Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Medical Missions and Social Change

By Kollman, Paul | The Catholic Historical Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Medical Missions and Social Change


Kollman, Paul, The Catholic Historical Review


Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Medical Missions and Social Change. By Barbra Mann Wall. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2015. Pp. xx, 230. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-8135-6622-1.)

No historian of Christian missions can ignore the place of medical care in missionary self-understanding and self-presentation. Like schools, clinics have long featured at missions, and churches still provide substantial health care across the world. By exploring Catholic sisters from both international and indigenous religious communities who delivered health services in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania after World War II until 1985, Barbra Mann Wall sheds light on important episodes and issues, illuminating women's experiences otherwise unknown. Her analysis draws on these groups' archives and some interviews, supplemented with relevant historical and anthropological literature, to highlight the transnational nature of their work.

Several themes emerge. First, sisters' clinics often struggled with training and employing local people. Organizing courses for nurses, settling labor disputes, and overcoming cultural barriers consumed considerable time and energy. Second, nuns often negotiated their roles vis-à-vis mostly male colonial and church authorities who strove to stifle their autonomy. Third, providing sophisticated medical care grew in nuns' self-understanding as missionaries, and they gained cultural appreciation of varying local approaches to health and healing over time. In turn, they directed their efforts toward primary care and structural issues rather than only on curative biomedicine, and this drew them into transnational conversations about global health.

At its best, this book examine episodes and individuals for which Wall's archival research provides close description. These include the Biafran War in late 1960s Nigeria, when Catholic sisters observed the conflict firsthand, and the late 1970s war that overthrew Idi Amin in Uganda. Equally rich are her portraits of nuns trained as medical doctors who provided heretofore unknown medical relief to peoples far from other health services. She is judicious in assessing the sisters' work, questioning the value of missionary medicine in improving health at times, but admitting that missionary-recommended oral rehydration therapy, for example, was better than local approaches to dehydration like the "red pepper and ginger enema, which often caused seizures" (p. …

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