Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies (2001)

ISSN: 1530-5686


Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies

Nkiru Nzegwu

Our conceptualization of JENDA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies was guided by two main objectives: the first is to create a space from which to theorize our experiences, presently marginalized in today’s global context of unequal economic relations; and the second is to wrest ourselves from the mould of stereotypical assumptions in which this international economic order and its attendant culture of hierarchy have cast us. We chose to publish online because it offers an immediate and cost-effective way to reach a global audience. We can take our issues directly to our audience without being subjected to the demeaning practices in place in the publishing industry. The standard practice is for white scholars to be editors of journals devoted to African studies, although occasionally, a few African males are thrown into the editorial board to create an illusion of inclusion. Given this racialization policy and the industry’s seeming preference for scholarship that is mired in pathologies,1 it is unlikely that the established publishing houses will invest resources in a journal with an all-African women team of co-editors that will not pursue an agenda of devaluing Africa. Because we are aware of these prejudices toward Africa and an all-African woman editorial group, we have chosen to take our issues directly to a global audience rather than give credibility to practices that denigrate our personhood.

Hierarchy and Power

Encounters with forms of global hierarchies and varieties of power have made us realize the necessity of rejecting disparaging views of African women. Stereotypical assumptions such as these constrain people’s possibilities. In the tradition of our activist Mothers (grandaunts, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, friends and peers), we do not believe that we should be obsequious to others in matters of urgent concern to our welfare. We do not believe that it is right to hinge the evaluation of the publication worth of African women’s concern and issues on the research interests and publishing goal of white women scholars or to make it contingent on our forming an unequal partnership with them. Prior to migrating to North America and Western Europe to study and work, many of us had (and still have) positive images of our capabilities, our possibilities, and ourselves. We came as individuals, and even when we came with spouses, we knew who we were. In our minds, everything was possible. Not even the sky was the limit! Though Westerners are quick to portray themselves as astute, critical scholars, they violate their own rules of scholarship when they imprudently characterize us as lacking the requisite intellectual capacity to function as competent scholars. The preposterous idea that we lack leadership qualities and that we function only at the level of group consciousness is an invidious ploy, designed to obliterate our initiative and resourcefulness. It tries to succeed by robbing us of the very human basis in which individuality flourishes.

Because we did not immigrate to North America and to Europe as a group we did not set out to define an African women’s agenda or to initiate a field of studies devoted to “African Women.” In the course of our educational goals, we focused on our diverse fields of specialization, and we strove to participate as individuals in intellectual discourses that shape our different disciplines. Of course, from our secondary school studies, we learnt about racism, the devaluation of Blacks in the United States, Britain and Europe as well as the vilification of whatever is African. But because we never lived the experience, we did not think that our individuality, resourcefulness and intelligence would be questioned and our humanity erased. We assumed perhaps naively that this unfortunate view of Africa was to be found only among illiterate people. After all, this is the twenty-first century! The past century was the age of decolonization, mass education, airline travel, information superhighway, satellite communication, intercontinental televisions broadcast, and mass global transportation! It was not the nineteenth century, the age of myopic enlightenment, in which colonization functioned as the economic tool of exploitation to subdue the non-European world. We did not stop to think that if African Americans had cohabited with European Americans for more than four centuries and had not succeeded in changing their compatriots’ perception, then the problem had nothing to do with lack of knowledge. It had more to do with an ideological mind set that systematically and systemically shored up white supremacy while it engaged in the inferiorization of blacks and Africa.

Before we flew out of our various airports, Dar es Salaam, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Dakar, Freetown, Johannesburg, Lusaka, etc. and experienced the razor edge of the ideology of white supremacy, we were aware of how ill-informed about Africa ordinary people in the United States and European countries were and so we prepared to enjoy ourselves at their expense. We were ready for ludicrous questions like: “Oh, where did you learn to speak such goooood English?” “At JFK (or Heathrow, as the case may be)!” We had our stock of ready answers, delivered with a disarming smile to belie the pointed edge of our responses. “Is it true that Africans live on trees?” “Sure!” we would reply emphatically. And in a conspiratorial tone would add, “And you know, my family lives five trees down from the tree of the American Ambassador.”

The gullibility of the ordinary American about other parts of the world was legendary. Most of us had heard of it “back home.” But we were prepared to excuse it after all, we were dealing with ordinary people, and like average people everywhere, they never professed to be scholars or intellectuals. What we did not expect, and which was an immense shock to us, was that academics and intellectuals would also display an equally shocking level of ignorance about other parts of the world. Many of us wondered, what they could possibly teach their students that would promote global peace and harmony if they had such a parsimonious view of the world, and are oblivious of the realities of non-Europeans who constitute more than two thirds of the population of the world? How could they teach about international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, International Labor Organization, when they have no sense of global history and geography and would ask a Sierra Leonean student if they know a former Kenyan student of theirs who currently lives and works in Kenya? Is Africa, the second largest continent in the world, a minuscule island? Is it a small village that, a Sierra Leonean, on the west coast of the continent and from a different country to boot would know all Kenyans on the east coast of the continent? Some of us puzzled about how theorizations of political relations could possibly be advanced when such professors fail to factor in the differences in political structures and experiences that exist either in Africa, Latin America or Asia. Indeed, how does one intelligently talk about the lives of women in Africa when one begins from the basic premise that African women are ignorant, beasts of burden, who are totally cowed and dominated by their men?

Knowledge and White Ideology

Initially, we did not see this denigration of the realities of the major part of the world as an emanation of the ideology of white supremacy. We simply attributed it to ignorance. For this reason, many of us did not immediately grasp that whiteness is a constitutive part of the structure of knowledge in North America and Western Europe, with entitlements flowing naturally to those with privileged skin. Within the academy, this flow meant that whites2 are perceived as “naturally” knowledgeable: they are supposed to know and they are expected to speak objectively and authoritatively even when they are vaguely familiar with the subject matter. On the other hand, Blacks are “naturally” perceived as not knowledgeable: they are positioned as lacking objectivity, expertise, and an uncritical eye even after they have closely studied a subject.

In the course of our residency in North American and European universities, we are learning more about this dynamics of knowledge and whites’ assumption of their natural entitlement to knowledge. We are grasping too that paradigms of knowledge are sometime less about objective inquiry and more about power, dominance and perception. As Abena Busia remarked “one of the more tortured aspects of feminist praxis in the west is the difficulty many Euro-American women confront in yielding the assumed authority of their theoretical paradigms in the face of other systems of thought, and other modes of practice and negotiation as presented by Women of Colour about our own lived experiences” (1994, iv). We note a similar attitude toward power, knowledge and education in Europe during the age of imperialism that spanned the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We see this attitude today in the United States as the totally racialized paradigm of Americocentrism replaces the partially racialized paradigm of Eurocentrism3

Within the racialized structures of US academia, we find that we are exceptionalized as “African Women.” It does not matter that many of us hardly know this pitiable creature that proliferates in our colleagues’ imagination. We are expected to confirm the legitimacy of the caricature by living up to it. Consequently, it is common to encounter colleagues, university professors, mind you, who would inform us that we must be thrilled to be in the United States. And why is that? We ask. “Ah, I was watching the Discovery Channel last night,” the response would go, “and I saw this tribe in which only men were dancing, and women were at the perimeter clapping and cheering the men on. It must be a pretty awful place for women since they are not allowed to dance.” This was from a philosophy professor who is expected to have more than the barest minimum knowledge of the rules of logic! How do you legitimately move from one instance of an unknown dance style, one specific unknown context, and one unknown “tribe” to a profound general statement about Africa and all the inhabitants? In addition, going beyond the immediate problem of the unknown variables in the professor’s premises, how does one make a profound sociological claim of knowledge by exclusively relying on the Discovery Channel, and then idly viewing the program in a mixed state of inattention and incredulity! It is disconcerting at the very least to watch the utter lack of shame in which some experts publicly hang out their ignorance and expect us to validate their musings. It is even more traumatizing to watch the destruction of the ground rules of scholarship by the very people who ought to uphold it, and who are upheld as the purveyors of knowledge.

African Women Studies and Us

In a certain sense, our entry into the field of African Women studies is a result of encounters with the figments of our colleagues’ imaginings. These crude slapstick caricatures of African women continually pop up at professional conferences and in our colleagues’ theoretical work. The problems with these crude figures is that they cut out the social context of our lives and in the process erase the meanings assigned to events, actions, identities, and institutions. As we strive to combat the deployment of these caricatures that represent our Mothers, we find ourselves moving from our initial field of specialization into African Women studies by default. Speaking of her time as a graduate student in the anthropology department at Harvard University in the 1970s, Felicia Ekejiuba states, “One of the main problems I had.was reconciling my childhood experiences of women as initiators of development and active participants of social and economic processes in their communities with their image in much of the existing literature as ‘marginalized,’ ‘downtrodden’ and ‘exploited’ by patriarchy and motherhood. The literature emphasized an attitudinal discrepancy between rural women and educated, urban-based women and men of my mother’s generation” (48). Though Ekejiuba’s experience occurred in the 1970s, it is instructive that this problem continues today as revealed by the experiences of many graduate students and African women professors in the academy in the United States.

The problem of backing into African Women studies is not simply that we have to combat unfounded constructions of Africa’s social realities, but that we lost the momentum to set the agenda of discussion. Consequently, we are in a reactive mode rather than in a positive mode required to transform the discipline. But this is gradually changing as we find our keel. Although today, many of us are increasingly addressing the concerns of African women in our work, we did not create this field of studies with its two main camps: an older one that grew out from the discipline of anthropology, and the newer camp that emerged as an offshoot of development and feminist studies. The issues in the two camps were already in existence by the time many of us arrived in the United States, which is why we find that their defining assumptions underplay our experiences. Achola Okeyo Pala has remarked that much of this literature “has continued to use the African environment as a testing ground for ideas and hypotheses the locus of which is to be found in Paris, London, New York and Amsterdam” (210). Continuing, she observes that when “.the primary orientation to development problems tends to be created on the basis of what happens to be politically and/or intellectually significant in the metropoles. .[it has] little to offer African women” (210-211).

Contrary to the expectation that African Women studies would be a natural home for us and for the kinds of work we are currently producing, it has not been a congenial academic niche. Think about it from the perspective of our erstwhile researchers. How happy would you be if the object of research you had pathologized moved in on you uninvited? Given the uninvited nature of this cohabitation, and the unequal power that institutionally exists between the researcher and the researched, the main worry would be: Would these invading subjects take kindly to being treated as objects rather than as subjects? Again, knowing that the research has never been a collaborative one, and that permissions were never elicited from the subjects, a researcher would be in trepidation about subjects’ reactions to whatever has been written about them. What if after trying to be congenial, these invading research subjects keep insisting that you (the researcher) have no idea what you are talking about, and that your interpretations are way off the mark? What would you do? One strategy that white female researchers of African women have employed to tackle this problem is to portray African women scholars as ingrates and to treat our outrage as unreasonable. Naturally, this counterattack is intended to deflect attention from the fact that they have for long disseminated disparaging views about us. Until now, our researchers have never bothered about these errors precisely because it never occurred to them that their research objects would one day become their colleagues, and they would have to face our wrath.

There is no doubt that as visitors with hard earned US tourist visas4 our presence was tolerable, even welcome. As guests from economically depressed regions of the world we were always courteous, deferential sometimes, and appreciative of the invitation, travel support and the little honorarium we received. To show our appreciation, we tended to be very generous with information and supportive of the theoretical work of our benefactors. We never questioned why we were invited and what purpose our presence was deployed to serve. During these travel forays, no one was discomfited by our presence. They were always too short to be bothersome and for us to outstay our welcome. In fact, whatever untoward act we witnessed, and whatever disparaging comment we heard, we silently dismissed the “foolishness” as their problem not ours. However, eager to keep up with global intellectual trends, we would take the positive aspect of whatever theories we heard and discard the aspects that sought to pathologize our social relationships and the actions of our Mothers. Sometimes, for reasons that may include the lure of fame, the need to be rewarded with more travel invitations and support, some of us have embraced the philosophy of pathologization and have become proponents of problematic ideas articulated by some white benefactresses. Not only have these negative constructions been deployed to cripple our agency, they have also been used to dismiss the legitimacy of existential problems from which our theoretical issues have arisen. In their stead, our white colleagues have sought to emphasize the importance of issues that are of interest to them in the First World.

Having migrated to the First World, we find that our former silent approach to personal and collective slights is inadequate. Where in the past we may have been willing to humor our white female interpreters, we are no longer content to do so. Living in a racialized environment that disparages the “black” skin we are now very concerned about how our families and we are perceived, defined and interpreted. We have no qualms about adopting measures that may appear uncivil when our white women interpreters routinely articulate and disseminate ideas that misrepresent us as subhuman. As more of us move into the academy and become colleagues with our white interpreters, they are finding that the former unequal “sisterhood” partnerships are dissolving before barrages of legitimation questions. Our former senior partners are facing the kind of questions they never expected from their research subjects. These are carefully being targeted to expose the paucity of their “knowledge” and the projections of their racist intuitions as facts. Our questions include but are not limited to: “How can you really claim to know when you do not even speak the language of your subjects of study? What do you know of the social history of the society under analysis? What repositories of knowledge were available to you? And by what means did you arrive at your conclusions and interpretations?

Battle for the Field

With African immigration to the US growing at eleven percent per annum, and immigration from other Third World nations growing at a faster rate, the US academy is facing a higher incidence of counter-penetration acts from former subjects of research. Previously, when we resided in the economically deprived region of the world we rarely had the resources to talk back and disseminate our views even if we wanted to, and so we appeared to be silent. Unfortunately, our “silence” was misconstrued as an indication of our approval of all that had been written about us. Upon relocating to the US and Western Europe, however, opportunities have opened up, which we have taken, to counter these representations about us. Increasingly, our former hostesses are finding our presence both disquieting and unsettling. Rather than working with us to resolve the problem created by their interpretations, it is unfortunate that some are rethinking their presence in African studies as a whole. Some are finding ways to combat what they perceive to be challenges to their authority and expertise, while a small but significant minority is working with us to transform the field in positive ways.

In the earlier quotation, Busia has noted the reluctance of many European American women to yield assumed authority and to give up their paradigms in the face of competing visions.5 It is true that many of these scholars expect to retain authority in the field they had defined. We see this as likely only if we are prepared to conform to the stereotype of us in their writings, musings and imaginings. Since many African women are increasingly refusing to be junior partners in theorizing our lived experiences, the welcome carpet in the doorway of African Women studies is hastily being withdrawn. We are prepared to accept this withdrawal as the price for the restoration of our dignity. Besides, we smugly think, they cannot win any contest against us. How can these white female opposition rebut the legitimacy of our critiques especially when we have the advantage of knowing the language as native speakers, we possess the requisite familial networks through which information is created, dispersed and stored, and we have the full range of historical corpus to draw from and debate their interpretations? After years of objectifying us how can our white female opposition expect to retain a position of privilege about our own experiences when they are competing with comparably educated scholars like us who, in addition to our education, are insiders’ to the very cultures that are subject to analyses?

The short and brutal answer is that they do. One of the ill effects of globalization is the continued tradition of invisibilizing and marginalizing African women. The structures of the academy work to the advantage of white women by assigning them positions of authority and relegating us to the margins. Consider a forthcoming interdisciplinary conference on Africa in the 21st Century: Prospect and Retrospect, slated for March 30-31, 2001 at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. The keynote speaker is an eminent African male scholar, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the other three featured speakers are two men and a woman: Hussein Adam whose lecture title is “Somalia and Africa in the 21st Century”; Joseph Adjaye who will be speaking on “African Studies into the 21st Century: Prospects and Challenges”; and Claire Robertson, whose title is “African Women into the 21st Century.” It is noteworthy that African men are increasingly being accorded the space to theorize the issues that are of importance to them while African women are still being effaced. It is significant too that Robertson is the only woman chosen. More importantly, she is the only one who has chosen to constitute human beings as objects of study in her proposed lecture on Africa in the 21 st century. Other than our African female bodies and our being, no specific set of issues has been set forth as the take off point of Robertson’s examination. What does it mean for her to conceptualize us as objects of study? And what does it mean to be constituted into an object? If the history of the past decade serves us well, whatever part of our anatomy is selected as the subject of fascination, there is no question we will be analyzed as specimens that are riddled with crippling pathological problems. When will this relentless torture of Saartjie Sarah Baartman end!

The struggle we, African women, face today in academia is at basis a battle for control of our bodies, our being and our agency. That our white female scholar opposition is able to frustrate our efforts is not because of any super ordinary power they possess, but because of the institutional resources available to them within academia. The first in this series of arsenals are the anthropologically constructed and institutionally preserved stereotypes of African women as ignorant. In truth, some of us provide a basis for this attribution of ignorance because they are better versed in the histories, geography and sociological particularities of our discipline and the West than we are about our own history, culture and ideas. As Oyeronke Oyewumi once chided Valentin Y. Mudimbe (1997, 20), some of us treat knowledge about Africa as something that is passed to us in breast milk while we spend an inordinate amount of time studying the languages and pontifications of our colonizers. Consequently, many rarely undertake a serious study of what they claim to be “our histories” and “our traditions.” A good number simply project from the European theories they have studied unto Africa. Some make up “tradition” on the fly with no attention paid to the specificities of social histories and sociological events on the ground. And others naively project from dysfunctional family experiences without studying the macro sociological structures in place. Without a doubt this cavalier approach of some of us to the study of Africa is appalling.

But this cavalier approach in no way legitimizes the attribution of ignorance to us. The substantial point is that we do know even if we debate among ourselves about the character and quality of what we know. Thus the fundamental question remains, by what criteria are we all being defined as unknowledgeable? Who is defining in this way? What do they stand to gain from representing us in this manner? And what validates this treatment of us as laboratory rats? In this battle of ascendancy of ontological views about Africa, some of our white female opposition have diversionarily capitalized on the shortcomings of some African women regarding the study of their culture. Painting in broad strokes, they have called to question our scholarship on Africa as a whole, insisting that we cannot be trusted to speak knowingly about sociological and historical issues broadly defined. We have been tarred as educated, westernized and colonized, hence culturally inauthentic. Firmly wielding the sword of authenticity, our words are discounted because, as has been underscored in the literature, there is a vast cultural, economic and attitudinal gap between rural women and educated, urban-based women. By making education equivalent to westernization, it becomes the carrier of inauthenticity such that the acquisition of education amounts to a sloughing off one’s national identity, cultural values and knowledge of Africa. To be an African woman then is to be uneducated and ignorant. It is to be rural rather than urban, to be impoverished rather than affluent.

We should note here that our white female opposition is operating here with two problematic senses of ignorance in which we are damned if we know and damned if we don’t. Members of this white female opposition group ascribe ignorance to educated urban African women on the ground that education has rendered us ignorant of the salient aspects of our indigenous cultures and social lives. They acknowledge that uneducated rural women are in touch with the values of our indigenous cultures. But they still define this category of women out of contention by presenting them as poor illiterate simpletons. In their view, rural women are ignorant because they are capable only of recounting their everyday existential experiences, and incapable of analyzing and offering reasons for them. By dubiously fudging the facts, and illicitly assigning the tag of ignorance, the white female opposition attempts to secure the sole conceptual space for interpreting the lives and activities of African women.

Anyone who thinks critically about the dynamics of power in academia and seriously treats Africa as worthy of scholarly attention would easily see that this securement of conceptual space draws really from two discreditable bases. The first is the ideology of white supremacy that is inherent in the academy; and the second is the distorted view of the existential patterns of living in most African settings. With regard to the first conjunct, the racist-cum-sexist character of the ideology of whiteness provides cover and legitimacy for the idea that all educated African women are ignorant. Nevertheless, it does so through activating disreputable prejudices about African women, and then shoring up these assumptions with the false “sociological fact” that we are alienated from our cultures. With regard to the second conjunct the idea that there is a wide chasm between the urban and the rural and the educated and uneducated Africans is equally false. It ignores the fact that the extended nature of families in most societies undermines the legitimacy of this thesis of separatedness.

Graca Simbine Machel illustrates the falsity of the thesis in her acceptance speech of the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award. While paying tribute to her mother and eldest sister, she talked about “those days of my poor upbringing in my village.” What Machel’s family reference shows is that some of the so-called uneducated women living in the rural areas are our Mothers who raised us and whom we cherish because they taught us, emotionally valued us, and opened our eyes to knowledge of the world.6 Also, it shows that some educated women (our sisters and children too) live in the rural areas and that not all women in the rural areas are uneducated or strangers. Except perhaps in South Africa where, the mining industry created a large working class, class formation in Africa has not progressed to such a degree as to destroy people’s ethnic identities. For this reason, most urban dwellers are still invested in their rural hometowns and home villages, and often retire there for family activities and cultural ceremonies. What this means is that the positing of a sharp divide between rural women and urban women is a false dichotomy that does not fully capture the reality on the ground.

The Politics of Citation

In this battle for who sets the agenda in African Women studies, it is important to continually raise the question of what warrants the study of African Women as objects? Why does this study dispossess African women? Who benefits from this dispossession? It is by highlighting these questions that we can see more clearly that the issue at stake is the control of the academic field, not the veracity of what is said. It is for this reason that false images of African women and of African family patterns are deployed as strategies for securing the leadership position in the field of study. To our opposition group, it does not matter that the image of African women as uneducated and ignorant could be false, or that the works of white women scholars are replete with errors; what matters is using the weapons in their arsenal to their advantage. In the face of the growing recognition of our scholarship and expertise, stereotypical images of African women are increasingly being deployed to “justify” why it makes sense to choose an “informed white man or woman” rather than an African woman scholar.

Indeed, recognizing this struggle for the leadership tussle is at basis a battle for plum jobs requires seeing that the strategy of casting doubt our scholarship clears the way for re-legitimizing the writings of white scholars in general. In so far as this tactic succeeds, and sometimes it does because of the prevailing ideology of whiteness in the academy, white women scholars of Africa are perceived to offer the best “theoretical” paradigm from which to understand and interpret African women. In this institutional power play, the expertise and social experiences of African women are trounced. Not because we are unaware of the complex dynamics of the politically charged, racialized academy, but because these very obstacles empower our opposition. Invariably, as the forthcoming Edinboro University of a Pennsylvania conference on Africa demonstrates, the intuitions of these white female scholars are invested with the required epistemic weight to override the socially informed knowledge African women bring to scholarship. The prevailing ideology of whiteness does not work abstractly, it is our colleagues who give life to it. They legitimize these negative stereotypes that relegate us to a subordinate position. Again, as the forthcoming Edinboro conference is showing we are inconsequential and our views and issues are irrelevant!

But what are the responses of African women scholars to this quest for control of our personal and collective definitions? Like in any other constituency struggling with existential problems of life, our responses span the entire range of the spectrum—from those who are against our relegation to a subordinate category and those who are prepared to accept this status. It is perhaps more interesting to examine why some African women choose a course of action that appears to legitimize their subordination. This occurs when they reference the white opposition’s constructions of Africa either as a mark of the sophistication of their scholarship. They do this because, in the scheme of things, citing current literature, especially the writings of major figures, is viewed as a sign of superior erudition. Sometimes we may find a subset of this group who believe that it is through closely identifying with the works of white benefactress that they would attain scholarly recognition. Given their politics and objectives, these women are not interested in addressing why they are always willing to cite the works of their white benefactresses and colleagues, while these colleagues rarely extend that same courtesy to them or to the works of other African women colleagues. Among another but smaller set of African women one may note a barely concealed disdain for the ideology of whiteness in the academy. These women believe in the merit of their work and they want to accept that they are operating on an equal playing field with their white female colleagues. What undermines this belief in employment equity is the systemic ways their work is occluded by the structures of the academy. If indeed scholarship is conducted on an even terrain, as they want to hold, they have to address why their writings are not widely known, and why they are cited only when they are needed to legitimize the point of a white woman scholar. It is true that the scholarly profiles of these African women scholars remain consistently low while their white colleagues, whom they often privately claim do not really know, are the visible interpreters of our lived experiences. Perhaps we all need to look critically at why only two sets of African women scholars are validated: the ones how who castigate their culture and society, and the ones who anchor their theorizing on white women’s hypotheses.

There are other ways in which the white opposition maintains its privileged status in African women studies. The most obvious one is the access to publishing and the gate-keeping processes that weed out oppositional viewpoints.7 In the opening section of this essay, I alluded to the racial preferences of established publishing houses for editors of journals devoted to African studies. The same can be said for authored books. The reviewers whose voices have the deciding weight in the approval of manuscripts are white scholars. In this racialized context, we find that manuscripts which contain ideas that do not meet the gatekeepers’ views of what ought to be said about Africa, and of what is deemed important, will remain unpublished. Such manuscripts are rejected on the flimsiest reasons: it is filled with too much Africa detail; the syntax is convoluted; the expressions are alien; and the analysis is about X dictator and the dictator is now dead, thus the material is outdated and of no consequence to serious intellectuals and scholars. Not only do these “smart” publishing practices determine what gets said about Africa, it facilitates the dissemination of views endorsed by white scholars, and the promotion of these scholars’ publishing profile. On matters of concern to Africans, prospective writers are told such issues do not sell. The are advised to write for the average American students who usually are uninterested in anything outside of their immediate popular culture, and who find African materials too difficult to comprehend. Additionally, African writers are “advised” against being “too critical” of their white colleagues; they are admonished to be collegial, and to anchor their analysis to the “theories” of some white scholar. Finally, they are routinely “encouraged” to engage the works of some white scholar that they may find totally irrelevant.

The politics of citation provides a way for using name referencing to establish scholarly profiles. Scholarly authority is established by means of the frequency of positive citations and by membership in the correct citation list. Of course, the scholars in the favored list tend to be white women and increasingly some African men are making it to the list. Lack of inclusion into the canonical list means that the ideas of African women are relegated to the margins from where they may then be subject to appropriation without giving credit to the woman who articulated them. If we attend closely to the function of this canonical list, we would note that the path to acceptance of manuscripts is determined by the names of scholars one cites. The more “approved” scholars one cites—which means the more their intellectual ideas are construed as influencing one8 —the higher the chances of acceptance of the manuscript. For those on this “magic” list there are definite material benefits and institutional rewards. Deans commonly use the frequency of citations as an index of a faculty’s academic worth and stature. ‘Bean counting’ as some faculty derisively call it is utilized as a value-free determinant of whether or not someone should be hired, fired, tenured, or simply promoted. For many university officials, the citation index offers an effective instrument that is not amenable to charges of bias. Though it may be seen as a foolproof way of closing the door on certain charges of racial discrimination, it remains the most effective tool for promoting the ideology of whiteness whilst appearing not to do so. Through consolidating resources on star professors and utilizing old ways of doing things, the character of the academy remains ideologically the same even though new diversity faculty is being hired to multiculturalize the curricula.

Conclusion: The Objectives of Jenda

In creating a space for our own ideas and issues, we need to keep in mind that the success of white women as scholars of Africa is a result of treating Africa as a serious subject of study. We may deplore the way their assumptions pathologize Africa, but we cannot ignore the high commitment to purpose that they bring to the table. In our view, one of the major ill-effects of globalization and the universal deployment of Americocentrism is the marginalization of peoples, cultures, paradigms, values and ideas that are in opposition to this dominant creed. Given that multiplicity of paradigms are crucial to theoretical study, it is important to provide critical space to ideas that have not been accorded visibility in the global arena due to lack of representation. To this end, JENDA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies was conceived to provide a forum for scholarly articles of the highest quality. At the same time, it honors the works of such scholar-elders Flora Nwapa, Filomena Chioma Steady, Bolanle Awe, Nawal El Sadaawi, Achola Pala Okeyo and Micere Mugo and elder-activists as Olufunmilayo Kuti, Vera Chirwa, and Wangari Maathai and others too numerous to list here. We also recognize the scholarly contributions of our wives, Christine Oppong, Nina Mba and Cheryl Johnson-Odim, as well as friends such a Niara Sudarkasa who labored to see things as they are, and to place our lives at the center of their analyses.

A word on the title of the journal. We chose the word ‘jenda’ because, in our minds, it approximates the way ‘gender’ would be pronounced by non-intellectuals, and even by us, when we slip into vernacular speech or Pidgin English. In striving for the average person’s representation of the word, we wanted to capture the sorts of perplexity that the word raises in the minds of anyone unfamiliar with academic discourses of gender. While we marvelled at the enormous impact of the category of gender on scholarship, we are equally dismayed at the amount of patronizing scholarship the concept has spawned. With eyes trained on this negative scholarly production, we wanted a name that would, at the same time, bring some ridicule to a concept that has permitted so much denigrating, de-culturalized analyses of Africa’s social realities. After, valiantly struggling to find a name and settling on one that we believe approximates local speech patterns, we learned in exasperation from a gentleman in South Africa that in southern Africa (language/s unspecified) the pronunciation of ‘jenda’ means “testicles.” Though some may want to read this as a statement about women with balls, the initial response the information elicited was how the heck do we put men and their testicles to the margin?

Secondly, we chose a title that links culture and African women studies because we want the journal to address the fact that African women are cultural subjects. We expect that the social practices in their societies must play a significant role in interpretive analyses and in the formulation of theories. Though women are the entry points for theoretical investigation, nothing implies that articles must focus exclusively on them. We envisage that scholars will examine women’s multifaceted relationships that include but are not limited to their relations with men. In our view, there is much more to women’s lives than their relationship with men. But even as we make this assertion we still remain uneasy with the terms ‘woman’ and ‘women.’ On various occasions we have subjected the terms to critical examination and they have not fared very well. ‘Woman’ and ‘women’ are loaded with the sort of conceptual limitations that make us wish we could slip into our local languages and the very different world sense that derive from them. Shifting from the colonizers’ linguistic scheme entails recognizing, for example, that in Onitsha (Igbo) women are saluted by affirming their maternity powers of gestation and creation of new life: “Ikporo Onitsha omu omu no o,” means “Women of Onitsha, creative/regenerative power to you all.” ‘Omu’ is the abbreviated term for ‘omumu,’ a word that stands for gestation, birthing and maternity. It also doubles as the title of the female monarch, who once functioned as the Mother or maternal force of the entire community. In referencing this recreative power of life which all Mothers have, ‘omumu’ is an empowered concept that affirms the importance of mothering, which a segment of Western feminists are constructing as the bane of women.

Aware of the importance of motherhood in the lives of most African women, we expect to publish articles on motherhood and mothering, including but not limited to analysis of the mothering principle in different cultural environments as well as an understanding of mother/children relations, mothers’ and women’s work habits, economic interests, global trade, agriculture, and even criminal habits. We welcome investigations of the relevance of gender in African social, political and economic systems as well as its historical effects on culture; or that respond to debates on gender that problematize its assumed effects, and will hopefully generate debate among scholars and intellectuals who focus on women and African history and studies. Though African Women’s studies was defined by white female scholars our goal is to occupy and redefine the space and bring attention to our own issues. In publishing original essays, reprints of hard to find essays, critical commentaries, exhibition reviews, and interviews of women scholars and activists, JENDA will create a global forum for African women scholars, analysts and activists to participate on an equal footing with their contemporaries worldwide in debates, exchanges of ideas, and the creation and documentation of knowledge.

I am grateful to Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome and Oyeronke Oyewumi for the care with which they read and commented on this editorial.


Busia, Abena. “Introduction,” Gender Violence and Women’s Human Rights in Africa, (New Brunswick, NJ: The Center for, 1994), i-iv.

Ekejiuba, Felicia. “Down to Fundamentals: Women-centred Hearthholds in Rural West Africa.” In Deborah Fahy Bryceson, ed. Women Wielding the Hoe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 47-61.

Graca Simbine Machel. “Africa: The Next Century is Ours.” Acceptance speech of the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award presented by Africare at the Africare Bishop Walker Dinner, September 27, 1999 at Washington D.C.

Nkiru Nzegwu. “O Africa: Gender Imperialism in Academia,African Women and Feminism: Reflections on the Politics Of Sisterhood, ed., Oyeronke Oyewumi (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, in press).

-----------------. “The Politics of Gender in African Studies in the North,” Women in African Scholarly Publishing, eds. Cassandra Veney and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, in press).

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Discourses on Gender (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Press, 1997).

Pala, Achola Okeyo. “Definitions of Women and Development: An African Perspective,” The Black Woman Cross-Culturally, Ed. Filomina Chioma Steady (Cambridge, Mass: Schenkman Publishers Co, 1981), 209-214.

Copyright 2001 Africa Resource Center, Inc.

Citation Format

Nzegwu, Nkiru (2001). GLOBALIZATION AND THE JENDAJOURNAL. Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies: 1, 1.