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.

This essay focuses on women’s speaking voice in an attempt to revisit this gendered history. It looks at how female voices of authority of a more distant past are remembered in women’s narrative accounts these days. Moreover, looking at how past and present voices connect in the present moment of history-telling, it also explores the gendered authority with which these voices speak.

Authorizing the past. In N’kalapa we interviewed Biibi Ce-Suula and Chief Ce-Maangolowe together with their councilor. Chief Ce-Maangolowe was the main narrator, telling us the history of the Maangolowe chieftaincy. When we asked Biibi Ce-Suula to speak, she said that what she could have told us had already been told by her ‘son the chief’. According to Ce-Suula, she had been the one to teach the chief all that he knew. As she explained: ‘Always when we sit together, we discuss [the past], and because of this what I could have said, my son already spoke.’ When the biibi is installed, she steps into the position of the ancestral founder and has to be treated with the same respect. Thus the social relationship between the biibi and the chief is always that of ‘mother’ and ‘son’. Biibi Ce-Suula (A-Suula Kadeweele), Chief Ce-Maangolowe (Staande Sayiidi N’daala Maguuta), Wupeepo Ayami Cisaande, and Helena in N’kalapa, 2018.
Chiefly counsel. A-Sigale N’tadika Mataaka is a female elder of the Mataaka family, and I had had the opportunity to interview her a couple of times before she passed away in 2015. She told me many stories about the Mataaka chiefs. Aku-Machemba, also known as Mataaka VI (ca. 1912–1948), was her grandfather. His son married her mother, and this is why she lived in the capital with Mataaka. ‘Iih, how that one was dangerous!’, A-Sigale exclaims. ‘He had a knife that was called “sleep well”.’ It was used for capital punishments. Aku-Machemba was a feared military leader, and he fought fiercely against Portuguese occupation of his territories. ‘When he sat on the lion skin with his staff’, as A-Sigale narrates, ‘no one was allowed to approach him.’ But, as A-Sigale also remembers, he used to play with his grandchildren. When A-Sigale was still alive, she acted as a counselor of the Mataaka chiefs and Biibi Aku-M’mila. She said that her mother had been the first person to teach her history. But, as she ‘always accompanies the chiefs’, each chief also taught her about the past. A-Sigale N’tadika Mataaka, Mavago, 2013.
The famous Aku-Nakavale. A-Sigale also told us about the two villages (or capitals) of Mataaka, as they existed in the time of her grandfather. The second capital was the village of Mataaka’s mother Aku-Nakavale, where she ruled as chief. Like the name Mataaka, her name was also a hereditary title and position. The first Aku-Nakavale was the mother of Ce-Nyambi, Mataaka I (who died ca. 1879). Afterwards, when a Mataaka died, a successor was always chosen from Aku-Nakavale’s village as it was where the royalty lived. Lúcia Baala, A-Sigale Mataaka and Helena, Mavago, 2013. In the above picture we are looking over the bush thickets of Mavago, with the sacred hill M’balapati to the right. It was after A-Sigale’s grandfather’s death that the population moved to M’balapati, now known by the name Mavago.
Basket of power. Aku-M’mila is also an old name, belonging to a line of acibiibi of the Mataaka dynasty. Fátima Mweemedi, the current holder of the title, spoke of how Ce-Katumbi (Mataaka VIII) installed her as Biibi Aku-M’mila. As she narrates: ‘Yes, it was him and he gave me the basket that was in the power of my grandmother Aku-M’mila, saying that from today you will be our biibi. This basket will stay overnight at your home. In case we have to go somewhere to pray, this basket must never run out of flour, there must always be flour in it. And I started to take the basket. When we planned that today we are going to N’koonde (tomb of Mataaka I), I took the basket. Once there, the chief and I sat at the foot of the grave. And the chief was praying first and then I said “I came here, what we want here” if we were to plead because of the lack of rain, there we would say the following “we arrived because there is a drought in our territory, why is it taking so long to rain? O our most high God and the spirits of our ancestors, the spirit of you, Mataaka, who sleeps here, we come to put mbopeesi to plead for relief from our suffering.” We put mbopeesi, and we were answered. Returning from there, we received heavy rain.’ Biibi Aku-M’mila (Fátima Mweemedi), Mavago, 2018.
Mother’s prayers. Ce-Kasanjala was the mother of Chief N’tamila of Chiconono. As Victória Abudo narrates: ‘Because this thing of putting mbopeesi, who started it was this mother of the chief. When she was giving birth to all these chiefs, they said that they cannot oppress their mother, she also has to be biibi—the first woman that gave birth to all the chiefs. But it is difficult to talk about these histories since it was before we were born.’ Awetu Abiti Masenyenda, Acepatecici Makanjila, Victória Abudo, Chiconono, 2018.
That we may live in peace. A-Miina Maaleemya spoke of how in the past the old chief and biibi of the Namalweeso chieftaincy used to perform mbopeesi together. The biibi also prayed in this ceremony, as A-Miina narrates: ‘This woman, she spoke for our territory, while sifting the flour through her fingers. That in this territory of ours we might live in peace. For there not to be any conflict for people to be killed, or lions, or snakes, or any plagues. For that not to happen. That we might simply live in peace.’ Layina Adiki, A-Miina Maaleemya, Fátima Saide, Maria Ajida Suweedi, and Helena, Nzizi, 2019.
The diitiwo beads.
Teaching motherhood. Aweetu Lada and Helena demonstrate how in the diitiwo ceremony the initiate sits on the ground wearing the beads on her forehead as Aweetu educates the expectant mother on how to take care of her pregnancy, her child after it is born, as well as her own sexual well-being. As Aweetu explains, this knowledge and position as instructor was passed to her from her grandmother. Even that morning, before our interview, Aweetu had already participated in one diitiwo (and she was planning to return after our interview).
A prayer. In the role of biibi, Aweetu also prepares children to undergo the first initiation rite. She puts the sacred flour on the initiates and prays that they may safely make their way through this dangerous liminal stage into adulthood.


My elders died, and I was left with the mbopeesi basket.
These children are leaving this house for initiation.
I inherited from you this basket and its mbopeesi flour.
O my grandparents, O my mothers, and all the ancestors I do not know
—this mbopeesi stands firm.
The child, where they are,
not to have fevers, not to stumble, for snakes not to bite.
O my grandparents N’taamila and others,
all the chiefs help the child in the initiation,
wherever they go,
to be happy.

* Charles A. Smythies, “Journey to Nyassa, 1887,” in A Journey from Zanzibar to Lake Nyassa and back, in the year 1887 (Westminister, [no date]), 12, The Archives of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (AUMCA), A1(V)A Printed Matters f. 19. I owe many thanks to Andreas Zeman for sharing the document with me.

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