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White Sisters, nursing practices and reproductive health in East-Africa

15 December 2021

What was the role of missionary nurses in sub-Saharan Africa’s colonial and postcolonial past? How did nursing practices develop and how did they affect the health of mothers and children?

With a grant from the Nurse Vernède Foundation (Stichting Zuster Vernède), Aletta Jacobs Professor of Economic and Social History Hilde Bras will study the impact of missionary nurses in East-Africa in a project titled "White Sisters, nursing practices and reproductive health in East-Africa, 1890-present."

A white woman in a white habit and veil stands in front of three large posters with images, closely surrounded by a group of young black women, on of which carries a baby on her hip.
A White Sister educates young African women on how to care for babies, 1935 (Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, BM-Z093 116262)

The project attempts to answer these questions by means of a case study of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady in Africa (nicknamed the "White Sisters" for the color of their habit) in East Africa (1890-present). The project investigates the changing discourses and practices of missionary nursing and its impact on the development of nursing in the Netherlands and locally from a critical intersectional perspective. Its focus is on underlying gender, racial, and cultural tensions between nurses and doctors, nurses and patients, and colonial and indigenous nurses.

Archival sources and oral history

A young black woman holds a baby on her lap as a black nurse puts a stethoscope to the baby's chest.
A nurse of the Chiwenga Clinic examines a baby (Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, BM-Z093 116295)

Archival material, letters, diaries, photographs, mission magazines, and oral history are used. In addition, the project investigates the relationship between nursing practices and reproductive health, using maternity and patient registers from four hospitals in Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi. The project combines theoretical perspectives from different historical sub-disciplines (entangled history, history of nursing, medical history, and historical demography) and uses an innovative 'mixed method' approach.

Together with a recently recruited PhD student from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, Hilde Bras will use this grant to do two weeks of research in the archives of the White Sisters in Rome as well as two months of fieldwork in/around the hospitals in East Africa, including oral history interviews with the local population and the collection of maternity and patient records in the hospital archives.

Stichting Zuster Vernède

The Nurse Vernède Foundation provides grants for activities and projects that focus on the history of nursing and care in the Netherlands. Much of that history is still unknown. Read more on the foundation's website (Dutch).

Last modified:16 December 2021 11.00 a.m.

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