1 min read

The women driving African Christianity’s global reach

Harvey Kwiyani is the CEO of Global Connections and a lecturer in African Christianity at Church Mission Society. He also leads Missio Africanus.

African Christianity has exploded to reach all countries in the world. From villages to megacities, Harvey Kwiyani outlines the significant role women are playing.
A group of women stand and dance at a celebration in the street, wearing matching skirts..
Igbo women at a celebration in Nigeria.
John Mic on Unsplash.

In the past fifty years, African Christianity has exploded to reach all countries in the world. A Nigerian Pentecostal denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, boasts of having congregations in every country in the world. Another African Pentecostal denomination, the Church of Pentecost (from Ghana), is present in 160 countries around the world. Here in the UK, these two are the largest African denominations with almost 1000 and 200 congregations, respectively. Most of their members are African, and the African woman is at the centre of it all (even though, of course, their leadership structures say otherwise). So, this article sets out to show the particular contribution of women to African Christianity.

“To develop a community, you must educate its women.” This is what we were told several decades ago when African countries like Malawi (where I grew up) wanted to encourage communities to send young girls to school. Of course, this is not untrue. Living standards in communities where women had access to schools were noticeably better than in societies where women had not attained basic education. Educationally empowered women tended to help uplift their communities towards better living. While politicians and activists preached about educating young girls, Christian communities took a similar approach to evangelism, mission, and church growth. “If you want to save a community,” they said, “you must convert the women.” They believed that when women became Christians, the men and children in their communities would also convert. A great deal of the evangelistic campaigns was shaped to appeal to women.  

African women themselves took advantage of this and became missionaries and evangelists in their own communities. Looking back at that era, there is no doubt that African women played a very significant role in the remarkable spread of Christianity through the continent over the past century. In part, this is why women and girls make up a majority of Africa’s Christian population. While 52 per cent of Africans are female, women and girls make up well over 55 per cent of Christians in many African countries. 

Female African evangelists, many of whom would not even identify as such, took the good news to their communities and spoke about the transforming power of Christian faith with fellow women wherever they gathered—whether fetching water, walking to the maize mill or, indeed, for their regular village women’s meetings. Slowly, one by one, they evangelised their families, friends, and co-workers. These went on to convert their own families, clans, and communities too. Men played a role too, and this is often acknowledged. Women’s work, however, is usually under-appreciated. Christian mothers often taught the basics of the faith to their children, tilting their worldview towards Christianity in their formative years. In most cases, Christian women worked as teachers in early primary education. Their Christian faith and lifestyles were part of their teaching and testimony. In teaching primary school Religious Education, for example, many teachers catered to the curious needs of young inquisitive minds living in a religiously charged atmosphere. Alongside this, because of their profession, most female Christian teachers often ran Sunday school classes in many churches.  

Furthermore, women often took on the responsibility of praying for their families and communities. The importance of this work cannot be understated. The people I grew up with in Southern Malawi used to say that behind every successful boy or girl is a praying mother. Indeed, my grandmother, one of the female evangelists in our community, used to say, “Our children’s futures are shaped on the knees of the mothers.” Rightly so, bent and broken on their knees, the women of my community prayed for their children’s educational, social, and spiritual well-being. A female Nigerian pastor told me an adage, “If you have not seen an African woman travailing in prayer, you have not seen prayer yet.” Of course, this is hyperbole, but it was said for a reason.  

Today, in the 21st century, African women continue to be the backbone of the Christian faith in the continent as well as in the African diaspora. 

While African Christian women can be good teachers and build their communities through prayer, it is their commitment to hospitality that stands out.. Their hospitality provided missionaries and evangelists with a platform that helped their work of preaching Christianity. By opening their homes to house the missionaries, even temporarily, and making sure that those who went out to preach the gospel—and this included numerous female evangelists—were fed, they facilitated a network that helped accelerate the growth of Christianity in Africa.  

Today, in the 21st century, African women continue to be the backbone of the Christian faith in the continent as well as in the African diaspora. A Burkinabé female theologian, Ini Dorcas Dah, has discussed the role of African women in both the churches as well as in society in her 2017 book appropriately entitled, Women Do More Work Than Men. She is following in the theological footsteps of the matriarch of African women’s theology, Mercy Amba Oduyoye who, back in the 1980s started questioning the male domination of a majority female church in Africa. Oduyoye would, in 1989, start the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians to enhance the feminist critique of African Christianity. Her book, Daughters of Anowa: African Women and Patriarchy, has grown to become a classic. The Circle continues today as many African female theologians such as Esther Mombo, Telesia Hinga, Isabel Phiri, and Wanjiku Kihuha have picked up the baton and published many books over the past twenty years. 

In her master’s research, done in 2018, Modupe Adefala, a Nigerian pastor of Word Fountain Church in Oxford, suggested that African women pioneered a great deal of African origin church ministry work in London. Her biographical sketch of five female Nigerian pioneers in London revealed larger-than-life ministers doing outsized work in the city. Sheila Akomiah-Conteh, a Ghanaian theologian who works for Missio Africanus and teaches at Church Mission Society in Oxford, adds that African women are busy serving God in migrant churches in every city in the country—churches that are usually unseen, making the work of the women serving in them even more hidden from society. They silently do what they need to do, away from the spotlight. Both of them are keen to recognise that a younger generation of female African Christians is emerging that is ready to serve while living right in the spotlight. Modupe’s daughter, Wonuola, carries a good portion of her ministry on Instagram. She is one of many young African women ministering significantly on social media.  

To get back to the statement at the beginning of this article, Akomiah-Conteh is concerned that African women have very little access to theological education and ministry training. She is right. Wanjiku Kihuha says that as a female theologian teaching in Nairobi, she is usually the only female in her classes. Another scholar added that for every 15 males in theological education in East Africa, there is only one female. This incongruence, especially in a church context where females significantly outnumber males, is quite troubling. Here in the diaspora, it is not too different. African women theologians are hard to come by, and when one is found, she will most likely be overstretched between family, ministry, and a career. African churches are an increasingly prominent presence in UK cities and towns. For them to have the deep positive impact that they have the potential to bring, we need both to pay attention and to support the women who so often are the backbone of these churches    


Missio Africanus, has a commitment to equip and empower African women both through theological education and ministry training. It is convinced that to mature a Christian community, its women must have access to theological education. It welcomes any support we can get for this. 

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4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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