Who is an African woman?

When people ask me what I do, and I respond that I’m a blogger, and that I blog about topics that primarily concern African women, quite often they proceed to either tell me about an humanitarian or developmental cause they are involved with or have read about. Sometimes they ask me how my blog reaches women in African villages.

They’re not ‘wrong’ to ask these questions and I do address women’s lives in rural Africa at times. However, these reactions imply that too often, the term “African woman” conjures a poor woman in rural Africa that automatically needs helping.  The pitiable African woman. The one that mainstream media doesn’t tire of depicting. The one who indeed exists – although she has more agency often than allowed in depictions of her – who furthermore is a sister to other African women,and not this “Other” that we ‘inauthentic’ African women are saving.

When such questions are posed, I find myself needing to be quite careful in explaining that women in rural Africa are not necessarily my target audience. This is foolish. It should not be offensive for me to say this! No one imagines that a European feminist blog must reach just one type of European woman. Most people who read this blog are based in urban cities, both in the west and the continent. Also, I myself being a Nigerian-Finnish, African-European, woman with strong ties to both continents, share stories and opinions that are based on my experiences. Therefore, people who read the blogs are likely to have cultural experiences that resonate to some extent with mine.

It seems obvious that an African woman is equally the farmer who lives in a village in Ghana or one who has a high-flying office job in Kinshasa. She is the Togolese woman in a refugee camp in Israel. Or the Ethiopian woman in a luxury home in London’s Chelsea. She is the Namibian/German woman on social welfare in Berlin. She is – from a pan-African cross-continental stance which this blog has – the  Dominican woman, the Brazilian woman, the African descendant in any part of the world who vests a part of her identity in the African continent.

I’m tired of people immediately assuming that to blog about African women is to blog about charity work. I’m tired of this idea that African women can only be objects of pity. I’m tired of the notion that African women can or should only interact on select topics. African women bloggers should and do write about social media, sex, literature, art, pop culture, love, philosophy, fashion, food, hiphop and more. I’m sick and tired of the single narrative of African womanhood having such impenetrable power.

What do you say? Have you had similar or dissimilar experiences?

  • MumBi

    For me, i got tired of it long time.. or actually bemused by it.. and trying to rectify it and took it as what it also is – a chance to be a “thought leader” in a specific channel or area.. and make the change from within. Change how people see that specific area.. through your demenour, nuances.. how you think, how you write, etc – coz they identify YOU as being one of “them.”

    Its going to be a slow process -but the fact that many people are on it all talking about different things..will break that mold.. sooner than later! I promise you!! Just watching ;))

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for sharing @MumBi. I guess for me I don’t necessarily aspire to be changing the view from one set thing to another. In other words, it’s not that rural women shouldn’t be a representation of African womanhood, but that they shouldn’t be ‘The” representation. Our identities as African women overlap but are not homogeneous. There must be a focus on solidarity but respect for diversity. You know what I mean?

  • http://eve-on-bloggin.blogspot.de/ eve

    i cant agree with u more! 😀

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for reading

  • http://www.afroblush.com Louisa K

    I have had similar experiences, but thankfully I think perceptions of ‘Africans’ are evolving for the better as African culture is being embraced more into the mainstream.

    • MsAfropolitan

      I hope so, I truly do.

  • eltheus

    Um, not an easy question. Is it correct to ask ‘who is an African woman’ rather than ‘what makes an African woman’? Who does ever asks this question for the European woman in the first place? It goes as obvious in some sort of way. She is recognizable. The problem does not subsist for the time being. What is it that in the African case makes an African woman herself be considered un-African or in no way different than any other European woman? or ‘American’ woman? Cases often categorized under the case: ‘White man in Black body’. I think nothing other than culture makes an African woman African in contrast to, for instance, sisters that have moved abroad. Culture. Values. We are all the same only cultures differ. Beliefs, ways of seeing, doing, practicing, reacting, understanding… It seems to me that above personality, what makes identity is a culture of belonging. The difficult problem with Africa and its people is the history. African cultures have been and are systematically denied and cancelled by western cultural imperialism, and its obsessive rhetoric of development. There is barely anything African left. As if to ‘develop’ or ‘progress’ Africans’ had to modernize and needed to delete their cultures of origin. But that is exactly it! Africans have to school and transform up to complete assimilation. Then they will be ‘developed’! All that is African is denigrated by the West as irrational, savage, uncivilized, useless, and whatever. It is degraded and humiliated. It is not accepted. It is denied of value. Therefore since colonization up as of today African cultures and people are undergoing massive continuous perpetrated annulation of their personalities, cultures, systems of thought… This under the name of ‘development’ or ‘mission civilisatrice’. Everything is ‘seen’ under the western eye worldview. The ethnologist’s eye. Everything measured according to it. The projections of the viewer. Africa as of today is left invisible. It has been described as the ‘dark continent’, or the continent of darkness because of the so considered ‘savagery of its people’ reflected in the color of their skin, whereas what was really been told was the projections of the Conrads’ fears and phantasms. Today Africa is still invisible because instead of willing to know it and accept it, describe it and see it for what it is, there is this only one ruling obsession: the parameter of development. The only lens. Change needs new glasses. The blindest is what is not seen. And the problem subsists in that increasingly Africans most of the time try to fit into the parameters of the West and even surpass in imitation and perfection the adherence to the model. Instead of living cultures there is denial of cultures, instead of adopting cultures there is rush to westernization. It’s the ‘bleaching phenomenon’. This is comprehensible and understandable. But it’s a loss. And it’s even more so when the younger generations don’t even know who they are and where do they come from and what their cultures were about, and reason in a completely globalized assimilated manner, nourished by western periphery rubbish violence or nourished preponderantly by western culture. So the point is how can someone be African if s/he has not lived, assimilated its own culture? Or rejects it, or doesn’t even know it? For instance African languages. The problem is that even when Africans’ describe the culture often, and increasingly so, the culture described is apprehended through western lens that judges it in function of western criteria . FGM example. Without going into this which is complicated, the point is not to judge but to understand and try to see what is not seen but dismissed at start as worthless, negative. To deconstruct assimilation and the categories that structure it in the mind and in the language, in the media, arts, politics, institutions, everywhere, is a major task. The problem of which being that the cultural resources to build the alternative are lacking or have been destroyed. The problem being that we do not know about African cultures in their specific unless to a great extent what has been described and made known to us by the ‘colonizers’ biased interpretation. But fortunately African cultures have not been completely exterminated and it is still possible to acknowledge them in the expression of their authenticity, and not to please the western viewer, still in many parts of Africa. They still exist and can speak for themselves. Who is the African woman? As Mona Eltahawy would say: yalla! :) We need more African women voices at center stage to see and listen to and then we will know better. Or otherwise said it’s a very difficult question that needs much more in depth thinking and cannot be ruled out simply. Nosce te ipsum. Man know thyself! For the modern African woman or diasporan African woman although different I think her contribution depends to the extent in which she reaches to enrich the West with African touch and values bringing about change in western mindsets and sensibility rather than African cultures breaking down the rigidity of western categories. But this is just one thought of what is complex and delicate and requires more elaboration and I wouldn’t want to be offensive in any way or make it too simplistic…

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment. Yalla, indeed, we continue to build on an intercontinental African women’s raising consciousness movement.

  • http://myburntorange.wordpress.com Freedes

    I have often explored this, I did once ask over at africa on the blog, “who is African” not just on African women per se. I profusely apologise for placing the link in your comments, but I just think when people ask about Africans, they are really asking about black people. I have come to realise over the years that, yes, although majority of Africa is black, African women are white, many of which live in rural areas too, on farms,white, like Kirsty Coventry who recently made headlines when her father asked for bride price, indian, lebanese, even chinese. They are African too. Or are they still foreigners? http://www.africaontheblog.com/who-is-african/

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Freedes, I imagine a white-African woman may feel frustrated too with the rigid categorization. However, for the shared racial background it’s more likely to affect black African women.
      I think of White-Africans as White-Africans in the same way as African-Americans are hyphenated.

  • http://www.perspectives-anotherwaytoview.blogspot.com Carolyn Moon

    Minna, as a black woman in the U.S. of African descent and a follower of Pan-Africanism since 1965; I can truly identify with your article.
    Black women in the U.S.in my humble opinion are viewed as hapless, the other if you will–with exceptions. Stereotyped moreso than any other ethnic female group and when we achieve in arts, sciences, literature, etc.; we are viewed as rare or remarkable. After awhile when you have so many exceptions it’s no longer the norm. The latter, somehow never seems to pertain to us. I long for the day when we no longer will have these discussions about women of color wherever they are in the diaspora. Until then we must adhere to a Deborah Prothrow-Stith quote: “We cannot silence the voices that we do not like hearing. We can, however, do everything in our power to make certain that other voices are heard.”

    You are one of many who are doing so!


    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Carolyn, I love that quote. A new mantra!

  • Magda

    This means there’s a lot of work ahead of you fight the oversimplified stereotypes. I hope you will be able to increase the awareness of the Western world with respect to women in Africa in the next years. Looking forward to that and all the best.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Magda, I hope so too..

  • African Mami

    If a person’s view of an African woman is limited, best believe, I too, I’m limited in conversation! If a Caucasoid woman, can be everything, then that vein of thinking certainly applies to ME, to US-the African women. To be honest, I just do not entertain nonsensical states of mind! THAT is one of them.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hey African Mami :) True dat. Although I sometimes get these types of comments from other Africans. Especially menfolk. That’s another post!

  • http://fuzefairy.wordpress.com Ndu

    Too true. To often we African women are cornered into being the rural woman with the kid on her back fetching water at the river. The urban cosmopolitan African woman seems to not exist and is not represented as much in main stream media. It is a shame, like the African woman should not grow or should day rural and always rely on handouts a woman that should be pitied. This view means that te we are not given a chance o grow an prove ourselves.

    • MsAfropolitan

      The rural woman with the kid on her back needs the may versions of her story out there too. Thanks for your comment.

  • Vinanti Sarkar

    It is not about African women being cornered into being the rural poor or cosmopolitan urban – the soul of the woman is the same reflection of her unique spiritual being … Forget the media harboring only to perpetuate the poverty of rural women comparing their traditional and cultural world with the desire to sell newsy worthy stories – always showing themselves – the writer/editor – as better citizens. I am fed up of their multimedia comparisons – always focusing on the powerless dignity of the woman … whom the male has kept subdued and submissive.

    Let us all – each and every one of us… unite the image of women in whatever culture and rever her socially for keeping the traditons and dignity of her life style .. respect her for who she is … and assist her in the way she needs – not the way – we think she should represent herself …. What does she really feel about her life ? Let her move forward within her own dignified wholeness as a woman …

    • MsAfropolitan

      Was this a response to @Ndu? Either way, this is a beautiful reflection. Thanks. It’s all about wholeness. The full prism being allowed to exist.

  • http://www.mwanabaafrika.blogspot.com/ MbA

    Great post! So true. The thing I hate the most is when people talk about that African woman thinking oh it’s fine to talk in condescending, misinformed, myopic and sometimes prejudiced and/ or racist way in front of me because I don’t fit the stereotype, therefore I’m not like them, therefore I’m not African which naturally means I’m like the person talking who in reality is nothing like me coz I would not talk like that. Thankfully all my close friends who come from all corners of the earth are like me: They realise we have our similarities and our differences and every culture, place and continent has a spectrum of identities

  • http://www.zimba.co.uk Caroline

    Well said!I will definitely be reading more of your blogs in future.

  • http://somethingweafricansgot.blogspot.com.au/ Rue

    I totally agree with you. I hate being seen as stupid, poor and uneducated. I get things like “Do you have a safari in your backyard?” “Do you have lions as pets” or “Your English is very good”. I speak about this in my blog about what being African means hope you can check it out http://somethingweafricansgot.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/being-african-equals.html

    I wanted to a choreographer as a child and I remember my parents saying have you heard of an African choreographer. Forget it and be a doctor or a nurse and honestly that crushed me so I agree with you. Great post.

  • http://themodernafrican.blogspot.com.au/ Rue

    I’ve changed my blog name, I still would like to know what you think about it :) http://themodernafrican.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/being-african-equals.html

  • http://none Vivian Nkongmenec Moutchia

    Feminism, make me an instrument of change.

  • http://asanempokasghanaway.wordpress.com Asanempoka.Zebra

    An African woman is also the woman from Australia who marries an African man and lives in his place because she finds it homely, comforting and enjoys her large family more than, or just as much as her other home. :) She is Australian-African but her children are African-Australian due to the cultural blend of the household. At least that’s how we see it in our family.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Lovely! This made me smile, your family seems harmonious and blessed.

  • http://www.zarachiron.com/2013/07/black-women-in-europe/ Zara Chiron

    I am just drooling over this article. There were too many great moments. “The term “African woman” conjures a poor woman in rural Africa that automatically needs helping.The pitiable African woman. The one that mainstream media doesn’t tire of depicting.” – sheer brilliance!!!

    Thank you so much for all the work that you do. It is people like you who will help take the African continent to the next level. I am so in love with this article and the truth, passion and spirit it contains!
    I am so proud to be an Africa Women of the Diaspora – and I will continue to play my part in the hopes that I could do so half as well graciously as you play yours. Ciao.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks a lot, such a lovely comment to receive! Nice to have you here :)

  • https://facebook.com/profile.php?id=599267774 Maria Simba


    My name is Mariama and I’ve only just discovered your blog which I find absolutely fantastic. I hear you when you say that you’re tired of people associating African women to poor and hungry African women in the village that only attracts a distant pity from the rest of the world. I can see myself that kind of reaction when I tell people that when going on vacation in Africa I sometimes spend time in grand-parents’ village with elderly members of my family. They don’t understand the pride and respect that exist in Africa when it comes to our roots or the history that comes with it.
    And that I think is mostly because either we (I’m including myself in that mass of Africans who were born and grown up in Europe) never had that cultural knowledge that would come from our parents (non-existing in the French education) or we ourselves associated the African lifestyle with poverty or being outdated; and that is what some of us would project to those around us…I am however not dismissing the media impact.

    I have a lot of relatives who proudly talk about the place where they come from and can’t wait to share their cultural heritage by cooking a good African meal or by wearing a traditional outfit, literature, music… That makes me envious of them becuase they have that knowledge experience of the life in Africa from birth. I feel like I need to catch-up with them.

    I am working on a blog which I have not published yet (I’m still a bit shy I guess) and which is about Afro beauty. I have surfed the internet a lot and was amazed by the number of blogs and Youtube channels that exists for Naturals and beauty products for dark skins. I think that it is a huge breakthrough for the image of the black woman and it definitely helps create a space for our kind of beauty with our natural assets.

    However, rather than just creating another blog that will talk about fashion and beauty, I wanted to include an element of history. I’m thinking about all the women in Africa that don’t always have access to the products we can find in the West but that are not less creative or disadvantaged when it comes to their beauty routine.

    I would like to bring forward the natural products that are used in Africa, a lot of which are now found/used in cosmetics in occidental countries (to reach out to a market of women with darker complexion) and to demonstrate how they used them.

    I would like to bring forward the traditional hairstyles that in the past were full of meanings in terms of social distinction and how they have evolved towards the existing beauty codes in Africa.

    I would LOVE to create a community of women that share, exchange their skills in terms of hairstyling, make-up and help them develop them towards an source of substantial income. We all have a cousin, a sister or an auntie that does our hair like they were born to do it!

    The African fashion industry has done a very good job by sticking to the materials and prints that are so representative of the traditional African outfit and I am sooo happy to see some sort of acceptance from the Western fashion which uses them for their collection. However there is still a lot of work to do in the fashion industry, but that’s another subject.

    My point is that if we have managed to impose a movement where black women are fighting to see the acceptance of their natural beauty, talents and intellect in the occidental world, I think that it is crucial to emphasize the world of African creativity, and the influence it has had so far on the Western world.

    I think that your blog is a strong representation of that group of African women who are thirtsty for recognition of their intellectual capacities, their talents, their creativity and the many challenges we face on a daily basis.

    I hope that it will inspire many more bloggers to communicate about their heritage and how it gives them a stronger sense of identity to learn about their history.

    It is a very long road but definitely meaningful!

    Thank you :-)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Maria,

      Thanks ever so much for your kind words. I warmly appreciate the feedback.

      For your upcoming blog, you should check out this great book I’m reading, it’s called “BEautifying the Body” by Christelle Kedi and it deals with a lot of beauty history in Africa.

      – Minna

    • MsAfropolitan

      Gracias Lilit, me alegra leer un mensaje en Espanol. Si que es “irrespetuosa, racista y patriarcal”

  • https://twitter.com/MsDreydful MsDreydful

    This is part of why I started my blog. Thanks for your insight!

  • Angelyn Sargent

    I 100% agree. It is very sad that, many people around the African women of today, only want to allow in their minds the wrongful, abusive, inferior, and second class mindsets of the past. That’s the comfort zone for so many people. No matter what, many feel if we can just keep this group from, living, loving, thriving, knowing and believing that they are the same human kind as the rest of us, we have won a of always presenting to the world we are the best. But that fight is being lost every day God started with the African women and we are done with our work here its only just begun.

  • angelyn sargent

    Hi this is Angelyn Sargent I submit and unfinished post it didn’t say what I meant please don’t post it. summited October 26 at 9:18Texas time.

  • http://www.myrubyheels.com Jane Oma

    Thank you for writing this Minna. Your power of expression is captivating. It is true what you said about the way the media continues to depict the African woman and indeed the African. And, I believe that each voice that speaks up against the incompleteness of that story will help the other part of the African story be heard more. It was Chimamnda Adichie who said that the problem with stereotypes is not that there are untrue, but rather that they are incomplete. The poor woman in rural Africa, fighting to take care of her family is an authentic and beautiful part of the African story, inspiring courage and raw beauty and strength, nevertheless it is only a part. There are so many other parts that focusing on only one and denying the existence of all the others is not only unfair, but also cruel.
    Thank you again, for sharing this.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

      Thank you, Jane. I very much appreciate your thoughts.