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Interview: Sheila Caldwell

Last month (April 2016) Michael Marten and I visited Mrs Sheila Caldwell – formerly Miss Sheila Cane. In the 1950s, a young geography teacher who had studied at University College London, she was appointed as first Principal of what was to become Yejide Girls Grammar School in Ibadan, Nigeria, a funded Anglican secondary boarding school.

When Sheila Cane made her decision to ‘go out’ to Africa in the 1950s she undoubtedly saw this as giving service – as a school teacher who could help young people less fortunate than herself to get a good education. It was also very clear that she relished the challenge of living and working in different circumstances from the world of her home country. She would of course have taken for granted that part of her responsibility towards the young women selected for the school, was to arrange regular acts of Christian worship. Nevertheless, what she remembered even more distinctly were the difficulties of finding suitable buildings for class rooms or making sure that her school was run along recognisably British lines with proper entrance tests and uniforms but also with due care for poor as well as more wealthy students.

Although now very frail, it is clear that Sheila Caldwell was a dynamic force in her youth and that during the relatively few years – perhaps six or seven – she spent in Africa she had managed to instil high standards and great affection in her students. Some of these students went on to University and have themselves had successful professional careers. One, Professor Biola Odejide (Nee Ayoade) became Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Academic University of Ibadan and another, Gladys Olumbunmi Olateru-Olagbegi (Nee Omitowoju) became Chief Judge of Ondo State. When travelling to the UK more than one of these former pupils took the trouble to contact Mrs Caldwell.

Of course, Miss Cane was not Scottish. However, during the short period she worked in Malawi in the early 1960s, she met her future husband who was Scottish. When she left Malawi she came to live and work in Scotland and very much today, counts this as her home. This raises interesting questions that we intend to explore further in our work about what “being Scottish” means in the missionary context.

Mrs Caldwell exercised a professional skill as a teacher in Nigeria and had to be resourceful and resilient to build a school from scratch even with the support of the already established Boys’ Grammar School. It is unclear at this distance of time though, how her work was valued in ways other than through the appreciation of former pupils. She may have been paid on an equitable basis with other members of staff and given similar opportunities to develop as an educator, but it is equally possible that her male and her Nigerian colleagues would have been treated differently from her – and from each other. Rhonda Semple, for example, has cautioned us not to adopt too ‘romantic’ a view of women’s fulfilled professional freedom in the mission field (Semple, Missionary Women: Gender, Professionalism and the Victorian Idea of Christian Mission, The Boydell Press, 2003).

Finding some way in conditions of inequality still to acknowledge the achievements of women like Sheila Caldwell, we can draw on the idea of women’s capacity for ‘female genius’ (Jasper, Because of Beauvoir: Christianity and the Cultivation of Female Genius, Baylor UP, 2012); that is the capacity women show when they are not immobilized by ‘male normative’ perceptions and evaluation, but cut through this kind of mystification to create on a different basis; to act or think in new ways.

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The ‘Chanda Exhibits’ at National Museums Scotland

Alison Jasper and I were recently contacted by Rosanna Nicolson, Assistant Curator in the Department of World Cultures at National Museums Scotland, about a trunk in the NMS stores:

'Chanda Exhibits' trunk; photograph © National Museums Scotland, 2016

‘Chanda Exhibits’ trunk; photograph © National Museums Scotland, 2016

Rosanna invited us to see the photographs she had taken of the trunk and its contents, and although the items originated outwith SWOAM’s time period, a very interesting and productive encounter occurred. Alison’s background in the Scottish Episcopal Church archives helped Rosanna identify some of the background to the trunk, which she has written about in a blog posting on the NMS website. Rosanna would welcome further information anyone might have about these items – please contact her via the NMS site.

The label on the rattan discs explains that they were used in wedding ceremonies. © National Museums Scotland, 2016

The label on the rattan discs explains that they were used in wedding ceremonies. © National Museums Scotland, 2016

An introduction to SWOAM – Scottish Women On A Mission

In this first blog posting, I want to introduce some of the broader themes of the Scottish Women on a Mission project. It is a collaboration between three key scholars.

In 2000 Lesley Orr Macdonald published A Unique and Glorious Mission: Women and Presbyterianism in Scotland 1830-1930, a modern history of Scottish women in the Presbyterian churches during a crucial period of Scottish and Presbyterian church life. Her book addressed a key need for a better understanding of women’s role in creating modern Scottish church life, with four main chapters:

2. Women’s Mission and Women’s Work
3. Women and the Foreign Missionary Movement
4. The Position of Women in Scottish Presbyterian Polity
5. Women Campaigning for Change.

In my 2006 book on Scottish missions to Palestine I used Orr’s seminal (and, I think, largely underrated) book – and especially the chapter on women and the missionary movement. My engagement with her text and others led to a number of subsequent publications that examined the role of women in missions, and with a growing interest in gender history and theory, I have sought to develop this under-researched area. This interest has been fostered in numerous conversations with my colleague, Alison Jasper, and one of my former PhD students, Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan.

The three of us will be working closely together, and in time we hope, with others, on a longer-term project that seeks to explore Scottish Presbyterian and Episcopal missionary activity in the period 1918-1948. We will be studying a number of geographical areas, including Palestine, China, India, and West Africa. Of equal importance will be the reflection on Scotland and the impact of missions on women and the churches in the ‘home-land’ and not just their ‘host-lands’, as is often the case with mission histories. The terms ‘home-‘ and ‘host-land’ were used by T. M. Devine (2011) to describe the transnational connection between travelling Scots’ places of origin and their destinations. We want to apply this very specifically to women who served the churches’ missions in various ways, whether as missionaries themselves, as wives of male missionaries, or as Scottish supporters of missionaries. We will be studying missionaries from the Church of Scotland, the United Free Church of Scotland, and the Scottish Episcopal Church, offering numerous opportunities for comparative work.

The period we are choosing to study is marked by numerous changes in Scotland and around the world: the emergence of the idea of the ‘new woman’, World War One, the liberalisation of women’s position in society, the Great Depression, World War Two and the emerging independence of former imperial possessions – the creation of Israel in what was Palestine in 1948, the Chinese revolution in 1948/9, and Indian independence in 1948. Women who, between 1918 and 1948, served as missionaries, would have experienced some or all of these global events, and their self-understanding and world-view would have been substantially shaped by them. Missionary work at home and abroad was informed by these self-understandings, which were further challenged by their engagement in the mission field. This process of challenge and change, and the way it was managed by different women, will be our primary focus.

As our work develops – slowly, at first, we expect – these pages will offer insights into our work that go beyond the publications that we will also be pursuing. We have plans for various forms of collaboration and dissemination, and welcome all enquiries. Do follow our work by email or on social media – see the links at the bottom of every page. Please do contact us with any questions, either individually, or if you want to make a general enquiry to me as project leader, use the contact page.

Michael Marten

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