My work on the African continent over the past fourteen years has afforded me the privilege to walk with many women from over forty African countries, seeing their work and hearing their stories. Many stories were of struggle, oppression, war, poverty, and abuse, but many were also those of God’s grace, discovering God’s Word, deep faith, and prayers and miracles. The oral tradition and storytelling remains locked up in such communities and therefore very little has been written about these exploits, as popular written literature by Africans is less than 60 years old. These stories are usually used to educate, inspire, and communicate acts of bravery that have benefited the community or they are used to warn against unacceptable behavior.
I do not have access to every village, slum, or township, but there are women everywhere in Africa who want their lives improved and will take responsibility for biblical community transformation together with the men. Christian women are concerned about:
- Education for their children
- Sanitation, water, health, and government services
- The rising price of food
- The disintegration of values in society
- Dysfunctional families
- Corruption and fraud
- How they can work together to bring shalom to their communities and country
I share these three stories to help you understand the diverse roles women in Africa are assuming to transform their communities through the power of the Holy Spirit. You will meet Arnett, a woman of God with a passion to empower women to change their country; Martha, a mother of four; and Maria, a restored alcoholic from the rubbish dump. I have changed some of the names to protect these women and will encourage them to write their own stories when they feel safe to do so.
Monrovia, Liberia: Rising from the Ruins
The first African woman president lives here: Ellen Johnson Surlief.
Imagine a city with modern hotels, running water, electricity, beach mansions with palms gently blowing in the breeze, untold wealth of gold and diamonds, rubber trees, three crops a year, fertile soil, and tropical weather…all in ruins after twelve years of war. This city is now swarming with United Nations soldiers manning check points along the road to the city and airport, where citizens are constantly stopped and interrogated as to their purposes and destinations. The fifteen counties are disconnected from one another as the road system has been destroyed. Consequently, commuters have to walk great distances to connect with various forms of transport to reach the main city of Monrovia. It is a city that has lost hope: fields lie fallow, and people sit in the humid shade thinking about how things were, mulling over the pain of war, lost loved ones, and the destruction all around.
But there are women who have joined hands to transform their country, like Rev. Arnett Taylor. She is a past member of Parliament, an educationist, a business woman, a farmer, an executive member of the Liberian Evangelical Fellowship, a pastor leading an inner city mission, and a Bible teacher facilitating training and mentoring for about eighty young pastors.
Fetishes and Prayer in Village Schools
In Liberia, the government does not provide free schooling and that which is available is of such poor quality that children do not want to go to school, because teachers are often not paid for months. In contrast, Christian schools are flourishing, and Arnett has established a network for such schools. I saw village schools under reed roofs with no walls where children are taught not only the normal school curriculum but also values and skills.
These children walk for up to two hours in the morning and arrive famished, so they are given a simple meal when they arrive. Parents who are unable to pay are encouraged to cultivate their land and provide food for the children and for sale to others. As the schools grow, parents come to assist in the building of new structures. The teachers are paid very little, but when questioned they indicate that they prefer working in a Christian environment where they are looked after and can see the results of their work. Fourteen young women are being trained as teachers at Arnett’s home, where she provides security, meals, accommodations, and a small stipend. Arnett’s business contacts in the city provide the stationery for some of the schools and her farm produce sales pay the salaries for the teachers.
All children in the village are welcome to these schools. I am told that initially, parents do not send their children for fear of them being bewitched, but when they see the positive change in the children that attend, parents are drawn into these circles and environments of development. Productive, progressive villages with a strong Christian ethos result from this, and Arnett has established three small churches in the nearby villages where parents are also learning to read. In a country of fetishes and witches much value is placed on the supernatural, and great suspicion is on those who are successful. But Arnett attributes the success of these schools to the prayers of the students and teachers and envisions a future of well-educated Christian people leading the country in just twenty years.
Martha: Two Out of Four
I met Martha at a women’s leadership conference in Monrovia in 2006. At the commencement of the conference I asked women to share their stories and then added: “Tell us what happened to you during the war.” The hall where fifty-two women from ten counties in Liberia were gathered became very quiet for about five minutes until Martha spoke up: “I will break the silence.” This was the first time that she had spoken about the war and her turmoil.
Martha and her husband were farmers who often traveled to the nearby village to sell their crops and share the gospel. At the start of the war Martha’s husband was taken into the army against her will. She was seven months pregnant. She was alone, had never seen anyone give birth, and had to make a plan for her baby. The people of the village nearby believed in fetishes, but she had no choice but to go to them because she would not be able to survive on her own. So she packed the wheelbarrow with what she thought she may need, including her Bible, and embarked on her journey to the fetish people. She arrived to wailing and weeping as the men had also been forced to join the army, but was warmly welcomed and accepted into the community of women and children.
At the time of her delivery she was surprised when the midwife said that there were two babies. The women looked troubled and began to whisper and avoid her eyes. The one baby was given to her to suckle but the other was taken away. She found out later that he was killed and burned to prevent bad luck from entering the community. As food was scarce and she was at the mercy of the women, she accepted that this is what life was offering her and, as she had so much other pain in her heart and body, she attempted to brush the death of the baby aside.
A year later the army came again to rape the fields and the women. Martha fell pregnant again, and again she delivered twins. This time things were taken more seriously. She was given the second baby to suckle, but the first one was killed in front of her eyes, and Martha was made to eat the flesh with the other women. This they said would drive away the army and protect them. Martha became sick and her Christian faith was now undermined. She determined to never tell anyone about these dead children.
Her husband returned after the war. He recognized that the eldest child would be his and assumed that the other was the result of a war rape. But he was afraid to ask as she would fly into a rage for a few days, and he could see the pain of that memory was too much for her. They reestablished the farm, continued sharing the gospel with the villages, and planted a church in that village. Martha has also established a cotton farm and is teaching women how to weave and dye the cotton. This is bringing in much-needed income, and she has been elected as “mayor” of that community. Yet every time she sees the midwife, it is with great sadness that she greets her.
She cried out to the women at the conference, “Do you have similar stories?” An unnatural wail resonated around the hall as the women began to acknowledge their pain for the first time. Many of the women began to share some of the saddest stories of abuse that I have heard. We spent three days listening to the stories, praying, and forgiving the perpetrators.
Many of the woman declared that it was their faith that kept them going. None had ever shared their experiences with their spouses or loved ones, but they recognized that there were so many more women in Liberia with similar pain. These women left with new hope, joy, and a passion to bring healing and reconciliation to their nation. They have developed an unsophisticated process of creating space for women to tell their stories, grant forgiveness, and reconcile with the perpetrators.
Nambia: Loving Your Neighbor Out of a Shipping Container
Who needs lots of money to make a difference? Certainly not Maria who lives in the township of Kattatura, on the outskirts of Windhoek. She was living in a rubbish dump with her husband eking out a living when she met a group of women who cared enough to share the gospel with her and help her out of this existence. They invited her to travel with them to a leadership conference in Botswana in 2001. She was a new disciple of Jesus, eager to learn all that she could about changing her community. I watched her as she inquired what it would take to make a difference and someone said simply, “Love your neighbor.” She went back to her shack and initiated change. I visited her in 2003 and was amazed to find what she had done in such a short time with very little resources.
She has a basic two-room shack with a sand floor and no electricity or running water. Attached to the shack is a canvas tent and a shipping container which is used for daycare, an afterschool program, and a counseling center.
Despite her circumstances Maria has started the following:
- A soup kitchen. With a three-legged pot cooking outside over an open fire she feeds all the children who visit her home after school. Initially she asked a nearby small shop for any old vegetables but now other shop owners who have seen her project deliver greens each day.
- A daycare program for twenty-six children. More mothers can now go to work and leave their children safely in her hands.
- An afterschool care program. Many girls were being raped by their older relatives after school so Maria provides a safe place until the parents come home. These girls help with the babies, assist with the cooking, and get assistance with their homework.
- An HIV/AIDS counseling clinic every Thursday. A community nurse uses Maria’s shack to operate from and dispense advice. Free soup is offered to all who come.
- A small church of fifty people that she runs with her husband.
Maria has very little education. Her husband works with her in all the projects but she is the driving force. I interviewed the neighbors on either side of Maria’s house. An eighty-two year old man said that since 2001 there have been no child rapes in the community, and that men are afraid to abuse their wives because the women have come together and provided safe houses where those who are being abused can flee with their children.
There is a renewed community spirit with a zero tolerance to crime, and no public drinking is allowed. Children are improving in school because they feel safe and are being fed, explained a young woman.
Women in Africa are not always looking for outside assistance but are digging deep within to find the moral and spiritual resources to transform their communities. The changes these women work toward happen slowly but consistently as they give themselves to God in prayer and to their communities in love.
Where men shrink from leaving the holy edifices, women live out their faith practically as they understand it in the Word of God. There are many stories of Christian women who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are working together to transform their communities through holistic ministry and evangelization. I am so grateful to be working with them.