- Memories of Midwives
The invitation to respond to Kenneth Ngwa’s stimulating paper, which sought to develop a postwar African hermeneutic that both deals with a trauma and forges a new collective, intergenerational, and interregional identity provided me with a good opportunity to think through some of the hermeneutical and identity issues that have accompanied my own scholarly and personal journey from (South) Africa to the United States and back again.
I will do so through two interconnected points of entry: first, by referring in the first instance to the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians,1 who have done important work in thinking through some of the key issues in African biblical interpretation, and, second, by drawing on the narrative just prior to Exod 2, which is the focus text of Ngwa’s paper, that is, the story of the midwives in Exod 1:15–22, who together with the Egyptian princess (Exod 2:5–10) exemplify the themes of compassion, resistance, and hospitality highlighted in Ngwa’s exposition.2 [End Page 877]
The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, whose work is epitomized in its founding mother and most prolific author, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, can aptly be described in terms of the metaphor of a midwife. In the acknowledgments to her book Hope Abundant, Kwok Puilan dedicates the book to Virginia Fabella and Mercy Amba Oduyoye, whom she calls “two pioneers who have been midwives for the development of Third World women’s theology.”3 Indeed, at the heart of the Circle’s life and work is the notion of enabling, fostering, and making it possible for African women to write, allowing their voices to be heard in theological literature that may serve their churches and universities as well as enrich the global conversation.4 As the Circle’s 2007 draft constitution captures this main objective:
The Circle seeks to build the capacity of African women to contribute their critical thinking and analysis to advance current knowledge using a theoretical framework based on theology, religion and culture. It empowers African women to actively work for social justice in their communities and reflect on their actions in their publications.5
Even though many of the Circle members are not biblical scholars per se, quite a few of them have written on the story of the midwives in Exodus 1. Mercy Oduyoye therefore is drawn to the prime example of resistance exemplified in the midwives. Together with the Egyptian princess, who “did exactly the opposite of what her father had decreed,” she interprets the midwives as “women who refused to be coopted by the oppressor.” As she describes these women’s actions, “They must have been both compassionate and competent and were obviously full of wisdom.”6
With the memories of these midwives in mind, both those in the biblical text and those Circle women who engendered theological publications on the African continent, I would like to respond to two aspects of Ngwa’s article.
First, Ngwa offers a nuanced exposition of the nature of identity formation in his African context of Cameroon as well as in the biblical narrative of Exodus 2, which he structures around the “multiple consciousnesses and varied memories” [End Page 878] that accompany a movement from trauma to the forging of a new identity that extends even into Gershom, which Ngwa describes as “the narrative trope and communal embodiment that transforms the traumas of alienation to hopes of survival and integration” (p. 875).
The theme of identity is indeed important for African biblical scholars such as the ones also contributing to this Forum. It is interesting, therefore, that the author of the lead paper (Kenneth Ngwa) and one of the respondents (Aliou C. Niang) come from the ranks of the many African biblical interpreters who were trained and now teach at universities in the United States and so find themselves, to some extent, in diaspora. I can see how the idea of intergenerational and especially interregional identity formation would be important for Africans who need to reconstitute their identity while living far away from the African soil.
But the notion of identity is also central for the other contributors to this Forum...