CLIO TALKS BACK: What Do We Really Know About the History of Maternity and Motherhood in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Clio just read a recent, important article by a French colleague, Anne Hugon, who addresses the history of maternity in sub-Saharan Africa. As she remarks, everyone who knows about African societies agrees that maternity is an obligatory passage for black African women, and that the status of women is determined by their fertility – the more children they have, the higher their status. Sterility is grounds for suspicion and marginalization.

And yet, few scholars have actually studied maternity in southern African societies as a historical issue, one that concerns the changes over time in the experiences of women in pregnancy, birth, the post-partum experience of nursing and childrearing and that engages the experiences of both women and men. Until recently, this was a history that still cried out to be written, to be recovered from the shadows of “nature” and restored to “culture” and to history.

Anthropologists, according to Hugon, had looked mainly at kinship systems and rituals, but did not deal either with maternity per se, or with change over time. Historians have found means of studying maternity in several contexts, but primarily in the colonial periods where christianization of the populace entailed “educating” future wives and mothers for european-style domesticity. Another striking feature of the historicizing of maternity is the irony of preparing stay-at-home mothers in an economy where men did not support their families and the possibility of earning money was extremely low. A third important feature is the medicalization of pregnancy and birth, in the interests of maternal and infant survival but also in the interests of the colonial state. Hugon singles out for commendation a study by Lynn Thomas on the “politics of the uterus” in Kenya during the period between the world wars, where control of women’s sexuality and fertility became a central issue.

What seems to be missing in all this research, which is admittedly in its early stages, are the voices of the mothers and their own accounts of their coming to motherhood. Can these voices be recuperated? How did these mothers in the various cultures that constitute sub-Saharan Africa understand their own motherhood experiences? How do these mothers understand their motherhood experiences today?

Further reading:
Hugon, Anne. “L’historiographie de la maternité en Afrique subsaharienne,” Clio: Histoire, Femmes et Sociétés, no. 21 (2005), 212-229. This review article features over four pages of invaluable references to pertinent scholarship in French and English. Online at

Thomas, Lynn. Politics of the Womb : Women, Reproduction and the State in Kenya. Berkeley & Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2003.