November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
August 8, 2005
Women the world over have been under-represented in leadership be it in educational administration, business and industry, and political arenas (Bass, 1990; Uraizee, 2000; Weiss, 1999). This phenomenon is often described in terms of a glass ceiling: one that women can see through but cannot go past due to cultural, organizational and other systemic discriminations based on gender stereotypes. Whereas this glass ceiling phenomenon has been adequately defined, described and understood in western contexts (Alston, 2000; Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001; Weiss, 1999), only a fraction of studies have explored the experiences of women in the African context (Bennett, 2005a, 2005b; Chisholm, 2001). Most available explorations of women’s experiences in Africa have concentrated on explicating their social status, especially as this relates to human rights abuses, discrimination in academia and politics, and other investigations from a deficit perspective (Kamau, 1996; Mabokela, 2003; Muteshi, 1998). In following Bennett (2005a,b), I attempt to explore how women in Africa are dealing with one of their greatest challenges; HIV/AIDS by providing counter-discourse to the available deficit discourse that displays African women only in their negative experiences. I am intentionally celebrating the work and words of women leaders who have risen, as Esther did, ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14). This is not to say that the explications of women’s experiences from a deficit perspective are wrong or inappropriate, but rather to argue that they are incomplete; that is only one side of the story. Women’s experiences in the African context are full of contradictions and paradoxes as they exist between the flux created by the clash of modernity and tradition in the context of an emerging market economy and democratic state. I will illustrate this phenomenon by providing succinct descriptions of two such women leaders. But before that, the face of HIV/AIDS in Kenya where all these women are leaders is particularly severe.
Face of HIV/AIDS and the Christian Church’s Response
According to the most recent statistics available from United Nations AIDS program (UNAIDS), Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) is the region of the globe most severely impacted by HIV/AIDS. At the end of 2004, prevalence rates had risen astronomically in many SSA countries, Kenya being one of the worst hit. In a country with about 31 Million people, the statistics stand as follows:
Kenya is also 80% Christian, which would mean that the Christian church has a responsibility to respond to the pandemic quickly, urgently and appropriately. As Njoroge (2002) observed, several issues arise when it comes to HIV/AIDS in Kenya:
In the face of such a daunting challenge, women leaders in various sectors utilize their positions to act as is appropriate within their professions and as part of their calling to respond suitably to the pandemic.
Women’s Spirited Leadership
Between Modernity and Tradition: Mrs. Nangurai amongst the Maasai of Kenya
One of the little understood yet important characteristics of the African experience is the fact that Africa exists in a state of flux between modernity and tradition (Gyekye, 1997). In this context, traditional practices are not quite extinct, and modern practices are not quite established; the two co-exist as uncomfortable bedfellows. For instance, one of the women whose story I describe comes from the Maasai community in Kenya who are a nomadic people group. In their traditional existence, the Maasai moved (and most still do) from place to place in search of pasture for their animals. With the advent of westernization, Christianity, market economy and western democracy have been introduced to the African continent and the world as a whole. For the Maasai and their nomadic lifestyle, some of the components of this westernization such as education require a more stable existence where children can go to school nine months out of the year. As a result, most Maasai children do not go to school at all, only about 1 in 3 Maasai children attain basic education. Worst hit amongst these Maasai people are the girl-children.
For many Maasai, the discovery of a market economy in which they can exchange their cattle for cash has resulted in a change in the status of women and girls. Girls have now become a commodity for exchange – a commodity that will bring in more herds of cattle which constitute a man’s measure of wealth. In the process, girls are married off at indecently immature ages as early as nine years in order to bring in those much needed herds of cattle. Yet this practice is blamed on tradition – a tradition that did not exist fifty years ago in this fashion because then girls were allowed to mature before they were circumcised and married off. Now the urgency brought about by the market economy and cash for cattle has created this rush to marry them off early, before they grow older and discover their rights through education. Mrs. Priscilla Nangurai, a headmistress of Africa Inland Church Kajiado Girls Boarding School (AIC) described such neo-cultural practices not only as they impede girls attainment of education, but also as they facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS amongst the Maasai community. Originally, Mrs. Nangurai returned to her community as a teacher, but soon realized that her mission needed to encapsulate rescue of the Maasai girls from what she regards as cultural malpractices. In the process, she also recognized the need to include HIV/AIDS training not only for the girls at the school but their mothers and the community as well. She said that in the process of talking to the women, she realized their ignorance and sought to alleviate it:
In the course of talking to the ladies, you know we are very close, so sometimes I bring them to my house and we watch videos together. I was talking to a group of them. I talked to them about AIDS in urban centers. But they were laughing that they are safe, they don’t go to urban centers. Forgetting that their men go to sell cattle in the urban centers and when their pockets are full and there are the women waiting for those heavy pockets. … They didn’t realize their husbands will bring the disease home.
Evidently, sleeping with town prostitutes does not constitute cultural practice; however, this is the result of the introduction of a cash economy to a people whose prior economy was, and remains the herding of cattle. But other practices according to Mrs. Nangurai are cultural norms that have been practiced for a long time such as:
A man will plant a spear outside a house where this husband is his age mate. And the wife must be willing. Even when a visitor visits, because a man of the age group will come to the home any time, the husband will appoint one of the wives and send his friend there. It is very scary especially now with HIV and AIDS, it is spreading very fast. It can wipe a village. The husbands bring it home to the wife, and the wife will spread it to other men.
The question that arises then is how successful is Mrs. Nangurai in educating her people about HIV/AIDS? She calls it a slow process because it requires cultural as well as behavioral transformations that cannot happen overnight. Since a lot of the behaviors that facilitate the scourge are cultural norms, nothing short of a moral-cultural renaissance is required. In addition, behavioral change, especially for the women if it is not supported by behavioral change amongst the men would not be possible. Talking about the ABC’s (abstinence, being faithful to one spouse and condoms) are too simplistic a solution for such a community(Booth, 2004). Women cannot say no to the men, they are likely to incur severe physical harm. As it was explained to me, violence against women amongst the Maasai is apparently normal. Mrs. Muthoni Likimani who was married to the first African/Maasai doctor in Kenya, and is an adopted Maasai, informed me that amongst the Maasai, beating up a wife is the norm, yet they would not beat their cows. Cattle are more highly valued than women! Mrs. Likimani opted to lose social status to stay alive – the physical battering was too much to bear. As such, women in the Maasai community cannot fight HIV/AIDS by that simplistic ABC formula; rather, a cultural transformation followed by behavioral changes is necessary and this is what Mrs. Nangurai has been helping to instigate. At the very least, the fact that girls can find a safe haven from their homes at the rescue center gives them the opportunity to complete their education and mature, and eventually, make better choices about their marital spouses. For many of the rescued girls, AIC is their home until they complete 4th form (equivalent to 12th grade). With the help of Mrs. Nangurai as their other mother, they are able to also proceed to higher education and avoid the perils their age mates face in the villages.
Pastoral Care and Counseling: Educating Ecclesiastical Leaders to Provide Positive Care
On another front, it has been reported that the church in Africa was slow to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic because of the connotation that it is a result of God’s punishment for sin. It has taken many years for the church to stop stigmatizing those struggling with the disease and to provide the necessary healing community. When women theologians in Africa realized just how badly people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) and those affected by the pandemic were treated in the churches, they embarked on a process of changing that status quo. The Circle of Concerned African
Women Theologians embarked on providing Africa with a theological response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In speaking to the need for a response from theological educators at a speech given during St. Paul’s Theological University in Kenya’s centennial anniversary, Professor Musa Dube observed:
The statistics hide the truth. They do not tell us how many billions of people, who are HIV/AIDS negative or sero-status blind are gripped by HIV/AIDS stigma, which manifests itself as fear, hopelessness, lack of belief in the future, indifference towards the suffering and the act of isolating and rejecting those who are HIV/AIDS + . Many more billions are infected by fear of HIV/AIDS, stigma and hopelessness. (Dube, 2003)
The realization that HIV/AIDS is decimating Africans, both those infected and those affected then necessitated a Christian response, one that is guided by mercy rather than judgment, especially in regards to the need for healing, provision of basic necessities and watching out for the poor, orphaned and widows. It metamorphosed into a social justice issue that the church urgently needed to respond to (Micah 6:8). In response, Dr. Esther Mombo, the academic dean at St. Paul’s United Theological College decided to do something that no one else had attempted, provide a program in pastoral counseling with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS. This was in direct response to one of the Circle’s recommended plans of action for 2002-2007: To incorporate HIV/AIDS training in ministerial formation in theological institutions. The proposed program is a Master’s in Christian Response to HIV/AIDS in conjunction with OCMS (Oxford Centre for Mission Studies). It could very well be the first program of its kind being offered in a theological school, and the hope is that it will help to adequately prepare the African church leaders in responding to HIV/AIDS in a Christ-like manner. In talking about Dr. Mombo’s engagement with the church’s and theological institutions response to HIV/AIDS, Njoroge had this to say:
The second example is the difference it makes to have feminist theological educators in theological institutions in Africa and especially when they hold leadership positions, even though they are still a handful. In Kenya, at St. Paul’s United Theological College, Limuru, Dr. Esther Mombo joined the faculty in 1999 and was soon named the academic dean. Within a short time, she decided the College should begin to teach HIV/AIDS courses, which was received with great skepticism, including by some missionaries. Today, as I talk the Principal of the College is visiting United Kingdom to negotiate for the accreditation of a Master’s program on pastoral care and counseling on HIV/AIDS in Africa. This college has been in the lead on teaching about HIV/AIDS pandemic. Fortunately, today the College has three women faculty who are committed in mentoring the female students and reaching out to women already in church ministry and who lack the skills to deal with gender discrimination and inequalities. (Njoroge, 2002)
It is this kind of leadership by a woman theologian and leader that is necessary in adequately responding to HIV/AIDS through the churches which with the breakdown of traditional community structures, serve as the new community. For Dr. Mombo, educating Christian leaders, both men and women to serve the needs of African believers in this current era is her most important mission and calling.
Critical Spirituality in Practice
In looking at the two women leaders whose stories are presented above, one is struck by the differences in their contexts and yet their responses are somewhat similar in intent: to educate students, community members, and leaders to respond aptly to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. Whereas these are stories of two women’s responses, they are not the only ones. Others like them have arisen to meet the challenge head on. In the meantime, these two women provide illustration for what it means to have a critical spirituality – the kind of spirituality that is reflexive and that forms the starting point for values and principles that inform the leader’s behavior (Dantley, 2003a, 2003b). Whereas this kind of spirituality might be expected of a leader like Dr. Mombo because she is a theologian, it is more surprising when found in Mrs. Nangurai who is not. Yet the connecting factor between the two women is that they both felt a compulsion to act dictated by their moral compass which is distinctively theistic. And theologians aren’t always critically engaged or reflexive in their practice of leadership, otherwise the church should not have been engaged in stigmatization and slowness of response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Mrs. Nangurai and Dr. Mombo also espouse another perspective that Dantley (2003) referred to as ‘purpose-driven leadership’ whereby leaders who comprehend the multidimensionality of their daily challenges yet find the inner strength to constantly challenge the status quo of oppression. The purpose for both women is to respond responsibly to the challenges presented by HIV/AIDS amongst their constituents, in spite of challenges to their authority as leaders in the face of gender discrimination. That purpose-driven leadership is a by-product of their spirituality. Spirituality in this paper is defined as “that part of our lives and community through which we make meaning and understanding of our world…Spirituality is the grounding for the values and principles we espouse that inform our personal and professional behavior” (Dantley 2003, p.274). This is the kind of spirituality that goes beyond religion and mere lip service to the needs of the community, providing a critique of existing structures and an engagement with contextual realities.
Both women leaders discussed in this paper are educators, Mrs. Nangurai at the primary school level, Dr. Mombo at the university level. They are educational leaders serving as principal and academic dean of their institutions respectively. In these positions, they recognize the need to expand the curriculum to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Whereas this could not have been an easy venture for either of them, their practice of engaged pedagogy necessitated active commitment to being relevant to the needs beyond their campus walls – the needs of the wider African community served by their constituents. Once again, the practice of engaged pedagogy was a result of their critical spirituality – it is in reflecting upon the needs of the African community that they choose to be proactive and resourceful in being part of the solution to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They have both gone above and beyond their job descriptions – they could easily have carried out educational leadership in the same old way but chose not to in spite of the challenges along the way.
As mentioned earlier, choosing to celebrate the women’s words and works does not mean that they haven’t faced challenges. Both of them face gender and culture based discrimination as women leaders in a patriarchal society. As educators, they are overworked and underpaid. As single parents, they struggle with juggling careers, community involvements and familial responsibilities. For Dr. Mombo who adopted three children, raising them alone is not an easy task, especially as single women face many hurdles within the African Christian community where marriage means better social status for women. Similarly, Mrs. Nangurai faces the challenge of attempting to transform her people’s deeply held norms as an insider; she has oft been asked to ‘shut up! You are only a woman. You have bad manners for daring to speak in the assembly of men!’ Yet in spite of the challenges to their authority as leaders, both women continue to serve because they find fulfillment in serving their communities and their nation. They constitute a minute yet important example of how women, the unsung heroines in the war against HIV/AIDS, rise to the mission and calling of spirited leadership in action. They illustrate the possibility that while African women leaders lives are riddled with contradictions; one cannot afford to pathologize their experiences. Rather, we can celebrate their achievements and agency in dealing with the contextual realities evident in their institutions and communities.
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Faith Wambura Ngunjiri
Faith Wambura Ngunjiri is a doctoral Candidate in the School of Leadership and Policy Studies at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. Prior to coming to the US, Faith worked as a trainee minister in a local church in Nairobi. Her training is in Education (Bachelors), Missions (Masters), Organization Development (Masters) and Leadership Studies (Doctorate, ABD graduating in May, 2006). Her research interests revolve around spirituality, leadership, and institutional effectiveness.