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  • Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times
  • Zhijun Ren
Martin, Phyllis M. — Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

In Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times, Phyllis M. Martin provides an alternative historical perspective of Congolese women` s social and spiritual experience from the late nineteenth century to the 1990s. The author places her primary focus on the Catholic women from the region of lower Congo that lies between Brazzaville and the Atlantic Ocean. In this work, Martin seeks to interweave “women’s experience as mothers and sisters, their movement into the church” into the writing of national histories, which are usually focused on male political and military leaders (p. 17).

The author begins her book with the arrival of French missionaries in the 1880s. The first obstacle the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny encountered was an inability to recruit young women to missions and convents. The author explains Congolese families’ reluctance to send girls for Christian training in terms of the confrontation between local social practices and Christianity. Natural disaster and colonial conquest significantly reduced the population in Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, male labours were recruited or forced to work for European enterprises. In these circumstances, women and girls represented valuable human resources, over whom elder male members desired to maintain control.

More importantly, the social structure introduced in the new Christian missions subverted the traditional social order in equatorial Africa. The tradition through which mothers and elder women passed on “specialized knowledge relating to essential customs, rituals and prohibitions” regulating reproduction and mother-hood to their daughters was known as Kumbi. In the Congolese world view, the [End Page 170] neglect of these traditions could “endanger the spiritual and social well-being of the whole society” (p. 22). Therefore, to send girls to Catholic missions meant to “alienate maternal responsibilities, endanger social health, and put future mothers at risk” (p. 20). Sending young women and girls to church training would mean the loss of generational continuity and social stability.

Despite these initial obstacles to conversion, by the interwar period, the first generation of Catholic Congolese women were recruited, and a community started to form. Chapter 4 deals with the spatial and temporal ways in which the Catholic community transformed African women. The church and the convent had become an “imagined community,” within which concepts of mother-hood and sisterhood were redefined. The Catholic convent communities provided an arena for both European and Congolese sisters to define and construct social categories such as gender and race in colonial Congo-Brazzaville.

While colonial/ postcolonial narratives are largely constructed around a masculine, confrontational, colonizers-versus-colonized binary, Martin’s approach avoids such a dichotomy and the tensions created by it. By focusing on the missionary nuns and Congolese religious women who were bonded together by Catholic religion and community life, Martin creates a new category, namely “Catholic women,” forged as religious and gender identity took precedence over racial or cultural identity.

The last two chapters of the book deal with the post-Second-World-War and postcolonial periods. As nationalist, anti-colonialist, and socialist politics became more important in Congo-Brazzaville, male involvement in religious affairs began to drop. While men withdrew from church attendance and other religious activities, women remained closely involved in the church. In addition, one of the author’s informants pointed out that, lacking proper schooling, the great majority of women did not understand Marxism and the socialist revolution, saying, “Prayers are more important than the revolution” (p. 150). While men dominated the economic and political realm, women retreated to the religious sphere. Being excluded from the national politics, women found in religion an alternative venue through which to maintain their agency and autonomy. To a great extent Catholic women’s groups became a prototype of civil society with a religious tone.

The best examples are women’s fraternities discussed in chapter 5. Women’s fraternities began to flourish in urban regions, particularly Brazzaville, during the troubled times of the 1950s and 1960s, as women...


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