In those parts of Africa where the wife-purchasing system prevails, and wives are looked upon as the "property" or "slaves" of their husbands, women are imposed upon until they become timid and cowed. When the marriage price has once been handed over to the parents, the girl, even before marriage, very seldom has any opportunity for redress or appeal, whether she favors the marriage or not. In fact, daughters are prized as so much prospective wealth to be realized upon at the earliest opportunity after they reach puberty.
It is therefore very difficult for the young women to get any education. Parents fear that they might somehow lose their "wealth" if their daughters go off to school. Even after a young girl has had the privilege of spending a few years in school, parents have been known to count up whatever expense the girl's schooling may have incurred, and add this amount to the selling price. However, as a rule, very little is ever expended.
The women are really servants, and do most of the work. Contrary to what might be expected, the women are the gainers from the system, and the men are the losers. the men become dissipated and weak, whereas the women remain strong and remarkably cheerful. We often marvel at the cheerfulness of the women, which generally prevails unless their husbands are exceptionally brutal. Wife-beating is more or less common, and is not unknown even among professed Christians.
Factors Which Forbid Education of Women
It is not only because of this wife-purchasing system that it is difficult for the girls to get an education, but it is also because of the fear on the part of men that an educated wife might not be as subservient as an uneducated woman. The idea has long prevailed, even among teachers, that if their wives are permitted to go to school, they will consider themselves as wise as their husbands, and on a par with them, and will therefore not be subservient.
The majority of the girls who come to our girls' school are daughters of Christian parents, mostly of workers, such as teachers and pastors. But a few others manage to come. Occasionally a girl runs away from home and comes to the girls' school, but these are usually found and forced to return. The best means I have discovered for creating an interest in the girls' school is to send samples of their sewing home with the girls after the close of the school term.
Village visiting is an effectual means of making contact with the women. It provides a variety of opportunities to manifest interest and sympathetic understanding. As with white women, so with these black mothers, an interest shown in their children immediately enlists their attention and interest, and prepares the way for effective contact.
Ministry to the sick, both through the mission dispensary and in the villages, breaks down fear and prejudice. The greatest fears among the heathen are in connection with their ideas of the spirit world. As they see cures effected without the use of their accustomed charms, they first come to believe that the white man has superior magical powers, or that he has contact with superior spirits. Then it requires the patient teaching of years, line upon line, here a little and there a little, to eradicate the fears which formerly controlled all they did, and to lead them to place full trust in God. It is doubtful that any of them ever entirely lose all their tribal fears.
Further means of engaging the interest of the women round about the mission are knitting, sewing, and reading classes. Hygiene and child welfare can be taught in connection with these classes, or in a clinic held in connection with the dispensary.
In teaching a Sabbath school class of older women, one finds constant and easy opportunity to convey practical lessons from Bible characters and Bible history. This sort of work I have found to be highly satisfactory, even though the assistance of an interpreter be required. In this classwork, one can come very close to the women. It affords opportunity, week by week, to inquire regarding the absence of members, and to bring about helpful visitation and ministry for the sick or discouraged ones. The interest thus shown in the personal welfare of one and all, is amply repaid, not only in better attendance and deeper Christian experience, but in greater love and unity among these women and those for whom they are working.
Perhaps the most widely used means of helping Africa's native women is the weekly women's meeting. The devotional meetings afford opportunity to teach the simple elements of Christian experience, Bible stories, proper Sabbathkeeping, privileges and duties of Christian wives aiid mothers, honoring God through cleanliness and order, and Christian service in behalf of others. It is profitable to change the weekly women's meeting into a parents' meeting occasionally, or perhaps for a period of weeks or months to invite the men to attend also. These accomplish much in establishing or restoring the family altar and other family reforms. There are many topics pertaining to family life which are most profitably taught to both husband and wife at one time. When the women are taught alone, and they suggest to their husbands some change in harmony with what they were taught, the most common reply from the husbands is, "Oh, that is just your foolish idea," and that is the end of the matter. But when both husband and wife are present in the meeting, reforms are more likely to be effected.
My greatest satisfaction in working for African women, has come through enlisting the Christian women in soul-winning work. At first the women smiled dubiously at the idea of their being able to do anything like that. That was work for pastors and teachers. Scarcely any of them could read, but the examples of the woman of Samaria and of the healed demoniac of Gadara, encouraged them to try to do their bit. Each was encouraged to choose a certain person or two for whom to work, a list of which I kept on hand. A soul-winning device and the regular calling of names for reports of progress, kept up the interest. Thirteen persons won by the women the first year, and twenty the next year, proved to all that the women could do something.
At present three women who can read are conducting iegular Bible schools in villages near by. One of these has twelve attendants at her Bible school, another has twenty-two, and the other has twenty-three. This work strengthens the Christian women and helps the others. A girl of fifteen who had previously learned to read is attending our girl's school this year for the first time. During the present mid-year vacation she is conducting a daily Bible school in her home village.
Opportunities for work among the women of Africa are many. The work is interesting, and the results are satisfactory. But the need is so great and our capabilities are so small, that we are often prone to ask with the disciples, "What are they among so many ?" As it is, we seem merely to touch with our finger tips the work that could and should be done for the women of Africa. But we are glad that He who so wondrously multiplied the few loaves and fishes, just as ably multiplies the few resources available for feeding the multitudes with the bread of life today