In the original Igbo language, an original language of Northeastern and Western Africa, words like female, male, cousins, auntie, and uncle didn’t exist. Life was more about titles, and a persons biology was implied by their title.
For example, my first middle name, Adaeze, means “first born Daughter of a king, princess” so it is implied by the titles, daughter and princess, my biological attributes, according to Igbo culture.
Many names are unisex in Igbo, because the names held meanings for a persons life outcome regardless of sex, but the title of a person signified the sex of a person. In my analysis, this actually relieves a person of responsibilities attached to various titles, as some titles are birthrights, while other titles change over time (son vs. father, princess vs. Queen, etc.). As one article put it, “the [Igbo] language has natural gender system which is associated with natural distinction of sex.” (Ikegwuonu, C. N. (2019). An Exploration of Gender System in Igbo Language.)
Therefore, according to my first middle name, Adaeze, I am a princess, and my first name is Ndidiamaka – patience is beautiful/good thing – which can also be given to a prince, because the meaning itself isn’t attached to sex. Nwaeze, is son of a King/prince – Nwa (son)/ Eze (King) – which are both titles. Adaeze is actually a title that is based on my biological attributes. Ada in Igbo culture means “first born daughter”. For example, when my family tells me I’m the “Ada of the Ada’s”, it means that I am the first born amongst the Ada’s in the family, well, of my grandmothers sons… it creates a hierarchy and clear distinctions between transitions in life.
When I was in working Namibia (a country in Southern Africa), I remember my students telling me that there is no word in their language for auntie, uncle, or cousin. They referred to their Auntie’s as mothers, but they’d differentiate by saying “that is my “small mother”, or “small father”, to me; however, in their culture, they didn’t differentiate. For example, one of my students moms passed, and she stated that although it was sad, she still had her aunties (other mothers), so they saw it as their mother still living on. Cousins were siblings as well, so there was no differentiation between a brother and a “male” cousin, although the title “brother” implied the sex of the person, so they would never call him a sister. If you listen closely to an African who’s second language is English, speak, they often get confused and call she’s, “he”, and he’s, “she”. While seemingly hilarious to a native English speaker, there is a reason.
Many cultures held to the natural biological features of a person, and celebrated those attributes as part of their contribution to society, not defined as some insignificant part of their personhood. For example, one wouldn’t say “you’re bringing my gender down to my body parts”, they would instead say “my breasts are a celebrated extension of my life giving qualities”. As I was working in Namibia, living with the Himba and Herero people – the only people in Africa to live life according to precolonial conditions – women celebrated their breasts by wearing them outwardly as part of their daily expression. Meaning, breasts are an adornment, a sign of a life giving feature that didn’t need covering as it was not sexualized. The only covered parts were the genitals, for both mothers and fathers. As I was taught by them, the Himba’s, the “clothing” they wore which is a “skirt” for both sexes, and their various, meaningful adornments, are used to distinguish the sexes. For example, mothers wore adornments that daughters did not wear, widows wore adornments that wives did not wear, certain adornments were worn that signified how many children the mother had, a daughter of a particular age was given certain adornments when she reached menstruation. Waist beads were given to wives as a sign of transition from daughter to wife. The same for husbands and sons, everyone had their own adornments, and even hairstyles that signified their contributions to society. Biological features and attributes weren’t held to the standard or oppression of the opposite sex to determine its worthiness, they were each attributes that were celebrated in their own time and at their own stages throughout life – Daughter, to mother, to widow. Just think of a CEO vs. an employee; both are important, in a normal, non oppressive, society; but the CEO has reached a position where they make decisions and the employee hasn’t reached that level, yet (teacher vs. student, etc.)
I know a lot of people like to argue that societies didn’t differentiate genders, but, they did; just not in the way we have come to separate genders, based on the oppression of attributes rather than their celebration. God, in my findings has been genderless in pretty much every precolonial society, because God was so reverenced that they couldn’t imagine categorizing God according to the human mind. Precolonial Africa held mothers as closer to God, because of their ability to give birth. Let’s break this down, titles were more about responsibility, children were children, a daughter had responsibilities to her mom and dad, but children were there to be taught and not be burdened. The wealth of society was determined by the health of the children. Mothers and fathers were equally active in the cultivation of society, but mothers were warranted to rest during childbearing, to bring healthy life into the world. We can argue that there were injustices in precolonial societies, but, there are injustices still now, a perfect world, we can agree, has never existed. However, there was order, which in my opinion, eliminates confusion. I observed carefully and documented well, the precolonial culture of the Himba society I lived with, and the mothers equally led society, as well as named their children, and the children followed the mothers bloodlines. Not to minimize the fathers, but the mothers purpose wasn’t attached to the will of the men. Mothers and fathers were equally active in their children’s lives.
Where I saw a shift was within the Herero culture. The Herero’s were former Himba’s who had been colonized by the Germans after the Himba genocide, but they all lived together, kind of, and spoke the same original language, Himba. I say “kind of” because they were in neighboring towns which was walking distance, but clearly differentiated themselves. Also, teachers, and other “professions”, were Herero people; I was teaching in a Himba town, however. Herero’s moved on to career choices of 21st century, while Himba’s cultivated land and highly valued cows as a source of wealth and status. Himba’s that fled to Angola during the genocide and came back to Namibia maintained their culture, while Herero’s were forced into German culture. There was no more structure, Herero men often left the homes to go to the capital city, 8 hours away, while moms stayed. From Herero’s, there was judgment, harsh judgement towards Himba’s where men did not leave but stayed and cultivated family with the moms. The Himbas maintained structure and did not need as much as a 21st century clock to keep the structure of their day.
Societies change, and people evolve, that is a great thing, but there is something to be said about structure and order. I don’t mean structure according to oppression, (ie: master, slave), but structure according to celebration of each owns designed place in society. It doesn’t mean I will dress the same as my Himba and Igbo ancestors, but I’ll celebrate my titles and biology as a gift, not always defend them as a result of oppression. The problem with our structure is, it is based on oppression, not the natural evolving of ones status. For example, in precolonial Igbo culture, men naturally transitioned from son, to husband, to king; it was based on age and accomplishments, as some titles had to be earned; not an oppressive sense of competition. The same for women, and husbands and wives complemented each other, life itself was deemed important and children were valued, not based on sex, but on humanity.
I started off with titles of people according to their sex, because it adds more context to ones place in society that can change over time. One can transition from son, to brother, to prince, to king, at his own designated time. His status as a mere man means nothing, and gives him no privileges; his various titles can bring out attributes to be celebrated at their appointed times. The title of king or queen had to be earned by various acts in society, and the people could decide to take the title away if one abused or offended with their title. Similar to what should be done to the 45th non-president of the United States.
My breasts are a sign of life. Whenever I have children, they’ll literally start the production of milk, to feed my child. They are not there to be ashamed of, or to be sexualized, but something to be celebrated as what they are to me and my earthly titles. They are also a clear distinction to not confuse me with that of my brother, but they weren’t always there, that is why I was given a vagina, to clearly be celebrated as a life giving vessel. It is not telling society that they should see me according to that body part only, but it is a part of me that has its own function in its own time. It also functions apart from that, to provide an exit for liquids and toxins, the same way the penis does for the man; except obviously, as part of biology, the penis and vagina have two different purposes, but come together to function as one when it’s time. It is not all of me, but part of me as I transition from daughter, to princess, to wife, to queen.
Even within that, sociology is so complex, that I’m not always a specific title at a specific time. To my mom, I am a daughter, to my future, husband, I’ll be a wife, to my neighbor, I’m a neighbor, and just because my neighbor is a “man”, it gives him no authority over my life. I can allow him to borrow sugar, or even be kind to him, but each title gives me different responsibilities that begin and end within the framework of family, work, and society. For example, if my boss is a woman, or a man, they are simply my boss, and not their gender. In a workplace, people are, and should be, hired for their attributes that are earned; therefore, all of those initial titles at the beginning of this blog post mean nothing in the context of work. I believe differentiating these will take burdens off of us that we don’t need. I am a wife only to a husband, an employee to an executive director, and a fellow human to a man. I should not be concerned about “what men like” in a woman; when I meet a man and we mutually decide that we will relate in the context of a meaningful relationship, then we can discuss what we like in each other, and every other person in his gender doesn’t count. This also goes in line with my basic life philosophy of living life according to design; not everybody is designed for me, so I can’t be concerned with everybody.
When we learn to celebrate ourselves apart from societies gendered standards, we will not as much be concerned with how the the opposite sex has defined our biology. In a society with many cultures, we have to define ourselves. I know everyone is not Igbo and Himba, and English is a new language with many words built in oppression. Our titles don’t determine our career choice, for example, they just allow us to act in different capacities in our familial and social lives. Do princesses have the same privileges as queens? Or do daughters act in the same capacities as moms? No, and that’s great. I can simultaneously be a daughter and mom but I won’t treat my mom as my daughter, or my daughter as a mom. I don’t want my “womanhood” as a single person to be boiled down to what I need to do as a mom, because I have no husband or children yet, so my responsibility now is to my parents as a daughter, my siblings as a sister, and so forth. When I become a wife, and a mom, my responsibilities change. Contrary to societies beliefs, I do not have to carry myself as a wife, or do certain things to “get a man”, prior to carrying those titles. My responsibility is to be myself, and act in those titles at the appropriate time. A lot of what women are taught is based on what they will be as a wife or good woman for a man, and I argue that I should not be concerned about that until I have a man. Why? Because what that man will be may contradict all I’ve ever learned about “men” when the two of us come together, we will be what we need to be to each other, not based on our sexes alone, but our needs to each other.
All of this may sound complex, but it really alleviates the pressures of gender roles. I am a history fanatic because I learn a lot. For example, wedding vows are not biblical or even part of any religion, they are man made, but that is another blog post. We burden ourselves unnecessarily and have pretty ridiculous arguments over simple things. I am ok being a daughter, sister, and friend right now; I will not consider the “duties” of a wife until I am planning to be one, with one person. I will not be ashamed of the life giving feature of my breasts, because they are a part of my body. I will not be ashamed to be loud and boisterous, because neither of those things are predetermined because I have breasts. We have to remember, the things we see now are created by people, a lawnmower or a toolbox has no specific gender, those are relatively new things as it relates to humanity, so to genderize them is useless and causes useless arguments. I saw recently where a man said that a woman should ask a man to open the jar for her so he feels needed. Sir, if you need to open a jar to feel needed, than you’re on the wrong planet. Each person can function in their own way and I shouldn’t feel less than a “woman” because a man doesn’t open the door for me. In the same vein; each relationship is as individual as individual human beings, “the two shall become one.”
Take the time to evaluate your titles. How can I be a good daughter, sister, friend, employee right now? How can I become more in tune with myself apart from societies expectations of my current title? How can I differentiate each title and not crossover where it needs not to be? How can I celebrate my biological attributes and not define them at the will of society?
To my sisters, mothers, sons, and friends, I encourage you to be yourself on this day. I’m not saying to define oneself as a “man” or “woman” is wrong, but let’s look at the context & remember that there is power in our biological identities beyond what the genderization of society makes us forget.
Ndidiamaka Adaeze Ifeyinwa Nwakalor