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.

Two different types of stories emerge in the interviews with the elders. One tells of masculinized power and woman’s subordinate position in relation to male leaders. Yet alongside this, also another type of story materializes that speaks of women’s spiritual-political power in the Yaawo chieftaincies in precolonial times.

Focusing on some of the key narrators, this essay examines the continued coexistence of these competing historical memories in the present. These narratives importantly draw on different temporal ideas about gender and the relationality between masculinity and femininity. Interacting in the present time-space of oral history-telling—they shape the narratives that the male elders tell about the past and about gendered power.

Powerful female chiefs of a more distant past. According to an old narrative that Chief Ce-Cipaango remembers, the first chief before the establishment of the Cipaango dynasty was a woman named Ce-Ngulupe. It was she who gave birth to the great territorial chiefs Kalaanje, Nam’paanda, and Cipaango that ruled at Mount Unango in the mid-nineteenth century. His interpretation of how she lost the power of the chief and of mbopeesi (the sacred flour offered to one’s ancestral spirits) is that she became too occupied in the kitchen and no longer had the time to rule. In Ce-Cipango’s personal experience (he has been chief since 1963)*, the male chief has always performed mbopeesi on his own. Ce-Cipaango (Cezar Francisco Liguinelo) in Malulu, 2018.
Histories of male leadership. ‘When the elder Aku-Miwuuti arrived from Ejiputu to this country (area of Likopolwe), there were no trees and no people here.’ This is how the story of the Miwuuti chieftaincy begins. It is a narrative that claims the status of the first chief and ‘owner of the land’ to Aku-Miwuuti (before Ce-Ntaamila and his famous nephew Ce-Mataaka). Yet it is also a story that only speaks of male rule and power. Acibiibi are only remembered as chiefs’ wives, not as female counterparts of the male chiefs. Bonefácio Amado, Chief Aku-Miwuuti (Miwuuti Amado Saide), Cássimo Saide, Sanudia Iassine, and Mateus Aly Buanar in Chiconono in 2018. For account that also speaks of women’s spiritual power in the Miwuuti chieftaincy, see Aku-Siwona Sayidi.
The disputed legacy of female rulers. When I returned to Chiconono the following year, the very elderly Chief Aku-Miwuuti was severely ill. And instead of the whole group, we only interviewed Mateus Aly Buanar and Cassimo Saide (our key narrators from the previous year). This time the idea was to talk about female figures of authority in the more distant past. The year before a very brief mention had been made about the female Chief Ce-Nan’tima. As our narrators had claimed, she belonged to the same matrilineage as Aku-Miwuuti. When the territory had been divided among heads of the family, Ce-Nan’tima had been given the Ciweegulo mountain on the side of Lake Niassa (also known as Lake Malawi). While the current Ce-Nan’tima is a woman, there was some dispute among our narrators as to how a woman had come to claim the power of the chief. Mateus claimed that the first Ce-Nan’tima was in fact not a woman. As he narrates, ‘She only became chief when all the men died.’ Still, Cassimo is of a different opinion. He argues that since the establishment of the Nan’tima chieftaincy, the Nan’tima chiefs have always been women. Still, both agree that she was known as Biibi Sultaani (which was the highest-ranking title, given only to territorial chiefs). Mateus Aly Buanar and Cassimo Saide in Chiconono, 2019.

Cassimo Saide: ‘Since the establishment of the name Nan’tima, it has belonged to women. The same way as with Aci-Vaanjila of Majune [a famous dynasty of female chiefs]—also with Ce-Nan’tima.’

The legend about a war (that decided the current gendered order of the world). Ce-Kadewele is an elder much revered for his historical knowledge. According to him, even the President has heard him speak on Yaawo history. When I asked Ce-Kadewele if there were any female chiefs in the old days, he argued that in the past there were female chiefs but that he only knows the name of one of them—Ce-M’bajila. As Ce-Kadewele narrates: Ce-M’bajila was the first chief, and her orders were supreme. Ce-M’bajila showed off her power, saying that as the man comes from the woman’s belly, there can be no one above her. However, there were men who didn’t want to be governed by a woman, and they rebelled against her power. So Ce-M’bajila challenged the men to war. She said: ‘If you say that I cannot rule, I cannot be ruler, then we are going to war.’ Since women didn’t have iron-making skills, Ce-M’bajila decided that beads would be the women’s weapon. So the women went to war singing and dancing, and in the end the men decided that they did not want to kill the women but to marry them. According to Ce-Kadewele, this marked women’s loss of power in relation to men. N’suusa Kadeweele in Chiuanjota, 2018.

Ce-Kadewele: ‘This is how that power came about that we [men] can even command you [women].’

Amade Dikoondaga, Chief Ce-Dikondaaga.
Ce-Namweela, Ce-Dikondaaga, Adamu Ali N’kaango, and Samuson Salaanje in Muembe, 2019.
Namweela Paulino Yimedi, Chief Ce-Namweela.

The principal angaanga (grandmother), the founder of the matrilineage. Aku-Nakavale, Aku-M’mila, Aci-Vaanjila, and Ce-Mbuumba are names of some of these important women of authority of the old days (also known as biibi and rainha) that Ce-Dikondaaga recalls. Speaking Portuguese he uses the term ‘rainha’. He emphasizes the authority of the rainha in the spiritual realm. As he argues, ‘the mbopeesi comes from the rainha’. She is the one who ‘gives birth to the leaders’. She is ‘the one who talks’ with the ancestral spirits, calling to them: ‘We don’t want illness here, here we don’t want illness’. For Ce-Dikondaaga, the rainha is the most crucial link between the ancestral world and the world of the living. And it is her closeness to the ancestors that makes mbopeesi respond to her. In the past, her authority also extended beyond the spiritual into the political realm. Or, as Ce-Namweela argues: ‘The rainha was the boss!’

Ce-Namweela: ‘The rainha was the boss!’

Manuel Mario: In the case of the Yaawo, the woman has the first right to speak in mbopeesi.

On grandmother’s authority. On the power relation between women and men, Ce-Maguuta remembers what his grandmother once, long ago told him:

‘The women have the pot to cook mboga [relish], and there is always another pot to make wugadi [stiff maize porridge]. So she questioned me: “Between the small pot for cooking mboga and the bigger one which of them is greater? One being small the other big—which is the greater?” And I responded saying that I didn’t know which was the greater. So she said that the greater one is this…’ Ce-Maguuta demonstrates with his hands the existence of two pots. ‘The smaller one’, Helena my co-interviewer responds (allowing Ce-Maguuta to continue). ‘The smaller one. Because just saying that we will have wugadi, you know that we have mboga, isn’t it? If there is no mboga can we use the ciwulugo-pot to cook wugadi?’ (‘No, we can’t’, Helena again dutifully responds.) ‘Then this pot for cooking mboga is the one that is greater. This is what she said. For in the world who comes first and is greater [hierarchically higher] is the woman.’ Ce-Maguuta, Mavago, 2019.

Ce-Maguuta: ‘In the hierarchy between the biibi and the male chief, the biibi is the superior one.’


* The Yaawo chiefly institution has changed much also in recent history. In the colonial period, chiefs were integrated into the system of colonial administration. Gaining state power at independence, Frelimo abolished chiefs. It is only since 2002 that the Mozambican state has recognized them as ‘traditional authorities’. Yet this disruption and change is glossed over in most narratives; instead, the current holders of these titles emphasize the continuity of the chiefly matrilineages since the ‘first chiefs’.

Continue to PART 3

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