Two weeks ago, on an official trip to Africa, Michelle Obama gave a speech encouraging 76 young sub-Saharan African women participating in the Young African Women Leaders Forum in South Africa. They gathered at the Regina Mundi Church in the black township of Soweto, where 35 years ago, in June 1976, South African youth nonviolently protested Apartheid laws affecting their education. Many of those students lost their lives in the ensuing government-issued police open shooting. Today, Regina Mundi is a memorial to those who refused to sit idly by as their country and people continued to suffer under Apartheid.

It was here that Michelle Obama had the opportunity to share words with 76 young women. Washington Post reporter Krissah Thompson, who traveled with the First Lady, writes that she challenged them to ensure that women are no longer "second-class citizens," fight the "stigma" of HIV/AIDS, and "stand up and say violence against women" is a "human-rights violation." It has been refreshing to have young African women highlighted not as refugees of war, victims of violent rape and female genital mutilation, contagions of HIV/AIDS, or recipients of monthly dollar pledges. For one day a couple of weeks ago, the world was offered a glimpse of another African female population: dedicated, persevering, brilliant women committed to using their gifts to highlight awareness, nurture justice, and improve the conditions of their respective countries.

As a person of faith, I think often about the power that our cultural imaginations have to draw us either closer or further away from a God-centered imagination. No one can deny that the way we visualize, imagine, and depict people in any culture has repercussions for how we engage one another. Westerners are predominantly exposed to stories or images of African women as victims in desperate political, health, or socioeconomic situations. This influences how we imagine we are called to be in relationship with our sisters spread throughout the 53 countries in Africa. While it is important for the West to acknowledge the legitimate needs of Africans caught in political and socioeconomic strife, an unbalanced portrayal of African women risks the danger of fostering an "us / them" mentality that underwrites the notion that we Christians are called to go and help the "helpless non-Western other" (quotes mine). For many in the West, this plays out in a gentile condescending relationship that entails reaching out to "those less fortunate than ourselves," and imagining African women mostly as potential benefactors of Western compassion and generosity.

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One White House aide said the 76 women at the forum were "some of the most awesome women in Africa." Recognizably this was a compliment, but the fact is that there are countless ordinary stories of women participating in daily life across the African continent that witness to a fuller picture of what it means to be an African woman. Stories that, if told in equal parallel with the stories of need and suffering, might lead to a broader depiction and more faithful imagination in the West of seeing African women, and those in other non-Western countries as well, as having as much to offer their respective countries and those in the West as we suspect we have to offer them. We might learn to imagine all of us together as co-laborers striving to manifest the kingdom of God right where we are placed. I think of African women like Marguerite Barankistse, a Burundian Christian whose story still amazes no matter how often one hears of it. Women like Dr. Kaswera Kasali, who with her husband, Dr. David Kasali, returned to their native war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo to create Congo Initiative, because they "felt called by the Lord to help rebuild lives, families and communities through holistic ministries with churches from various denominations." Women like Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, who directs the Institute of African Women in Religion and Culture at Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana and writes about Christian theology from an African and feminist perspective. Women like Nigerian and Harvard Business School graduate Ndidi Nwuneli, who returned to West Africa to start nonprofits that promote and teach leadership to young women. I also think of young women like Delicia Beatrice Kotugondo, one of the forum participants from Namibia who works with the National Youth Council of Namibia to support leadership and business development in Southern Namibia.

Having been raised in a couple of different African countries and visited several others, I know of so many unnamed African women across socioeconomic boundaries whose daily, ordinary lives tell beautiful and inspiring stories of strength, communal care and reliance, and healing that ripples across generations. These women, both in the spotlight and unnamed, stretch our cultural and holy imagination of what we might be called to, what we might be capable of, and with whom we might be invited to come alongside, where God is already in motion.

Enuma Okoro was born in the United States and raised in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and England. She holds a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School where she served as director for the Center for Theological Writing. The author of 'Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer (with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove), Enuma lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She blogs at'