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.