Why We Must Stop Calling African Women ‘Resilient.’

Joy was born and raised in my home town, Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria. Her childhood was marred by childhood violence, poverty and scarcity, which led to her being trafficked from Benin City to war-torn Libya in 2019. There, she was imprisoned, severally raped, beaten, starved and tortured. Left for dead after witnessing the murder of her best friend, she was miraculously rescued and repatriated back to Nigeria in fragmented pieces. A recent article by a Western journalist referenced Joy’s “resilience” for surviving such a harrowing experience that would have emotionally crippled others. Her “strength and will power” were lauded by the writer.

The physical and psychological trauma that have been imprinted into Joy’s life’s story is not an anomaly. In fact, the bodies of African women have proven to be the most commoditized and weaponized human resource in the world. Whether burdened by the indifference of neo-colonialism, the rape of modern day slavery or at the hands of misogynistic patriarchy that is weaved into their daily existence, our women nonetheless conform with a plasticity that commands that they persevere through it all.

Artwork by @Shadrack_Giwa

That plasticity, robed in perseverance, is often applauded as ‘resilience,’ as herculean ‘strength’ — a narrative that has historically framed the resulting trauma sanctioned upon the bodies and souls of African women. It has emerged as the language that underpins our supporting role in Africa’s sometimes volatile trajectory.

That framing story, however, conveniently misdirects attention from the sustained assault of underlying forces that warrant a kind of resilience and strength from African women that the human heart was not intended to consistently withstand. It misdirects the focus from oppressive regimes and antiquated culture that utilize marginalization as a tool of oppression. ‘Resilience’ then becomes a red herring, a misnomer, that allows impotent governments and unyielding tradition to repeatedly betray their own by forcing African women to endure and overcome gender inequality, unfettered violence, misogynistic patriarchy, religious and ethnic bigotry and income, health and education disparity. To be sure, a country that is impotent to protect half of its own is guilty of far more than treason.

Our ‘resilience’ as African women also often affords the international community an outlet to justify the callousness that has reduced our experiences to fleeting headlines to sell articles and photographs that capture our unparalleled likeness; that justify legislation and foreign policy drafted in overseas, air-conditioned boardrooms. Our ‘strength’ and seeming ability to withstand it all has contributed to the intentional obliteration of our voices from international discourse. It is what continues to line the pockets of wealthy billionaires with our exploited blood- mined from our diamonds, our cocoa, our cobalt, from our bodies.

It is undisputed that trauma is a real, living force that shares a symbiotic relationship with our souls. Until it is addressed, it consistently seeks the soul’s audience and a viable outlet to be eased. For African women, it often emerges as malleability, as a perseverance that has been ubiquitously applauded as ‘resilience.’

However, that ‘resilience,’ that ‘strength,’ should no longer be applauded because it is accompanied by a cost reflected in the brevity of our lives, laced into the hollowness of our eyes and muted by an eroding sadness that goes unspoken. It comes at a cost that deafens our ears to the harrowing cries of the departed who perished endeavouring to attain a supernatural state of ‘resilience’ and ‘strength.’

Rather, our experiences as African women should serve as a reflection of the injustices that have been steadily fastened into antediluvian customs, legislation, foreign policy and religions that ultimately assault the image of God in each of us. Those of us who have been given a platform must take a principled stand to counter the callousing narrative. It is our voices that will craft the political will of our local leadership, of international governments, of humanity, so that they collectively address the underlying forces that demand herculean resilience from our women.

We must also work to shift the current narrative to language that humanizes African women and affords us the space, like our white counterparts, to be emotional, broken even- human- when, like Joy, we are forced to be. We must shape the dialogue in a manner that expresses the requisite compassion and ensures that our ‘strength’ and ‘resilience’ are not flippantly applauded, but intellectually questioned. We must speak up to silence the language that justifies indifference and amplify language that fosters the safe, healthy, emotional intelligence that precedes sacred healing.

Additionally, we must go beyond speaking truth to power and similarly speak truth to the seemingly powerless. Courage often bears the face of every day heroines and it is those heroines- African women- whose voices continue to warrant amplification, inclusion and empowerment. Lest we forget, the collective power of African women has led revolutions, toppled unjust colonial masters, organized novel movements and emerged to write their own pages in Africa’s history books. By fostering healing spaces, we reawaken our freedom fighters, our consciousness ignitors, our social and political activists, our mothers, sisters and daughters so that our courage and bravery emerge and bring about a revolution of humanity’s values.

Artwork by @Shadrack_Giwa

Then and only then will the framing story for African women be transformed to one that is told by us and not for us. And should we then choose to refer to ourselves as ‘resilient,’ it will be of our own doing and because we have collectively embraced the breadth of our humanity and the courage that emerges from sacred healing.

Lead table turner and expert troublemaker at Pathfinders Justice Initiative (www.pathfindersji.org); curating more space for women at the table. @findyrpath