Missiologists are beginning to understand that the spread of Christianity in Africa was largely due to Africans internalizing the gospel and spreading it in a culturally relevant and adept manner, often into regions where missionaries had not ventured.1 Women were critical to this work, as they converted to Christianity first and in much higher numbers than men.2 Paulina Dlamini provides one such example.
Born as the oldest daughter of a Zulu chieftain in mid-1858, Paulina Dlamini’s parents pledged her to be married to the ascending Zulu king, who successfully organized the tribes to resist British rule.3 Paulina joined his court and women’s house at age thirteen. Here she first became acquainted with Christian missionaries, whom she characterized as something like court clowns. But she also described the king’s enjoyment as he listened to the missionary’s stories, making it very likely that she heard the gospel while she was in the king’s court. While still a young teenager in the king’s house, the British instigated a civil war, forcing the king into exile and devastating Paulina’s status and her family fortune. To survive, Paulina’s family attached themselves to a Dutch farmer, where both Paulina and her sister worked as household servants.4
As a teenager in the Dutch household, Paulina saw a vision of a woman glowing in white who told her to claim the Bible and rebuild her Zulu people of South Africa.5 The vision was odd considering that Paulina was illiterate and not a Christian. Not understanding the dream, she asked the Dutch farmer what it meant. He met with religious leaders who were convinced she was having visions from God, and that she needed Bible training. In accordance with her vision, for two years they mentored and taught her the Bible.6
Convinced of Jesus’s good news within the Bible, Paulina became a powerful evangelist. By remaining true to the Holy Spirit’s original message to rebuild her Zulu people, she challenged a much-feared colonizer who was severely beating his Zulu workers. He listened to her challenge, stopped beating his workers, became a Christian and a key person in her mission. These types of incidences earned the respect of the Zulu people and their openness to hear the Bible’s message.7 The conversion of two wives of the new Zulu king brought Paulina particular pride.8 But she did not restrict her message to only the Zulu people, instead she worked in mutuality and partnership with Dutch missionaries throughout her lifetime. This partnership enabled her to successfully establish multiple congregations among the colonizers and the Zulu, who referred to her as the Apostle of Northern Zululand.9
Learn about African change makers like Paulina Dlamini from CBE’s International Conference in South Africa. “CBE Fights Gender Based Violence at ‘Truth Be Told Conference’” by Mimi Haddad.
Listen to the work that African women theologians are doing to empower their own communities in the Mutuality Matters podcast with Kenyan Bishop Emily Onyango.
Read about the ongoing transforming work women are doing in communities across Africa in “Women Transforming Communities” by Esme Bowers.
- Robert describes the new studies of the spread of Christianity in Africa, largely due to Africans rather than missionaries. Dana L. Robert, “Introduction to ‘African Initiatives in Christian Mission,’” Missionalia 31 no.1 (April 2003): 2,.
- Dana L. Robert, “Introduction to ‘African Initiatives in Christian Mission,’” Missionalia 31 no.1 (April 2003): 12-13.
- The historical political details of Paulina and the Zulu people is well summarized by Jonathan A. Draper, see Jonathan A. Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion, Icon and Oracle: Reception of the Printed Sacred Text in Oral and Residual-Oral South Africa,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 112 (March 2002): 45.
- Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 45.
- Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 46-48.
- Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 48.
- Draper, “The Bible as Poison Onion,” 49.
- Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History, (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 193.
- Krige, WA. “Paulina Dlamini, Servant of Two Kings,” Missionalia 16 no. 2 (August 1988): 100.