Global Perspective

November 2, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 27

Bertha Nwazi Nyirenda
Bertha Nwazi Nyirenda, 28 years old, lectures in philosophy and ethics at the University of Zambia and teaches ethics at St Bonaventure College, a Catholic formation center in Lusaka.



I am not afraid to do what are regarded as culturally non-conforming gender tasks for a woman. I do not see success in terms of masculine and feminine. I would like to be remembered as a successful person and not just as a successful woman.

Eventually everybody adjusted to who I was

My experience as a woman theologian in Africa

By Bertha Nwazi Nyirenda

Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a new series of articles on Global Perspective, Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories. Join us for the next three weeks as we hear women describe their experiences of doing theology in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Lusaka, Zambia -- I have grown up in an environment in which the life of girls post-puberty is culturally pre-determined. Even though girls have always been allowed and even encouraged to complete school and go on to college, they are always expected to join the fields of nursing, teaching -- particularly pre- and primary school teaching-- and secretarial. In other words, they should find work where they are doing the socially accepted tasks of a woman. They should care for and nurture the young and the sick, and be assistants for the men. And when they return home in the evening they carry on with the same tasks on a smaller scale.

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I was born and raised in Zambia. I am the fourth born in a family of five children, four sisters and one brother. I did my full seven-year primary education at St. Mary's Primary School now known as Mary Queen of Peace School. Thereafter I went to Kabulonga Girls Secondary School. Both schools are girls-only schools where we were taught good manners and women's virtues such as needlework, cookery and good housekeeping.

In secondary school the careers guidance master gave us the options of colleges we could attend if we wanted to go into nursing or teaching as a career. I completed school and applied to various universities in the Southern African region. My parents have always been in favor of their children getting a multicultural view of life and have tried to send us all abroad for tertiary education. I decided to pick Chancellor College of the University of Malawi because I had heard many good things about that country, and they all turned out to be true.

I enrolled at the university for a bachelor of arts degree in humanities. Of all the courses I could have taken, I decided to enroll in the department of philosophy and theology, a decision that stunned not only my parents but my professors as well. The department was there as a service to the students coming from the theological college nearby, who wanted to upgrade their diploma to a degree. They all asked why I would want such a degree. Most women interested in the area would take religious studies with the purpose of teaching it in schools. Any other woman reading theology would belong to a congregation of sisters. What would I do with it? What sort of job will that get me? These were the sorts of questions I had to answer -- and still do.

I have not always wanted to be a theologian. In fact, I didn't even know of theology as a course study until I went to university. Like a lot of people I've met, theology was just part of a formation process of becoming a priest. There was a theological seminary near home when I was growing up and I always thought it was fancy terminology for "priesthood." When we asked the seminarians what exactly they did there they said "theology" -- we understood by that to mean that theology is the study of priesthood, and since only men are ordained as priests it is an exclusively male domain.

I only came to realize the truth in my first year, but I think the damage had already been done. I couldn't bring myself to do "a course in priesthood." Yet I was curious about it, and so I compromised by taking philosophy instead. Thus I graduated with a major in philosophy and minors in history and classical studies.

Read More
         Learn more about this new series starting on Global Perspective: Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories.
         Part One: Theologians issue call to 'to fulfill the vision of Jesus' and create 'a discipleship of equals.
         Part Two: Women theologians in India are reclaiming space.
         Part Three: Forty years of theology in Latin America.
         Part Four: Eventually everybody adjusted to who I was: My experience as a woman theologian in Africa.
         Part Five: From the option for the poor: A personal journey.
         Part six: Faith seeking empowering understanding.
The real challenge for me came when I went for my master's degree in Nairobi, Kenya. I went to the Catholic University of Eastern Africa where I wanted to do a degree in canon law. I had talked with the Archbishop of Lusaka Merdado Mazombwe, and he inspired me to look in the direction of canon law. I thought that there was no better place to do that than at a Catholic University. I had also been assured of getting a partial scholarship from the university if I was accepted.

When I got there I was advised that I couldn't do canon law without a degree in theology. I'd have to do a three-year course in theology and then I could do the two-year canon law course. Alternatively, I could proceed with philosophy and get my MA in philosophy. I decided on the latter and I enjoyed my studies tremendously and always performed well.

Initially I felt that I was three times disadvantaged as a member of that "community." First I was the only female member in the department, second I was the only lay person, the others were either priests or brothers, and third I was the only one there in my age group. At age 24, I was the youngest; the second youngest person was 12 years my senior. I was under the impression that everything I said was not appreciated either because I was not a religious, or because I was young and didn't know enough about things or simply because I was a woman and it wasn't my place to talk.

One of my professors jokingly gave me two weeks to last in that department. He turned out to be my favorite professor and we had a good working relationship. I had learned to work hard and put in equal effort. I felt that it was unjust to expect me to put in twice the effort just so I could get the recognition. I refused to defend myself for being a woman in a man's domain or a non- religious in a religious domain.

Eventually everybody adjusted to who I was.

I had very few sad moments, but I particularly recall when I was told I didn't qualify for the philosophy scholarship because it was only open to the religious students. Fortunately my parents were able to raise the money for me to complete my studies.

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I have since graduated and I am now lecturing full time at the University of Zambia in the department of philosophy and applied ethics. I also teach ethics at one of the seminaries in Lusaka. I have been told that I have broken new ground as the first woman lay person to teach a philosophy course at a theological institute.

I am not afraid to do what are regarded as culturally non-conforming gender tasks for a woman. I do not see success in terms of masculine and feminine. I would like to be remembered as a successful person and not just as a successful woman. It is not too late for me and I still intend to study theology and become a canonist. But if I could go back in time I would go to that little girl that was me and redefine theology for her and make it possible for her to pursue theological studies.

Next week, Erika Sally Aldunate Loza, a professor of dogmatic theology at the national seminary in La Paz, Boliva, continues the reflections in the series Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories.
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