Queen mother (Africa)

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Queen mothers with their regalia.
Queen mothers in their regalia.

Queen mother (also Queenmother) is a term used to describe certain female traditional rulers in African cultures. Though there is no general description of a "queen mother", as their roles have varied by society, political context, and culture, [1] they generally play an important role in local government and "wield social power and influence."[2]

They are thus an important part of social, political, and cultural institutions across the African continent: the Akan, for example, recognize them as important local political actors[3] and often trace inheritance through them in a matrilineal fashion;[4] whereas in Uganda, the term may be used to describe women who ruled outright.[5] The amount of power queen mothers currently hold has been diminished since pre-colonial times,[6] though the 21st century has seen their influence grow in certain contexts.[7] Many are members of the African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders Network, a voluntary organization.


Queen mothers were once important political figures who commanded respect prior to the colonial era.[7] However, the delegation of roles to these figures varied: in some instances, they were considered to be autonomous rulers,[8] in others, they had specific jurisdiction over "women's" issues (or issues that involved both men and women together, such as rape, adultery and marital conflict),[1] in others still, they were simply the literal mothers of prominent figures, and afforded all the status therein.

Colonists from Europe, due to their own sexism, negotiated only with titled men in the areas that they operated in. Queen mothers in Africa, essentially, were not recognized as important and were often referred to in colonial/missionary historical documents as "sisters" of the men in power.[6] The denial of status these women faced facilitated their titles' losses of power[7] - hence, under colonial rule, Queen mothers, like other women on the continent, lost "social, religious, constitutional, and political privileges and rights."[9]

Post-colonial governments "continued with policies that undermined women's traditional authority":[6] In 1957, as an example, Ghana's independence leaders did not include queen mothers in their affairs, choosing instead to only work with the male chiefs.[7] Women's absence in politics and, particularly, traditional institutions has created and worsened an unequal distribution of power and resulted in women's "concerns and rights not being adequately addressed."[10]

In 1988, the Ashanti Queen Mother Association was formed. It now has around forty-four women leaders from the Ashanti region as members. The group attends to issues relating to women.[11]

The 1992 Constitution of Ghana included Article 277 which defines chieftaincy.[12] Article 277 defines a chief as a person who has been properly nominated from the correct lineage and "enstooled, enskinned or installed as a Chief or a Queen Mother in accordance with the relevant customary law and usage."[13] In the summer of 2010, the National House of Chiefs in Ghana announced the inclusion of 20 queen mothers.[14] Queen mothers are appointed to the house for four-year terms.

In 2006, the United Nations Children's Fund started working with queen mothers to help support welfare efforts for women and children in different parts of West Africa.[15]

More recently, areas such as the Upper West Region of Ghana, where the tradition of having queen mothers has not been practiced, have been encouraged to "reinstall" queen mothers by advocates of women's empowerment. More women have been installed as queen mothers in the northern part of Ghana, an occurrence which has raised the status of women in the area.[10]

In 2014, the Ghanaian Chieftaincy Minister, Henry Seidu Danaa, declared that queen mothers' participation in the House of Chiefs was constitutional.[16]

Description and duties[edit]

Queen mother's stool.

The title of queen mother is an English compound word used to collectively describe women in traditional African leadership roles.[1] The Akan peoples use the term ohemmaa, which means "female ruler".[1] In the Ga tradition, they are called manye or "community mother". In the Pabir tradition, they are known as maigira, a word that means "female monarch."[1] In the Benin tradition, queen mothers are known as iyobas.[17] In the traditions of Yorubaland, a woman who is ritually invested with the title is known as an iya oba or "titled mother of the king".

The office of the queen mother is also known as the "stool".[1] In Ghana, queen mothers are selected from the royal family of each town and village.[7] It is the head of the royal family and the elders who choose both the chief and the queen mother, a pair that might be related to one another.[4] The royal families are made up of the first settlers of an area.[7]

Akan tradition[edit]

In the Akan tradition, queen mothers rule alongside the chief or the king in their area.[18] Queen mothers are considered the spiritual heads of their communities and the keepers of genealogical knowledge.[3] They have veto power of the king or chief and may appoint their own ministers.[18] Queen mothers also select candidates for the next chief if the chief's "stool" is vacant.[6] Queen mothers preside over courts which hear cases about disputes brought to the court by women.[3] In their courtrooms, queen mothers and their court officials "wield power over disputants."[3] When necessary, queen mothers can "assume full control of central authority."[1] In some instances (such as during the reign of Queen Yaa Asantewa), they have "acted as war leaders."[19]

Bini tradition[edit]

The Kingdom of Benin did not have queen mothers until after the end of the fifteenth century when there was a conflict for the throne.[20] During the conflict, women gained power and the first of their number, Queen Idia, became a queen mother.[20] Queen mothers in the Benin tradition are, like those in Western monarchies, the literal mothers of the kings.[21] The classical queen mothers of Benin, each known as an Iyoba, had a great deal of power and were venerated as the protectors of the kings.[17]

Burundian tradition[edit]

In the defunct Kingdom of Burundi, a queen mother was known as a Mugabekazi. This titleholder served as a powerful figure during the reign of either her son or - as was the case with Queen Ririkumutima - her stepson.

Dahomeyan tradition[edit]

Amongst the Fon people of Dahomey, the Kpojito serves as the queen mother. Traditionally, this titleholder had religious appeals, served as a counsel to the king, or Ahosu of Dahomey, and pleaded before him in capital cases. A prominent holder of this title was Queen Hwanjile.

Today the kpojito still holds a position of influence within the kingdom's great council, and also oversees both a significant portion of Dahomey's day-to-day administration and the ceremonial remnant of the famous Dahomey Amazons military unit. She shares this latter function with Queen Hangbe, chief of the name of the Hangbe royal family.

Kongolese tradition[edit]

In the old Kingdom of Kongo, a queen mother was known as a Mwene Nzimba Mpungu. She was usually the reigning king's paternal aunt, and was expected to lead the four women that were ex officio members of the Ne Mbanda Mbanda, the kingdom's crown council.

Krobo tradition[edit]

Among the Krobo, there is the "paramount queen mother" and several "lesser" queen mothers ruling under her.[6] Krobo queen mothers have less power than the queen mothers of the Akan tradition do.[6] It is speculated the tradition of the queen mother may have been adopted from the Akan.[22]

The Krobo select queen mothers through a secret election by the elders.[6] After her selection, she is notified of her new role by having white clay smeared on her arm.[6] A ritual installation is performed where she is taught, advised, given a new name and then presented to the chief.[6] Krobo queen mothers are seen as "mothers" of their community and while there is an emphasis on women's affairs for the queen mother, she helps both men and women.[22]

Kushite tradition[edit]

In the Kingdom of Kush, an ancient state that was located in what is today the Sudan, a queen mother was known as a Kandake. She ruled alongside her son the king, or Qore of Kush, and joined him in serving a variety of priestly functions in his kingdom. Holders of the title were so famous that they were mentioned in both the Alexander Romance and the New Testament of the Bible.

Malinke tradition[edit]

In the Mali Empire, a famous medieval state that was located in West Africa, the most important woman in the realm was the Qasa, the senior wife and co-ruler of the ruling emperor, or Mansa of Mali. One of the most powerful holders of the title, Empress Kassi, was a partisan in a plot to overthrow her ex-husband Mansa Sulayman following their divorce.

Pabir tradition[edit]

Pabir queen mothers are expected to become celibate.[1] The Pabir queen mother's role is ceremonial, and her "true power lies in her ability to foment opposition against the king."[22]

Serer tradition[edit]

In the Serer kingdoms of Senegambia, a queen mother was referred to as a Lingeer. She was typically the mother or sister of the reigning king, or Lamane, and ruled her own territory in his kingdom. As with the Akans, dynastic succession was vested in her progeny instead of the lamane's.

Swazi tradition[edit]

Amongst the Swazi people of Southern Africa, the queen mother is known as the Ndlovukati. Joining her son the king, or Ingwenyama of Eswatini, she rules the kingdom of Eswatini in what is essentially a diarchy. Although most of the day-to-day functions of administration are performed by the ingwenyama, the ndlovukati is spiritually prominent due to her officiating during the annual Reed Dance rite.

Tswana tradition[edit]

Amongst the Tswana people, the queen mother is referred to as the Mohumagadi Mma Kgosi. She serves as an advisor to her son the chief, or Kgosi, and is generally held in high esteem by the members of the tribe that he rules. A prominent holder of the title was Queen Ruth, Lady Khama.

Yoruba tradition[edit]

Women of varying ages and ancestries are installed as the "titled mothers of the kings" of the Yoruba. They also have a variety of different functions.

The Erelu Kuti of Lagos, for example, is ranked third in the order of precedence. She serves as regent when the "stool" of the king, or Oba of Lagos, is vacant. As part of the coronation ceremonies for a new oba, she also publicly blesses the candidate prior to his installation. For these reasons, she is regarded as the queen mother of the realm.

Elsewhere, in Egbaland, the Moshade is another example. A titled courtier in the service of the king, or Alake of Egbaland, she is the functionary charged with the responsibility of crowning him. Following this, she also conducts the installations of all of his subordinate chiefs. Due to this, she too claims queen mother as part of her ceremonial style.

In addition to these and other women in Yorubaland that hold the title "iya oba", there is also a class of women that are known as oba obirin or "king of the women". Usually holders of the principal title Iyalode, these figures oversee women's affairs in the various kingdoms and represent their gender in the privy councils of the kings.


Queen mothers today continue to adapt to the changing world and the position has "remained vital."[6] They participate in business[23] and recognize the contributions of midwives.[24]

Queen mothers have helped support breast cancer awareness in Ghana.[25] In order to raise awareness of their role in Africa, four queen mothers from Ghana toured the United States.[14]

Some queen mothers have said that their authority is not as respected as much as the authority of the male chiefs.[19] While many queen mothers and other women in traditional roles have faced obstacles for creating lasting change for women, they continue to organize in order to be represented "in formal political processes."[26] They pursue educational opportunities, like the legal literacy training at libraries in Ghana[27] or workshops.[28][29][30]

In Ghana, queen mothers have started the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association (MKQMA) in order to help children who have been orphaned because of HIV and AIDS.[31][32] The group was started by Nana Okleyo.[22] Studies of the association's work in the Manya Krobo District found that it was a good model of how to address the issue of orphans in West Africa, though it did have some limitations.[33] There are approximately 370 queen mothers involved in MKQMA.[6] In addition, the MKQMA, under the leadership of Manye Esther, has developed HIV/AIDS prevention programs and helped support more than 400 orphans.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Farrar, Tarikhu (1997). "The Queenmother, Matriarchy, and the Question of Female Political Authority in Precolonial West African Monarchy". Journal of Black Studies. 27 (5): 579–597. doi:10.1177/002193479702700501. JSTOR 2784870. S2CID 142351141.
  2. ^ "Queen Mothers - Advocates for Change". West and Central Africa. UNICEF. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Obeng, Samuel; Stoeltje, Beverly J. (2002). "Women's Voices in Akan Juridical Discourse". Africa Today. 49 (1): 21–41. doi:10.1353/at.2002.0008. JSTOR 4187478. S2CID 145539094.
  4. ^ a b Resource Information Center (18 October 1999). "Ghana: Information on the "Queen Mother" Tradition among the Kwahu People of Ghana". Refworld. United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  5. ^ Rwakabukoza, Rebecca (3 December 2015). "Uganda: Tracing Uganda's History Through Stories of Motherhood". All Africa. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Steegstra, Marijke (2009). "Krobo Queen Mothers: Gender, Power, and Contemporary Female Traditional Authority in Ghana". Africa Today. 55 (3): 105–123. doi:10.2979/aft.2009.55.3.104. S2CID 144316421. Retrieved 3 January 2016 – via Project Muse.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Mistiaen, Veronique (3 December 2015). "Meet the Queen Mothers: 10,000 amazing women taking back power in Africa". The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  8. ^ Ephirim-Donkor, Anthony (2015). The Making of an African King: Patrilineal and Matrilineal Struggle among the Effutu of Ghana. University Press of America, Inc. p. 237. ISBN 9780761865049.
  9. ^ Rothenberg, Paula S. (2006). Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically About Global Issues. Worth Publishers. pp. 117–118. ISBN 9780716773894.
  10. ^ a b "Northern Traditional Councils - Role of Queen Mothers". Ghana News Agency. 5 August 2011. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  11. ^ Muller, Louise (2013). Religion and Chieftaincy in Ghana: An Explanation of the Persistence of a Traditional Political Institution in West Africa. LIT Verlag. p. 228. ISBN 9783643903600.
  12. ^ Fordjour, Asante (11 March 2010). "The Devolution of the Ghanaian Parliament". Ghana Web. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  13. ^ Owusu-Mensah, I; Asante, W.; Osew, W.K. (September 2015). "Queen Mothers: The Unseen Hands in Chieftaincy Conflicts Among the Akan in Ghana: Myth or Reality?". Journal of Pan African Studies. 8 (6): 1–16. Retrieved 3 January 2016 – via EBSCO.
  14. ^ a b 29 November 2012. "African Queen Mothers Visit Atlanta". Atlanta Daily World. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  15. ^ UNICEF. (2006). The state of the world's children 2007 : women and children : the double dividend of gender equality. UNICEF. New York, NY, USA: United Nations Children's Fund. ISBN 92-806-3998-6. OCLC 83247492.
  16. ^ "Inclusion of Queen-mothers in House of Chiefs is Constitutional - Dr. Danaa". My Joy Online. 1 February 2014. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  17. ^ a b Bortolot, Alexander Ives. "Idia: The First Queen Mother of Benin". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  18. ^ a b "The Power of a Queen Mother". Queen Mothers. Saint Michael's College. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  19. ^ a b Owusu-Kwarteng, Nana K. W. B. (2005). "Asante Traditional Leadership and the Process of Educational Change". OhioLINK. Ohio.gov. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  20. ^ a b Bedard, Arianne. "Idia: A Benin Legend". West African Art and Culture. St. Michael's College. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  21. ^ Bedard, Arianne. "Queen Mothers of Benin". West African Art and Culture. St. Michael's College. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  22. ^ a b c d Drah, Bright B. (1 January 2014). "Queen mothers, NGOs, and orphans: Transformations in traditional women's political organization in an era of HIV and orphanhood in Manya Klo, Ghana". Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift - Norwegian Journal of Geography. 68 (1): 10–21. doi:10.1080/00291951.2013.871331. ISSN 0029-1951. S2CID 128426588.
  23. ^ "MASLOC Extends Credit Facility to Queenmothers, Market Women". Ghana Web. 26 October 2015. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  24. ^ "Queenmothers Foundation Launches Package to Recognise Dedicated Midwives". GBC Ghana. 30 November 2015. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  25. ^ "Ghana to Become Regional Hub for Breast Cancer Educ". Peace FM. 23 December 2015. Archived from the original on 25 December 2015. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  26. ^ Kaye, Julie (22 June 2009). "Kathleen M. Fallon, Democracy and the Rise of Women's Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa". Canadian Journal of Sociology. 34 (3): 953–955. doi:10.29173/cjs6330.
  27. ^ Elliot, Carol (1 July 1998). "A Library Fellow in Equatorial West Africa". Information Outlook. Archived from the original on 14 March 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2016 – via HighBeam Research.
  28. ^ "Upper East Queen Mothers to fight Child Marriages". Ghana Web. 8 December 2015. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  29. ^ "Queen Mothers Attend Workshop on Land Tenure Issues". Ghana Business News. 1 March 2015. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  30. ^ "Chiefs, Queen Mothers and Supporting Staff of Traditional Councils Receive Training". Government of Ghana. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  31. ^ "Queen Mothers: Every Child is Our Child". Unitarian Universalist Association. October 2014. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  32. ^ Family Health International (2004). Final Report for the Implementing AIDS Prevention and Care (IMPACT) Project in Ghana (PDF) (Report). USAID. p. 29.
  33. ^ Lund, Ragnhild; Agyei-Mensah, Samuel (18 April 2008). "Queens as Mothers: the role of the traditional safety net of care and support for HIV/AIDS orphans and vulnerable children in Ghana". GeoJournal. 71 (2–3): 93–106. doi:10.1007/s10708-008-9145-9. ISSN 0343-2521. S2CID 79398208.

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