‘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.
* 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.