World politics and the global economy are looking increasingly to Africa as in the next few decades it is set to become one of the leading centers of global production. It is also due to become one of the largest markets, which will help to dispel stereotypes about the continent that are still quite prevalent. This development has had a positive impact on the role of women in Africa, who are taking on increasingly important positions in various areas, as in the case of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia who won the Nobel Prize for peace; Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi; or the South African Nkosazana Zuma Clarise Dhlamini, who since 2012 has served as Chairwoman of the African Union Commission, the highest continental intergovernmental institution which has dedicated the decade 2010-2020 to African women (African Women’s Decade). There have been other women who have brought Africa prestige, such as the now deceased Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, or the militant Liberian pacifist Leymah Gbowee, also a Nobel Peace Prize winner (2011), who promotes initiatives by means of the Women Peace and Security Network.
Next to these prominent figures stand the many African women without a face and without a voice who are marginalized and suffering due to the disparities still wounding Africa. They are the many mothers who are still excluded from the overall process of the development on the continent, and who work and struggle responsibly to ensure a better future for their children.
And yet is not enough to denounce the disparities and the social injustice and violence of which women are victims. What is needed above all else is the promotion of their full and equal participation in all spheres of life, not only with a view to social and economic development, but above all to spiritual growth, because Africa’s very humanity passes through women. It is therefore more necessary than ever also to begin to consider African women as thinkers in the context of the theological sciences.
In this regard, unfortunately we are seeing a delay in expression. In fact, thinking about spirituality in Africa related to the feminine world places us before an unknown and undefined space, an intangible gap which is seemingly unbridgeable and yet fruitful.
Due to colonization, African women, like men, suffered a loss in their culture and identity. It is therefore not surprising on a continent so impoverished that the possibility of a full flowering of women’s freedom, one that would favor the emergence of her spiritual contribution, was not contemplated. Yet as much as the colonial ideology exercised its alienating action, the maternal sap in Africa never ran dry. John Paul II recognized “a primordial role of woman, since it is the mother who is generally the first evangelizer”, thus ensuring “a better quality of social life and the development of the new Africa, the Africa of the family”, naturally through the instruments and sensibilities proper to it. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in his numerous journeys to the continent, spoke about the inculturation of the Gospel message, encouraging its people integrate faith and Christian life into the African cultures. In particular, during his visit to Togo in 1985 he stated that “each African country ... should live the Gospel with its own sensitivities and its own attributes; it should translate them not only into its language, but also into its behaviour, taking into account the human worth of its heritage”.
In the light of all this, Africa must also be able to express its spirituality through its women. It is essential that this challenge be met. The African woman, in imitation of Mary in flight from Bethlehem, is on a journey; she is a bearer of hope and can contribute to spirituality by journeying back in search of those elements which, prudently kept, can reconnect her to a future in which she is at last called to speak. It is a future that is still in its infancy; therefore, the inner world of the African woman has still to be plumbed and examined. Every journey involves a return to one’s origins, not in order to rebut them, but rather to analyze them in a mature manner, and to understand the African identity from another perspective. As Africa today strives to find a spiritual home, understood, however, not as solely a search for identity, thus it is not possible to speak of African identity without acknowledging its spirituality.
The African woman is called to take an active role in history also in the field of theology, helping to humanize this battered continent and to create an African cultural identity based on the Gospel. She is to shed light on her own destiny, by thinking of herself as a witness to Gospel values, in order to influence African culture and society today. It is necessary that the African woman grasp the teachings of the Church, understand them, and put them into practice, since she can attain spiritual freedom only through a reflection centred on Christ.
In order that that the feminine face of God in Africa might be revealed, it is time to open to hope, by embarking on a new path of emancipation that will give voice to the women of Africa, or better, of the Africas, so that by means of their own unique talents, they may increasingly participate in ecclesial and social structures.
Alicia Lopes Araújo
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 25, 2019
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