African Studies Quarterly

"I Will Not Eat Stone": A Women's History of Colonial Asante. Jean Allman and Victoria Tashjian. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2000. Pp. 312.


The politics of gender in colonial societies has taken center stage in the current renaissance of social history by Africanist historians. Jean Allman and Victoria Tashjian, two scholars examining various aspects of marriage and women's lives in the Asante society of Ghana, have written an impressive study on options and strategies available to the first generation of colonized women born between 1900 and 1920. This long-awaited book has happily proved itself worthy of the anticipation that preceded it. By viewing colonial rule through the lens of women's lives, this work adds a great deal to the already large number of historical works on Asante, as well as the history of gender in colonial Africa.

Innovation is an adjective commonly bandied about in book reviews. Unlike some other works considered revolutionary more for their style than their substance, this study is unique in many respects while discussing concerns previously covered by a number of scholars elsewhere in Africa. The authors succeed in disrupting chronologies that artificially highlight changes between colonial and pre-colonial periods, rather than consider the continuities and challenges faced in everyday lives. Additionally, their choice of exploring a single generation's experiences is a creative approach. In short, the book deserves much attention.

The introduction and chapter one serve to place this group of women in the larger context of Asante and colonial African history. In the first chapter, they reconsider the rise of money associated with the early twentieth century cocoa boom in Ghana by noting the prevalence of female traders at earlier points in Asante's history. Much as Diana Jeater and Elizabeth Schimdt have argued in colonial Rhodesia, the chaos of early colonial occupation in Asante disrupted older gender conventions and opened new opportunities for women to the growing chagrin of male elites and colonial administrators. While some issues are remarkably similar to other colonial experiences in Africa, others are not. For instance, missionary activities helped remake notions of gender in many African societies, however most Asante women before 1930 had little direct involvement with European church efforts.

Chapter two examines marriage practices during the early colonial period. The authors refer to marriage and child-rearing as "strategic entry points" (p. xxxix) that furnish the background information for later chapters on legal practices and women's strategies. Both show a slow process by which fluid marriage practices and relationships between families and children became undermined in the new money economy based in cocoa production. Pre-colonial marriage practices were made up of a gradual series of negotiations rather than a fixed and linear progression. Many women and families used this ambiguity to test out the durability and benefits of relationships. While free women could turn to their families for aid and had some autonomy from husbands, slaves and pawns did not have such options of support. With the rise of cocoa and the slow end of servitude, husbands made increasing demands on their wives' labor. In turn, colonial courts gradually took a harder line against women by supporting decisions made by chiefs and the male-dominated African courts.

Ties between children and parents are the main topic of chapter three. In the late nineteenth century, uncles and matrikin had greater claims on children than did their (purportedly) biological fathers. Relationships between fathers and children changed due to new family models, educational institutions and greater demands for workers. Fathers, who were expected from the 1910s onward to furnish money for their children's clothes, their families' food costs and school fees, had a greater interest in maintaining control over their offspring. While in earlier times fathers held greater power over children born from pawns or slaves than those of free women, African courts and chiefs supported attempts by men to make more claims over all children. Uncles and fathers thus struggled for control of children, but eventually older ritual practices acknowledging the rights of matrikin faded from view. At the same time, these new arrangements led women and children to demand money and property from their husbands. While colonial courts increasingly favored husbands, they were less eager to support new rights of entitlement asserted by wives and children.

Women maneuvered through the increasing power of husbands and fathers in a variety of ways, as discussed in chapter four and five. Many turned to divorce, particularly as they saw their labor serving the interests of men who preferred spending money on other wives or mistresses. Some opted out of marriage entirely. At the same time, courts and chiefs placed pressure on the mandatory marriages of single women. Chiefs and courts revised earlier definitions of adultery to claim new rights over wives and children. Women's testimony became increasingly ignored in courts, especially in the 1930s. Such stories have a familiar ring when compared with the legal developments in southern Africa that were also occurring during this period.

Missionary developments in health care from the 1920s to 1940s are also discussed in chapter five. Some European female mission workers held classes on child care and domesticity. However, these programs only affected a small number of Asante women. Instead of imposing European views on African subjects directly, the programs seem to have slowly led to everyday practices largely governed by African women themselves. Considering the oral sources cited by the authors, the subject of health care training seems to have interested the scholars more than the African women who experienced it.

Overall, this volume is a welcome addition to the growing literature on women's lives in colonial Africa. Although this reviewer suspects those more familiar with Asante will find omissions in the study, the use of extensive interviews, legal sources and archival data are impressive. The authors' tracing of women's lives and options over time undo the traditional divisions of African history. The struggles and hard choices of Asante women are clearly and succinctly stated. Unlike some monographs on Asante history, this text yields insights for specialists and general readers alike.

Jeremy Rich
Colby College