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Fipa girls between the years 1894 and 1920 gained good educations, as well as a Catholic upbringing, at the Karema Mission Station in what was then called Tanganyika. While the Karema Mission Station was located along the shore of Lake Tanganyika just to the north of traditional Fipa territory, many of its students were drawn from the Fipa villages to the south. In a recent journal article, Kathleen R. Smythe analyzes the educational advantages, and the changes in status, that the mission education provided to the Fipa girls and the other young African women of the time.

Smythe, who teaches history at Xavier University in Cincinnati, argues that the mission experience for the girls tended to mitigate, at least to some extent, the patriarchal social structures in the villages that the female students came from. While the racial hierarchies imposed by the colonialist system did not bend in the mission schools, gender relationships did become somewhat flexible—at least for a time.

The Roman Catholic order of White Sisters who staffed the school (they used to be called the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa), drew its members mostly from working class families in Brittany, Holland, Germany, and Canada. While the Fipa comprised only a portion of the students at the Karema school, their numbers were significant enough to attract the attention of a Father Lechaptois at the mission, who wrote an ethnographic description of their society in 1910.

Outside observers 100 years ago, such as Lechaptois, noted that the Fipa had more flexible gender roles than many other African societies. A German visitor at that time observed, “There is also no orderly division of labor because often female as well as male weavers can be seen. The same goes for field work. Men and women work together without noticeable sight of men taking over the hard tasks…. p.62).” Roy Willis 40 years ago made similar observations during his field work in Ufipa, and Smythe indicates that she observed the same tendency much more recently.

The female African students at the Karema Mission school had many responsibilities. They were expected to participate in fetching water, helping with the laundry, and providing firewood. They raised food and helped prepare it, not only for themselves but to some extent for the missionaries. Smythe found records to indicate that in 1895 the girls grew maize, manioc, and peanuts, and they prepared the peanut oil that the men used, since the male missionaries did not know how to prepare it themselves.

The missionary sisters believed that hard work by females was an important part of their training, and the students needed to contribute to their own upkeep. The girls found security at the station, as well as health care and educational benefits. In essence, Smythe observes, the girls exchanged the patriarchal systems of their villages for a similar patriarchy at the mission station.

The major benefit for the girls of their upbringing at the mission, however, was the education they obtained. Half of the students who attended mission schools in Ufipa were girls. However, many of them, especially during the earlier period, were orphans or came from families of ex-slaves, so they had everything to gain from attending the Christian schools. These children did not have the same family obligations that children from other families would have had.

The author also suggests that the more flexible gender traditions, which were especially noticeable in the Fipa society, may have facilitated permission from their families to attend the schools. Furthermore, the fact that teaching at the Karema Mission school was done by female missionaries may have helped foster school attendance by girls.

Whatever the causes, the girls appeared to appreciate learning to read and write. Many of them, eager to follow the examples of the European women, aspired to enter religious orders themselves. The schedule of the girls typically included three hours per day of manual work, two hours for religious study, and two hours for academic lessons. While they spent only half as much time in classrooms as boys did, the religious study and worship periods were equal to that of the boys.

Father Lechaptois recorded in 1913 the numbers of female students at Karema who were able to read. Another father noted in 1919 that girls were reading effectively, but he felt they did not have as much interest in writing as the boys did. He grumped that they were using their writing skills to prepare love notes. Smythe writes, “He concluded that this was an inconvenience of teaching reading and writing, and they were unable to suppress it (p.71).”

Smythe emphasizes that the boys clearly received more educational preparation, and were introduced to a wider variety of subjects, than the girls at the mission station. In addition to reading and writing, by age 16 the boys knew Swahili grammar, religious history, some geography, and the rules of arithmetic. But even if the girls were not treated equally to the boys, their educations did set them apart from other women—and men—in their home villages.

One of the tactics of the Karema missionaries was to take large groups of the children on trips through the countryside to visit villages. The missionaries intended these trips as a way to spread their faith; the youngsters doubtless saw them as opportunities to see interesting places and to meet new people. Given the chance, the children would also present their own testimonials to their faith. Discussing their new beliefs with others, even much older people, gave them self-confidence and presented challenges to the social patterns of village societies.

During one trip, the records show, the sisters took 60 children with them on a journey that the missionaries doubtless would not have made without having Africans along. When they reached the community they wanted to visit, the children were given two large drums while everyone was waiting to be fed. The youngsters sang hymns in Kiswahili to a courtyard filled with onlookers, who encouraged them to continue singing. It must have been an extraordinarily supportive experience for the girls, Smythe observes.

Smythe, Kathleen R. 2007. “African Women and White Sisters at the Karema Mission Station, 1894-1920.” Journal of Women’s History 19(2):59-84