Journey of faith: African girls and religious life

Editor's note: The following is an adaptation of the second chapter — "Foundation of Religious Institutes and Impact of Technology Innovation on Sisters in Africa: A Sociocultural Approach" — of the new book,  Voices of Courage: Historical, Sociocultural and Educational Journeys Of Women Religious in East end Central Africa, edited by Sr. Jane Wakahiu

Read about the book's conception, research and purposes in Handing the pen to African sisters.


Journey of Faith, understanding the foundation, culture and struggles of African girls to enter religious life

Tracing the phenomenon of indigenous women religious congregations in Africa is a path that has an interesting history that has yet to be unveiled. What were the challenges encountered by missionary women religious from global north in recruiting African girls, inculcating Christianity and training them to enter religious life? What were the challenges experienced by African girls to embrace the new culture and religious vocation? Voices of Courage unfolds interesting but awakening stories and maps out a trend in Africa, which continues as sisters establish their own identity and respond to their vocation as they serve the marginalized in their communities.

Interestingly, making the choice to enter religious life was not an easy path for African girls — understanding the essence of religious life as a call to a deep personal relationship with God that is publicly expressed through vowed commitment, radical discipleship, and fidelity to the charism of the institute was abstract for these early entrants in 1900s in Africa. In retrospect, across history, Catholic sisters have been the face of the Church to men and women worldwide through their presence and service to God’s people, especially to the poor and the marginalized. The Voices of Courage book provides a framework to understand religious life as told by African women religious and by Western scholars who have interacted with African women religious.

Missionary Sisters in Africa

The first Christian missions were male-dominated; however, later recognition by the Church established that the presence of Catholic sisters would accelerate evangelization. The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny was the first European congregation to establish a mission in Africa in 1822 (Rudge, 1910). A devout woman named Anne-Marie Javouhey founded the congregation with eight others in Cabilion, France in 1805. The first group of sisters arrived in Goree, Senegal, in 1822, and traveled to Gambia in 1824, where they served people suffering from epidemics and rehabilitated slaves. Anne-Marie opened a new chapter for women to serve as missionaries. Women missionaries comprised the majority of mission workers in Africa in the 1930s. They served under male supervisors, so it was difficult for them to progress on their own.

In Europe, Catholic sisters played a pivotal role in society and in the Church; possibly, their presence in Africa would result in similar benefits. Recognizing that the presence of sisters would add value in his vicariate, in 1878 Archbishop Lavigerie of Algiers founded the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (MSOLA). Commonly known as White Sisters, MSOLA merged the Sisters of Saint Charles and Sisters of the Assumption. The White Sisters served side by side with the White Fathers in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Algiers. In Uganda, for example, the White Sisters settled at Rubaga in 1899, in Tanzania at Karema in 1894, and at Kirando in 1902. The Comboni Missionary Sisters and the Consolata Missionary Sisters settled in East Africa in 1910 and 1913 respectively; both groups came from Italy. The Franciscan Sisters of Saint Mary’s Abbey from London, meanwhile, settled in Uganda in 1902 (Louis, 1964).

Traveling from Europe to settle in remote locations in Africa may not have been the most desirable adventure. Prominent obstacles included insufficient resources, a debilitating environment, the severe tropical and equatorial climate, the danger of wild animals, resistance among the indigenous peoples, and the presence of untreatable, lethal diseases. Language barriers, coupled with illiteracy and cultural impulses in their newfound home, made missionary work complex. A Consolata Sister, Kathy Meyer, describes the challenges endured by the sisters:

Hardships were plenty and one did not have to look for them. They came your way unexpectedly. Food and drink were not to one’s liking nor always available. The same could be said of our beds. Hyenas and leopards that roamed too near to us often disturbed our nights, and broke our much needed sleep. (Meyer, 2013, p. 24)

Resources, too, were scarce; for example, because there was no indoor plumbing, sisters had to walk to the river for water, so that it took half a day just to wash their clothes and other items. Despite their great sacrifices, the construction of a new cultural narrative disfigured African culture, fracturing the sociocultural fabric and changing the role of women in society. It has taken decades for women to define themselves and develop a voice in their differing cultural, educational and religious portraits.

Role of Women, Cultural Socialization and Change in Africa

Understanding the role and place of an African woman in society provides a basis of understanding for what African girls had to leave behind to enter religious life in the newly-formed congregations. Conceivably, Western culture and religion altered the place of a woman in the society. Traditionally in Africa, girls were socialized to become active producers culturally, economically, socially and politically. Unwritten cultural norms were observed and perpetuated through sharing lived experiences. For example, the life of every girl child was nurtured in preparation for marriage: she was to bring forth a family. Further, the purpose of a woman was not only to give life through child bearing, but also to nourish and protect her children tenaciously — she protected and nurtured her family. The traditional initiation rites conducted at puberty were the school of instruction that provided her with practical knowledge and competence leading her to take on new responsibilities as a mother, not only to her maternal children but also to the community.

It was typical that the role a woman played was that of an educator, transmitting knowledge and morals and introducing her children to the norms of the community. As a mother, her role was fundamental for the biological, physical, psychological, moral, social, and religious maturation of her children. Sister Wirba (2012) posits that a woman was perceived as a counselor and an influential adviser to the husband, but was to remain silent and distinct in the public arena. Culturally, progress in age elevated a woman to the level of a consultant to the family and community. Elderly women were respected and were seen as people of integrity and enablers in the permeation and preservation of African values through oral literature, stories and songs. They taught girls in the process of initiation which culturally every individual had to undergo.

Culture develops through human interaction and is created and maintained via human communication (Gergen & Gergen, 2003). According to Ferraro (1994), culture is everything that people have, do, and think as members of the society. In addition, Rohner (1984) perceives culture as an “organized system of meanings which members of that culture attribute to the persons and objects which make the culture” (p. 36), and Ross (2004) sees “culture as an emerging phenomenon evolving out of shared cognitions that themselves arrive out of individual interactions with both the social and physical environment” (p.8).

African people had an organized social system prior to encountering European missionaries. This encounter created a cultural paradigm shift, altering societal fabric — its norms, beliefs and practices. In addition, missionary encounters exposed African women to a new cultural complexity that changed the morphology, and the place and role, of women in society. First, missionaries’ culture was promulgated as children spent more time in school than at home with women training them in cultural norms. It follows that missionaries took over women’s role as infusers of culture and morals. Second, family ceased to be the center of religious and moral education; instead, catechism classes, school and churches were the places where teachings and values were inculcated. Thirdly, African culture and norms, including language, beliefs and practices, were disparaged, and all things African were “subjected to scrutiny and labeled ungodly” (Mbiti, 1999). Scherer (2001) adds that, as a rule:

Conversion implied a break with one’s former cultural and religious practices, and also with one’s former social ties. [Moreover], missionary practices were not merely a proclamation of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ, but also simultaneously transmitted Western civilization as well as European worldviews, customs, lifestyle, organization, and even dress, language and names. (p. 103)

Seemingly, missionaries brought formal Western education, medical care and agricultural methods, to name but a few. In relation to cultural concerns, Ross (2004) argues on the importance of creating a shared cultural cognition, which could lead to cultural awareness and competence. In this view, the Catholic Church introduced inculturation so as to foster dialogue by listening to both Christian and African cultures and to engrain aspects of African culture in liturgical practices. Inculturation refers to the “incarnation of Christian life and of the Christian message in [a] particular cultural context, in such a way that this experience not only finds expression through elements proper to the culture in question, but becomes a principle that animates, directs and unifies the cultures, transforming it and remaking it so as to bring about “a new creation” (Arrupe, 1978, p. 6).

Examination of cultural elements that can be engrained in religious life and practices is necessary. First, while the majority of indigenous institutes in Africa have retained the “Western” religious habit, some institutes have adapted a dyed African-made fabric, and others wear simple dress. Second, when temporary vowed religious are taking perpetual vows, some institutes have integrated cultural rituals. These rituals were conducted to incorporate and elevate a woman’s role in the society to become a counselor and a leader, so that others can confide in her. This practice, though negated by some institutes, can be an area for inculturation — for incorporation of Christian and African values practices — as it entwines a sister with her culture and community. Finally, sisters assume roles in their communities as teachers, nurses, and social and pastoral care agents; in these roles, they continue their responsibility as enshrined and practiced by the African woman to be a counselor, infuser of morals, healer, adviser and educator. Particularly, in these examples, religious women are engraining elements of African identity in their practices, while remaining in line with the Church’s teaching and to their religious consecration.

Called to Serve: African Girls Overcoming Barriers

Missionary intention in founding African orders. Although the need for agents of evangelization was evident early on, there is no evidence that European missionary sisters welcomed African girls into religious life enthusiastically. It is possible that cultural perceptions and the lack of formal education may have thwarted such considerations. Of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Congo, for instance, Martin (2009) observed: “There is no record of their having considered the possibility of encouraging Congolese women/girls to become Sisters” (p. 29). In another example, Consolata Missionary Sisters came to Africa from Italy in 1913; however, they did not set up a novitiate in Africa until the 1970s. It is not within the scope of this chapter to explain why recruitment of native people into the majority of European congregations did not take place prior to 1960s; however, it is a compelling point. Perhaps racial undertones propelled by imperialism prevalent in the era could offer some inkling of a reason.

Powerful symbol: witnessing through presence. Nonetheless, missionary sisters were routinely engaged in providing services to the local communities at orphanages, in village visitations, in teaching and in nursing (Wirba, 2012). In these settings, they encountered girls who admired their ministry. Their religious habits and the provision of healthcare had magical effects: theirs was a healing that won souls to Christianity. For example, at the rural village of Nkokonjeru, Uganda, Sister Mary Kearney from Ireland, founder of the Little Sisters of Saint Francis and renowned as “Mother Kevin,” inspired girls through her dress and healing ministry, which she delivered from under a tree. Girls desired to emulate her; they dressed like her and aspired to bring healing to the sick, and to reverse the high maternal and infant mortality rate, even though these girls lacked education and knowledge of nursing. Girls pleaded with her to welcome them to become Sisters. Although Mother Kevin settled in Uganda in 1902, foundation of the Little Sisters of Saint Francis started 22 years later, in 1923 (John, 2003). Certainly, formation of religious institutes was an unintended consequence of missionary presence in Africa, albeit a worthwhile one.

These examples illustrate the impact of the missionaries on African girls; through their presence, they heard the voice of God and persistently wanted to respond. Molinari (1970) maintains that the call to religious life is a “creative action by God, and He alone endows a person with the capacity to live a type of union with Christ unique of its kind” (p. 5).  Religious life is a “calling;” an individual discerns and makes a personal decision to respond to an inner conversion that propels the “called” to want to give her life for service. This conviction can be described as an intense inner desire that is only known and experienced by the individual. That desire impelled African girls; for indeed, God’s call is beyond race, ethnicity, social status or political divide. If these girls were worthy to receive the gospel, they consequently had a right to share in a call to Christian holiness.  Pope John Paul II explains consecrated life thusly: “A way of showing forth the Church's holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life mirrors Christ's own way of life; it is a rich sign of Gospel values and a complete expression of the Church's purpose, which is the sanctification of humanity” (Vita Consecrata, 62).

Challenges to espousal of religious life by African girls. Despite African girls’ desire to enter religious life, it was unthinkable for an African woman not to marry in the early 20th century. Thus, conflict between religion and culture was mundane. As such, some parents resisted the baptism and Christianization of girls (Baur, 2009) so as to maintain their cultural framework. The story of Edwina, a Tanzanian girl who wanted to enter religious life, illustrates this struggle. Her father caught up with her after she had eloped to enter the convent. Smythe (1999) shares Edwina’s own description of her circumstances: “Father cried a lot. He beat me, and cried ‘I depend on you. Why have you done this? I have already said that I will give God other children… but not you’ … every time the priest’s motorcycle passed… [Edwina’s father would tell her mother to] hide the child in the kitchen. The priest would always be told Edwina was not home” (p. 102). Elderly sisters share touching and heartbreaking stories about how family severed relationships with them upon their entering religious life.

To this day some African parents, though faithful churchgoers, repudiate religious life for their children. Certainly, the cost of embracing religious life for an African girl amounted to giving up not only marriage and bride wealth, but also a family of her own and all things “African,” including her culture. Radical separation of these girls from their families was one of the toughest realities they had to endure as postulants. Burke (2010) illustrates the tough reality sisters had to and often continue to endure: “The fact I have chosen to live a celibate life [as a] woman religious costs me greatly even now in my later years …I will leave no children of my own in this world. And yet, to give myself to God and to all his people is what I do want to do with my life” (p. 47). The stories of African women religious continue to unfold, calling researchers to embark on a historical journey to narrate this story.

Role of the Church in the Foundation of Indigenous Women’s Institutes

Western and African women missionaries have played a significant role in evangelization, whether they are acknowledged or not. The need to engage native women in missionary endeavor was timely when it finally began to unfold in the 1900s. The attitude of the Church propelled the foundation of indigenous orders. The Church recognized that successful evangelization required the presence of natives; for the missions to succeed, this was conditio sine qua non. Further, the Church’s introduction of the Theology of Mission in the Church explicitly opened the door to a new era of evangelization. It was a new awakening, particularly for the African Church. Consequently, it shaped the role and place of Catholic sisters in the missions and foundations of indigenous religious in Africa. The Maximum Illud (1919) was the first church document to recognize and encourage the formation of native clergy and, by extension, Catholic sisters. This defining moment benefited directly and indirectly from the general attitudes of Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) and Pope Pius XI (1922-1939).

Pope Benedict XV stressed in Rerum Ecclesiae that the church cannot be appropriately established in new territories unless an educated and properly trained native clergy are part of the process. Certainly, the value of native clergy in instilling the faith in the minds of their people cannot be overstated. Pope Pius XI further emphasized the need for the formation of native clergy in his papal encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae, in which he asked:

How can the Church among the heathens be developed today unless it be built of those very elements out of which our own churches were built … unless it be made up of people, clergy, and religious orders of men and women recruited from the native populations of the several regions. (Rerum Ecclesiae, 1926, 21) 

The pontiff added:

You ought to consider the founding of religious congregations of men and women made of natives to be one of the principal duties of your holy office. Is it not meant that these newly born followers of Christ be able to follow a life of evangelical perfection if they feel themselves called to make the vow of religion? [Also consider] if it would be more advantageous all around to establish entirely new congregations, which would correspond better with the genius and character of the natives and which would be more in keeping with the needs and spirit of the different countries (Rerum Ecclesiae, 1926, 28).

The directive signaled papal approval for the foundation of indigenous orders. Indeed, the bishops, and some missionary sisters with a bishop’s approval, took it upon themselves to found indigenous institutes for women religious to serve in their vicariates. Missionary sisters stood at hand to direct formation programs. However, questions remained. Were the African girls ready and well prepared, educationally and spiritually, to enter religious life? Would missionary sisters accept these girls as full members into their congregations? These questions require further historical exploration. It is certain, however, that God works in, and through, those who are called to shape them into his disciples, but not without their cooperation. Despite many hiccups during and in the process of the founding of indigenous congregations, religious life is thriving in Africa.

Certainly, it is important to note that women religious are the largest body that sustains the Catholic Church in service, and it is a body that also supports the government by serving in remote areas while running ministries at the grassroots levels. Support and training of the sisters will be a strategy to invigorate the church and sustain faith in and within communities. Moreover, the services provided by sisters are impacting the society in incredible ways.

[Sr. Jane Wakahiu is executive director of the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC). More than 1,200 sisters have benefitted from ASEC’s programs, which are funded through the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The collaborative conducts educational activities in nine African countries, including Nigeria and South Sudan, where the ravages of war and other human tragedies continue to significantly affect millions of people. Wakahiu also has taught and administrated at a girls’ high school, facilitated leadership workshops for teachers, and served in leadership of the Catholic Women Association in Kenya.]

Related: Handing the pen to African sisters

References cited in this excerpt

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