Educating Catholic Nuns in Africa is Changing the World... Here's Why

African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC)

Catholic nuns are serving in the poor and rural areas of Africa, where help is needed most.

Catholic nuns are addressing a multitude of the most pressing development challenges in Africa today. But, they need more skills and education to carry out their important mission work.

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Catholic nuns are already addressing the most serious development challenges Africa is facing

Since 1999, African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) has been educating Catholic women religious in Sub-Saharan Africa. Upon learning about ASEC’s work, people in the United States sometimes ask,

"Why do you support Catholic nuns[1]... in Africa?”

We feel that this question presents a unique opportunity to reveal why Catholic nuns in Africa are such powerful agents of change. We often reply with...

Did you know that unlike the US, the Catholic population in Africa is growing rapidly?

Did you know that Catholic nuns are addressing many of the serious development challenges in Africa today?

Issues like poverty, chronic hunger, disease, ecological degradation, and violence?

Catholic nuns dedicate their lives to service. They work tirelessly to improve the conditions of their congregations and communities. They are also addressing many of the serious issues that plague the African continent.

African nuns are also deeply trusted members of their communities. They are leading and serving where the needs are the greatest - in schools, in healthcare facilities, and in human service, environmental and economic projects across the continent.

Yet, very few realize the significant contributions to sustainable development Catholic nuns are making in Africa.

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Most African nuns are under-educated for the work they do

The single biggest hurdle that nuns face in their ministry work is a lack of education and skills needed to make a larger impact. Many lack higher education credentials or professional preparation; some lack even the secondary school qualifications required for entry to higher education.

In fact, of the 40,000 Catholic nuns in sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 71% lack higher education credentials.

The education level in Tanzania is particularly low. Of the 11,000 women religious serving in Tanzania approximately 60% lack secondary school education.

Despite their lack of education, nuns continue to address many of the serious development challenges in Africa today. From improvements in healthcare, education and infrastructure to increasing access to clean water and sanitation and reducing poverty, African nuns are affecting change on the local, regional and even national levels.

From the ground up, nuns are moving the needle on nearly all of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For example, Sr. Constancia Nzovwa Lungu, LSOSF, leads a small team of fifteen, providing health screenings, treatment and educational programs to over 1,200 residents in an isolated community in Southern Zambia plagued with HIV cases.

Sr. Gwendoline Bijisang Ngwemetoh, SST, provides nutrition, medical care and legal services to thousands of inmates in Cameroonian prisons. Overcrowded and poorly supplied, the prisons are plagued with disease and malnourishment. But, Sr. Gwendoline sees only hope in these prisons and has been able to secure over $425,000 for Victim Offender Prison Care Support (VOPS). 

Sr. Elisabeth Swai, LSOSF is an administrator at Providence Home for physically and mentally disabled, orphans, elderly, deaf and blind. When the center began to struggle financially, she was able to apply the knowledge she gained from her education to help launch an alternative farm projects to support the home.

Finally, Sr. Felistas Chematia Chesire, ASE, walks the streets of Nairobi to form connections with homeless boys as young as eight-years-old who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her goal is to encourage them to move to Kwetu Home of Peace Rehabilitation Centre for Street Children where there are substance abuse treatment and educational opportunities.

Educating Catholic nuns is a solution to ending extreme poverty in Africa

We find that educating these bright, caring women is a simple and effective solution to reducing extreme poverty in Africa. nuns are assigned positions by their congregational Superiors and serve where needs are the greatest. They don't quit their jobs when things are difficult. They don't leave for better pay. They serve where help is needed most. It only makes sense to give them the tools necessary to serve in the best, most effective way they possibly can, so they can make a bigger difference in our world.

Nuns who participate in ASEC’s programs are often able to improve the effectiveness and impact of their ministry work through the skills, confidence and networks they gain through our programs. They also learn how to write grants, organize projects and evaluate their work so they can sustain their communities far into the future.

At ASEC, we've learned that when you educate an African nun, you impact an entire community. Her education spreads like wildfire and so many people around her will benefit from her knowledge.

Source: Building the Global Sisterhood, CRCC’s first report for the Hilton Foundation about the Catholic Sisters Initiative

Source: Building the Global Sisterhood, CRCC’s first report for the Hilton Foundation about the Catholic Sisters Initiative

The Catholic population in Africa and Asia is quickly growing

There has been a remarkable global shift of Catholics from the global north to the global south over the last century. The Catholic population in Africa and Asia is growing rapidly. In 1910, less than 1% of Catholics were located in Africa. In 2010, it was found that Africa is home to about 16% of the total Catholic population!

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life predicts that by 2050, 4 out of 10 Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

The changing face of the global Catholic Church also is reflected in the regional numbers of Catholic nuns today. While there was been a rapid increase of Catholic nuns in Africa and Asia, the number of Catholic nuns in the United States, Europe and Australia is on a severe decline. From 1965-2014  the number of Catholic nuns in the United States dropped more than 72% (from 179,954 to 49,883).

African congregations are thriving, but lack financial support

In Africa, it's clear that Catholicism is growing. What many don't realize is that is the number of women choosing to enter religious life is also growing.

In fact, in the countries that ASEC serves, there's been a 14% increase in the number of women religious from 2012-2017.

In some African countries, the number of aspirants is growing even more rapidly. In particular, from 2012-2017

  • The number of Sisters in South Sudan increased by 45%
  • The number of Sisters in Kenya increased by 43%
  • The number of Sisters in Cameroon increased by 25%

Because of this growth, Catholic congregations in Africa face several significant challenges to their vitality. 

The swelling numbers of aspirants[2] wanting to enter formation houses strain resources. Congregations are flooded with more aspirants than they can handle. Many congregations struggle to educate young women who are entering their ranks fresh from secondary school.

Basically these congregations are facing the opposite challenge of their global north counterparts.

There's no denying that as Africa develops, so will the increased demand for leadership and technical expertise in the mission work of African nuns. Local governments are increasing the requirements for teachers, principals, nurses and other occupations that nuns hold. Congregations need to have the resources to respond to these evolving requirements.

So... what can we do to help these women, who've dedicated their lives to the service of others?

In short: education.

Education and leadership skills are key to running the day-to-day mission work of congregations.

 ASEC's mission is to facilitate access to education for women religious in Africa that leads to enhancement and expansion of the education, health, economic, social, environmental and spiritual services they provide.

We do this through programs like our Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI), where Sisters receive technology, administration and finance training through workshops.

We also do this through our Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) program. HESA provides provides opportunities for Catholic women religious in African countries to access diploma, undergraduate and master’s level education.

Because of people like you, we've educated approximately 5,300 nuns in 10 countries in Africa with incredible results.

Educated nuns have taught many of the presidents, corporate leaders and influential people throughout the continent of Africa. They also run and staff many of the best hospitals and clinics.

ASEC alumnae and their mentees have raised over $19.5M+ to fund projects in their communities!

They use the money they've raised for human development projects that improve conditions in the communities they serve. They advocate for human rights as they serve children with disabilities and work in many of Africa’s slum areas.

One cannot underestimate the power of a good education. We often see a ripple effect happen just by giving one single sister the tools to succeed. She goes on to mentor other members of her congregation, members of other congregations and even lay people.

1The terms "Catholic nun" and "Catholic sister" are often used interchangeably. But, in Roman Catholicism there are distinct differences between the two.

2An aspirant is defined a woman living with a religious community temporarily to ensure she's attracted and comfortable with religious community life. It's also a time for the congregational community to determine if she'll be a good fit. Some places may call this a “pre-postulancy.”

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This article is addressing the following UN Sustainable Development Goal(s):

Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning
Sr. Constancia Nzovwa Lungu, LSOSF

Sr. Constancia Nzovwa Lungu, LSOSF
Profiled in article
SLDI Alumna, Finance Track (2012) - Zambia  

Sr. Felistas Chematia Chesire, ASE

Sr. Felistas Chematia Chesire, ASE
Profiled in article
SLDI & HESA Alumna - Kenya  

Sr. Gwendoline Bijisang Ngwemetoh, SST

Sr. Gwendoline Bijisang Ngwemetoh, SST
Profiled in article
VOPS, SLDI Alumna (Finance Track, 2015) - Cameroon  

Sr. Elisabeth Swai, LSOSF

Sr. Elisabeth Swai, LSOSF
Profiled in article
SLDI & HESA Alumna - Uganda  

Amy Fedele

Amy Fedele
Former ASEC Media & Communications Manager - USA  

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Educating Catholic Nuns in Africa is Changing the World... Here's Why