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Mission Accomplished? How Africa views Irish missionaries

Picture of the first Missionary Sisters of St Columban to go to China in 1926, with Columban Fathers. Photo: Columban Father's Archive.The view from Africa of Irish missionaries who worked on the continent is overwhelmingly one of “great gratitude” and “affection”, according to a panel of speakers from Africa at a debate in the Irish Aid offices in Dublin to celebrate Africa Day on 25th May.

Rather than evaluating the legacy of the missionary movement from an Irish perspective, the debate, entitled “How Africa views Irish missionaries”, invited Africans themselves to discuss how they see the work of Irish missionaries in Africa.

“Our view of missionaries is usually mediated through the Irish media or missionary congregations themselves and this evening we are trying to turn the lens around and look at Irish missionaries from the African view,” explained Joe Humphreys, Irish Times journalist and author of God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World, who chaired the event.

Salome Mbugua, a native of Kenya and currently Director of the migrant network AkiDwA in Dublin, praised Irish missionaries for their pivotal role in promoting health and education across the continent. This success, said Ms Mbugua, rested with the fact that Irish missionaries shared the experience of being a colonized people with Africans.

As a result, Irish missionaries, unlike their European counterparts, “empathised more with the people they met”. And because of their “understanding of colonization,” added Ms Mbugua, “they could identify very well with the people because of that shared common experience.”

Fr Severinus Ngudwa from Uganda, now working as a Catholic priest in Finglas, Dublin, spoke about the work of church and lay missionaries in ensuring more girls got an education and in challenging female genital mutilation rituals and polygamous and underage marriage customs.

Sr Patricia Murray, Loreto Sisters, emphasised the value of listening and the need for partnership and to arrive with an exit strategy. She is the executive director of Solidarity with Southern Sudan, an initiative involving 170 religious congregations.

How Africa views Irish missionaries - special Africa Day debate. Left to right: Dr Sahr Yambasu (Sierra Leone Methodist Minister), Salome Mbugua (AkiDwA), chair Joe Humphreys (Irish Times; author of ‘God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World’), Sr Patricia Murray (Loreto Sisters, Solidarity with Southern Sudan),  Fr Severinus Ndugwa (Ugandan currently in Finglas, Dublin) and Vincent Herlihy (Irish Aid).Dr Sahr Yambasu, originally from Sierra Leone and now working as a Minister of the Methodist Church throughout Ireland, said that a huge issue often overlooked when assessing the missionary movement’s legacy was the “agency of the local African people in initiating the Christian faith in their communities.” He said that there was already an openess on the continent to new ways of relating to God.

Dr Yambasu added that Irish missionaries tried to embrace African culture. “Often, especially when in some of our cases we had Irish missionaries, one of the things we found out in our own experience is the fact that they actually launched themselves into the local culture,” he said.

“And that is another key issue... that we should tell always,” said Dr Yambasu, “because it is still alive today.”

“The [Irish] missionaries did quite a lot of working in translating, in producing local grammars, in writing the languages that were not written before the missionaries arrived,” said Dr Yambasu.

“I just want to dwell on the fact of translating the Bible. Because often when we talk about missionary Christianity and culture you tend to hear as if, when the missionaries went to Africa, they undermined the culture, but in fact just wanting to translate the Bible into local languages of the people was dynamite, in cultural terms.”

Dr Yambusa added: “Much of the independence protests and movement were actually founded or led by people who went to missionary churches who (felt) the relevance of their culture and who were crying out for the indigenisation of Christianity among their own people . That empowered them to go on and ask for independence of their home countries.”

The debate addressed failings and criticisms of the missionary movement. Mr Humphreys cited abuses of power and trust, as highlighted in a recently aired RTÉ Prime Time programme on clerical sex abuse by Irish missionaries in Africa.

A questioner from the audience asked whether some Irish missionaries may have had children through relationships in communities in Africa, and whether they had taken responsibility for this.

A member of the African diplomatic corps in Ireland raised the issue of the role of missionaries in contributing to conflict throughout the continent. “There have been many wars between countries in Africa, and my general notion is that this has not been sufficiently acknowledged, by both those who were part of it, and those who were observers of sorts,” he said from the audience.

“Could we acknowledge some day that missionaries could have handled matters differently and some of the conflicts could have been avoided?”

Mr Humphreys noted how many perceptions of Irish missionaries were nuanced or complex. He cited the example of Wangaria Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In her autobiography, Maathai attributes her interest in peace and social justice to the teachings of the Loretto Sisters, who taught her as a child in Kenya.

But Maathai also criticised those missionaries who denigraded local culture. For her own tribe, the Kikuyus, “within two generations they lost respect for their own beliefs and traditions”, she wrote.

Mr Humphreys also cited Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “When the white missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray'. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

The Mission Accomplished? Series continues this Thursday, June 2 in the Irish Aid offices in O’ Connell Street, Dublin, at 6.30pm with From “The Far East” to “Of Gods and Men”: How missionaries have changed or challenged us. The final debate on Thursday, June 9 is on The future of the Irish missionary movement. The remaining debates will be also reported on and streamed live here. Chair of the series, Joe Humphreys is an advisor to

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