By Bill Saidi
ANGELIQUE Kidjo is probably the most famous citizen of Benin in the world: A hasty sample of people in my neighbourhood showed few could name the president of the republic; they knew the singer.
I had watched her being interviewed on the BBC’S Hardtalk programme and I was smitten.
I knew her as an international singer, but this time I was bowled over by her campaign against the persecution of the women and children of Africa.
“Persecution” is probably an exaggeration. But it must be recognised continent-wide that we are not treating our women and children with the dignity and care they deserve.
Kidjo reminded me of the early champions of the women’s liberation movement in the United States — Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. So, they were not singers or entertainers.
But, in their own way, they campaigned against the same oppression in their country.
Kidjo praised her husband for his support in her campaign — unlike the Americans, he was not aloof.
In Africa, this is significant: the men only pay lip-service to the improvement of women’s rights. There is a hitch.
The subjugation of women is steeped in the age-old tradition of the patriarchy of our culture.
That culture deliberately cast the women in the role of obedient servants. The women who have made it to the leadership of their countries — in Liberia and Malawi, so far — must know how important their victories must be to all African women.
They achieved their status with little or no help at all from their men.
That is why it is vital for women to recognise their success can be achieved only if they lead the fight themselves.
Kidjo’s stance is the appropriate one.
I have always praised Ella Fitzgerald who made her mark as a feminist with an album featuring a rousing version of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.
Her version begins: After one quart of brandy Like a daisy I am awake.
With no bromo seltzer handy I don’t even shake.
She sings the other lyrics as they were written. She goes off on a tangent: “Those ants that invaded my pants”.
My favourite: Vexed again, perplexed again.
Thank God, I can’t be oversexed again.
Fitzgerald had a tough time. Both legs were amputated with diabetes. She died at 79.
But she will be remembered for making a mark on her country.
She had to do it all by herself. She was born illegitimate and grew up rough.
She was at one time, married to a gangster.
Yet she still exploited to the full her natural talent.
I would have loved to meet Fitzgerald. I did meet another singer, Miriam Makeba.
She too fought many personal challenges.
She died a dramatic death — on stage.
Her contribution to the cause of women is unforgettable.
In the fashion of women determined to make their mark on society, hers was an unconventional lifestyle. Most such women succeed only if they ignore African traditions, which are rooted in patriarchy.
Only a woman can understand another woman’s problems as passionately as her fellow woman can.
It is hard to believe that any man would be sufficiently passionate and knowledgeable about a women’s problem to actually solve it.
For a start, most of the practices were introduced, primarily, to safeguard the male domination of society.
An example is the horrific female genital mutilation.
God — among those who hold Him responsible for creation — designed the woman’s body to enjoy sex as fully as the male: in cutting off her clitoris the man turns the woman into something almost unfeeling. There ought to be a law against the practice.
One woman is reported to have told a man who had just made what he thought was wild love to her with: “Why are you men so excited about this whole silly thing?”
The immediate suspicion was that she had been a victim of FGM.
None of the women I have referred to could have been victims of that evil practice.
Their passion for life alone would not have manifested itself so publicly, if a key component of their femininity had been “killed”.
Bill Saidi is a writer based in Harare