The two sisters have never met.
They speak different languages.
Normally, they're separated by differences in culture and lifestyle,
not to mention about 1,100 miles and the myriad laws and regulations
regarding travel and border crossings.
But from the first look on Zimbabwean Sr. Annah Nyadombo's face, you
wouldn't know it.
She smiles widely the moment she sees Sr. Marie-Rose
Ndimbo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Meeting for the first time in late August, the sisters had traveled
to Kenya's capital for a gathering of African theologians focused on
ethical issues, convened under the aegis of a global network of scholars
called Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.
It's a group that, thanks to a series of pioneering scholarships, the women are set to join themselves.
In the last few years, the group has secured funding for seven
African women to pursue doctorates at African Catholic universities.
They've also arranged funding for an eighth, Nyadombo, to pursue a
doctorate at Trinity College Dublin.
Describing the scholarship program during the Aug. 21-23 event,
Jesuit Fr. James Keenan, chair of the ethics network and theology
professor at Boston College, said, "If this program succeeds, we are
looking at the future of theological research, scholarship and writing
on the continent of Africa."
Standing outside a retreat center and hostel in western Nairobi where
conference participants were staying, Nyadombo was bouncing on the
balls of her feet as her fellow scholar Ndimbo arrived for the event.
With barely a word, the two embraced in a long hug.
Through the help of a translator -- Jesuit Fr. Peter Knox, a South
African theologian -- Ndimbo, a French speaker, and Nyadombo, an English
speaker, started to compare notes of their lives.
Similarities abound: Both are members of local orders of women
religious, both come from poverty-stricken areas and have dedicated
themselves to focusing on issues of justice. Both also have clear views
about the struggles women face throughout Africa.
One common theme
shared among Nyadombo, Ndimbo and several others in the program: using
their status as female moral theologians to address the place of women
in African society and church.
Another commonality: deep personal experience of some of the world's
most debilitating societal and economic suffering and personal journeys
of unexpected hope and triumph.
Across the continent
The women in the theological ethicists' program come from countries
across the continent: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the east; Nigeria
and Cameroon in the west; Zimbabwe in the south; and the Democratic
Republic of the Congo in central Africa.
Seven of the eight are members of diocesan orders of women religious.
Diocesan orders are not international and instead fall under the
canonical authority of a particular diocesan bishop, who technically
serves as their superior general.
The women's journeys of faith are complex and varied, mired in both personal and societal struggles.
Sr. Veronica Rop, a native Kenyan, is a member of Kenya's Kalenjin
tribal community, one of dozens of major tribal communities that make up
the country's ethnic background.
A convert to Catholicism, she was the first Christian in her family.
The second of her mother's eight children -- her father has had four
wives -- Rop grew up without electricity and walked three miles back and
forth to school growing up.
Rop is from Eldoret, a fast-growing town in western Kenya, near the
Ugandan border. The first person in the family to graduate high school,
she soon joined a local community of women religious, called the
Assumption Sisters of Eldoret.
Sr. Wilhelmina Uhai, who is from Tanzania, Kenya's southern neighbor,
had something of an opposite upbringing. Both her parents are Catholic,
and she recalled how they would never let her or her siblings begin to
eat without first saying prayers.
"We didn't eat, we didn't sleep, we didn't do anything before
prayers," said Uhai, now a member of the Uganda-based Little Sisters of
Saint Francis of Assisi. "They taught me morals. Otherwise, I would not
really feel to love the moral issues and to become a moral theologian,
and a theologian in the first place."
With the help of the theological ethicists' group, Rop and Uhai are
pursuing doctoral work at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, a
pontifical university in southern Nairobi.
Before beginning her own doctoral studies, Rop studied for eight
years in the United States, completing bachelor's degrees in theology
and special education at Miami's Barry University.
Uhai, who graduated with a master's in moral theology from Nairobi's
Catholic University in October before beginning doctoral work there,
first completed separate programs in philosophy, pastoral ministry and
While such lengthy academic study might separate
some from normal life experience, both Uhai and Rop said it's the
struggles of everyday Africans, especially women, that inform their
After almost a decade abroad, Rop said she eventually decided to come
back to Kenya because she wanted to see what new perspective her time
away might have given her.
"I felt that the studies I had in the States gave me a platform to
speak for women," Rop said during an interview, as she sat back in her
chair and adjusted a brown coat she was wearing over her long white
"I feel that women here just do not have a voice," she said. "I
thought that I had to come back to use that platform. Especially as a
religious woman, my voice may carry a little more weight."
'Why not speak up?'
Several of the women in the theological ethicists' program expressed
this responsibility to speak for women across the African continent.
Each mentioned such a feeling of obligation after sharing deeply moving stories of societal and economic strife.
Minutes into their first meeting, Ndimbo and Nyadombo ventured from
the traditional icebreakers of a conversation toward their work -- in
both cases, focused squarely on helping the neediest.
Nyadombo, who is a member of the Handmaids of Our Lady of Mount
Carmel, a Mutare, Zimbabwe, diocesan religious order with a Carmelite
charism, explained that she is working on a research project focused on
developing a holistic pastoral approach toward those who are suffering
from HIV/AIDS. Nyadombo represents her approach with the acronym AGAPE
for Access, Generosity, Action, People/Prayer and Involvement.
"It's the same problem everywhere," said Ndimbo, who before pursuing
doctoral studies served as a superior of the Congregation of the
Sisters, Daughters of Mary, an order based in the northern Congolese
city of Molegbe. There are orphanages throughout the Congo filled with
"hundreds upon hundreds" of AIDS/HIV orphans, she said, all needing
Her own congregation has opened up several boarding houses for
young mothers who cannot care for their children.
In her interview, Uhai also focused on her experience living
face-to-face with poverty and societal strife. But she set her sights
too on broader issues of gender inequality.
Following the completion of her initial studies in theology and
philosophy, Uhai said, groups of women in her home village asked her to
give seminars on how to address some of the most difficult subjects.
Most of the women who approach her are single mothers or refugees,
she said, who may live with their children on the street and may have
become addicted to drugs.
"They have nobody to help them," Uhai said. "Nobody who will talk to them about how to live."
Their status, she said, is also hindered in some African cultures by views of women in relation to men.
"In some cultures, women are considered servants," she said. "You
have no say, you have no rights. You do everything for your husband, but
you cannot challenge your husband because you are married. So who are
you in the society? You have no voice."
Speaking for and with those women, she said, is fundamental to how she understands her role as a moral theologian.
"God calls us as moral theologians to enter into these situations and
to help them come out of it," Uhai said. "Maybe we will not have
material things to give them, but maybe through advice, or in talking
about the larger problems of our society we can make some difference."
Rop echoes that sentiment, mixing the local and the global.
While her doctoral dissertation at Nairobi's Catholic University
focuses on the participation of Kalenjin women in human development
efforts in Eldoret, Rop identifies among her role models American women
like St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian at Fordham
University in New York noted for her work in feminist issues.
Pointing out an African saying that women are the backbone of the
family, Rop asked: "If we take that seriously, and women are so
important, why not speak up?"
Moving forward in her chair, she said: "We need to talk and speak and
talk and speak, until we are heard, until we are given a chance to
participate in what is going on."
Back outside the retreat center, where the smiles radiate at the
first meeting of sisters in the scholarship program, Ndimbo finds a
Holding Nyadombo by the elbow, Ndimbo tells her newfound kin she feels empowered by their meeting.
"It's so important that women are now speaking on these issues," she
tells Nyadombo. "And it's not just for our generation. There are so many
women who will come after us because of these scholarships."
Walking hand-in-hand, the two head inside for more time to connect
and share their many similarities -- without the aid of the translator.
"We don't need him," Nyadombo says, laughing. "We'll speak heart to heart."