In this paper I wish to examine the place and the role of women according to African Religion. The paper focuses on three areas: mythology, proverbs and prayers. In the area of mythology we are confronted with the picture of women in the early state of human existence. This is not history. The myth is broader than history in explaining some aspects of society. It is a language of expressing truths or realities for which history does not supply a full explanation. Prayers take us into the spirituality of those who pray them.
They show us among other things, the inner person, the needs of the heart, (both joy and sorrow, gratitude and disappointment, expectation and anxiety), as the praying person stands ‘naked’ before spiritual realities. This is to see what women say in prayer, and thereby to get a glimpse into their spiritual life as that may be nourished by African Religion and as it may in turn contribute to African Religion itself. A proverb from Ghana declares that: A woman is a flower in a garden; her husband is the fence around it’. ” (1).
A large number of myths is to be found in Africa. Every African tribe has its own body of myths, stories, legends and oral history. We want to concentrate here mainly on the myths dealing with the origin of human beings, since women are featured very prominently in these myths. Some myths speak about an original Mother of mankind, from whom all people originated. For example, the Akposso (of Togo) tell that when Uwolowu (God) made men, He first made a woman on the earth and bore with her the first child, the first human being (2).
The Ibibio (of Nigeria) say that human beings came from the divinity Obumo, which was the son of the mother-divinity Eka-Abassi (3). It is told in eastern Africa about a virgin woman Ekao, who fell on earth from the sky and bore a son; the son got married to another woman and founded human society (4). Other examples are mentioned by Baumann (5). The main idea here, is to link human life directly with God through the woman. She is created by God, and in turn becomes the instrument of human life. She rightly becomes the one who passes on life.
This is beautifully illustrated in a myth of the Tutsi (of Rwanda). They tell that the original pair of human beings was in paradise. But both the man and woman were sterile, they could not bear children. So they begged God to help them. God mixed clay with saliva and formed a small human figure. He instructed the woman to put the figure into a pot and keep it there for nine months. Every day the woman had to pour milk into the pot, mornings and evenings. She was to take out the figure only when it had grown limbs.
So she followed these instructions and after nine months she pulled out what had now become a human being. God made other human beings according to this method, and these later increased on the earth (6). The pot is a symbol of the womb of a mother, in which a baby takes shape and after nine months it is born. The woman shares directly with God in a personal way, the secrets and mysteries of life and birth. This role of the woman in sharing in the mysteries of life started already in the mythological time.
In other myths of man’s origin, the woman is always or nearly always mentioned. In many cases even the name of the first woman is given in the myths, and some myths mention only the name of the woman and not of the man. A lot of the myths say that the first human pair was lowered by God from the sky to the ground, such as the myths of the Akamba, Turkana, Luo, Luhyia and others in Kenya; these of the Baganda and Banyoro in Uganda; these of the Tutsi in Rwanda; of the Bomba and Ila in Zambia; these of the Yoruba and Ibo in Nigeria, and many others.
In a few myths, it is told that the woman was made by God out of the man’s body, or after the man had been made. Perhaps behind these myths is the wish and practice on the part of males to dominate women. For example, the Kwotto (of Nigeria) say that God made the first human beings out of the earth. God created first the husband, and when He had become tired, lie then made the wife who turned out to be weaker than her husband (7). Fire is an important element in human life. In some myths it is the women who either invented or discovered fire.
Women are also credited with inventing or discovering foodstuffs and their preparations. Thus the cooking skills of the woman are attributed to her from mythological times. She is thus not only the bearer of human beings, but also their cook who provides them with nourishment. The life of the first human beings is generally depicted as having been in a form of paradise. God provided for them, in some cases they lived in heaven with Him or lie was on earth with them; God gave them one of three important gifts: immortality, resurrection (if they died) or rejuvenation (if they grew old).
However, this paradise got lost, the earth and heaven separated, God went to live up in heaven while men lived on the earth, the three gifts got lost and in their place there came diseases, suffering and death. There are many myths, which address themselves to this change of human fortune. Some speak about a message, which God sent to people, but which either did not reach them or was changed by the messenger on the way, or the messenger arrived just too late to find that a faster messenger from God had brought another message.
Myths of the lost or changed or later arrived message are very widespread in eastern, southern and parts of western Africa. The carrier of this message is often the chameleon; while the carrier of the contra message is often the lizard, the hare, the weaver bird or the frog. In some cases the myths speak of a test, which God put to the original people. They failed. So the misfortunes of death and suffering, of God’s separation from men came about. Other myths explain that this occurred as a result of jealousies and quarrels within human families.
Still in other myths, the cause originated from animals, like the hyena, which being always hungry sought and ate the leather rope that had united heaven and earth (8). There are, however, considerable myths, which put the blame on the women. Thus, for example, it was a woman who in Ashanti myths (of Ghana), while pounding fufu (the national food) went on knocking against God Who lived in the sky. So God decided to go higher up. The good woman instructed her children to construct a tower by piling up the mortars one on top or another.
The tower almost reached God, leaving a gap, which could be filled with only one mortar; since the children had used up all the mortars, their mother advised them to take the bottom-most mortar and fill the gap. As they removed this mortar, the whole tower tumbled down and killed many people. In one of the Pygmy myths, it is told that God gave the first people one rule: they could eat the fruits of all the trees, except from one tree. The people observed this rule, until a pregnant woman was overcome by desire and persistently urged her husband to get the forbidden fruit for her.
Finally he crept secretly into the forest, plucked the fruit and brought it to her. However, the moon was watching all this and went and reported it to God. God became so angry that lie sent death to the people as punishment. While the woman is in these and some other myths blamed for the misfortune that befell the first human beings, she is clearly not the main or the only culprit. Indeed the myths that put the blame on her are very few. They indicate that she shares in the cause and effect of suffering, misfortune and death in the world. She is a human being like men and children.
She is also raced with the mysteries of life at the other end — just as she shares in the mysteries of life’s beginning, so she shares in lire’s end. Through the myths of origin, we get a picture of the woman as someone placed by God in a special position. She shares with Him the creative process of life. In some ways her position and her role in these myths eclipses the position of the male. She is in a real sense the mother of human beings, the dispenser of life, howbeit as an agent of God. At the same time the woman shares in the misfortunes, suffering and death, which in various ways came into the world.