The leadership roles women have played in the development of various African societies cannot be underestimated. The contributions of women towards the social, economic, political and educational developments of African societies cannot also be gainsaid. In fact, traditional African society attached no importance to gender issues because every individual had a role to play both in the family as well as in the larger society. Each gender had its traditional role in the development of the society. In other words, the position of women was complimentary to that of men. There was the non-existent of gender inequality. Each role, regardless of who performed it was considered equally important because it contributed to the fundamental goal of community survival. What this simply implies is that indigenous people in Africa performed varying roles to maintain the efficient functioning of their society, prior to colonialism. The claim, therefore, is that gender inequality came with the advent of colonialism (St. Clair, 1994: 27).
In spite of the complimentary role women played to men, the dynamism that prevailed, ipso facto, was that there existed the patriarchy system where men were still seen as the head of the family and leader of the society. This therefore shows that traditional Africa was not based on gender inequality but a complement of gender, because each gender had a role to play in contributions to societal development.
Womanhood in Traditional Africa
The fact remains that no degree of stereotyping against women existed in traditional Africa. The woman possessed the power to organize the family and the society at large. There was an enormous task and responsibility conferred on womanhood. In fact the responsibility of both men and women were seen as complementary to one another "there was a codependence and a balance that existed" (St. Clair, 1994: 27).
In various traditional African societies, the African woman possessed the power that binds the society together. In fact the survival of the family and the future of marriage depended a great deal on the African woman. This is why Leith (1967: 34) emphasizes that:
Culturally, African women were the transmitters of the language, the history and the oral culture, the music, the dance, the habits and the artisanal knowledge. They were the teachers and were responsible for instilling traditional values and knowledge in children. Men were also essential in the transmission of knowledge to the youth because they had a different type of knowledge of the earth and environment, and also of ceremonies and traditions that were performed exclusively by men.
What Leith explains in this regard in the fact that each gender had its role and responsibility which helped in the formation and upkeep of the family, particularly, as it affects the essential upbringing of children. Furthermore, Leith (1967:40) points out that the
Woman had extensive knowledge of the natural environment; they were gatherers, which meant that their communities depended on them to provide nourishment or they would face starvation. Indigenous women in Africa held vital knowledge of herbs and medicines that also ensured the survival of their communities, they were the healers.
The indication here in that women's role in traditional Africa is a sine qua non to societal development. The impacts of the women were felt in every aspect of life of the society. Thus, the African woman played a key role in the education and the teaching of children social, ethical and moral values which were part of the cultural standards for evaluating proper societal behaviour. Evaluating the status and position standing of women in traditional Africa, Hafkin and Hanson (1976: 59-60) reiterate that:
Women were treated with unparalleled respect because they were seen to be closer to the creator than men ever had the potential of being. This is because women themselves had the ability to create due to the fact that they were able to give birth. As creation of life, they were charged with the sacred responsibility of caring for the needs of the next generation, and because of this, they can be regarded as the originations of the idea that is now known as sustainable developments.
Buttressing the above quotation, it is an in controvertible fact that societal sustainable development depends essentially on a solid family structure. In every society, the most important aspect of life and survival was a family. The women are often the backbone of the family in traditional Africa. The African family has always been characterized by strong women who usually held pertinent positions in the family (Agarwal, 1970: 75).
It is important, however, to mention that one of the many forms of traditional African notions of family structure which cannot be ignored was polygamy. It is, as it is...