When most people hear the term pan-African, they almost immediately think of the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Haile Selassie who spearheaded the need for unity of the African nations in a bid to gain independence from colonialism. Yet what is never mentioned are the African women who were central in the development of the movement — literature overlooked, underestimated, and ignored the role these women played. Modern day Pan Africanism is based on a whole new concept and approached in new and impactful ways. While the spirit of pan Africanism is anchored on identity – Africa for Africans – today’s pan Africanism cuts across contemporary issues such as accountability of leadership, transformative social change and equality.
The conversation has been marked with the challenge of finding common ground amongst the different African nations and groups of people. Contrary to what some people may think, Africa is not one country with a homogenous group of people living in it. The 54 country continent is a beautiful patchwork of diversity with approximately 2000 languages spoken, a range of faiths practiced and the presence of hundreds of ethnic groups — in Kenya alone, it is estimated that there are up to 70 ethnic groups. So within this already multi-faceted reality for women in Africa, what does it mean to be a Pan African feminist? Is there one homogenous definition? The answer is simply ‘no’ because Africa is not homogenous.
Pan Africanism is an ideology and movement that spreads the unity and solidarity of Africans worldwide, therefore ‘Pan African feminism’ has evolved on the back of the development of a Pan African identity and value system. The African Union (AU) which was borne out of the Pan African vision, is based on the values of unity, self-determination, collective work, co-operative economics, purpose and creativity. African feminists do subscribe to these values, but many have been dissatisfied with the Pan African movement’s limited attention to women’s specific needs. The continental mainstream pan-African agenda is dominated by powerful men who are mostly concerned about using conservative pan-African rhetoric to the service of their often anti-democratic purposes. The various grassroots pan-African movements of the past have been reduced into a hegemonic pan-Africanism narrative that has become an institutionalized support for patriarchal values. The AU remains dominated by the old boy’s club of Presidents who utilize oppressive political cultures to remain in office beyond their constitutional terms, despite mass resistance.
Additionally, there is a troubling irony in the sudden “discovery” of African women by the AU, multinational corporations and development agencies, more than half a century after women actively participated in independence struggles and contributed significantly to African liberation movements. In an article revisiting the gender politics of the liberation movement in Guinea Bissau, historian Aliou Ly asks: “Is the recognition, by Africa’s Heads of State, of women as agents and equal partners true or is it just a hoax?” Unfortunately the prevailing neoliberal construction of African women as the capitalist world’s latest “emerging market” is more than a hoax. It places women in particular relation to corporate-led globalization, within which Africa remains a source of raw materials essential to the functioning of silicon valleys all over the world, while being further captured as a market from which profits can be made. The neoliberal constructions of “gender equality” set up women as fair game for profit-seeking investors interested in them only as fee-paying consumers of privatized public services.
African movements across the continent have their own visions, and interests for continental unity and solidarity. Even back in the days when national liberation movements were influential, the transnational Pan-African Women’s Organization (PAWO) advocated for women’s liberation through a continental lens. It worked alongside male-dominated nationalist movements, which women of that generation contributed to with numerous courageous actions, and often-times with their lives. This reality is a powerful fact of African history. Without the research and documentation work done by feminist activists and researchers this knowledge might as well have been lost to us. Though the coverage of feminist struggles within academic circles has expanded due to a larger feminist presence in higher education and research, challenges still remain. Pan African discourse without class and gender analyses have limited, if any, relevance to women.
However, Africa is gradually awakening to the benefits it stands to reap from investing in women and girls and how far reaching the investment ripples to address broader social and economic issues. With the African feminist movement fighting to even the odds despite backlash and opposition from the largely patriarchal structures – there is need for new and innovative ways to boost the contributions of women and girls to the continent’s growth. We also ought to acknowledge the roles played by women leaders in historical and present-day Pan Africanism. It’s clear that the pan African movement subscribes to similar values as African Feminism, with calls to link the two causes into a collective movement. So why not champion and incorporate women into the Pan African cause?