Missionaries in Tanganyika, late 1890s

Missionaries in Tanganyika, late 1890s

by Simon Khayala, B.D. student at St. Paul’s University, Kenya, and youth pastor in the African Church of the Holy Spirit

To understand the changing role of women in Africa, the history of mission is a very interesting subject to study. Mission was generally equated with maleness; invisibility of women in Christian history was the order of the day. Officially, early period mission agencies were not keen with women contributions, but in fact women missionaries were important for the development of the African church. 

Most mission societies however perceived women as ignorant and backward. They were viewed as more resistant to civilization than men, but that means they were also viewed as victims of traditional rites and practices such as naming, initiation, marriage, funeral rites, and eating rites.   

Therefore Mission agencies became champions of women liberation. They challenged the traditional customs that were oppressive to women; they developed Christian mothers and Christian homes through various terms of education; they helped women to establish women’s organizations to support the church. Women who received this help from missionaries became the pillars of the African church, i.e. Women’s Guild, United Society of Friends Women, Mothers Union, Methodist Women, among others.

Mission work however provided only half liberation. Because the missionaries sent to Africa by European or US-American mission agencies came from a patriarchal background, they were unable or unwilling to  fundamentally challenge another patriarchal system. The nature of education given to women failed to liberate them from the patriarchal structures, because they were only taught how to be good Christian mothers in terms of nutrition, child care, different feeding methods and hygiene.

In the 1960 and 1970’s a new wave for liberation of women came to challenge the existing patriarchal structures in order to allow full participation of women in churches. It was in 1965 when the Women’s Guild in Kenya questioned why only men were church elders and leaders; also the Mothers Union in Kenya advocated more openly for women the rights of women in the church.

Full participation of women or liberation of women is an ongoing struggle. Today we see great improvements, i.e.  most of the churches have embraced women ordination. But that’s not enough, the struggle continues until it achieves its objective of breaking all forms of women oppression.