6. How do you analyze court testimony?
Heres a conversation between the Commissioner and a female African witness, Akulechula. She also volunteers to give evidence.
One of the Europeans says, Is it in accordance with native custom for women to leave their town without the permission of their husbands? The woman says, It is against native custom for women to leave their houses without the permission of their husbands, but in this case, men had been made to pay tax, and the rumor that women were going to be taxed was spread around. Women became infuriated because they already had felt the burden of the tax on men.
And the European man says, You broke all the native custom because of that? And the woman says, We did not break anybodys things.
And the European says, I am speaking about this custom of asking permission from your husband. And the woman says, You say that I did not get permission from my husband. Is not your mother a woman? Were you not born by a woman?
And the European man says, again, You say that its against native custom to leave the town without the permission of your husbands. In this case, you left the town without the permission of your husbands. Is that not against native custom? And the woman says, I deny that we acted contrary to native custom. I admit that it is customary that women should leave the town with the permission of their husbands, but on this occasion it was said that women should pay tax, and that is why we left the town.
So then another European man says, Supposing that the men had forbidden the women from going round. What would have happened? And the woman says, We acted according to our own consciences because if one woman is taxed, other women also will be taxed. And the man says, again, But I said that if the men had forbidden the women from going round, what would have happened then? And the woman says, There is no law made by men that women should not move about. The matter did not concern men.
So there are two things going on with this testimony. The first thing is this whole idea about taxation. Europeans had the idea, when they brought taxation into Africa, that Africans should learn to pay their own way. They should pay their expenses. That it was morally right that they should be taxed so that that money could be used ostensibly to provide services to them and so that they werent getting a perceived free ride under colonialism.
The other thing that comes up here is that the European men who are involved in this case seem to be convinced that African men were behind the Womens War. That it must have been men in some way who instigated this. They almost could not conceive that African women could have done this by themselves. Not only perhaps because they werent capable of it, but also because they believed that African women were extremely oppressed, living in a very patriarchal society. Nothing more than beasts of burden. And so the idea that they had as much freedom to move around as they did came as a bit of shock to the European officials. They tried to get the women to admit that they broke custom, as Europeans understood it, and the women are saying we didnt break custom at all. And theres plainly a different idea about what the law means in this context.
When Europeans try to impose customary law, rule through customary law, on African societies, they do this because they perceive it as being less disruptive. Their idea of what customary law is, is very influenced by European law, the idea that its something that doesnt change. Plainly to the woman who is talking here, this is not what custom means. Custom is, in the broader sense, outside of the law, a set of practices that is usual, but is not inviolable, does not always get carried out the exact same way. And so she sees absolutely no contradiction in what shes saying. Plainly to the Europeans, theres some fundamental contradiction in what shes saying about the rights that women have vis-à-vis their husbands.