Women working with women: African Catholic nuns transform their communities

by Eucharia Madueke


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A colonizing force beyond Africa’s control struck in 1884, subduing the people, changing their way of life, imposing a new social order to replace the old. Acquiring a Western education and behaving in a way acceptable to the colonizing force became essential. For those who failed to acquire the new and required skill, navigating, surviving, integrating and participating in the new social order became difficult, even impossible.

To certify Africans’ participation in the new order, the colonizer established schools and other institutions targeted at providing skills for the new way of life. Unfortunately, these institutions were not planned along the African world view of duality and interdependence. The colonial powers failed to provide equal opportunity for acquiring skills needed to integrate into the new order. Instead, the powers favored one group and ignored the other, thus creating inequality and division.

The colonial educational process skewed in favor of African males and preparing them to provide cheap labor for colonial administration, unintentionally readying them to participate in the new world order. Womenfolk were left behind. Consequently, this process severely altered both the social position and identity of African women, limiting their involvement in society.  

Despite the limitation and deprivation imposed on them, African women, strengthened by their relationships, continued to play a transformative role in society. Among these traditional women who resisted the low social status assigned them were: Madam Tinubu, the Iyalode (female chief), of Egbaland, Nigeria, whose networking with market women in the 19th century was instrumental in restoring a rightful traditional leader; Amazon women in Ghana and Ndebele women in Zimbabwe, who resisted imperial domination in these societies; and the Aba women in Nigeria who fought colonial policies that regarded women as taxable objects. Such historical experiences show African women as courageous social entities unrestricted in confronting unjust situations in their various societies. 

Like their foremothers who never gave up their traditional social status nor accepted the low social position accorded them in the new colonial order, like courageous traditional African women who never shied away from pursing social justice, African Catholic nuns – “the sisters” – are active in their various congregations to ensure social justice for all.  Through direct service and provision of Western education, which had become the key to social integration, the African sisters courageously engaged their communities to strengthen the involvement of African women and restore their violated dignity and rights.

Beginning in the colonial era, the sisters, in co-operation with Western missionary nuns who came to various parts of Africa – including Nigeria in 1887, Uganda in 1889, Zambia in 1902 and Tanzania in 1916, to mention just a few – have responded to the challenge of African social history. They have done so under conditions that, in many cases, seemed beyond their control.

The sisters saw how acquiring a Western education and Western lifestyle gave certain individuals entrance into the new social order  and observed how that system hindered women’s participation and created obvious inequality and class systems in a formerly classless society.

So the sisters decided to focus mainly on the education of women and children. This offered them the opportunity to acquire learning, language skills and character formation needed to function properly in the new social order.

Aided by their Western counterparts, the sisters set up numerous primary and secondary schools and domestic centers, furnishing young African women in both rural and urban areas with homemaking skills and character formation in line with western norms and values. By targeting their educational activities to women at all social levels, the sisters bridged the educational gap between African men and women, thus restoring the dignity of African women.

The sisters’ schools provided women the language with which to articulate their thoughts publicly and a platform for exercising leadership skills. The overarching consequence of the sisters’ early education endeavor is the emergence of a new kind of African women whose strong character is comparable to their powerful traditional foremothers. These women leaders have made impressive contributions in their communities as teachers and school administrators, healthcare workers and directors of healthcare institutions, politicians and public administrators, lawyers and advocates for just society, leaders in religious communities, theologians and scripture scholars and scientists and environmentalists.

In other words, the sisters as educators have groomed modern African women to enter the male-dominated socio-political arena as equals. The relationships established in the sisters’ schools, often referred to as “old girls’ associations” have also provided African women a social platform for confronting negative situations in their various societies. A notable such network at Holy Rosary College in Enugu, Nigeria, serves its members as a forum for discussing concerns of alumnae who live in the United States, as well as a support network and opportunity for the advancing  their alma mater and the cultural heritage of Nigeria.

Evidence of the educational contributions of African sisters can be seen in the strength of character and high sense of responsibility in contemporary African women leaders and Catholic nuns. Among them are the late Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and human rights advocate; the late Dora Akunyili, former director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in Nigeria; the current Nigerian Chief Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar; Sr. Theresa Okure, the academic pillar the Catholic Institute for West Africa in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and a host of others.

Given the poor governance in most contemporary African societies, African sisters have continued their strong presence confronting inequality and restoring human dignity. Not only do the sisters provide intellectual education to the public, they also implement direct services to the poor and the marginalized – orphans, youth, victims of human trafficking and others – services which the government seems unable or unwilling to provide.

African sisters’ unwavering commitment to social justice has in recent times been acknowledged and affirmed far and near. Sr. Rose Mystica Muyinza, a Ugandan nun, received in 2000 a Guinness Power of Goodness award for her courageous service and outstanding work with vulnerable children and needy women affected by war and HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Sr. Beatrice Chipeta, a Malawian sister received in 2010, a $1million Opus Prize humanitarian award for her engagement with Malawian orphans. Sr. Stan Terese Mario Mumuni was granted the title “savior of Ghana’s rejected children” in 2012 by the African Review for her remarkable commitment and care for orphans and disabled children. Sr. Angélique Namaika received a United Nations award in 2013 for her work with survivors of the Armed Rebel Group in Democratic Republic of Congo. In Nigeria, Sr. Florience Nwaonuma of the indigenous Sacred Heart Sisters, with the support of the National Conference of Women Religious (NCWR), initiated an anti-trafficking program called COSUDO to prevent the trafficking of young women and girls. In collaboration with the NCWR, Sr. Florience strives to restore the dignity and worth of Nigerian women and girls wounded by the evil of human trafficking.

There is no question that African woman in general, and African Catholic sisters in particular, are “organic intellectuals” of their society, actively seeking its transformation beyond Western values.

As elites of their society, the sisters have never compromised their social position and power nor accepted any restriction placed on them internally or externally.  Rather the sisters have boldly confronted issues which impact negatively on the people. My personal experience is that Africans have generally accepted and appreciated the contributions of sisters, who are seen as strong and courageous arms of the people, directly and indirectly influencing the course of African events.

Notwithstanding the impressive contributions of the African sisters, there is a need for a sweeping return to home-grown education that could offer solutions for current and future African social problems, indigenous to Africa. These problems, by themselves, defy integration into the Western world order; they require indigenous knowledge for solutions.

To achieve and sustain social transformation, perhaps African sisters should also consider providing the people with an authentic indigenous education that fits the experience of the local people and is compatible with their own inherent perspective, experience, language and customs. For example, stop teaching people “‘A’ is for apple” to people who have never seen an apple, or “I’m dreaming of white Christmas” to people who have no clue of what snow is. They should also encourage activism, where possible, on behalf of the marginalized.

African sisters must be knowledgeable about the traditional way of life of their people and recognize indigenous knowledge as a legitimate form of achieving social justice. In this way, the sisters will be responding to Vatican calls for borrowing elements of human culture in the church’s work of creating a better society.

Adding an indigenous dimension to the sisters’ ministry will, I believe, enable social transformation in ways compatible with peoples’ experience: When people are enabled to seek social change, that change will be lasting and sustainable.

How? By fostering less competition and more encouragement of cooperative learning as well as buttressing associational relationships. For example, in an almost forgotten past, young people went from farm to farm lending their help to farmers and learning from them.

We need to renew this spirit, the spirit of “I am, because we are.”  Doing this, African sisters will become even better agents of social transformation.

[Eucharia Madueke is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur completing doctoral studies in Development and Public Policy in the department of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. A Nigerian and a social worker, she is happy to introduce us the intricacies of Nigerian Family relationships to a wider audience.]