Nyambura J Njogore’s ‘Let’s Celebrate the Power of Naming’ in African Women, Religion and Health, honours an essay written by Mercy Oduyoye about her experiences of being a childless African woman. Njogore takes Mercy’s approach of naming the pain and from such experiences creating a life-giving theology, as an example for her own experiences of death and mental illness in her family.
Though the African and Australian experiences of childlessness are considerably different, there is nevertheless much in the words of these African sisters that will encourage Australian childless women too. However, it also resonated strongly with me as I thought of my unmarried friends. Mercy says, ‘In Africa… one is never really a full and fruitful person until one has a child.’ I think of my single friends who speak of being treated as children because marriage is a rite of passage to adulthood, for example. Additionally, many of them mourn the loss of the possibility of having children of their own.
Mercy speaks of taunts, the condolences, the blaming and the efforts to explain ‘why’, and I remembered the bizarre comments that single women receive, for example, the irrationality of telling women to work on their godliness (but not so much that they’re intimidating) or to make themselves more attractive (all the while ignoring that there are plenty of married women who are uglier/fatter than she)! Mercy’s conclusion is that such efforts are futile and false.
Mercy’s response to her childlessness is twofold. Firstly, she chooses to name her experiences, including the painful ones. Njogore says, ‘Silence and passivity are not options. As women, we are called to be fruitful and creative.’ We must find the courage to name and thereby expose degrading practices and attitudes. It’s only in doing so that we are able to affirm ‘women as moral agents and agents of transformation.’ In a sense we do not move on from this. The pain endures and, in embracing it, we validate our experience of it rather than glossing over it or arguing that it is in the service of something greater.
Along with this theology of lament, Mercy seeks to develop a life-giving theology by enhancing the language of creation (and procreation):
Increase in humanity
Multiply the likeness to God for which you have the potential.
Multiply the fullness of humanity that is found in Christ.
Fill the earth with the glory of God.
Increase in creativity.
Bring into being that which God can look upon and pronounce ‘good’ even ‘very good’.
Theology of creation and eschatology go hand in hand, and so Mercy also pursues a more adequate eschatological perspective so that there might be ‘aid for the judgements of inferiority and shame… clarity for the childless couple… participation in the glory of God.’ Mercy roots the fullness of humanity in bringing life after death through Christ, showing powerfully that childless women can actively embrace this state of life and work towards enhancing and enriching humanity, suffering with those who suffer as did Jesus Christ. Njogore points to her own experience of this ‘life-giving theology that will help me to arise from the trauma and numbness that have experienced me.’
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.