The history of the Christian church in Africa is a complicated one, and when associated with anything of US-European heritages the relationship moves from complicated to abusive and destructive. But when empowered by the Holy Spirit, and as free from colonial influence as possible, it has – since its beginning – as a light against inequality and a vehicle for justice. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in The Gambia (ELCTG), and specifically one of its founders – the Rev. Fatima Bass Thomas – shares with us her story, rebelling against sexism in her society and working to provide freedom and education to women and girls in her community. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”
My story begins like this: I am Fatima from a family of 8 children of a peasant farmer in the Gambia, and I was the first child.
I was denied going to school because I was a girl-child.
I knew my future would be composed of getting married, engaging in domestic work and raising children.
However, at the age of nine I fantasized about something more, the chance to go to school.
I believed that going to school was a prosperous direction to a brighter future for every individual person. It provided me with empowerment, self-confidence, reasoning capacity, ability to acquire knowledge, self-dependence, the ability to handle differences, and interact with other people from different cultures, tribes, and races.
I have seen a few girls in my community who were given the opportunity to go to school. Their lives were different from those who were not in school, for several reasons. If women are educated, their family structure will be quite different. A great deal of evidence has shown this in my life. I was able to attain education for my children, good health nutrition, a decent life and be respected by my husband as well as the communities I belong to compared to uneducated mothers.
These women are solely dependent on their husband’s income. School elevated me to be at the level I am today, benefit my family, serve my country and the church, despite many years of challenges during my primary and high school years. I could proceed on to teacher training college, and I was posted at a school a few hours from my village.
It was there that I met my spouse, a teacher also and volunteer evangelist in a 95 percent Muslim context, who was inspired to serve our Lord Jesus Christ. However, this idea came to Samuel Thomas when he encountered the Lutheran church in Sierra Leone during his studies. When he came back to the Gambia he served the government that send to study for 15 years. In 2000, he left his job and decided to establish the Evangelical Lutheran church of the Gambia.
Because of my educational level I was able to acquire a job and was the only bread winner of the family which was at the beginning a bit tough and challenging, but with the grace of God we were able to overcome those obstacles.
We applied for scholarships in 2007 from Lutheran the World Federation and we were accepted, went to Tanzania to study for the Bachelor of Divinity for five years. We came back for our internship in 2010. We went back again to complete our courses and in 2012, we were ordained.
The church we started has grown to 2,500 members and it has been expanded to our neighboring country Guinea Bissau by an evangelist who was sent there to start the work. Through the leadership of the church, we have influenced the outreach priorities of the Gambia church, which is engaged in helping girls in a specific approach of not only primary education, but also high school and higher education. The leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran church believes in gender equality. The government of the Gambia advocates for free education for girls only in primary school. The government will pay half of the cost of middle school and high school. Still some parents cannot afford it, so most of the girls do not go further. As the church grows, women in particular will be given the opportunity to be trained in theological schools and come back and be ordained to serve the church. However, for those who drop out of school, the church is making all efforts to train those girls in other areas in the church, so they will be able to handle various positions.
In 2015, we were invited to participate with other women from Lutheran backgrounds around the world at the Crossroad of the Reformation Seminar hosted by the ELCA’s International Women Leaders program.
Immediately when we returned to the Gambia, I summoned women from the different parishes to give them feedback from the leadership seminar. I used the opportunity to conduct a workshop on how to educate these women to stand for the church just like the women of the reformation. I encouraged them to be actively involved in the activities of the church, participate fully and share the love of Christ among ourselves, support each other in times of need, and to teach our children the doctrine of the church. I also encouraged them to regularly attend the church. Most often I coordinate training seminars to equip the women with skills such as soap making, tie-dye, sewing, and many other things. I teach them how to read and write in order for them to have self-confidence and the ability to participate effectively in the society.
GIRLS’ EDUCATION -GENDER INQUALITY IN 1970-80
My story fits into the wider context of gender inequality. Girls’ education in the 1970-80s in the Gambia was regarded as a waste of resources.
Most parents believed that these girls will become married women and dependent on their husbands so there is no need to send them to school. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza emphasizes this in her essay “Breaking the Silence—Becoming Visible,.” she writes “that it is justified by the assumption that all women are either temporary workers or work for pin-money because they will get married and become pregnant.” Since it is believed that house work and child care are women’s natural vocations, they are not be remunerated or counted in the gross domestic product.
According to Chelala, in” Girls’ Education”, “inequality and unequal access to education holds millions of girls and women backward across the world,” especially in Africa. This has contributed to Africa poverty where by women are dependent on their husband’s income. In the Gambia, three-fourths of the population in 1980-90 were uneducated women, who had no means of generating income than the vulnerable in the society. Chelala continues to argue that “girls are still at a disadvantage, particularly in getting access to high school education.” Like in the Gambia most Muslim men marry three to four wives. Let say each of the women has four or five children. The husband must put these children to school, and in most cases boys stand the chance to attendant compared to girls.
I am advocating for the young women in the Gambia, especially the youths who are coming up in the church to be able to do something for themselves in the future. Without higher education, they would not be able to have the confidence or ability to advocate for themselves and the generation coming after them. Carr insists in “Women, Work, and Poverty” that patriarchal structure which is embedded in home and society and which are the source of the denigration of women’s labor are sadly what? women do much the of work in the churches but it is often on a volunteer or unpaid basis.” As Lutherans around the world, we need to advocate for our children. It is especially important to support the ELCA and their initiative ministries through financial and prayer support. Without the support of the ELCA I would not be where I am today. Carr insists that it a situation which calls upon Christians everywhere, but especially those of us in more privileged contexts, for attention, analysis, and active transformation,” for the lives of other women around the globe.
When we look at the African continent, women are the poorest and vulnerable. They don’t have a voice to contribute because the women are surrounded by a culture of silence and the most important factor that leads to this is lack of education. For my life experiences, as first female Lutheran pastor in the Gambia, I will use all my powers to encourage and influence women especially young girls in the church to be actively involved in the development of our church. My prayer is that girls do not have to go through what I went through to get an education.
Rev. Fatima bass Thomas is married with three kids and is the first female Lutheran pastor in the Gambia. She received her first degree in Tanzania at Tumaini University -Makumira and presently is in a Master’s program at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “Breaking the Silence—Becoming Visible,” The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology,ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza(Maryknoll, New York:ORIBS BOOK,1996),164.
 Chelala, Cesar. 2016. “Girls’ Education.” Hamdard Islamicus 39, no. 2: 100-101. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 7, 2017) 100.
 Anne Carr, “Women,Work, and Poverty,” in The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology,ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza(Maryknoll, New York:ORIBS BOOK,1996),85.