African sisterhood: A Nigerian experience of church life

by Caroline Mbonu

NCR Contributor

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Religious life on the Africa continent dates back to early Christianity. During the second and third centuries, the Egyptian desert and other parts of North Africa were alive with women and men, desert mothers and fathers, who “renounced the world,” and withdrew to the desert in order to have a deeper and a more intimate union with God.

The current expression of religious life on the continent, however, began to take roots in the early 1900s at the wake of the Catholic Missionary Movement in Africa. The reigning pontiff at the time, Pope Pius XI, encouraged missionaries of religious and secular institutes to welcome religious vocations in missionary countries as a gift of God. Pius wrote in Rerum Ecclesiae: “…you ought as a consequence to consider the founding of religious Congregations of men and women made up of natives to be one of the principal duties of your holy office.”

To the glory of God, Africa is gifted and continues to be gifted with religious vocations, thanks to the pope’s persuasion and the sacrifices of the early missionaries. Today, there are several conferences of women religious as well as men religious across the continent.

The fact that the consecrated life is flourishing in African seems to mask the real struggle that these young African women undergo in order to answer the call.

In most African cultures progeny defines personhood. The ability to bear children admits one into full womanhood or manhood in the community. A celibate woman cannot produce an ancestor and may never be one. A woman who opts for the religious life, therefore, is “dead to her people.”

But why would anyone walk away from the traditions of her forebears? The answer is simply, she heard Jesus speak, “Follow me.” For this person, therefore, the following of Jesus is a countercultural stance. Much faith and grace come into play as one goes against the current. Herein lays the germ of the African Sisterhood: A radical following of Christ that breaks a fundamental cultural bond.

For this reason, the African woman religious holds on tenaciously to her religious commitment regardless of the dire situation of wars and famine and the threat of materialism and individualism in modern culture. In every situation, therefore, African women religious bring with them the power of their witness, the quality of life in communion. They bring along the unique potentiality of their mission. In so doing, they share their gift of consecration in the unconditional service in love of people both in the continent and as missionaries elsewhere.

The experience and expression of religious life in Africa varies from region to region. In southern African, for example, the harrowing experience of apartheid appears to have left an indelible mark on the social as well as the religious lives of the people. Elsewhere, religious communities are not immune from the unstable political climate that continues to plague some parts of the continent.

Patriarchy, a prevalent social order, still dominates the day. The experience of religious sisters in church life cannot be separated from patriarchal mores of the people. A Nigerian example of sisters in church life amplifies the point.

The 2010 Nigerian Conference of Women Religious (NCWR) National Directory lists a total of 54 religious communities living and working in the country. These religious include members of the consecrated life, societies of apostolic life as well as monastic communities. They have convents scattered all over the country.

Although the majority of the more than 5,000 religious sisters in the country are natives, most of the communities have their origin in Western foundations. With the exception of monastic communities, the rest of the group provides a myriad of services to the church and society. These include education, healthcare, pastoral care and social services. In recent years, some women religious have taken up ministry to widows, as well as advocacy.

A healthy degree of autonomy exists in communities in relation to church life in general; however, it is not uncommon that in the area of authority and power priests and bishops often have the final say in parishes and dioceses respectively. Some clerics even interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the lives of women religious. Given that a significant percentage of indigenous communities of women in Africa were founded by men, patriarchal influence rubs off on their leadership.

Here women’s participation in church life remains on the service level. One can hardly find a religious sister as chancellor or director of a diocesan project. The feeling is religious sisters remain marginal figures in church life.

Of course, the adoption of the model of “Church as Family” by the African Synod of 1996 provides the justification in keeping women out of full participation in church life. The father of the family is the head of the household and makes all decisions. The opinion of women and children is yet to be fully harnessed in this system. That is to say, these persons are of little significance for the smooth running of the church as family. But the Apostle Paul’s body metaphor is of a different opinion.

Paul reminds us that every body part is of vital importance for the smooth running of the body (1 Cor. 12:12-26). When the dominant voice continues to keep away women, be they religious or not, from full participation in church life, the church continues to hemorrhage. To build a vibrant church, in the face of menacing interferences from outside, whether they be religious, commercial or political, the church must reconcile herself to accepting voices of her “foot soldiers” who work the trenches, the religious sisters.

Of necessity, the dominant voices in the African church can no longer ignore the rich repository of the religious sisters. On its own part, the African sisterhood must embark on a systematic education in biblical studies and theology so that they can contribute more meaningfully to the ongoing discourse in church life on the continent.

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]