Esther Mombo is Professor of Theology and Church History, and former Deputy Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. She received her PhD from the University of Edinburgh. In 2007 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Virginia Theological Seminary for her work in bringing to the fore issues of gender disparity and gender justice in church and society. Her most recent publication is, “Pray! Pray! Pray! Women and the Prayer of Persistence and Resistance in Listening Together: Global Anglican Perspectives On Renewal of Prayer and Religious Life (London: Forward Movement, 2020).
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
During my undergraduate studies I was fascinated with seeking to know why things happened, especially to women. My first research project was on Female Circumcision later referred to as “Female Genital Mutilation” or FGM. I did not have a grounding on gender lenses so I did a project on why the custom persisted in my community. My advisor’s strengths focused on African realities more than gender analysis. In my post graduate studies, was able to provide a gendered analysis and critique of the impact that patriarchy had upon women. My membership and engagement with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, and my mentorship from senior sisters, gave me the grounding to look at things through a more gendered lens. Catastrophic health concerns such as the HIV pandemic and now COVID have helped me continue evaluating current issues, such as the way religion and culture function to make women even more vulnerable during these crises events.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
My grandmother helped me look at and become interested in gender issues without using gender philosophy or gender theories. An example of one of her phrases was, “The church leadership is a space of jackets,” meaning women did not have a space in the leadership. Women had to navigate carefully in those spaces. She was the one who helped navigate patriarchal spaces in my theological education. She named sexual harassment in sacred spaces and noted the particular impact upon women. These are the aspects that the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians brought to light. I can say my mothers and sisters have been instrumental. I have also had brothers who have helped in the journey as well.
As a woman of African descent, how have you navigated challenges in your academic journey?
I navigated challenges through connecting with other brothers and sisters of African descent. Together, we used our education and training to gain knowledge. I especially listened to sisters in the journey who shared issues of great concern and we challenged and affirmed each other. The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians is a pool of sisters that have been of immense support as individuals and through their writings. The membership of the organization is from different parts of the African Continent. Founded by Prof. Mercy Amba Oduyoye, of Ghana, the Circle has great women. A few names include the Rev. Nyambura Njoroge, Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, Prof. Mary Getui, Prof. Philomena Mwaura, Prof. Teresia Hinga, Prof. Hazel Hayanga, the Rt. Rev. Emily Onyango. These are among the founders of the Circle but there are other women, especially my mentees, who are serving in church leadership and in academics. I also have sisters across the world with whom I share as we grow in ministry together.
Can you share anything about a current project that you have?
COVID 19 has brought to light issues of Gender Based Violence and Sexual Gender Based Violence. Girls and women bear the brunt of both GBV and SGBV. The results of these forms of violence is an increase in teenage pregnancies and child marriages. These girls struggle with multiple vulnerabilities including poverty, discrimination and exclusion. Together with a few Circle members, we will embark on a project together with other organizations including education and health to share information and empower the young to stand against gender based violence. The project will create safe spaces to equip the young people to navigate through multiple challenges that compound them. As they complete their education and grow, physically and mentally, they will learn to make informed choices.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the intersection of race, gender and religion?
Though I am primarily a historian by training, with a historian’s overriding desire to investigate and reconstruct the past, I also devote considerable time and energy to exploring major issues and developments that are sociological in nature. Almost invariably, my handing of subject matter incorporates an intersection of the historical, global, and sociological perspectives. As a historian of world Christianity, I have a strong predilection for the social historical method, which seeks to broaden the field of enquiry to include the entire society, with particular attention to underrepresented groups or neglected voices. My research is intersectional in nature as it seeks to unveil the multiple aspects in a human space by looking into systems that deny the young a space to grow and make choices. These systems cut across race and gender. Colonial, African and Christian patriarchies have contributed to some of the realities. The research therefore engages the systems in varied ways using gender as a lens to analyze each situation. The research names and challenges systems that deny life for those that are vulnerable.