A letter from Rich and Marilyn Hansen in Ethiopia
Listening to Bontu broke my heart. I heard her story as we sat together at the café across the road from the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST) where I teach.
Bontu grew up in a village in the Ethiopian countryside where traditional thinking reigns regarding the role of women in society. Young girls carry heavy loads of firewood on their backs, often for long distances (see photo); boys never do. Girls lug heavy jerry cans of water from community wells sometimes several kilometers away, boys not so much. But most of all, girls are tragically devalued in their own families. Bontu told me how her mother and father always walked with their arms around their son while she and her sisters followed several steps behind. Such are the painful memories growing up as a young woman in Ethiopia.
As Bontu explained, her sad childhood had one redeeming factor. It planted deep within her a passion to improve the lives of girls and young women in her country. Last year Bontu joined our Gender, Health and Theology Master of Arts (MA) program at EGST. This new program is one of the few MA degree programs in the entire continent of Africa that combines gender studies with a broad theological education. Bontu and her fellow gender and health students attended my “God, Creation and Humanity” basic theology class last fall, which includes (among many other topics) basic biblical worldview regarding the equal value of women and men.
I had not talked to Bontu for many months, but encountered her again just two weeks ago. I was invited to a Saturday workshop to help our “Gender and Health” students integrate theological thinking into their MA thesis research projects, written to conclude their degree program. It was inspiring to listen to these eight women (see photo of four of the women) and two men each present powerpoint overviews of their intended research. Three were going to study human trafficking or prostitution that enslaves Ethiopian women; the rest focused on maternal care or other women’s health issues.
When Bontu gave her presentation, she talked about theological worldview barriers to effective family planning. She described how many mothers in Ethiopia have far more children than is healthy for their bodies; caring for all the children becomes a huge drain on limited resources. As she presented her topic, Bontu spoke of her own childhood and her own mother. Here is the actual text from one of her powerpoint slides just as she presented it to the workshop (with her permission):
• My parents are protestant and also Bible is their guideline in everyday life, but my mother died sooner than expected as a result of bearing children without spacing between births.
• When she was alive I asked her several times why she did not stop being pregnant even when she is bedridden. She told me that she wanted to stop but she could not.
• Because my father did not agree with her as he wanted to add a boy in order to get a brother for their only son as a result of his belief that girls are good for nothing.
• And she also argued with my father, because she had in mind that “God says ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ and God will take care of who he has created.”
• Added to the patriarchal decision dad made on her to have baby boy, the wrong interpretation of these phrases also played to end up her to die on delivery bed while she was giving birth to our last sister.
It is heart wrenching to hear…but also a powerful illustration that “theology does matter!” A faulty interpretation of Gen. 1:28, especially as interpreted by men, is causing untold suffering for many Ethiopian women.
I constantly tell my students that I am not here just to teach them theological ideas. I am here to help them learn how to connect theological ideas to their own lives and society…Genuine theology is never “ivory tower”—it is connecting the biblical worldview to real life. I challenge my students that they must take this final step in order to become genuine theologians.
In her e-mail sending me the powerpoint presentation I quoted from above, Bontu kindly wrote me this thank you: “I have no word for helping us to see the worldview that is shaping our life and assist us to see things that are most closely to us in our life. Your effort helped me to bring up my Mom story to the center of academic importance.”
Her last sentence says it all! Why am I teaching theology in Ethiopia? I have the privilege of helping Bontu, and many students like her, realize that her “Mom story” is not irrelevant to her education, but is, in fact, at the very center of academic importance.
The neglected little girl who walked last in line, and then had to watch her mother die a needless and untimely death, is now writing a Master’s thesis that, by God’s grace, will help transform the lives of other women!
Thank you for your ongoing support of Marilyn and me through your financial gifts and your correspondence. We are always delighted to receive both. Most of all, thank you for your prayers for us and for the 209 students at EGST. Like Bontu, many have their own “Mom story” to tell.
Rich and Marilyn
• Pray for the 50 EGST students writing their Master’s theses this year in three different MA programs—this is significantly more potential graduates than ever before! Please pray that their original research will contribute to God’s Kingdom work in Ethiopia.
• Pray for relief for Marilyn, who has been severely troubled by flea bites this past month.
• Pray for time discipline for Rich as he juggles his teaching, writing and other academic duties.
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 107
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