Mercy Amba Oduyoye Centers African Women Within Christian Theology | Sojourners

Mercy Amba Oduyoye Centers African Women Within Christian Theology

Guard your circle, sisters.
Illustration by David Barthold
Illustration by David Barthold

TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Mercy Amba Oduyoye: She is one of Africa’s premier Christian theologians, and she is one of Africa’s most underrated Christian theologians. Both truths hang together.

Oduyoye is underrecognized in the world of religious studies, especially Christian theology, because of the focus of her work: African women. For more than 60 years, through her theological and advocacy work and her ecumenical involvement, Oduyoye has centered the experiences of these women, cementing their voices within the canon of Christian theology and ethics.

“Christianity as manifested in the Western churches in Africa does little to challenge sexism, whether in church or society,” Oduyoye writes in Daughters of Anowa: African Women and Patriarchy. “I believe that the experience of women in the church in Africa contradicts the Christian claim to promote the worth (equal value) of every person. Rather, it shows how Christianity reinforces the cultural conditioning of compliance and submission and leads to the depersonalization of women.”

African women, much like their African American womanist counterparts, have resisted narratives of women’s experience put forth by white Western women or African men. White women, they explain, cannot speak for African women. And African men cannot speak for African women.

Oduyoye recognized early in her career that African women must carve out space to narrate their own lives and theological ideas. African women “take a critical distance” from “European and American theologies of various types, including missionary and feminist/womanist theologies,” Oduyoye explains in her 2001 book Introducing African Women’s Theology, “as their priority is to communicate African women’s own understanding.” African women can speak for themselves; Oduyoye gained this wisdom and courage from her upbringing.

‘The advantages of keeping women invisible’

Mercy Amba Oduyoye is the eldest of nine children of Charles Kwaw Yamoah and Mercy Yaa Dakwaa Yamoah. Oduyoye was born in October 1933 on their family’s cocoa farm in southeast Ghana; Oduyoye’s love of chocolate today seems a fitting tribute to her birth.

Her parents were members of the Akan ethnic group; Oduyoye’s Akan name, Ewudziwa, was a tribute to her maternal grandfather. The Akan are a major people group; in the early 17th century, there were 33 independent Akan states, located mainly in what is now Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Akan culture is heavily infused with the belief that spiritual beings are present in every facet of life; one does not act in the world alone, but other actors, material beings and otherwise, influence outcomes in the physical world. With this openness to religion, even from other cultures, the Akan were not resistant to colonial missionaries. Many Akan people, including members of Oduyoye’s family, accepted Christianity.

Oduyoye descended from Presbyterian maternal grandparents and a paternal family with Methodist roots and was raised in a household where Christianity was taken seriously—but also subject to Western and Akan cultural shortcomings. Patriarchy was an undeniable force present within both. Both Akan culture and Western Christianity discriminated against Akan women. Though matrilineal in their kinship and familial structures, the Akan people are not matriarchal. Thus, Oduyoye grew up in a culture that emphasized the importance of women yet failed to grant women the opportunity to be leaders within their local community and Christian church.

She saw how her father ministered and received affirmation from white Westerners that her mother and other women were denied. “Mama carried more responsibility in the church without getting any more authority than Nana [her maternal grandmother] had and maybe even less,” Oduyoye writes in an essay in Inheriting our Mothers’ Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective, “because Westernization was teaching Africa the advantages of keeping women invisible.”

This patriarchal stance affected generations of African women. It became clear to Oduyoye that African women and the church did not seem to mix—or rather, that African women only fit into the church in the ways white Western and African men deemed fit.

Oduyoye decided to study theology to uncover what African women sounded like within it. Noel Q. King, a church history professor at the University of Ghana, and Oduyoye’s mentor E. Bolaji Idowu encouraged her to pursue further study in Christian theology. Idowu, Oduyoye wrote in a 1995 journal article, “saw the need for the participation of women in the theological enterprise and in the ministry of the church, and took steps towards its realization.” Oduyoye’s studies took her to the University of Ghana, the University of London, and Cambridge University, where she graduated with a master’s in theology in 1969.

Go fetch the tea!

After a period teaching at Wesley Girls’ High School in Cape Coast, Ghana, Oduyoye dove into ecumenical work. The force of her voice got her many invitations into ecumenical organizations; she served on the World Council of Churches, the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.

The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) is an organization determined to see “the situation in which Christians struggle to live as the body of Christ and to present the gospel,” as Oduyoye puts it. But even with this focus, EATWOT often overlooked its women participants. Oduyoye and other women sought to address this by creating the Commission on Theology from Third World Women’s Perspective. This commission served its purpose, allowing women to name and actively address the plight of women in developing nations.

In 1989, Oduyoye founded the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, an organization that seeks to create space for African women’s theological contributions and experiences to be heard, developed, and shared globally. The circle, which took almost 20 years to come to fruition, is the initiative most closely associated with Oduyoye’s name, along with her creation of the movement of “African women’s theology.” The group emphasizes, according to Oduyoye, that “African communities are multifaith, that religion and culture had much that was misogynistic, and that issues of justice for women had to be raised.” It is the space in which Oduyoye would begin developing her own theological language.

Oduyoye’s work in EATWOT and the circle had significant impact, but her work in the academy helped her to see most clearly the need for doing Christian theology that centers African women’s experience. In a 2001 article for The Ecumencial Review, Oduyoye recalled an incident while teaching at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. “I found myself sitting at a table with 10 male colleagues at a departmental meeting and was asked to go and bring tea for all.” She didn’t fetch the tea. Later, she says, “I went home and mulled over this experience, asking myself how many African women were in this predicament of being the sole woman among men theologians.” Through that sexist moment Oduyoye recognized the dire need for African women’s representation within the Christian theological sphere. Not long after, African women’s theology was born.

How it feels to be on the fringe

African women’s theology acknowledges African culture to be the backbone of African identity but does “not accept,” as Oduyoye puts it, “that African men’s theology should suffice for the entire faith community.” The crux of African women’s theology is advocacy: African women have not been fully cared for or heard. In response, African women constructed their own theology, Oduyoye says, “at their own pace, from their own place” while portraying “their priorities and perspectives.” One means of doing so has been through publication.

Over the course of her life, Oduyoye has written, co-authored, and co-edited numerous articles and books in the field of African women’s theology. When she recognized that there were no texts covering church history written by African women, Oduyoye created the first: Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa, published in 1986. In the book, she interrogates church history and colonial history from an African women’s theological perspective. Aware of her contextual position in writing this book, Oduyoye admits that it may be considered “unsystematic” by traditional gatekeepers but insists that it “gives some idea of the theological issues we in Africa face and some impetus toward further articulation of the faith.”

Oduyoye’s work challenges the Eurocentric nature of much of Christian theology. “There was a time when the only acceptable adjective to append to the word theology (apart from confessional words like Lutheran or Anglican) “was the word German,” she writes in the introduction to Hearing and Knowing. Her theological work makes clear that “Third World theology” must be granted a hearing in a world that places certain voices, namely European ones, on a pedestal.

Less than 10 years later, Oduyoye wrote Daughters of Anowa: African Women and Patriarchy (1995), an in-depth look at how African culture and Christianity both profess a patriarchal understanding of communal life—and how African women constantly resist that understanding. African women interrogate religion and culture from a complex position. “Like African men,” she writes, “African women are well aware of the impact of colonization and the attempted Christianization of Africa. African women are aware of bearing more than half of the life-support burden of Africa, and Christian women feel more than anyone else the church’s capitulation to Western norms, which it then propagates as Christian norms.”

In 2001, she published Introducing African Women’s Theology, one of her most popular works. It reframes traditional doctrinal positions—a doctrine of God, Christology, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, and eschatology—and introduces unconventional ones, such as hospitality and spirituality, from an African feminist perspective. In this work, Oduyoye unapologetically does theology for African women.

African women understand how it feels to be on the fringe. Thus, for them, theology is framed as a communal process. “In doing theology women adopt a perspectival approach rather than analysis and critique of existing works,” Oduyoye writes. It is not an armchair exercise but a practical, communal event. Women, Oduyoye asserts, “grant that there are unique insights that come from individuals from contexts other than one’s own and that there is something to be appreciated from that which is different.”

In situating African women in the conversation of Christian theology, Oduyoye’s approach is subversive: Her doctrine of God incorporates colonial history, arguing that “African women discover ... the Triune God as liberator of the oppressed, the rescuer of the marginalized and all who live daily in the throes of pain, uncertainty, and deprivation.” She reimagines Jesus as in solidarity with African women. These women relate closely to him and “testify to what Jesus has done for them.”

Oduyoye relocates male and female gender disparity into the conversation of being human. She understands that “we, women and men, are human together.” Her study of the church holds to the truth of a whole church—globally, theologically, and across genders—and advocates for holistic community. The “true image of the church of Christ” requires the “partnership of women and men.” Oduyoye even boldly includes the African principle of hospitality as a core doctrine, writing that “Offering and receiving hospitality is a key indication of the African emphasis on sustaining our life-force at all costs.”

Musimbi R.A. Kanyoro, a Kenyan human rights activist and close friend of Oduyoye, recalls Oduyoye’s drive to create opportunities for African women where there once were none. Instead of “lamenting the dearth of writings from African women,” Kanyoro writes, Oduyoye “was motivated to change the situation.” Without Oduyoye’s persistence, African women in theology would not have the platforms they have now. Oduyoye was “one of the first African women theologians,” according to scholars Isabel Apawo Phiri and Sarojini Nadar, “to write and publish theological reflections of any significance, particularly with respect to African women.” Oduyoye has opened the door for countless women after her.

Write your own story

When I was a first-year doctoral student, I asked my professor whose work I—an African woman raised in the U.S.—should read to see myself.

I needed more than what Augustine and Barth could offer. Reading someone else would help make sense of my childhood experiences at a racist Southern Baptist school. It would help me understand, I thought, what it was about African descent that so many white people found incomprehensibly fearful—and what it was that so many African Americans in my life yearned to connect with through me, my mother’s accent, and my family’s migration story.

In seminary, my canon expanded to include James H. Cone, Delores Williams, Katie Cannon, Howard Thurman, Vincent Wimbush, Emilie Townes, M. Shawn Copeland, Kelly Brown Douglas, and others, but I still could not quite see or hear myself fully in their work. They honored the history and story of the African American community; I was American African.

My professor—Dr. Esther Acolatse—gave me some advice: Start with Mercy Amba Oduyoye.

So, I read Oduyoye to hear from a voice who would tell me about myself. Except, she did not. Instead, Oduyoye told me about herself and the other continental African women with similar experiences of racism, patriarchy and sexism, classism and caste systems, health disparities, and political invisibility. She outlined the hardship of living at the intersection of African, woman, and Christian identities, and she told me about the religious-cultural imagination undergirding this adversity.

Oduyoye has dedicated her life to uplift women. She intentionally sought, found, and honed her voice for this purpose. African women’s theology, the fruit of her labor and persistence, has inspired me, too, to honor the truth of my existence. Carving space in the (theological) world for one’s self is Oduyoye’s greatest lesson. Write your own story—not the one others expect from you, not the one that steps one inch away from the fullness of your truth.

For me, this means proudly asserting an American African lens on how I do Christian theology. Like so many other African women, having the permission and the charge to do theology from the space of who I am is the eternal gift and legacy of Mercy Amba Oduyoye.

This article was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion.

This appears in the December 2020 issue of Sojourners