Africa is a continent where women have come a long way in the struggle to make life more human and human beings more capable of living life to the full. African women theologians, in particular, have been accompanying this journey from their own perspective and life experiences.
Quite in touch with all the dimensions of life, African women theologians have been in the forefront of making “the cry of the people” heard and cared for since, for them, this is the core of human life as well as of the Christian experience. Coming from a variety of backgrounds – biblical, ecclesiological, catechetical – these women move within the intricate road map of a Church that still finds it difficult to recognize women as subjects and protagonists in the task of evangelization.
Starting from the early 1980’s, the rise in the number of African women doing Christian theology was constant. Before then, there was only one woman theologian publishing theological works on a regular basis, and this was Ghanean Methodist Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Kenyan Ancilla Kupalo, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mary of Kakamega and staff component of the Pastoral Institute of Eastern Africa from 1972-75, followed suit.
By the mid-1980’s, several names came to the fore and then, in 1989, within the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians was formed. There were over two hundred African women theologians doing research and authoring books. Their number kept increasing and, nowadays, many among them are women religious teaching in universities, seminaries and pastoral centres.
The right legitimacy
A very outspoken one is Sister Teresa Okure, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ), professor of New Testament and Gender Hermeneutics at the Catholic Institute of West Africa, Nigeria. It is, indeed, a joy to know that scores of young women, both lay and religious, are now active in the various fields of theology, also encouraged by the two general assemblies of the Synods of Bishops for Africa, held in 1994 and 2009 which, in different manners, have addressed the urgency that the Churches in the continent be attentive to promoting women’s subjectivity in all spheres of life, particularly where they most influence the processes of justice, reconciliation and peace. African women theologians, like other theologian from other continents, struggle to bring about a different modality of encounter with faith and, most particularly, to enable their fellow women to enter into a new relationship modality in meeting the historical Jesus of the Gospels whose behavior with women, in the context of the high patriarchal and static Jewish society, showed a strong element of discontinuity.
We well know that the Jesus who has been shared with African people, and with women, in particular – since they have always been the majority of churchgoers – was Jesus the Warrior, the Conqueror and the King. This stance got reinforced in some African cultures where women have been, and still are, perceived as subservient to men and held in value only because they are the ones who carry and give birth to the future members of the tribe.
But African women have set out to assert themselves within their own social settings and are determined to let their own experience of Jesus be given the proper legitimacy it deserves. To many African women, Jesus is a prophet who challenges the system, the status quo, as well as all social injustices and marginalization. This kind of Jesus strongly appeals to African women and urges them to work for their full liberation from within their own femininity, moulded in the rich vitality of the African context.
African women see the Risen Christ as the One who brings justice to widows and orphansand who welcomes and accepts everyone as they are and as equals, particularly those whom society treats as lowly and insignificant. Christ is welcomed as a personal friend, for He takes the women’s side by publicly breaking away from those yokes and burdens that keep them from enjoying to the full the freedom of God’s dream and reign. (F.P.& M.R)