Andreana C. Prichard. Sisters in Spirit: Christianity, Affect, and Community Building in East Africa, 1860-1970. African History and Culture Series. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017. 360 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61186-240-9.
Reviewed by Adam H. Mohr (University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Africa (June, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)
In one of the most incisive gendered histories of African Christianity, Andreana C. Prichard, with her incredibly engaging prose, takes her readers on a journey—by relying on narratives especially—of the female evangelists in the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) mission across East Africa over the span of one hundred years. While most women are frequently excluded from the very male-centered histories of African missions—mostly due to a lack of primary sources written by and written about them—Prichard has found significant materials outside of the standard archives in “shadow archives” and has conducted oral histories to produce this fantastic monograph. In this book, Prichard explains the creation of what she deems an “affective spiritual community” of women within the mission composed of a diverse, multigenerational network of African UMCA congregants that spread from Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania and Malawi between 1860 and 1970. This community of unofficial female evangelists was produced and sustained by a circuit of emotional feeling and spiritual connection.
Chapter 1 details the beginning of the UMCA missions in Britain and its Tractarian theology, which emphasized an embodied, emotional spirituality and focus on building a native church. Furthermore, this chapter documents the initial failure of the UMCA mission in modern-day Malawi, followed by its reestablishment, under new leadership, in Zanzibar. Chapter 2 focuses on the UMCA rescue of young female slaves to build its mission and the ways these young women were refashioned by the mission into “Christian mothers.” Single, female British missionaries worked with these young women creating affective fictive kinship relationships and created a sense of fellow feeling among members of the congregation. Chapter 3 details the early years of the central missionary institution called the Mbweni Girls’ School, which trained former slave girls to become either teachers or domestics, with two tracts: one for “school girls” and one for “industrials.” Interestingly, we learn in this chapter that the industrial tract provided much of the daily labor that kept the schoolhouse running and the school girls free for more intellectual pursuits. Chapter 4 examines the first generation of female evangelists trained at Mbweni and sent to the mainland from Zanzibar as well as their networks of affective spirituality created via networks of professional guilds as well as intergenerational fosterage and friendship. Chapter 5 interrogates how women in the UMCA community controlled their own reproduction—in the context of a patriarchal mission—via securing means to abortion and brokering marriages while relying on their affective relationships during the interwar period. Chapter 6 examines the creation and maintenance of a celibate religious order among African women in the UMCA, which offered a viable and respected alternative to marriage and an alternative path toward adult womanhood. Finally, chapter 7 analyzes an archive of personal letters exchanged between two lovers within the UMCA between 1960 and 1970, to demonstrate how community building via marriage was constructed in newly independent Tanzania.
What struck me most while reading this monograph is the excellent writing and incorporation of intimate personal narratives of African women, which really bring Prichard’s book to life. Unique among histories of African Christianity, these case studies read more like ethnography in their detail, which make for an incredibly engaging read, particularly chapter 7. Beyond the use of narrative, Prichard strongly engages many secondary literatures, including but not limited to the history of literacy in colonial Africa and the history of slavery in East Africa. Sisters in Spirit is quite an important monograph and should be read broadly by scholars in East African history, African Christianity, gender studies, and more particularly, the intellectual histories of African women.
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Adam H. Mohr. Review of Prichard, Andreana C., Sisters in Spirit: Christianity, Affect, and Community Building in East Africa, 1860-1970.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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