This study explores the possibilities of extracting biographies of ‘ordinary Africans’, especially women, from the epistolary networks of a transcontinental Lutheran community of readers. Due to the enthusiastic efforts of a number of German deaconesses, women from British colonial Africa whose narrations might otherwise not have been recorded, participated in conversations with women in Nazi, and thereafter West as well as East Germany. Mission evidence supports the argument that in colonial Africa religion opened up one of the few spaces for African and European women to collaborate in an otherwise segregated society. While the network was initiated in the name of their common faith and sustained with German church funding (and British colonial infrastructure), the content of the letters was far from restricted to religious matters. The article contends that these epistles reflected an awareness amongst rural female African participants of their position in a much larger geopolitical space – and even a world church. Thus the label ‘ordinary’ refers to the status of the African women writers in their local communities and church congregations rather than their horizons of expectation. Their fragmentary biographies or life-histories, from both colonial Tanganyika and the Transvaal, need to be viewed within the context of their interaction with their German facilitators and the members of the female Christian reading community in Europe – who were the intended audience envisaged by the African women narrators.
The overwhelming majority of non-western participants in the missionary enterprise are nameless: ‘native agent,’ or ‘bible woman,’ or ‘native teacher’ is how they appear in the missionary records, and in the missionary narratives of white, male, clerical heroism. It is almost impossible to restore the full extent of non-western agency in the building of Christian institutions in the British empire, and the British imperial sphere of influence, but any accurate history must repeatedly look for and acknowledge those acts of participation.