. Such an attitude is baffling as it pre-supposes that the target audience necessarily comprises fellow specialists and that gender historiography is the same across Africa – which is not always the case.
In my view, applying western concepts of gender to many African contexts is a neo-colonial project anchored in racial power which may well breed confusion and resentment.
External funding for development programmes is often conditional on the inclusion of keywords like “women’s empowerment” or “gender equality”, something I experienced when I led the Gender Challenge Fund Initiative. The Logical Framework Approach – commonly used as a tool in development planning and monitoring – specifies “gender-responsive indicators” (PDF) purporting to measure impact on gender equality. However, the adoption of this kind of jargon in the development sector appears to have become the end rather than the means; it leaves out the experiences and political socialisation of women like Nehanda.
Outside the office walls of aid organisations and government departments, few African women are aware of the impact of aid agencies on their lives. Little effort or resources are expended in engaging everyday African women in research and policy debates, or in attempting to reflect their priorities in research. Gender inclusion is merely a “box-ticking” phenomenon.
What now – change, agency and intersectionality
In my mind, from both a woman’s and a gender perspective, Nehanda’s story tells us about a woman who is neither an anti-colonial heroine nor a feminist. It tells us about a self-assured woman, a leader locked in political power struggles of her times with her social groups. To see her as a victim is to take away her agency, which can only be better appreciated when her story is contextualised appropriately as “herstory not history.”
We must start by changing the language used to frame gender discourses and recognise that African women must set the priorities anchored within their historiographies, realities and contexts. Of course, this does not mean that governments and development organisations should abandon gender objectives. Instead, they need to tread carefully and invest in their capacity to carefully monitor the intended and unintended effects of programming on race, development and gender intersectionality.
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