By Dina Kraft

Ramotswa, Botswana – The village elder holds up the skin of a leopard against a vast, cloudless sky. A hush falls over the crowd of thousands. It is the symbol of absolute power.

For generations it has passed from father to son – but on this day it spills over the head and shoulders of a woman, the daughter of royalty who has become the Balete people’s first female paramount chief.

As African women take on new roles in government, business and other realms of modern life, their position in traditional society is also evolving and expanding into a domain long the stronghold of men.

Chiefs, monarchs and regents across much of the continent have been almost exclusively male in accordance with customs of clearly defined and distinct spheres of influence between the sexes: public roles for men, domestic ones for the women.

But beneath animal skins, feathered headdresses and the outer vestiges of traditional power, some women have had a voice.

In Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarch declared that his mother – the ndlovukati, or she-elephant – serves as his equal. A queen ruled the constitutional monarchy of Lesotho for 20 years, and women chiefs are common in its rural villages. In Ghana, queen mothers can nominate chiefs and kings, and in some cases even impeach them.

For the most part, though, powerful women have not been easily accepted in traditional societies.

Those notions of a woman’s place also affect female roles in government. In all of Africa’s 72 countries, not a single woman has ever been president, and only a few have ever served as prime minister or vice president.

As Cabinet members, women tend to get less visible offices such as health and education. Only a handful have been foreign and finance ministers.

In traditional communities, women with influence often wield their power behind the scenes, negotiating disputes between the ruling men and selecting marriage partners for the royal household.

“Women often mediate rivalry between men, they are often the power behind the throne,” said David Copland, an anthropologist at Wits University in Johannesburg.

But the selection of a woman, Mosadi Seboko, as paramount chief of Botswana’s Balete people shows centuries-old customs are bending.

Dressed in pale pink silk and pearls, the former bank manager who raised four daughters as a single mother peered out from under her spotted leopard mantle, heavy with the traditions of her ancestors.

Starting on a new path – as one of the most powerful women in traditional leadership in Africa – she thanked her elders for appointing her.

“Many see within me a chance to bring change and the rebirth of our tribe,” Seboko said. “Through wisdom and the will of the brave, that new history is being charted.”

In neighbouring South Africa, women have been de-facto chiefs in many rural areas in recent times, serving in place of sons after the deaths of their husbands. Sometimes it is because the sons are too young, or because they are working or studying in the city.

Mathokwana Mopeli, from Kwa Kwa in central South Africa, is one of the highest ranking traditional leaders. A regent who has served for her son, she was recently appointed by the ruling African National Congress as a district mayor.

“Women are really serious about their roles now,” Mopeli said. “(Men) realize they cannot be without us. They realize we push until the (end) and leave no stone unturned.”

Sometimes the source of women’s influence in traditional life is spiritual.

In Zimbabwe, women are often highly regarded in the community as spirit mediums – believed to be intermediaries between the physical and spiritual worlds.

The Balobedu tribe in a corner of lush hill country in South Africa is ruled by the rain queen.

One of the few tribes in Africa to have a female line of succession, it believes the queen has magical powers passed by her mother and other ancestors, allowing her to transform clouds and create rain. So feared were the rain queen’s powers through the centuries, that the tribe was left in relative peace despite wars raging around them.

Custom prohibits the rain queen from marrying, but she can have relations with men for the sake of procreation. She instead takes “wives” – women who serve her and whose children are considered hers.

Still, while the rain queen is monarch, decisions for the tribe are made by a council of men.

Women’s status is linked to fertility and many of the important rainmakers on the continent have traditionally been women, said Isak Niehauss, professor of anthropology at the University of Pretoria.

“In agrarian societies, the fertility of the soil is linked to the fertility of women,” he said.

In old African societies, women had specific tasks like planting and harvesting, while men were responsible for plowing and raising livestock. Men were not even allowed to make decisions about women.

In traditional societies, “men and women have very different lives… It was under colonialism that men and women’s spheres became the same,” Niehauss said.

Often, however, women’s status decreased under outside influences, he said.

In pre-colonial times, Hausa clans in northern Nigeria appointed women to top monarch positions. However, the Hausa dropped this practice under the teachings of 19th century Islamic clerics.

In Nigeria today, women cannot rise to a position equivalent to chief or paramount ruler, although in several ethnic groups, including the Yorubas, women can be given lesser titles that let them sit on traditional ruling councils. These titles are usually not hereditary, but achievement-based appointments in recognition of leadership qualities.

“The women chiefs are usually as powerful as their male counterparts, and all are obliged to give them due respect,” said Olukayode Taiwo, professor of anthropology at the University of Lagos.

The Yorubas reserve some titles especially for women, such as iyalode (head of the women) and iyaloja (head of the market women).

In parts of Ghana, a queen mother is seen as the whole society’s mother and is appointed in an elaborate ceremony. Cloaked in colorful cloths, intricately patterned necklaces of pure gold and beaded bracelets, they wear their hair in a close crop, making it shine with a mixture of soot and shea butter.

Maa Dedei Wusu, a working journalist in her 40s and mother of four, was selected seven years ago as queen mother of the Otuo-Pai, in the densely populated area called British Accra.

Among her responsibilities is to promote the interests of women and children during traditional meetings where most of the participants are men. Close to her heart is promoting Ghana’s national women’s soccer team, the Black Queens.

“The interesting thing is that, at the end of the day, the men listen to me,” she said. – Sapa-AP