AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 9, Issue 3
Spring 2007

Fipa Families: Reproduction and Catholic Evangelization in Nkansi, Ufipa, 1880-1960. Kathleen R. Smythe. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006. 202 pp.

This eloquent and succinct study skillfully explores intimate relationships between Catholic White Father missionaries and Fipa people living on the coast of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Rather than try to discuss the wide range of interactions between Fipa and missionaries, the author concentrates on the themes of family life, generational and age expectations, and tensions between African and European priests, lay people, and nuns within the mission. Many of the typical concerns of scholars examining missionaries in colonial Africa receive little coverage here, especially spiritual beliefs.  However, Smythe wisely warns her readers that her topic is family history rather than religious change writ large (p. xiv). And, if one looks at this study for what it intends to do rather than what it leaves out, it succeeds admirably.

After sketching out the influential position of White Father missionaries after their arrival in Ufipa in the late nineteenth century and their close links to German and British colonial authorities, the author examines the mission as an alternative site of socialization for young people. Other scholars have discussed the role of missions in operating settlements for former slaves, maintaining health care, and serving as a potential place of refuge for women. Creatively, Smythe discusses Fipa understandings of childhood and the process by which children slowly learn gendered tasks and behaviors en route towards adulthood. These developments do not stay trapped in the prison of the ahistorical ethnographic present; the study follows individuals born in different generations over the course of the colonial period. The hopes of Fipa individuals and their extended families became tightly linked to the White Fathers by the 1920s, as the missionaries were the only providers of European-style education in the region. 

Missionaries sought to persuade Fipa people that many Fipa social practices actually could be remade in a Catholic context, even though they urged Africans to abandon some of their older ways of socialization, such as communal sleeping arrangements for older children.  Many Fipa accepted these terms, although members of the first generations that encountered Catholic clergy in Ufipa preferred to allow their own children to be educated and baptized rather than doing so themselves.  However, tensions within families and between Fipa and missionaries emerged over who would be educated and how long children were to be allowed to stay in school.  Many families wished to only allow some boys to stay in school for long periods to keep other young people close to home to support their families.  At boarding school, children developed new academic knowledge and cultural capital that could later use to develop a career as well as entering an alternate form of socialization with different gendered expectations. The mission became understood as an alternate family, instead of a family always opposed to local kin obligations.

The last two chapters consider the intimate relationships of African clergy with their Fipa families and their European colleagues. This discussion is by far the best discussion of the challenges of African Catholic priests, nuns, and catechists in a colonial context that this reviewer has ever had the pleasure of reading. Fipa clans and European missionaries both sought to produce successful adults through education.  However, missionaries wanted to create celibate priests and nuns while Fipa families wished for young people to marry and have children. Through archival research and life histories of two Fipa nuns, Smythe reviews the tensions caused by racial discrimination, family obligations, and troubles within the church hierarchy in the lives of both Fipa clergy and those who decided to not enter or remain in clerical life.

This book would make for an excellent addition to undergraduate courses on African Christianity and Catholicism in a global context. Its brevity and skillful prose will be a good fit for the classroom. It also is a good model for potential authors to follow in its unwillingness to stray from its central theme, to the point it even eschews such fashionable topics as sorcery and witchcraft. Unlike some other recent work on Tanzanian Catholicism that is more slanted against missionaries, especially the work of Maia Green, Smythe never dismisses the goals and views of her European subjects.

However, there are some issues that could have been clarified a bit. This study does not seem to distinguish between Africans living close to the mission with those Africans in outlying areas who only engaged with missionaries during rare visits or when they traveled to the mission. There are no direct references to archival sources in German that might have provided information on the pre-1914 period. Labor migration and the attractions of the coast do not get much attention here, despite the key role they had on other inland communities in Tanzania. Finally, the spiritual lives and concerns of Fipa laypeople and clergy never come into view: an odd absence to find in a work that spends so much time on African clergy. Despite these minor issues, this book deserves a wide reading.  

Jeremy Rich
Middle Tennessee State University