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Did Christian missionaries help or harm Africa during the colonial period? Were the missionaries perceived as a threat by Muslims in the Middle East?

These were the issues addressed by Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Professor Heather Sharkey in an Irvine Auditorium discussion on Friday entitled "Cultural Service or Self Service Culture? The Christian Missionary Enterprise in Colonial Africa."

The real impact of the activities of the missionaries is still a debate in academia today, according to Sharkey. However, she said that the fact that the missionaries converted millions of native Africans to Christianity bears testimony to their success.

"The missionaries played manifold roles in colonial Africa and stimulated forms of cultural, political and religious change," Sharkey said. "Historians still debate the nature of their impact and question their relation to the system of European colonialism in the continent."

According to Sharkey, some analysts believe that the missionaries did great good for Africa. They provided crucial services like education and health care that would have otherwise not been available to the Africans. They also stimulated new print languages.

In traditionally male-dominated societies, Sharkey said, female missionaries provided women in Africa with health care knowledge and basic education. They allowed social mobility within the society by allowing all types of people to come to their churches.

Sharkey said that Roland Oliver's The Missionary Factor in East Africa, published in 1952, was one work which portrays a good image of the missionary community.

However, many historians dispel the notion that missionary activity in Africa was useful. They allege that missionary activity helped maintain the control of the colonial powers by pacifying the local populations.

Missionaries have also been accused of being reinforcers of patriarchy by teaching women to be better at household chores rather than imparting education on them.

Perceived as cultural imperialists, the missionaries have been repeatedly accused by some historians of making Africans feel inferior about their own culture. One of the best literary critiques of missionary activity in Colonial Africa, according to Sharkey, was Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible.

Students said they learned a lot from Sharkey's remarks.

"I felt the talk was really fascinating because it gave a wider perspective of the missionary community in Africa," College sophomore and South Africa native Paul Greenham said.

Sharkey also touched on missionary activity in the Middle East.

The missionaries provided important educational and health services in the Middle East, she said. But according to Sharkey, to the Muslims of the Middle East, they were always antagonizers. As a response to this perceived threat, Muslim thinkers like Hasan Al-Banna organized groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to bring the Islamic community together.

"This is a good example of a talk that brings Middle Eastern and African Studies together around a common question," said Lee Cassanelli, director of the African Studies Center, which sponsored the event as part of the African Studies Fall 2002 Lecture Series.

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