Who Runs the World? The Invisible Power of an African Woman

From rituals, music, art and dance, traditions are one thing that cannot be put aside in African culture. In the most traditional societies that are patriarchal, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage present a barrier to women’s empowerment. Although the African woman has barriers that inhibit her from exercising her full potential, she has invisible powers and plays a significant role in shaping society.

In the most traditional of tribes and societies, the woman’s position is clear from birth. Through teachings and customs, a girl is raised to performing nurturing duties. Her position requires strength, a high level of organisation and in some cases a lot of courage. As we commemorate International Women’s Day we celebrate the traditional woman whose power remains invisible to the world. A woman who worked hard to ensure that her household remains fed. A woman who has fathered sons and daughters that have grown up to play a significant role in society. A woman who passes on her knowledge to younger generations.

Socio-economic Contribution: Maasai women

In African tribes, the role and presence of a woman cannot be missed. In Maasai society for example, women can be seen carrying and breastfeeding children while tending to livestock, carrying water and fetching firewood. Maasai culture is patriarchal and men are in control of all decision making processes. Although men are socially defined and recognised as head of the households, women build their own homes, sometimes with the assistance of co-wives.

Who Runs the World? The Invisible Strength of an African Woman
Maasai woman in traditional clothing and jewellery in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania | Wlliam Warby : flickr


Through various chores in and outside the home, the Maasai woman is strong and visionary. These women struggle to make ends meet through burning and selling charcoal and bead work. This entrepreneurial spirit is a strength.

Courage: Sahawari women

The Sahawari are indigenous to Western Sahara. Ravaged by war and forced from their home land over 40 years ago, the Sahawari have built themselves into a functional and globally recognised state. The history of these people is one in which both men and women have fought in war.

Who Runs the World? The Invisible Strength of an African Woman
Sahawari woman | wikimedia commons


Women in this society are not only symbols of family and daily life but of political strength. Over the years, Sahawari women have continued to play a key role in Western Sahara’s resistance movement. Through history the Sahawari woman has been held in high regard. She is respected, at family level which has helped to propel her to possess the political power she has today.


If you are African, you understand the important role grandmothers play. They pass on their knowledge to younger generations and act as a point of contact when one is not well or requires assistance. My own grandmother who was born an only girl at a time when patriarchy prevailed a lot more than it does today was raised to take care of her father, brothers and household. Although never educated she knows a lot about traditional remedies, agriculture and guides us on decision making in our lives and careers as she has lives a long life.

By understanding local customs, organisations and individuals who seek to empower African women can harness traditional gender roles. In Zimbabwe’s Friendship Bench Project for example, older women known as ‘grandmothers’ have one to one bench sessions with individuals that are suffering from mental illnesses. This project was specially designed to leverage the powerful role elderly women play in African societies.

Understanding the nuances of women’s roles in African societies can make or break the manner in which women are empowered. Yes, African societies have traditions and practices that render women inferior, however it remains important to recognise the quite courage these women exercise through their invisible but powerful roles.

Featured image | Maasai woman | Lydur Skulason : flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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