My daughter’s Kenyan classmate is named “Good News.” A university student from the Democratic Republic of Congo is called “Faida” meaning “good fortune” or “profitable.” “Victory” teaches Sunday school at our local church, and “Grace” and “Charity” served me in government offices the other day. While world news may or may not cover the most recent African disasters, hope refuses to be quenched on the African continent, as evidenced in these cited names. Visitors from outside, coming to meet their sponsored child or traveling on tourist safari, more often than not comment, “People are so warm, so hospitable and generous. They have ‘nothing’ and yet they are so friendly! I am overwhelmed!” Both on-going tragedy and local hospitality make up the reality of the African people, whether they are the vast numbers living in abject poverty, the growing professional middle-class, or the materially wealthy and powerful few.
Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania is oft quoted as saying, “In Africa we have problems, but we remain cheerful.” Much has been written about the crises of the African continent, a region of the earth that does indeed seem to continue to receive more than its share of natural as well as humanly-inflicted disasters. Some in the West have written it off as beyond hope, all 52 nations of it. In the midst of the rampant challenges of poverty, disease, unemployment, drought, ethnic clashes, and wars, injustices against women rank high in the scope of atrocities. It is true that a higher percentage of HIV/AIDS victims in sub-Sahara Africa are women; they are biologically more vulnerable, and men who have multiple partners then bring the virus home to the women, who have no rights to refuse their husbands. Rape cases have increased, against younger and younger victims, some in the hope that sexual relations with a virgin will cure HIV/AIDS. Female circumcision is not as rare as government law would suggest. Women have less access to education, and less than one-fourth of Kenyan women are found in the formal work sector. Women tend to lack collateral to access financial loans for economic ventures, and in Kenya, they rarely inherit land. The girl-child is often kept home to haul water, carry wood, care for her younger siblings, and then sent off to become the second or third wife of the elderly village patriarch, in exchange for bride-wealth paid to her family.
In Africa, women make up the largest number of refugees, and/or are left behind to care for the children, the sick and the wounded, and to recover from gang-rapes by the rebel armies. The problems faced here are neither few nor trivial. Yet there is hope. In the face of all this, children are being named Good News, Faida, Victory, Grace, and Charity. There is hope in Africa, and for African women. Women are beginning to rise up to make a difference.
Professor Wangari Maathai, once vilified by the former government, now serves as the Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. Upon receiving the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, she has become a role-model, a hero, and the pride of the continent. What was her motivation? She states, “Women are responsible for their children; they cannot sit back, waste time and see them starve…African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.” On another occasion, Prof. Maathai stated, “Every one of us can make a contribution. And quite often we are looking for the big things and forget that, wherever we are, we can make a contribution…. Sometimes I tell myself, I may only be planting a tree here, but just imagine what’s happening if there are billions of people out there doing something. Just imagine the power of what we can do.”
Trained as a nurse and mid-wife, the leading short story and novel writer in East Africa, Grace Ogot, has served as Minister of Parliament, has represented Kenya in the United Nations, and became Assistant Minister of Culture and Social Services. She noted, “Being a mother, you are not only a mother of your children, you are also a mother of the husband and another to his people…I think that in motherhood you can change the course of life for a society and for a people…The main issue is equal opportunity and respect.” She went on to assert that “The difference between my actions and what western women are doing, even when I am an activist within my political life, is that I must remember that…what I do affects the status in society of my husband, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law…Therefore a Kikuyu woman or a Luo woman…will always look back and ask, ‘am I carrying the family with me?’”
Charity Ngilu, business woman and current Minister of Health in the Kenyan government, in 1997 became the first woman to run for an African presidency. As one commentator observed, “Charity Ngilu had a vision, a vision for the people of Kenya. It is her burning desire to achieve her vision that drove her to seek the presidency. She wanted the office to accomplish her vision; she did not need or want the office itself.”Her vision was of a Kenya that addressed the injustices against women, women who were walking in tatters, carrying sick children on their backs, from homes that had holes that can be seen through, because of poverty. These are but a few examples of women who are publicly rising up to speak out, to mobilize others, and to work for positive societal change. Within religious circles, members of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, with its various country chapters, are writing and publishing from a holistic approach. While addressing social injustices and gender-based violence from a faith perspective, they are assisting in giving voice to the voiceless through a theology of lamentation, as well as being bearers of hope and life. As Nyambura Njoroge writes, “We have chosen to touch the cloak of Jesus and to hear his voice calling us to arise! We have chosen to participate fully in God’s mission and to name the missing links in African theology, mission, and life…”
In terms of women’s roles in church leadership, a female seminary student at Nairobi International School of Theology recently researched African views of women in ministry for her M.A. thesis. From her interviews, she concluded that in spite of patriarchal cultural realities, the issue of women serving in ministry was a Western, not an African concern. If any believer has gifts in ministry, he or she must use them in whatever way possible. Together, male and female form the image of God. All must lend their hands, their gifts, to build up the Body of Christ and to extend God’s Kingdom. Christ, not any human vessel, is head of the church. Under him, we are all servants, leading God’s people towards him. On the ground, numerous examples of African women can be cited, those who, in a response of faith, have looked to see what they hold in their hand. What they hold they have used to transform realities of despair into models of hope. Muthoni, one of seven children by different fathers, raised by her grandmother in rural Kenya, now a university graduate, felt compassion for teen girls at risk in the informal settlements of Nairobi.
Under the umbrella of our local church she began with ten at-risk girls referred by slum churches, to live-in with her in the slum for a year, for discipleship, life-skill training, and vocational training. At the end of the first year, the girls were sponsored and re-integrated into schools at the level where they had left off, and some were reconnected with their families. Then ten more girls were taken in. Four years later, forty girls now call Muthoni “Mom,” with a fifth group soon to start. A second home is about to be opened, and a team of volunteer staff oversee and mentor the girls, helping them to get on their feet, learn to make wise choices, and become equipped to contribute back into church and society. Muthoni is one of many such young women who are rising up, working towards the turn-around of the African continent. The church in Africa is one of the fastest growing portions of Christ’s Body in the world. Its impact is not only spiritual, but also social and economic. In 2002, I undertook field research exploring of the role of the church in the economic development of marginalized peoples of Nairobi. By the end of three weeks of steady interviews and site visits, I came away so encouraged by the multitude of micro-enterprise projects, micro-finance schemes, and community-based organizations initiated by local church congregations, in squalid informal settlements up to prestigious denominational headquarters. From a group of seventeen women who collect garbage paper and then shred, soak, pound, and transform it into designer cards sold at luxury hotels, enabling them to raise and educate their own families, to the groups of 15 to 60 neighbors who serve as collateral for each other to access loans, receive training and begin small businesses, the church is actively involved in promoting holistic development of not only its own members, but also of its neighbors and the wider community.
The needs are vast and over-whelming, but by “small wins” advances are being made, one woman, one child, one family at a time. “Jitegemea” or “self-reliance” is the motto of one of the mainline denominations in Kenya, declaring its commitment to promote its ministries without relying on external donor support. This portrays a healthy understanding that the church in Africa is not dependent on missionary founders or foreign donors, but is able to stand as a partner in ministry, both locally and globally. To a Western point of view, this may be a paradigm shift, considering the dismal portrayal of Africa in the media. One East African student, however, came back from studies in North America with a poignant observation. She did not deny the technology and efficiency of Western culture. She admired the accessibility of education for all, up through high school. She admitted that there is a mind-boggling amount of material possessions owned by each individual. But when she reflected on the terms “developed” vs. “under-developed” or “developing” world, she noted that she wasn’t sure which was which. Materially, America may be very developed, but in other aspects of life, Africa has significant contributions to offer. In Africa, the elderly don’t die alone. If an extended family member is in need, others in the family with their own meager resources make sure the need is met.
In the African context, there is no such concept as “inconvenience.” Unexpected visitors are blessings, and there’s always room at the table for one or two more. Older siblings help with school fees for the younger ones. Here people know how to celebrate, to dance, to sing, without spending a fortune to do so. Yes, life is hard, but people know how to find and express joy in the midst of what they have, with each other. People greet each other with “God is good…” to which is replied, “…all the time, and all the time…” “God is good!” concludes the first. Is this simplistic optimism…or is it a view of reality which addresses life from the perspective of eternal priorities?
In spite of the many grand-scale challenges, there is hope. A proposed new national constitution is to be voted on in Kenya at the end of November 2005, in which rights of women are upgraded and reinforced. Whether or not the referendum is passed, a groundswell of popular concern is demanding that attention be given to human rights, including those related to gender equity and advocacy. Multi-party politics are beginning to focus more on issues than on mere power jockeying, and attempts to provide free primary education and accessible health care are positive steps forward. More and more women are stepping to the forefront to take their place in decision-making bodies, media and commerce, and in so doing, are providing role-models for the younger generations who are watching. The road is not smooth. The set-backs are many. While monetary capital may seem in short supply, social capital, when valued, can balance the deficit.
With life-giving communal ties and resilient attitudes, there is hope rooted in pockets of progress, and grounded in the ability to savor life with dignity, and to use what one has in one’s hand. Two recent book titles reinforce this perspective: one is entitled The Poor Discover Their Own Resources, describing a practical approach to poverty reduction in urban and rural areas in Africa. The other is entitled, Africa is Not a Dark Continent, contradicting of the stereotype shaped by early European explorers. God is at work in the people of Africa. When tempted by cynicism as one views the challenges, it can be remembered that one day at a time makes up life. “Most of all, life in Africa is the joy of people- the spontaneous welcome for an unexpected visitor, a beaming mother with her newborn child, the joyful response of small children when greeted by name, the ululation (a special trilling sound made in the back of the throat) of women and girls… Despite the stark hardships that often accompany daily life, African people show remarkable resiliency and an ability to celebrate life. There is deep wisdom in the saying, ‘The poor celebrate best.’”
Healey, Joseph G. (2005), Once Upon a Time in Africa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, Introducton x.
Kuria, Mike (2003), Talking Gender: Conversations with Kenyan Women Writers. Nairoib: PJ-Kenya, 92.
Adler, Nancy J. (2002), International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, 4th edition. Canada: South-Western Thomson Learning, 358.
Kalu, Ogbu U. (ed.)(2005), African Christianity: An African Story. Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 465.
Muhinda, Anne (2004), unpublished Masters thesis, at Nairobi International School of Theology, Nairobi, Kenya.
Taken from the image of Moses’ staff in Exodus 4:2
Jenkins, Philip (2000), The Next Christendom. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA)
Stenger, Fritz and Maria Teresa Ratti (eds.)(2002), The Poor Discover Their Own Resources. Nairobi: Paulines Publications.
Stenger, Fritz (ed.) (2005),Africa is Not a Dark Continent. Nairobi: Paulines Publications.
Healey, Joseph G. (2005), Once Upon a Time in Africa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 85.