By the 1990s, few Maasai men were members of the church, but largely female churches had emerged. In chapter 6, Hodgson suggests that Maasai men took advantage of the economic and political opportunities provided to them by British colonial practices to assert themselves as the household “heads,” livestock “owners,” and political leaders of their families and communities (211). The conversion to Christianity allowed the women to emphasize their role as moral guardians of their communities, a role that challenges male authority.The policy of inculturation, which made it relatively easy for Maasai women to accept the church, has produced a uniquely Maasai expression of Roman Catholicism. However, Hodgson points out that inculturation is not universally agreed upon by Maasai Roman Catholics, and thus Maasai Roman Catholicism is always being reshaped. Furthermore she demonstrates that among the Maasai, male and female circumcision is such a uniting factor that the Catholic Church has learned to allow its members to continue the practice (236-239).
While women were marginalized economically and politically, they grew more powerful in the spiritual domain.When the Spiritan missionaries arrived in the 1950s, with the hope of converting Maasai men, the men were indifferent-even hostile-to the new religion. Catholic teachings undermined what it meant to be “Maasai men” but reinforced, and even enhanced, women’s preexisting spiritual roles. One of the male elders in the book, Mti Mmoja, explains that he “couldn’t give up his culture, which was given to him by Eng’ai (215). ” As the men turned their attention to the increasingly masculinized economic and political spheres, women were drawn to the new spiritual one.They flocked to the Catholic Church despite official discouragement. Thus, Catholic missionaries, who came to form male leaders among the Maasai, developed female leaders instead.
In their attempt to reinforce the power of male elders, they actually subverted it, providing a means for women to escape men’s control. In fact, Maasai women used the new platform of Christianity to critique men, their alleged moral inferiority, and their material corruption. They used Catholicism to defend their view of a moral order in which the sacred and secular are one and where women and men respectfully complement one another.The Spiritans, according to Hodgson, attracted more followers among the Maasai because they followed the Second Vatican Council ruling that missionaries must respect the cultures in which they plant the seeds of the gospel. This transformation was not easy. Hodgson argues that political and economic subordination alone do not account for women’s attraction to Christianity. Although religion has provided women with an alternative source of empowerment as their political and economic roles have been worn, their spiritual power is deeply rooted in indigenous belief systems.It is not merely a function of their declining political and economic power.
Hodgson sees little in the way of decreased autonomy for women within the Church, but rather reveals the ways in which conversion provided the opportunity for the creation of new forms of female community beyond the control of men, beyond the hierarchies and commitments of a church bureaucracy, and beyond the development of any new set of restrictive domestic ideals associated with the Christian religion.Most works on Christian conversion have tended to focus on men’s experiences, wrongly generalizing them to society as a whole. By listening to the voices of Maasai women, Hodgson has presented readers with a unique perspective that results in a wholly different understanding of conversion and its impact, one that clearly exposes the myth of earlier approaches. What Hodgson uncovers is a set of social and cultural interactions in which the braided histories of missions and indigenous conversion operated within a larger set of political and modernization processes.The missionary project did operate within a framework of colonial history and legacy, did represent an effort to impose western ideals of cultural, as well as spiritual, transformation, but also provided a realm within which Maasai women could respond to a series of cultural and social changes that had diminished their moral and social power. Hodgson’s goal, in her own words, is to “analyze the nuances, ambivalences, and tensions that informed, shaped, and were produced by the encounters between these men [the Spiritan missionaries] and Maasai men and women” (p.68).
In doing so, Hodgson provides a sensitive analysis that takes account of broader social and cultural forces as well as the lived experience of individuals involved in this multivalent, multilayered encounter. I found Hodgson’s book to be concise, accessible, and successfully attempted to explain the phenomenon from Maasai women’s perspective. i Dorothy L.
Hodgson. The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters between Maasai and Missionaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.