Cattle, Power, and Gender in Sub-Saharan Africa


For centuries, cattle were like money in many African societies. Though wealth has been a recognized symbol of power for centuries, in Africa, cattle represented not only wealth, but a strategy to survive. Surviving in harsh conditions has been such an issue in African history that the symbols of wealth and power have culminated around bearing children and cultivating the land — two areas necessary for survival. Cattle were an important part of this system in several ways.

Cattle symbolized power because they were necessary for African men to obtain wives. Through a dowry system known as lobola, or brideprice, men “purchased” women’s labor and reproductive capacities from their fathers with cattle.

In the West, we do not typically think of women as “farmers,” but in precolonial Africa, women cultivated the land. As both farmers and mothers, women were a key component for survival — they generated food and children, the next generation. Cattle thus became a method of obtaining power and prestige. Not only could men use it to exert power over women by “buying” their labor and reproductive capacities (Schmidt 5), but they could use it to exert power over other men. Men who owned more cattle had greater access to symbols of prestige like wives and children. In addition, men who married many wives increased their wealth because more women could cultivate greater areas of land and give a man more children.

The importance of cattle as a means for gaining power diminished as colonialism instituted wage labor. Money slowly replaced cattle, but the substitution caused great turmoil.

In S. Africa, cattle were an important barrier for staving off the apartheid system (Mager 32). The longer Africans owned cattle, the longer they could survive without depending on wage and migrant labor to support their families. But as Africans were increasingly denied the ability to own land or to work land for their own purpose, they were unable to support cattle.

Though women were more concerned with their ability to feed themselves and their children, men viewed the loss of cattle as emasculation (Mager 37). Under colonialism, a system called “indirect rule” often based itself on a hierarchal system that placed African men over African women, but it nevertheless denied men one of their most potent symbols of power, one of their most direct forms of controlling women’s labor. As long as men had cattle, they “retained the symbolic power of the patriarchal order” (Mager 80).

Children were part of a man’s wealth. Daughters would help a man obtain more cattle when they were ready to be married (Tungamirai 37). For women as well as men, children were also a status symbol and a way to gain power and prestige. In Zimbabwe, a woman acquired greater status as she bore children (Schmidt 15). Across most of Africa, women without children lacked a place in society. This is amply demonstrated by Buchi Emecheta in her novel, The Joys of Motherhood.

In The Joys of Motherhood, the main character, Nnu Ego, is divorced by her first husband because she cannot conceive. Her father arranges her marriage to another man, and she soon gives birth. When the baby dies, she almost commits suicide. Her one desire in life is to have children, many children, and she is unhappy until she conceives again.

Though this demonstrates the importance for African women to have children, The Joys of Motherhood also demonstrates the heartache that children brought under colonialism. At the end of a long life, after she has given birth to many children, Nnu Ego realizes that motherhood had been a prison. All of her life, she had had to work constantly simply to feed and clothe her status symbols. In precolonial society, in the rural areas, Nnu Ego’s life as a mother would have been easier. But the wage labor economic system brought by colonialism meant that, like many other women, she raised her children alone because her husband had to find work elsewhere.

The value of fertility became unstable in many parts of Africa in the 20th Century. Though some African men valued children more highly than “calves” and “diamonds,” other men felt that children represented an economic burden, further straining already tight resources (Mager 174). Colonialism created serious obstacles for African men and women to earn enough money, and instituted a system of absent fathers and destitute mothers. Children became less desirable because it was harder, sometimes impossible, to support them (Mager 222).

In many societies, land rights added a fourth element to this complex dynamic of power. Access to land, or private ownership in some societies, was an avenue to power for both men and women. Land symbolized power by generating status and wealth and often led to leadership and political prominence. Without land, access to women’s labor and owning cattle had little purpose.

The association of power with land reached critical proportions in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa when settlers created laws to restrict African land rights (Iliffe 205-206). The colonizers saw African property-owners as a potential danger to their own power (Iliffe 216-217). In Kenya and Zimbabwe, access to land (private ownership and communal) was a rallying cry for independence, and a key demand of the freedom fighters in both countries during the 50’s (in Kenya) and 70’s (in Zimbabwe).

Women could not own cattle, but they sometimes had rights to land. After colonialism, wage labor and development policies made inroads into women’s rights to land, and thus, their power (Berger and White lviii and 51). Cash crops changed the values associated with land and labor. As individual ownership replaced control of land by male family members, men were more likely to inherit land and women found their power eroded as their ability to generate wealth, through reproduction of the land, was restricted (Berger and White 85; 100-101).

Colonialism brought many changes to the African way of life. One of its more enduring legacies is how it disrupted social institutions like marriage and economic systems based on land and cattle and labor. Today, in most African societies, cattle does not hold the same position of power that it held at the beginning of the 20th century.


  1. Berger, Iris and E. Frances White. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  2. Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. New York: George Braziller, 1979.
  3. Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  4. Schmidt, Elizabeth. Peasants, Traders and Wives: Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe, 1870-1939. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.
  5. Tungamirai, Josiah. “Recruitment to ZANLA: Building up a War Machine.” From Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. Ngwabi Bhebe and Terence Ranger, eds. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995. 36-47.