Finding Voice in Africa: My Keynote for the 5th Pan-African Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians Conference in Botswana

 The following is part of the Summer Spotlight series highlighting the unique, formative experiences of faculty and students of Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies.


It is a brutal irony that Africans seek education in countries that have previously colonized them or participate in imperial activities in their homelands. As a Nigerian student studying in the US, I have lived that irony. My parents wanted me to earn a college degree with hopes that I would return to Nigeria and contribute to its development, particularly our region in the North which is economically disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country. After studying in Liberia and Sierra Leone, I went on to earn two advanced degrees at elite US institutions. Despite receiving a quality education, I craved knowledge that reflected and included contributions of African people, especially women, on the continent and in the diaspora. It was during this search, that I immersed myself into African-American scholarship, but I still wanted to hear the voices of African women. This search led me to Musa W. Dube’s Post-Colonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible ( 2000), a book that provided me with a context for my sense of alienation. Dube highlights the impact of what I call “colonial feminist theology” and shows how African women responded to their marginalization. Other writings by Dube introduced me to the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (also known as “The Circle”). 


Despite receiving a quality education, I craved knowledge that reflected and included contributions of African people, especially women, on the continent and in the diaspora.


The Circle is a Pan-African interfaith organization that was created in 1989. It was founded by seventy women and spear-headed by a Ghanaian, Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Arguably, it is the foremost organization in Africa that priortizes women’s issues within religious (African Traditional Religions, Islam and Christianity) and secular spaces. Besides formal meetings held every five years, they support each other through a sisterhood, they identify men and women to mentor, they prioritize publishing their work, they take on leadership roles at their home institutions, and they offer their expertise to agencies around the world. In this way they aim to influence policies in ways that impact lives positively. 

Engaging with works by The Circle women propelled my pursuit of a doctorate. Currently, I am a PhD student at Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies (SIS) focusing on Christian women’s religious and cultural identities in Nigeria. Dr. Clifton R. Clarke has been the ideal mentor, brother and colleague. He supports my Pan-African views, religious obligations, and my activism and scholarship which foregrounds the voices of African women. This summer, I had the privilege of presenting a keynote paper at the 5th conference and the 30th anniversary of The Circle. In July, I obtained my travel documents. Unlike my western counterparts, I don’t have the luxury of traveling to many countries including some in Africa without a visa. After months of frustration trying to renew my Nigerian passport, and organize my travel, I finally received the documents required to send my visa application to the Botswana embassy. I was granted a letter of approval five hours before my flight departed to Gaborone and I received my visa at their airport! 


Engaging with works by The Circle women propelled my pursuit of a doctorate.


Upon arrival the next day, the conference began at the University of Botswana. The theme was “Mother Earth and Mother Africa in the Religious Imagination.” There were eighty papers divided into four sub themes each day. 17 African countries participated. I was one of the recipients of the “Rising Star” award and I had the honor of presenting Prof. Mercy Amba Oduyoye with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I delivered my paper during the concluding session of the conference and, to my surprise, it was a full house. My paper was titled, “African Women as Environment Freedom Fighters.” It was well received. Dr. Christina Landman, who presided over the session, said that after listening to my talk, she has no fear for the future of The Circle. Several other scholars praised my work and I was also given constructive criticism. I am happy to report that, this November, a short version of my paper will be published in German by FAMA, a feminist-theological journal (you may download an English version of the essay here). A longer version is due to appear in an edited volume tentatively titled, Mother Earth, Postcolonial, and Liberation Theologies, published by Lexington Books.


We want to “cover the sky with stars as opposed to looking at one star.” 


I am thankful to The Circle for giving me the opportunity to keynote and to the School of Intercultural Studies (SIS) for supporting me. Most people at the conference knew of Fuller Seminary and I met someone who spoke highly of Dr. Amos Yong, the SIS/SOT dean at Fuller. This conference connected me with numerous African scholars and practitioners. As a new Circle member, I am proud to be part of an organization that prioritizes ubuntu (togetherness) in words and practice. Circle members do not simply talk about women’s empowerment. We are committed to making real changes and supporting each other within academia and beyond. As our newly elected coordinator Dr. Dube puts it, we want to “cover the sky with stars as opposed to looking at one star.” 


Yoknyam Dabale is a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies.