Christine Saidi argues that a modern patriarchal myth has obfuscated the power and agency of women in ancient societies. By employing historical linguistics—and to a lesser extent archaeology and a selection of ethnographic accounts—she contends that prior to the colonial period (but especially before 1600), the societies of east-central Africa were based upon the power of matriarchs.
Two informative chapters relate the four major language clusters of east-central Africa—the Sabi, Botatwe, Central Savanna, and Mashiriki—to potential historical settlements and migrations over the last three thousand years by drawing on glottochronological findings and correlations with existing archeological data. Based on patterns of migration, the expansion of agricultural activities, and the arrival of new political institutions, these three thousand years are divided into five periods. The book is mostly concerned with the middle three of these periods, for which the study of Bantu languages yields the most historical data: the "First Age of Farming," which includes the earliest Bantu-speaking settlements from 100 BCE to 600 CE, the "Era of Sabi and Botatwe Expansion" from 600 to 1000 CE, and the "Luangwa Age" from 1000 to 1600 CE. Saidi argues that these years represented the height of matriarchal power. The intrusion of political institutions from Luba imperial expansion, which began in the seventeenth century, compromised many of these ancient areas of matriarchal agency (although to an uneven extent, since many of them could still be detected in the late twentieth century).
Around two thousand years ago, terms that referred to a sororal group, the *-bumba, emerged in proto-Sabi and proto-Botatwe languages. Saidi argues that this sororal group exerted authority and power over men and women's lives. She hypothesizes that this corporate grouping could have been the origin of the matrilineal forms of succession and inheritance found across the region. She further develops the claim for the power and autonomy of women by arguing for the significance of widespread female initiation rites (the best known is the icisungu initiation of Bemba girls), which she calls "the central set of religious observances in their societies"(121). She claims further that the religious importance of mothers was enhanced by the "Lesa" deity, a mother of life. Yet while Lesa and female initiation rites were undoubtedly widespread and important, one wonders whether they were as central to life as Saidi claims, at least compared to other rituals linked to a range of economic practices and to ancestral and nature spirits unrelated to Lesa.
Saidi's argument rests on the notion that matrilineal succession and [End Page 184] inheritance implied the power of the mother, and not the mother's brother, as has previously been claimed and witnessed by ethnographers of central Africa. For Saidi, marriage practices common to the matrilineal belt are evidence of women's agency. Even widow cleansing and inheritance, which may seem to work to the advantage of older men, especially mother's brothers, for Saidi represent the agency, authority, and autonomy of women. Likewise, women's involvement in the production of pottery and in agricultural activities is evidence of their agency, rather than the exploitation of their labor. Even in intimate matters of sexuality, ancient rites, such as the stretching of the labia, enhanced women's sexual pleasure, not those of men.
By providing a plausible account of the emergence and evolution of activities, practices, and rituals central to the lives of women over the longue durée, Saidi has made a valuable contribution to central African historiography. A few experts will disagree with her controversial interpretation of the evidence. Closer to the twentieth century, as the density of documentary sources and of oral traditions increases (largely unexamined by Saidi), the case for autonomous and powerful matriarchal institutions becomes less convincing. There may be historical reasons for the apparent lack of power of women after the seventeenth century: the intrusion of Luba political institutions as discussed by Saidi, or other elements linked to political economy...