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  • The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters Between Maasai and Missionaries
  • Katherine A. Snyder
Hodgson, Dorothy L. 2005. The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters Between Maasai and Missionaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 308 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

In this detailed historical ethnography, Dorothy Hodgson investigates why more Maasai women than Maasai men have joined the Roman Catholic Church in Tanzania. She analyzes mission journals, archives, and other historical documents and uses data from fieldwork she conducted in three Maasai communities, interviewing missionaries, catechists, women, and men. In the first part of her book, she focuses on Maasai women's spirituality, drawing heavily from historical works and documents written by colonial officers. She demonstrates that Maasai women have always played an important part in Maasai religion, particularly in rite-of-passage events, such as naming ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies, and age-grade promotions; indeed, gender and gender complementarity figured highly in most Maasai rituals. Hodgson contends that, through religion, Maasai women expressed their identity and their value to society. She also contends that the rise in importance of iloibonok (ritual specialists) in the late eighteenth century diminished women's ritual significance and spiritual roles, undermining the gender complementarity that had previously been central. Economic and political policies of the colonial government, she asserts, further weakened Maasai women's position in society.

In the second and third chapters, Hodgson turns to a history of the Spiritan missionaries in Africa, their training methods, and their policies and strategies for gaining adherents. She then provides portraits of three missionaries who lived among Maasai during different periods. Each man, influenced by the times in which he was working, held different ideas and pursued different strategies for engaging with Maasai. Hodgson demonstrates [End Page 120] how these personalities affected the local population and their embrace of Roman Catholicism. Furthermore, she shows how Maasai influenced the missionaries and shaped their approach to evangelization. The Roman Catholic Church, as has been documented in other works on mission in Africa, tolerated many indigenous practices and adapted its practices to the cultural milieu in which it found itself. This "inculturation" worked well among Maasai women, who found a way to integrate Roman Catholicism with their own cultural traditions.

Hodgson then turns to a portrait of what she terms the "church of women" in Maasai communities. In each of the communities she portrays, women make up the majority of converts. Hodgson argues that changes in evangelization policies, shifting from a focus on children in schools to converting adults in communities through individual instruction, led to a marked increase in women's conversion. Maasai men too were drawn to the church, but in far fewer numbers. Male converts occupied important positions as catechists. Maasai men, and in particular senior men, benefited in numerous ways from "Maasai culture," and felt that the church, while it promoted inculturation, still represented a threat to this culture. Hodgson shows the complexity of the motivations behind men's joining the church, and how differences in education, age, and wealth affected their decision. A common element drawing younger, educated men to the church was its association with modernity and progress.

Why is it, though, that women choose to join the Roman Catholic Church? Hodgson draws on interviews with individual women and discussions with church officials to probe this question. First, as she demonstrated earlier, Maasai women have always had a strong spirituality, and the church provided them with an outlet for its expression. Second, she emphasizes that the church provided an alternative female community outside Maasai men's influence and control. This community, in part, compensated for the waning of women's influence and roles in the wider Maasai world, a decline brought about by colonial and postcolonial political and economic policies and the rise of the iloibonok. The conversion to Christianity allowed the women to emphasize their role as moral guardians of their communities, a role that challenges male authority. The policy of inculturation, which made it relatively easy for Maasai women to accept the church, has produced a uniquely Maasai expression of Roman Catholicism; however, Hodgson points out that inculturation is not universally agreed upon by Maasai Roman Catholics, and thus Maasai Roman...


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