By Heidi Gengenbach (First of two parts. Here’s Part II)
Avavumbeli mbita eku cukumeta.
(Potters don’t fashion clay into a pot just to throw it away.) 
How do historians study people who left no written traces of their life, no paper trail hinting at who they were or what they accomplished? Questions of “truth” and “fact” suddenly dominate American politics and news media. But debates about how we know what we know, about the reliability of the evidence behind claims we make about the world, are as old as history-telling itself, and they haunt historians every day. It is difficult enough to reconstruct someone’s past from the documentary fragments we unearth in public and private archives. When no such records exist, when people leave no evidence behind, can—or should—historians pay attention to their lives at all?
During the millenia of human history before 1900, when most African cultures relied on sophisticated oral rather than written forms of communication, the number of writing women was truly minute. As happened during the peaceful spread of Islam into Africa from the 7th century on, European missionaries and colonizers brought writing skills to the parts of the continent they occupied or conquered between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some liberated African slaves who had converted to Christianity in the Americas similarly introduced literacy when they returned to Africa, sometimes as missionaries themselves. But African girls had limited access to the Quranic and Western-style Christian schools these men established. And because the colonial state ignored “native” women unless they broke the law, appeared in court, or engaged in political protest, neither European officials nor the male African clerks who did much of their record-keeping documented women’s ordinary activities or opinions.
The lives of rural women, especially, escaped the notice of Europeans, who lumped them together derisively as “peasants” or “beasts of burden.” In colonial eyes, rural African women were less troublesome than their sisters in the urban “educated elite,” but less deserving of attention too.
In other words, the vast majority of sub-Saharan African women in the past possessed neither the means to write about their experiences, nor the power to be represented fairly in the written archives of their place and time. And while the continent’s wealth of oral traditions—performed narratives that recount past events and are transmitted across generations—offer another body of evidence, women seldom appear as speakers or subjects in these histories either.
There are some exceptions, but in most African oral chronicles women’s voices and deeds are sidelined by patriarchal cultural norms and a gender division of labor that assigns women the arduous work of subsistence, leaving them too socially marginal (and too busy) to challenge the public histories their menfolk tell.
Given women’s absence from traditional written and oral accounts of Africa’s past, it might seem that their lives—and African women’s history as a whole—must be hopelessly beyond our reach.
In the rural communities of Mozambique where I have been working since the 1990s, the devastation wrought by Portuguese colonial rule (1895-1975) and protracted independence and civil wars (1965-75, 1976-92) further complicates research on women’s history.
In addition to the spottiness, racism, and sexism of colonial archives, and the androcentrism of oral traditions, the scars from nearly 30 years of violent displacement and traumatic loss—of family, belongings, homes—can make it exceptionally difficult to interview women about their experiences.
Too many elders did not survive the civil war, leaving a generation of youth bereft of the knowledge their grandparents would have taught them.
Memories of brutal conflict, particularly the atrocities committed against civilians by Renamo rebels, can be too painful to speak aloud.
Girls and women suffered both wars in distinctly gendered ways, including rape and sexual enslavement but more commonly by shouldering the burdens of food provisioning, childcare, care for the sick and elderly, and ritual mourning of the dead—often while on the run as “internally displaced persons” or refugees in neighboring countries.
A person’s understanding of the past can’t help but change in such harrowing times. Post-war grief and nostalgia, and the urgent need to rebuild shattered communities, also raise the stakes of remembering “correctly,” while discouraging memories—of injustice, victimization, betrayal—that distract from the business of moving on. How does one analyze women’s testimony in these circumstances, let alone separate “truth” from nightmare?
Part II explores these questions next week.
Heidi Gengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.
 Henri P. Junod, The Wisdom of the Tsonga-Shangana People (3d ed. Braamfontein: Sasavona Books, 1990), 162-3.
 Literacy data from the World Bank which currently estimates the population of Sub-Saharan Africa as 974.2 million, with women comprising 50% of the total. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Reports/2016/economic-growth-equity-ishrat.aspx