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By virtue of Mercy Amba Oduyoye's birth in 1934 and childhood in Ghana under British rule, her career has coincided with the tumultuous period of modern African history: the struggle against colonial domination, political instability after independence, war and violent religious and ethnic strife, the widening economic gap between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, famine and ecological disaster, the overthrow of apartheid, and the tortuous road to democracy. As a feminist theologian and a leader in the ecumenical movement, Oduyoye has worked tirelessly to ensure that women's voices and concerns have been heard amid such momentous changes in African society.
In her several books and more than eighty published articles, Oduyoye has written on numerous subjects, such as the doctrine of God, the Bible, anthropology, the church, mission, and spirituality. One of her central concerns has been the ways African religion and culture shape and influence the experiences of African women. Culture can provide women their communal identity and sense of belonging, while at the same time it can be manipulated and used as a tool of domination. She writes, "African women's theology is developing in the context of global challenges and situations in Africa's religio-culture that call for transformation." (1) This article examines one issue that occupies a pivotal position in her writings over the past several decades: the relation between cultural hermeneutics and Christian theology.
Culture as a Site of Struggle
In Orientalism, Edward W. Said argues that colonialism involves political, economic, and military domination, as well as cultural hegemony in terms of the production of knowledge about the "other" and representation of the colonized in art, novels, travelogues, and missionary and government reports. (2) Labeled variously as the "primitive" and "uncivilized" "dark continent," Africa has had its unfair share of racist and colonialist myths projected onto its cultures and peoples. When the Enlightenment thinkers divided people into different racial groupings, some of the leading figures, such as Kant and Hume, placed "Negroes" at the bottom level of their racial hierarchy. (3) In the nineteenth century the nascent fields of anthropology, ethnology, comparative anatomy, and comparative religions described Africans as "savage," "childlike," and "barbarie" in their so-called scientific theories about the races.
To counteract such colonial misrepresentations, anticolonial struggles in Africa began with the affirmation of the dignity of black people and the positive elements of their cultures. Frantz Fanon analyzed the wounds inflicted by the insidious myths and stereotypes upon the psyches of black men and women, as well as the complex psychodynamics developed under the conditions of colonialism. (4) Leaders of the negritude movement, such as Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor, advocated a return to traditional African culture and insisted that cultural independence was a prerequisite to other independences.
The issue of gender featured prominently in the cultural debates between the colonizers and the colonized. The encounter between Western colonizing culture and indigenous cultures raised thorny issues pertaining to women's roles and sexuality, such as polygamy, child marriage, veiling, female circumcision, and widowhood. The subordination of women was often cited as symptomatic of the inferiority of indigenous cultures, and saving colonized women from their oppression, ignorance, and heathenism became an integral part of the colonialist discourse. Shuttled between tradition and modernity, indigenous women were seen either as victims of male aggression or as pitiful objects of Westerners' compassion. (5) To reclaim that they are subjects in charge of their own destiny, African women have to fight against patriarchy in their traditions, on the one hand, and the complex legacy of colonialist feminism, on the other.
The development of African theology must be seen within this larger matrix of the struggle to define African cultural identity and autonomy. Since the regaining of national independence, progressive church leaders and theologians in Africa have called for the abolition of the colonial trappings of Christianity and for the building of a church of African color, a Christianity with an African face. As a result, there have been two major thrusts in the development of African theology: inculturation and liberation. (6) Inculturation entails proclaiming the gospel using the languages, worldviews, and thought patterns of African cultures. Culture is seen by some African theologians as being the foundation of their identity, their historical path to salvation, and the best African vehicle for the gospel. (7) The negritude movement in francophone Africa and the argument for African personality in anglophone Africa contributed to the emergence of an African theology of inculturation. Liberation refers to Africans' urgent need to strive for economic and political freedom from neocolonialism, the control of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the ruthless exploitation of the poor, who are struggling for basic necessities for survival. The black-consciousness movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa formed the backdrop of the theology of liberation. Although inculturation and liberation are not mutually exclusive, the emphases of the two approaches are quite different: the former focuses more on culture, identity, and religion, while the latter highlights the need for social and political transformation.
While Oduyoye was teaching at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in the 1970s, she became painfully aware that the male theologians who were developing theology with an African face had a male face in their minds. She became convinced that there could not be a comprehensive and integrated Christian anthropology if a feminist perspective was left out. In a 1982 article entitled "Feminism: A Pre-condition for a Christian Anthropology," she defined feminism as follows:
Feminism has become the shorthand for the proclamation that women's experiences should become an integral part of what goes into the definition of "being human." It is to highlight what the world and the world view of the woman looks like as she struggles side by side with the man to realise her full potential as a human being by shedding all that hampers her.... Feminism then is an emphasis on the wholeness of the human community as made up of beings some of whom are male and others female. It seeks to express what is not so obvious that is, that male-humanity has a partner in female-humanity, and that both expressions of humanity are needed to shape a balanced community within which each will experience a fulness of Being. (8) …