I love being an African, and I love being a woman. More than this, I love being an African woman. Like many African women around me, I like to think I am an effervescent fountain of energy, a well of boundless generational wisdom, a model of unconditional hospitality and a repository of powerful potential. Sounds a little far-fetched? Yes, the editor does allow me to dream in this column. What I really am is a cacophony of contradictions!
But seriously, the month of August is when South Africa commemorates the historic contribution of women to the abolition of apartheid. So, although we are not South African, we recognise the universal contribution of women to development everywhere, and so we join them in solidarity as they commemorate women’s month.
There is so much to celebrate about being an African woman, not least of which is my opening fantasy paragraph. But there is also much about being an African woman that makes me sad and confused. It’s all too easy to focus on the negative, the struggles, the injustices, the pull-her-down syndrome and the inherent problems that come with living in a patriarchal society. The challenges are many, but they should never overshadow the possibilities. These possibilities are being realised every day by women who are in every way ordinary, and in every way extraordinary.
All around me there are incredible women – women I admire for different reasons. Some because they charge with great daring and much aplomb into areas where angels fear to tread. These women are vociferous, ferocious, tenacious and go in guns blazing to fight causes that the rest of us would label “too risky”. They are considered to tread the fine line between bravery and recklessness. Do I admire them? Immensely. Do I want to be them? Alas no – I fear I lack the courage.
Other women I admire because they carry an aura of such calm and complacency that nothing ever ruffles their finely preened feathers. They look and smell and indeed behave like rare and valuable flowers and are treated accordingly. Do I admire them? Sure I do. Do I want to be them? Err . . . no, thank you.
Then there are women I admire because they demonstrate an outstanding commitment to the choices they have made. They take responsibility for themselves and those who depend on them. They are mothers who make heartbreaking sacrifices and remain unbroken, divas who perform with breathtaking audacity and allies who support and affirm and encourage one another through thick and thin, or as author Shirley Conran would put it, “through sick and sin”. I admire all of these women in turn, but still I want only to be me.
The options available to African women for ways of being in the 21st century are innumerable. On one hand, we want to compete as equals in the international marketplace of ideas, of thought-leadership, of social aptitude. On the other hand, we want to retain many of our so-called traditional values and practices. We don’t just want to have it all – we want to be it all. The question is – is it in fact possible?
In her book Fear of Fifty, celebrated feminist Erica Jong laments: “We found ourselves always torn between the mothers in our heads and the women we needed to become simply to stay alive. With one foot in the past and another in the future, we hobbled through first love, motherhood, marriage, divorce, careers, menopause, widowhood – never knowing what or who we were supposed to be, staking out new emotional territory at every turn. We have been pioneers in our lives, and the price of the pioneer is eternal discomfort. The reward is the stunning sense of pride in our painfully achieved selfhood.”
Although these words were written in 1994 in Britain, they remain as true for many women in 2010 in Harare, in Lusaka, in Kampala and in Mombasa. We long for that revelation which will help us climb over the heap of multiple roles, conflicting emotions and fluctuating expectations that surround us. But beyond scaling this challenge is the nagging niggling question that we must face finally for ourselves: Who and what do we want to be when we finally grow up?
I believe we can have it all. We can be all of that – plus change! The only thing is: not all of it, all the time, every day. So when you see an African woman serving food on her knees to her in-laws on Thursday, and playing diva on the dance floor on Saturday, then challenging you in the boardroom on Monday – don’t decide that she is unstable and incomprehensible. Rather, understand that an African woman can and indeed must have many facets to fully engage with the world she lives in. That she must exercise choices – not once and for all, but each choice anew every day.
There are days when there is dignity in dialogue. There are spaces where there is strength in submission. The will be moments when minds must meet and others where they may wander apart. There are hours where heartbreak harbours healing and seconds when suffering seems sublime. There is wonder in womanhood – and never more so than in Africa in 2010.
Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to email@example.com