It has long been documented that women played an important role in the anti-colonial efforts of Africans against their Western colonizers. Although we often celebrate individual men like Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba for their sacrifice in the anti-colonial struggle, we often cannot point to a single woman. But this does not mean that they did not exist.
In fact, women consistently fought off colonizers who sought to impose unfair rules in their providence. Many times, they did so as a collective. Moreover, they organized and acted powerfully when African men had accepted the laws administrated by the colonizers. Take the story of the Kom women’s rebellion in Northern Cameroon as an example.
The Kom women are a tribal group in the Bamenda Grassfields of North West Cameroon. Between 1958 and 1961, they launched a revolt known as the Anlu Rebellion, in response to the colonial administration’s imposition of vertical contour farming.
Colonial administrators had won over the men. Yet, the women believed it restricted the traditional methods favored by rural women, also, factors such as the introduction of Christian doctrine and other social changes orchestrated by the Western-educated elite exacerbated social segregation and attacks on tradition and customs, adding more fuel to the fire of the Kom women’s grievances.
In response, the Kom women formed themselves into groups to foil the efforts of the colonial officials to introduce new farming rules. Their tactic was anlu, a form of mobilization which initially was meant to signal the exiling of people who had become an irritation to the community. Through anlu, a woman would make a shrill sound, breaking it by beating on her lips with four fingers.
Any woman who recognized the sound would do the same, leaving whatever she is doing and running in the direction of the first sound. Eventually, women will pour into the compound of the offender singing and dancing, and desecrate it through indiscriminate urination and defecation.
As one African feminist site recounts from historical records, “If this occurs early in the morning, there is enough excreta and urine to turn the compound and its houses into a public latrine.” The women also exhibited private parts of their bodies, and as the public sighting of their vaginas by Kom or Laimbwe men was considered an ill omen, men sent to quell their frustrations would run.
Moreover, they wore torn male clothes, shirts, trousers, dry banana leaves and fresh creeping plants, and painted their faces with charcoal and wood ash to send a message of liberation. Historians say this was a warning to men to ward off during the period of the revolt; it was a “particular challenge to masculinity, epitomised by the male-centred colonial dispensation”.
Finally, the women also organized mock burials of leaders who supported the implementation of the new farming rules that the women opposed. These mock burials, a tradition of the western Grassfields region, frightened the victim and his or her family members and sympathizers.
Through these cultural symbols, the women sent a powerful message to their traditional men as well as the British administration. For three years, this act of resistance and the symbolism caused a ruckus in the society – it was described as a reign of terror. The women effectively shut down markets and defied colonial and traditional authorities and soon enough, these activities destabilized the colonial administrative machine, paralyzing it economically.
In this way, the women played an active role in the struggle for independence, as well as in the unification of their country. When the country gained independence in 1961, anlu faded from importance in local affairs.