Bernarda Joaquina Kaculete

Portrait photo of Bernarda Joaquina Kaculete
Foto: Susana Maria dos Santos © Goethe-Institut Angola

Panafricanist and feminist Bernarda Joaquina Kaculete went to a Catholic convent school at the age of 13. She describes how life with the nuns and the principles she acquired there indirectly helped her to emancipate herself and to find her own path in life. 

By Raimundo Salvador and Maximilian Wemhöner

This did not only enable her to study in Norway and the US, but also changed the way she views the world. Bernarda uses the story of her family to tell us how strongly this path of life was shaped by her mother's example and how female role models can improve the life of both men and women. With a wink of the eye Bernarda calls herself one of the "filhas abandonadas" - a lost daughter, because as the middle child of five siblings her parents did not hesitate at all to transfer her from her school in the provincial capital of Lubango in southern Angola to a Catholic boarding school 900 kilometres away in Luanda. This decision, however, was not based on a lack of love. In fact, rather the opposite is true, as her deeply religious mother herself had experienced her time at a Catholic missionary boarding school as the biggest opportunity of her life.

Her mother grew up in a small village in the central Angolan highlands as one of eleven siblings. When she was ten years old, Bernarda's grandmother passed away and the siblings were separated and moved to different family members across the entire country. Her mother, however, was sent to a Catholic missionary boarding school - a coincidence Bernarda regards as the "great opportunity" in her mother's life. She lived with the nuns and turned deeply religious, while her diligence and great academic performance enabled her to teach herself at the age of 18. With the money she earned through her teaching job, she supported her brothers and sisters who were scattered across the country.

Without this opportunity - this "springboard for life" as Bernarda calls it - her mother most likely would have not learned how to read, sew and teach. Thus, Bernarda's mother experienced faith and education as a great blessing, as something she also wanted to pass on to her children. She made sure that, despite her Protestant husband, all children were raised according to the principles of Catholicism. She repeatedly impressed upon Bernarda and her siblings: "If I made it to eighth grade, you must make it to your doctorate, master's or at least bachelor's degree!"

When Bernarda was offered admission to a renowned Catholic convent school in the capital based on academic merits, her mother would have considered it a crime to deny her daughter this opportunity. Bernarda reflects on her time with the nuns in a positive, yet quite complex way. She said that's where she learned to appreciate discipline as well as rules and a well-ordered daily routine. She learned to assume social responsibility, as the boarding school pupils were tasked with the organisation of group activities and the planning and delivery of church recitals. "Up to a certain point, religious activities can provide skills and competencies for life", says Bernarda.

Just like her mother, Bernarda was allowed to begin teaching at the age of 15 through several internships. She continued doing so as an extracurricular activity until she graduated. As a result, after high school she qualified as one of the youngest candidates for a bachelor's program in Norway. There, and during her subsequent studies in the US, she discovered that while she had learned a great deal during her time at boarding school, she had also held back in terms of her own personality. "The feminist in me always existed, but she was under lots of pressure and never had the courage to emerge. All of a sudden, I was asked by my teachers to not describe things from an Angolan, African, Catholic or female perspective but from my own, from Bernarda's perspective. That was truly a new world for me."

That's why even today she does not like to be pigeonholed as a feminist. She takes the view that neither traditional society nor feminism should force women to think or act in a certain way. Instead, all women - as well as all men, by the way - should be given the opportunity to contribute their very own experiences and wishes to society and to be heard in order to improve other people's life to a certain extent. For Bernarda, the best example for this is, of course, the story of her mother's life. "She always used to say: 'If you want more out of life, more money or greater independence, you have to fight for it, learn, try hard and make yourself heard - don't throw the towel at the first challenge. To this day, my siblings and I live up to this maxim."