‘“The rainha is the boss!”: On Masculinities, Time and Precolonial Women of Authority in Northern Mozambique’, Gender & History (2022)

This article focuses on the oral historical narratives about precolonial women of authority (or rainhas in Portuguese) to explore the deeper history of gendered power in northern Mozambique.

History-telling is a gendered practice, and nowadays male elders are usually the ones most knowledgeable in these narratives. Moreover, telling these tales – which in interview situations involves personal interpretations and comments – the men also story gendered temporal worlds. This article looks more closely at two seemingly clashing (and incompatible) storylines that emerge in the oral history material. One tells of women’s spiritual-political power in the Yaawo chieftaincies in precolonial times, while the other tells a narrative of masculinised power and woman’s subordinate position in relation to male leaders. The article focus’s especially on how the male narrators talk about masculinity and how different models of masculinity in turn shape the historical narratives they tell.

Read full article for free (pre-publication view): https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/share/author/JGDPBTIBGSGJWXQSYDKB?target=10.1111/1468-0424.12590

On Gender, Power and Time in Northern Mozambique: A three-part photo essay series

Acknowledgements: These essays are based on research that I conducted in collaboration with Helena Baide and Domingos Aly. I owe them both my sincerest gratitude! Helena accompanied me in all the interviews and Domingos transcribed the interviews, also helping me with the translation from Ciyaawo to Portuguese.

PART 2: On men, gender and history-telling

‘On men, gender and history-telling’ is the second in a three-part photo essay series documenting an ongoing oral history project on the historical changes of women’s political and spiritual power among the Yaawo people in Niassa, northern Mozambique.

History-telling is a gendered practice, and nowadays it is often the male elders that are the main narrators of the oral histories of the nineteenth century Yaawo chieftaincies.

This essay explores the different ways that these men remember female figures of authority of the past. Moreover, it looks at how men, when telling these narratives, also story gendered temporal lifeworlds.

Food time

“Women’s memories of food offer insights into Mozambique’s liberation struggle

We don’t just taste food. Aromas, visual images, sounds and touch are equally part of our eating experience. Food also evokes feelings. We can experience it with joy but also with displeasure. This sensorily evocative power of food makes it an important site for remembering the past, which in turn influences our relation to food in the present.

There is much important literature in Africa that deals with food security and the biological necessity of eating. However, my research explores how food…”

Read the full article on The Conversation Africa

For a longer analysis of the polytemporality reflected in food memories see my recently published research article ‘Liberating Taste: Memories of War, Food and Cooking in Northern Mozambique’, Journal of Southern African Studies 46, 5 (2020): 965-984.

Both articles are open access!

Acibiibi, chefes e outras antepassadas femininas: um ensaio fotográfico sobre o relato de histórias orais no norte de Moçambique

Traduzido por João Figueiredo

Acibiibi, Chefes e Outras Antepassadas Femininas’ é uma série fotográfica que documenta um projeto de história oral ainda em curso, sobre as mudanças históricas que condicionam o poder político e espiritual das mulheres do povo Yaawo do Niassa, no norte de Moçambique.

Recorrendo a fotogramas de vídeos de entrevistas e a retratos das principais narradoras e narradores, esta série explora as formas como o tempo quotidiano das nossas vidas e o tempo mais profundo (o tempo dos nossos antepassados) se entrelaçam e interagem nos encontros em que histórias orais são contadas.

Os Yaawo têm uma longa história de chefes femininas (mweenye vaakoongwe) e de outras figuras de autoridade política e espiritual (conhecidas primeiro como biibi [pl. acibiibi] e angaanga e, depois, como rainha). Apesar do sistema de chefatura, que é condicionado pelo género, e do próprio formato do poder feminino terem mudado significativamente ao longo do tempo, continuam a existir acibiibi, e algumas comunidades têm mulheres enquanto chefes. 

Hoje, as acibiibi são recordadas não só nas narrativas de história oral das dinastias de chefes Yaawo que emergiram em meados do século XIX, como também em histórias familiares mais pessoais.

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Contando Histórias. Aku-Siwona Sayidi, Selsa Saidi, A-Siyatu Mwaamadi, A-Biibi Bonomadi e Helena Baide (a minha co-entrevistadora) em Ligogolo, 2019.

PART 1: Chiefs, grandmothers and other great female ancestors

‘Chiefs, grandmothers and other great female ancestors’ is the first photo essay in a three-part series documenting an ongoing oral history project on the historical changes of women’s political and spiritual power among the Yaawo people in Niassa, northern Mozambique.

Using both still images from interview videos as well as portraits of key narrators, it explores the ways that the time of our lives and deeper time (or the times of our ancestors) intertwine and interact in the oral history encounters.

The Yaawo have a long history of female chiefs (mweenye vaakoongwe) and other female figures of spiritual and political authority (known as biibi [pl. acibiibi] and angaanga, and later as rainha). And while the gendered system of chieftaincy and the shape of female power has undergone many significant changes through time—acibiibi still exist, and some communities have female chiefs.

These days the acibiibi are remembered in oral historical narratives of the Yaawo chiefly dynasties that emerged around the mid-nineteenth century but also in more personal family histories.

History-telling. Aku-Siwona Sayidi, Selsa Saidi, A-Siyatu Mwaamadi, A-Biibi Bonomadi, and Helena Baide (my co-interviewer) in Ligogolo, 2019.

Mapping names and tracing histories in landscape

The above map (still very much a rough draft!) shows some of the names (and stories) of the acibiibi I have managed to trace through my interviews over the past six weeks. Some narratives are more local, and their reach is more limited, while the fame of other acibiibi has captured the imagination of people more widely.

Acivaanjila is the most famous biibi (later recognized as rainha by the Portuguese colonial government). While the exceptionality of this woman is widely admitted, contradictory stories exist concerning the source of her power as well as her rise to fame.

Ce-Ngulupe, the first female chief, and the birth of the Nam’paanda dynasty at Mount Unangu

I have been circling Mount Unangu this week, conducting interviews on the territorial chieftaincies that rose to power in this area in the mid-1800s (before the arrival of the Portuguese) and the oral narratives of the first chiefs and acibiibi.

Unsurprisingly, Mount Unangu also features prominently in this oral history.

Mount Unangu seen from the direction of Mapudje

Archive of voices

For the past two weeks I’ve been digging into an exciting collection of oral history interviews. What makes the interviews so interesting for me is that they were conducted in 1981 and 1982 (so almost forty years ago!) in the same areas where I am currently doing oral history research into deeper gender history.

The 1981-82 project was led by historian Gerhard Liesegang, and he worked together with Teresa Oliveira, Mucojuane M. Vicente, and Manuel J. Bula (translating from Ciyaawo to Portuguese). Its aim was to reconstruct the history of this northern territory from precolonial times to the anticolonial struggle (1964-1974).

Interesting about Niassa is that it was relatively late, only in 1919, that the area was brought under direct Portuguese colonial control. Until then some of the Yaawo chiefs offered strong resistance against colonial expansion into their areas.

The Historical Archive of Mozambique

PART 3: Women speaking with authority

‘Women speaking with authority’ is the third in a three-part photo essay series documenting an ongoing oral history project on the historical changes of women’s political and spiritual power among the Yaawo people in Niassa, northern Mozambique.

Much of our knowledge about early Yaawo history builds on the reports and writings of missionaries and travelers as well as the studies of early anthropologists. Most of these writers were men, as were their key informants, and it is not easy to find women in their texts. They largely ignore questions of women’s power; and even when women are mentioned, their authority is not recognized or explored.

We find an interesting example of the latter in the Anglican Bishop Smythies’ notes. Smythies paid a visit to Kalanje’s chieftaincy at Mount Unango in 1887. When he arrived, Chief Kalanje was away, and the bishop was received by a woman. Smythies assumed her to be the chief’s daughter.

As Smythies writes: ‘She could speak very well and appeared a clever and superior woman for this country. She received us on a kind of platform amongst the boulders, surrounded by a company of women, the men being apart, a little distance off. I congratulated her on being able to speak so well.’*

It is clear that Smythies knows not what to make of this speaking woman. While he acknowledges that she speaks with authority, taking a patronizing attitude, he jumps to the conclusion that she speaks with the authority of her father.

Yet it is most likely that the woman he encountered was the biibi of the basket.