Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times

By Bernault, Florence | African Studies Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times


Bernault, Florence, African Studies Review


HISTORY Phyllis Martin. Catholic Women of Congo-Brazzaville: Mothers and Sisters in Troubled Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. xiv + 262 pp. List of Abbreviations. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

Phyllis Martin's latest book may not have the theoretical and narrative scope of her extraordinary study Läsure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge University Press, 2002), but her inspiring study of Catholic women in the Congo offers many critical insights for historians of equatorial Africa, of Christianity, and of gender identities. Martin examines how the concept of motherhood became a contested category between indigenous people and colonial rulers, and she uses the case of Catholic converts to shed innovative light on women's experience in modern Congo. She is interested in understanding why the Catholic Church attracted converts in the early phase of the colonial period, thus making an important contribution to the history of African Christianity. As always, her study is characterized by exemplary attention to actors at the grass roots. She privileges popular visions of the Church among the Congolese, and offers a careful reconstruction of the various agenda sought out by the men and women who made Catholicism their own.

To allow for a detailed, finely tuned history of Catholic women over more than a century, Martin had to limit the geographical and thematic scope of her study. The book focuses on the "lower" Congo only, and pays little attention to Protestant missions, to the Congolese independent churches that emerged during colonialism, and perhaps more surprisingly, to modern Pentecostal Churches that now dominate the spiritual and political life of the Congolese. At times, this strategy narrows the significance of Martin's conclusions. For instance, the spiritual and social work achieved by Catholic women's fraternities would be better contextualized if compared with the presence of Pentecostal converts in the same terrains. Catholic Church members do worry about their spiritual competitors, and these concerns make up a significant part of their experiences and everyday strategies. Although Martin provides nuanced and convincing answers to the question of why people joined the Catholic Church, she leaves unasked the question of why many did not.

The organization of the book is chronological, spanning more than a century. The first four chapters look at the period before 1940, and the last two chapters and the epilogue extend the narrative up to the early twenty-first century. Looking at the life of Catholic female converts and the emergence of Christian families from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, Martin argues that the Church successfully combined its teachings with local kinship systems and rituals (death, marriage, coming of age) . She confirms the findings of the anthropologist Joan Burke in the DRC, that the metaphor of maternity helped local families come to terms with the loss of a daughter to a congregation of nuns. In this sense, the Catholic Church affirmed the local valuation of women in terms of motherhood. This perspective usefully complements Sandra Greene's concept of the "displacement" of indigenous beliefs by Protestant missionaries in Ghana, in her Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter (Indiana University Press, 2002). …

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