Colonial sources can provide historians with a wealth of information about African lives during the colonial period, but they must be read against the grain, filtering out valuable information from the biases and prejudices of European officials. The task of studying African women's history using colonial sources is even more complicated, as women were not often the focus of the colonial agenda, and contact between colonial officials and African women was relatively limited, and often indirect. Particularly in those arenas of African social, cultural, and political life deemed as women's spheres, colonial officials had little incentive to intervene. As a result, historians of later generations are faced with relatively sparse documentation of women-centered social activity during the colonial era. For their part, African women guarded cultural and political spheres under their influence from outside intervention, thus making it difficult for Europeans, and particularly European men, to gain a full and accurate understanding of women's individual and collective experiences under colonial rule.
This paper will examine colonial research and documentation of African women's birthing practices.to illustrate both the potential for using these sources to understand some basic elements of women's experiences, and the limitations of this source material in providing deep and accurate insights into African women's history. Using an example from colonial Cameroon, we will see how European interest in women's birthing practices was motivated by colonial economic and scientific agendas steeped in racism and sexism, preventing European researchers from obtaining a balanced and accurate understanding of this women's sphere of social life. On the other hand, the documents reveal efforts of African women to prevent the colonial infiltration into women's arenas of influence.