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  • "Sitting on a Man":Forty Years Later
  • Akosua Adomako Ampofo (bio)


Colleagues1 and I at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana (UG), teach two graduate elective courses in gender: "Gender and Culture in African Societies" and "Gender and Development." In my early years teaching in the early 1990s, the majority of our students were male, a function of the fact that most of our graduate students at UG were male. Many of our students in the 1980s and early 1990s were high-school teachers seeking a second degree to enhance their chances of promotion within the Ghana Education Service. We also tended to have a few clerics in our classes, most indicating that they needed a class in gender to better equip them to do their pre- and postmarital counselling, and help prevent the abuse of women. In later years, we began to see more female and younger students, many fresh out of undergraduate programs, both in the graduate program as a whole and, as a result, in our gender classes.2 Elsewhere I have discussed how the classroom dynamics have changed with changes in the sex of the instructors and students.3 Not surprisingly, we found that once women were the majority in the class, especially younger women, they were more likely to "take on" their male colleagues if the women felt the men expressed insufficient sensitivity to women's disadvantaged positions. At the same time, however, the women students also insisted that women were not just victims but some had [End Page 146] power and many also expressed agency. The Igbo women's practice of "sitting on a man," vividly described by Judith Van Allen, made for powerful learning about women's collective power.4 It also provided a catalyst for some very amusing disputes in the classroom, women versus men. This article uses the Van Allen piece as a lens to examine students' understanding of gender relations and practices. It also points to the complicatedness of women's agency and how we might read this from a millennial perspective.

Gender and Culture in africa

Mama asks:

Are men and women culturally different in Africa?What are the conditions under which women become the bearersAnd men the articulators of culture?Where are women in African political cultures?5

Whereas McFadden argues that African women have no choice but to become modern.6

Those advocating changes in gender relations in Africa are seen by some as interfering with other people's cultures, or betraying their own. There can be an abstract universalism evident in many of the older anthropological texts on Africa—gender in Africa is either presented such that before colonialism there was an ideal, gender egalitarian world that was destroyed by colonial rule, or women were beasts of burden completely dominated by African men. Many of these perceptions persist in current discourse, though they are not always explicitly thus constructed. In the former case, many writings emerge that promote cultural relativism where everything that was done is hailed as our "culture."

Culture is the music's repertoire that sets the limits of what we can do. In this understanding, it is culture that permits us to be what we are, and frames the range of choices open to us.

One of the boulders we as instructors have spent a lot of time dislodging is the "it's our culture" one. Placing culture and power at the center of our enquiries and analyses enabled us to avoid the deterministic culturalism that has ensnared much analysis. Indeed, by the 1990s a crisis of confidence had begun to engulf social analyses of Africa's development, and culture was moving into the mainstream of developmental debates as a response to the simplistic reductionism found in discourse on the development of African societies. Notwithstanding the dangers of using culture as an analytical model, culture can direct our gaze into social life as a whole, and to the connections among beliefs, values, and practices. [End Page 147] We conceptualize culture as the context in which political and economic and other activities occur. For women, this is typically taken to be a narrower frame of choices than for men...


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