This is a speech given by Inem Richardson during the 2022 African Liberation Day Symposium. Inem is originally from the Bay Area in Northern California but she currently lives in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where she is the founder of the Centre Thomas Sankara Pour La Libération et L’Unité Africain, a Pan-African library and political education center.
I was asked to talk about women fighting for Pan-African unity against neo-colonialism but one of the things that came up on our call when I was preparing for this was neo-colonialism as an inherently patriarchal system of exploitation. So I want to begin by talking about the ways in which neo-colonialism is inherently patriarchal. As we may know, colonialism and neo-colonialism impact every facet of life for colonized peoples so there is no way to analyze any aspect of our lives while ignoring the reality of neo-colonialism and imperialism, but since neo-colonialism is fundamentally an economic system, I want to begin by focusing on how the neo-colonial economic relationship between the African worker and the local and/or international bourgeoisie leads to forms of oppression and exploitation that are gendered and that impact men and women in different ways.
So the first thing I want to state is that in the African continental context, as well as in other parts of the world, a neo-colonial economy is an extremely extractive economy. African economies are extractive economies dependent on the exportation of raw materials and for many states especially reliant in particular on the exportation of petroleum and minerals.
Perhaps second only to agriculture, mining and resource extraction is the cornerstone of many African economies. Nigeria is heavily reliant on crude oil exportation, Ghana and Burkina Faso and Mali are heavily reliant on their gold extraction, Niger has been historically dependent on the exportation of uranium. For Botswana, it is diamond mining. For Azania, which if you don’t know is “South Africa”, the economy today is more mixed and industrialized. But if you focus on the Indigenous non-settler population you still see a dependence on mining with too many minerals coming out of Azania to list here. Of course the largest concentration of minerals in the world are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as in the Central African Republic.
I want to highlight how dependent African countries are on resource extraction within this conversation on neo-colonialism and gender because typically this is such a significant sector of the economy that enforces a very rigid gendered division of labor.
The first thing I want to state outright is that we must understand that while women are often indirectly barred from participating in one of the largest sectors of the African economy, the men within the mining sector are by no means in an enviable position here. Work within the neo-colonial economy is based on the super exploitation of the African worker so the male workers, unlike the typically male European CEOs of the mining companies, are also oppressed by patriarchal and imperialist extractive capitalism. However, I do want to focus especially on how women are impacted by this because in some ways that might be a little less obvious here. The first thing that I can say about this is that much like colonialism, neo-colonialism can be very destructive to the African family. Much like during the colonial period, the neo-colonial period forcibly or coercively separates men from the rest of their families as they often must migrate to wherever they can find work. Women do this as well, though because several significant sectors of the economy are closed off to them, men are more likely to move for work as their wives and children stay behind in the cities and villages. We also see this form of migration on an international level, as the resources of Africa flow overwhelmingly towards the west, we see that normally, though not at all exclusively, the migrants that take the risky voyages across the Sahara desert or who attempt to leave the Sahel via boat whether from Senegal or from North Africa, tend more often to be men. In the Sahel region of Africa, this is actually pretty obvious and visible. It is common to meet women whose husbands live far away, whether in a small mining town elsewhere or in Europe. The men usually do send whatever money they can back home to provide for their families as much as they can but because it is usually never enough, the women are often put into positions where they also need to work outside of the home. Women’s work and men’s work within the neo-colony are often markedly different. Here in Burkina Faso it is a given. You can see signs on the streets of Ouagadougou that will state, “we are looking for women to work for us” followed by a phone number. The type of work is usually not specified because it is implied. Women are specifically sought to work as cooks, cleaners, and waitresses. These jobs are very specifically reserved for women, particularly cooks and cleaners, with men being either directly or indirectly barred from these fields which represent devalued labor.
The overall way that labor is divided leads to the double or triple exploitation of women because women must work within the home as well as outside of the home. They are responsible for childcare, cooking, cleaning and more or less all other forms of domestic work at home, and then they have to work outside of the home, sometimes carrying out these same forms of labor in the homes of others. Men often either cannot or will not contribute to work within the home evenly or sometimes at all. For some men, this is because they are physically separated from their wives and children due to the structure of the neo-colonial economy and the types of work made available to them. The one thing that really does ease women’s burdens in this case is that often in these situations, the women will either live with their family or extended family or with their husband’s family or extended family. So we don’t see a lot of the single parent phenomenon that we might see in the imperialist core here because childcare and domestic responsibilities are sometimes collectivized among extended family units or even within neighborhoods and villages. However, because men are more likely to work in a relatively more valued sector of the economy even if it is extremely exploitative work, even when they are physically available to share domestic responsibilities, the work is seen as outside of their purview and they won’t contribute. In Burkina Faso, this is usually pronounced pretty directly since many people, whether men or women, will state that women are naturally better designed for housework and that men should be able to maintain their position as the head of the household by being the primary provider of money, though as I already pointed out, women are working outside of the home as well.
It is only if there is a fundamental economic change in Africa, that these oppressive gender dynamics can change, and this fundamental economic change can only occur if workers in Africa seize the means of production and if Africans can find a pathway to some form of industrialization. There is so much that I have not even had the chance to touch upon here but just to briefly point out, one of the reasons why there is such a huge reliance on the exploitation of domestic workers is in part because of the lack of industrialization and access to modern appliances throughout various parts of the continent. The working classes in the urban areas will often purchase the domestic labor of working women in the villages because it really is very hard for a man and a woman to work outside of the home, to have five or six children between the two of them, and to have access to very few modern appliances. The domestic labor that they purchase often substitutes for the vacuum cleaner, laundry machine, or dishwasher that they do not have access to. Of course, if men begin to contribute to domestic responsibilities to the best of their abilities, the level of domestic exploitation will decrease. However, only socialism and industrialization can truly change the inherently patriarchal conditions created by neo-colonialism. This can only succeed in a unified Africa, as we have already seen it attempted in a divided Africa. Socialism brought enormous strides to women’s emancipation in Burkina Faso while it lasted, however socialism in a divided Africa tends not to last very long. Men need to be re-socialized not to view domestic work as inherently feminine so that women have the time and ability to contribute to building a unified socialist Africa. This will emancipate both the women and the men from oppressive and exploitative work.