Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 99 (November 1997) 77-83


The missing voice

African women doing theology

Nyambura J. Njoroge

Women and Men in Partnership Programme, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Geneva



Twenty-five years is a significant milestone. Much has happened in the history of South Africa and indeed of Africa as a whole during the Journal‘s life. We have seen Africa’s darkest days, yet in the midst of them happenings that have caused us to praise God and rejoice in gratitude. One such thing has been the steady and firm growth and development of African theology with its different expressions—despite the sceptical remarks that accompanied its formative years in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The silver jubilee of this Journal gives its contributors, editors, and readers the chance to take stock of its achievements in encouraging theological reflection and dialogue within the southern African context. At the same time it provides an opportunity revise its agenda in light of new or neglected issues. I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this important occasion. Mine is not to take part in the stock-taking. Rather, I wish to speak of a new leaf which is boldly and courageously sprouting from African theology.

For almost three decades, African theology has been articulated by males. With the publication of Hearing and Knowing in 1986, the missing voice of women began to emerge, even though from a distance. Taking her cue from account of the Samaritan woman in John 4:39-42, Oduyoye paved the way for African Christian women to tell their faith stories as they have heard and known them and not to rely on others to write about them. Out of this vision and commitment, Oduyoye began to look for her African sisters in churches and universities, who had undertaken (or were undertaking) theological and religious studies, to initiate a programme of serious study, research, and publishing in religion and culture. Out of her efforts, and with the support of those who shared her passion, the idea of gathering a small group of African women theologians to launch an institute in religion and culture was conceived.

In 1989, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, an interfaith institute, was launched in Oduyoye’s native land, Ghana. Seventy women  were present.  During her opening address, Oduyoye urged us to do a “two-winged” theology, through which both women and men could communicate with God. In August 1996, the second Pan African Conference of the Circle met in Kenya. One hundred and forty women attended (double the original number). Between the two conferences, three sub-regional gatherings were held for Anglophone West Africa, Francophone Africa, and southern/eastern Africa.  During each gathering the women presented papers on an agreed theme. Each paper was read in a small group, critiqued by others, and later revised and edited for publication. Out of these gatherings, newsletters, records of proceedings, and collections of articles have been published. Others are in the editorial process.

The Circle has attempted to demonstrate its vision, commitment, and lived experience through the titles of its publications. For instance, Musimbi Kanyoro, one of the convenors of the first Circle gathering and its current Coordinator, writes about the title of the Circle’s newsletter:

The convenors’ committee desired that the newsletter should bear an African name. The Swahili word AMKA won the day. It has the double meaning of ‘wake up’, as an imperative to a situation which calls for alertness as well as a polite encouraging request to ‘arise’ and be of benefit to oneself or others. This newsletter speaks as self reproach to us African women! We need to wake up from our slumber and contribute our gifts to knowledge. We need to say our bit and to take our rightful place in the church and society so that we do not impoverish our continent and our world by our absence and lack of participation. But AMKA also brings the comforting message of Jesus Christ to a daughter presumed to be dead ‘arise’. Perhaps at some point we have been hurt as our attempts to participate have been misunderstood. Maybe we longed for space and found to our dismay doors being closed in our faces. We need to take the courage and arise and begin new life once again.

Doing Theology

By taking seriously the religious and cultural plurality in Africa, it was decided that the Circle will embrace African women from all religions resident in Africa—provided their concern and commitment was to participate in ‘doing’ theology. The ‘doing’ of theology implies participation and exploration, emphasising the activity that produces theology. We ‘do’ theology by seeking to live out our faith in the contemporary world, applying our skills and God-given gifts and addressing the problems confronting individuals and communities. We are not addressing hypothetical or abstract ideas, or answering questions raised by another generation. But rather we are dealing with today’s life-threatening/destroying and life-giving/affirming issues. Doing theology means wrestling with God’s Word as we confront the powers and principalities of this world.

African women theologians, emerging within this generation of theologians who emphasised ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking’ theology, have attempted to be at the heart of where theology is being created, in the womb of the community of faith, to academically articulate what is being produced. For us, process and approach are as fundamental as content. As a result, we are interested in articulating the voices, cries, tears, fears, silences, images, songs, sermons, and prayers that are heard, seen and stored in the memory of the community of faith and in the society as people struggle to live out their faith. Our starting point is our individual and collective lived experience in dialogue with scripture and culture.

An Interfaith Approach

So far, the Circle has members representing Islam, Christianity, and African traditional religions. Each member of the Circle attempts to identify and name issues that demand critical attention for the living out of faith in a modern pluralistic society. Together we have come to acknowledge that any theology that does not listen intently to women, men and children in light of the religio-cultural, social, economic, and political milieu in which we live lacks authenticity and relevance. We have decided to do theology together—even though we belong to different faiths—because  we want to be true to our reality in Africa where, in the extended family or in the school setting, we frequently find ourselves professing different faiths. Since our task is to research, study, and publish theological articles, journals, and books, we wish to do so alongside one another. Whether we are doing theology or not, this reality presents its own dynamics and challenges which affect the way we do business in Africa as women, in our families and in society at large.

First and foremost, the Circle wishes to establish an atmosphere and platform where its members can listen intently to one another. Here we begin to clear those misunderstandings and biases created over the years as Christianity and Islam found their roots into African traditional religions and cultures.

Racial/ethnic and cultural diversities constitute another African reality that the Circle wishes to take seriously. Obviously Africa is the home of the black people in Africa South of Sahara and Arabs in the North. But as colonialism paved its way into Africa, we now have European-Africans and Asian-Africans claiming Africa as their only homeland. The religious, cultural, and racial/ethnic diversities experienced by Africans cannot be ignored for they play a central place in the way we relate with one another, experience God, and express our faith.

On the other hand, the nineteenth and twentieth century missionary, colonial, and neo-colonial historical contexts which have continued to shape our ways of thinking and the way we articulate the fundamental aspects of our faith need to be taken into account. Even though articles written by European-Africans, Asian-Africans, Muslims, and adherents of African traditional religions are few in number (and none from North Africa) amongst the published works of the Circle, our intention is to be inclusive and to establish dialogue with one another during these formative years. As women and as Africans, we are aware of the dangers and the pain of exclusion. Therefore we wish to seriously address the reality of plurality from the outset. It was precisely this committment to inclusiveness which led the founding sisters to choose the name ‘Circle’: to call to mind their duty to welcome more sisters discovered in the journey of doing theology.  We wish to see the Circle enlarged, with more women exploring theological and ethical issues that affect the core of our faith.  

Another reality which must be taken into consideration in doing theology is the diversity within each religion. For instance, Christians of the Circle belong to different denominations. This alone presents particular challenges. Our lived experience as women and as Africans has taught us the necessity of addressing differences, because our differences have been used to divide, silence, oppress, marginalise, and even to kill. Worse still, this has sometimes been done in the name of our faith and scriptures. Failure to take our differences seriously and constructively can lead us to assume that we are simply a mass of people with everything in common.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to reflect extensively on the problems and difficulties our approach might create. It is enough to say a great challenge is ahead of us which demands boldness and courage. Speaking from the Christian context, we are advocates for a voice which has been missing in the decisions and the shaping of the African church and theology that we wish to see taken seriously by every Christian in churches, Bible schools, seminaries, and universities where women struggle to exercise their God-given gifts. This voice is a gift to Africa and a wakeup call to a church which has neglected the majority and the most faithful of its members. Its call is for Christians and adherents of other faiths in Africa to confront the sin of sexism which permeates all aspects of life on the continent. Sexism is one type of discrimination which all women experience in some way or other. How we experience and interpret sexism will depend on other factors, including social location, racial identity, economic position, and educational status. Hence, we seek to honour the diversity of perspectives upon, and ways of addressing, particular issues.

At this juncture, it is important to mention something about the word ‘Concerned’ in our name. By calling ourselves ‘Concerned’, we are stating that that we care deeply about the erosion and destruction of human dignity and life, all life, in Africa. We are concerned that much needs to be done in the areas of religion and culture to address the social evils that block the experience of abundant life for people and the environment. We are concerned that for too long women have been silenced and as a result many have suffered and others died because nothing was done. We are concerned that unless we name the sin of sexism and work for its elimination, our African religious institutions will continue to be blind to the injustices suffered by women. Because we are concerned and we care, we want to join with those who struggle for justice, peace, and reconciliation in our continent.

Major Areas of Concern

Having outlined the approach Circle has taken, let me now turn to some of its major areas of concern. I will confine my remarks to Christianity. In the early years of African theology, male theologians acknowledged the central role played by African religions and cultures in people’s attempts to encounter the divine in particular places and times, and in developing an authentic African Christianity and theology. Given the damage that African cultures and religions have suffered due to European cultural imperialism and its ignorance about African religions and cultures, the retrieval of culture and the interpretation of traditional religions became central. But African theology developed without taking into account women’s lived experience. Indeed, the whole project was gender blind. This hindered the pioneering male theologians from condemning cultural and religious practices and attitudes destructive the life and well-being of women. A large number of women in the Circle have thus written articles on women’s experiences and perspectives in African religions and cultures, affirming life-giving practices while criticising destructive elements in areas such as rites of passage, birthing, naming, marriage, widowhood, and polygamy. Until women’s views are listened to and our participation ensured, the truth will remain hidden and a life-giving African theology is doomed to fail.

Much needs to be unearthed in this area, especially because when no other tool can be used to oppress and subjugate women, people invoke culture. In the process, Christian women find themselves trapped between the gospel message and the dictates of culture. On the other hand, women are subjected to cultural practices such as female mutilation which sometimes result in life-long physical and/or emotional health problems. Wife-inheritance creates possibili~ties for sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. Women are concerned that uncriti~cal cultural retrieval and glorification of African religions and cultures will continue to erode women’s dignity and wholeness. Hence they call for cultural hermeneutics in dialogue with the scriptures, especially the gospels, in the development of African theology.

Hand-in-hand with this critical analysis is the study and examination of how myth, proverbs, folk tales, and symbols operate in the socialisation of women, working to preserve the norms of the community. Mercy Amba Oduyoye’s latest book, Daughters of Anowa, is a revelation of how global patriarchy manifests itself in African communities—whether patrilineal or matrilineal. Patriarchy is a destructive powerhouse, with systematic and normative inequalities as its hallmarks. It also affects the rest of the created order. Its roots are well entrenched in society as well as the church—which means we need well-equipped and committed women and men to bring patriarchy to its knees.

The task of dismantling patriarchy has brought us face to face with another evil in our societies as well as religious institutions: violence against women. This begins in the family. Among all the other injustices experienced by women, violence in the home is the most difficult to talk about because it means exposing those most close to us (and who can come to our rescue if nobody else cares to do so). Whether it takes the form of sexual abuse, child abuse, incest, wife-beating, or economic deprivation, violence in the home is in most cases accompanied by silence. From a very early age, girls are taught not to discuss family affairs. These lessons continue as one approaches marriage. In my Gikuyu tribe in Kenya, young women are taught that the underlying meaning of the word mutumia, which means ‘a woman’, is “the one who keeps silent”. Upon marriage, the young bride is coached by the older women how to not ‘tell it out’. Such lessons have caused many women untold horrors of violence in the home, which are occasionally reported in the national newspapers but almost never mentioned in the church.

Violence against women is not confined to the home. Escalating cases of rape in society and sexual exploitation and abuse in the work-place are increasing. Worse still, violence against women is known to take place in the church. Here women should be able to turn for help. Instead, when they attempt to speak out, they are not believed or taken seriously. This in itself is violence! The culture of silence transfers itself from the home to the church, and especially in the manse where the wife is expected to protect the name of the pastor.

This brings us to another area where African women theologians have added their voice: women’s experience of marginalisation, subordination, and exclusion in the church. We have begun to write about our lived experience as women in the pews and as full-time workers in various ministries. Here the power of patriarchy and hierarchy reinforce each other to the extent that women’s voices are easily drowned or censored and male dominance is valued. The invisibility of women in decision-making processes, in leadership structures, and in theological institutions is the rule, rather than the exception—and this despite their majority status in the church.

Patriarchy and sexism in missionary Christianity and theology has led women to carve out an independent space in church women’s organisations, where hospitality and fund-raising are the major preoccupation. Because for a long time theology has been the preserve of men, with a few exceptions these are coordinated by women who are not theologically trained. It is assumed that women deal with issues which do not require theological articulation. This is not to say that hospitality and fund-raising are not important and that women have not achieved significant contributions. Rather, preventing women from participating in all ministries of the church and undertaking theological education is unjust and contrary to the gospel message. Furthermore, lack of a critical evaluation of leadership styles in the church and society has trapped women in models of leadership shaped by patriarchal and hierarchical values. Such values contribute to excluding and marginalising single women, widows, unwed mothers, the poor, and the differently-abled. By exposing the sins of exclusion and marginalisation, women theologians hope to reconstruct leadership patterns that will facilitate participation by all members and that take seriously our God-given gifts.

Above all, the greatest challenge African women face is that of unlearning internalised sexist practices, attitudes, beliefs and patterns. We must set out to create new models of how women and men relate in a non-sexist society. This is a life-time project which can only succeed when women and men agree to work together. As such, we have no illusions that speaking out, creating new models, and writing books and articles will deliver gender justice and reconciliation. Instead, we need to establish an ongoing dialogue with men with regard to dismantling sexism and seeing this project as part of the work Jesus began in establishing the reign of God.

The quest for gender justice and reconciliation in the development of an authentic Christianity and theology has become central. This quest has led women to search the scriptures for models of transformation and healing. African women have begun to retell the stories of Bible women and their life-giving encounters with Jesus. We are reminding the church that for too long the Bible, and especially the Pauline writings, has been misused and misinterpreted to subjugate and exclude women. We are reclaiming the fact that Jesus Christ is the sole authority and head of the church and that through baptism, women and men are equally called to repentance and new life. In Christ, we are equally commissioned to share our God-given gifts and to reclaim our God-given identity as female and male created in God’s image. This message needs to be repeated over and over, for the church has for too long practised the subordination of women while at the same time preaching the gospel of salvation for all in Jesus Christ.

Consequently, we are searching for new ways of doing Bible studies with women—especially pastors’ wives who are expected to take a leading role in women’s organisations whether they are trained for it or not—which will liberate the Bible from misuse and are affirming to women. The good news rarely heard from the pulpit is that women too were disciples of Jesus. The exclusion and subordination of women, and the fact that they are not easily believed or taken seriously, have caused such pain and agony that some have left the church. Our writings in the Circle have called the church to listen intently and seriously to women’s pain, weeping, and suffering—if for no other reason than because our redeemer stopped and listened to women who searched after and followed him. We are calling the church to stop and ask, in the name of Christ, “woman, why are you weeping”. Theologi~cal/biblical reflection which does not take Jesus’ recognition of women as full human beings lacks credibility and integrity. Christology and ecclesiology are crucial to our project.

By raising these concerns, we are calling the church and our theological institutions to re-examine African theology. We note with great regret that even when some African male theologians embraced Latin American liberation and South African Black theologies, women’s lived experience was overlooked. Yet we are the most oppressed. After all, much of this written liberation theology has not reached the pulpits of our churches (and even most of our seminaries), despite the fact that liberation was a central motif in the political struggle for independence. Most of our churches still depend on the missionary theology emphasising the salvation of the soul and not the liberation of the whole person.

As a result, African women theologians have stressed the ‘doing’ of theology.  In this process we hope to engage the people in the pews—women, men and youth—in producing a liberating theology. We are yearning for a justice-oriented theology which will take into account all the things that keep women economically and sexually exploited, culturally dominated, and politically alienated. This theology must deal with the fact that the African women are prevented from realising their God-given humanity and that they are at the bottom of the heap of the most oppressed. Such a project can only have its firm roots in Africa when we critically reflect on the history of African Christianity, our colonial past, and the neo-colonial present, through the eyes and experiences of women and men.


Our journey was began by many unsung heroines, some of whom we shall never know or name. Because today many of us have decided to stay in our communities of faith (but not quietly!), these Daughters of Africa have not laboured in vain. We have decided to tell our stories, despite or because of the continuous silencing and deafening wailing of our daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. We have learned that African women do not give up.  Rather, we are called to face life with boldness and courage so that we (as well as others) may have life. Our wise foresisters and foremothers marched on and it is upon their shoulders we stand and together say “no” to violence, exclusion, marginalisation, and silence. Daughters of Africa have heard the call to ‘arise’, ‘wake up’, AMKA. Take time to read what we have to say.