Lay summary

Working Title: Catholic Mission in the Age of Colonialism and Decolonisation

Project Leader: Prof. Damir Skenderovic (University of Fribourg) further information

Start/End: July 2017 - June 2021

Employees: Barbara Miller, Simone Rees

Funding: Swiss National Science Foundation further information


This project investigates interrelationships and contact zones between Switzerland and Africa based on the Catholic Swiss Bethlehem Mission Society (SMB). In doing so, it contributes to an entangled history of Switzerland in which various actors were connected to the world via transnational networks, interpretation instances and activities, as well as via cultural communication and exchange processes.


With the SMB, the project focuses on the biggest Catholic mission society in Switzerland, which had a large mission territory in colonial Zimbabwe. In doing so, it extends current research, which has primarily focused on Protestant missions, especially on the Basel Mission. The investigation period ranges from World War I to the formal independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. On the one hand, this longitudinal approach allows for exploration of the transformation of the SMB and the Catholic mission in Switzerland. On the other hand, this transformation can be related to the fundamental changes in the contextual conditions, particularly determined by the transition from the colonial to the post-colonial period.


The project examines not only institutions and activities of the SMB, but also the interactive dimension of the mission. Social relationships, distributions of power and institutional settings, interventions, practices and agencies of various actors can be analysed with the specific focus on missionary encounters in colonial Zimbabwe. The project also includes the concepts, knowledge and interpretation patterns that were negotiated, questioned and reconfigured in the missionary contact zones. Narratives, representations and categories of knowledge between Switzerland and Africa that were generated in the interrelationships of the SMB missionaries and the population of colonial Zimbabwe can, therefore, be carved out and examined. This includes the generalised images of the African continent that were constructed and perpetuated in missions. To some extent, they're still persistent and effective today. Because the research allows for differentiation of the perspectives in current perceptions and discussions, it has also a social impact.


The project includes two subprojects:

Subproject A (Simone Rees): 'Race', Gender and Sexuality in Missionary Encounters. Entangled Negotiations between Switzerland and Colonial Zimbabwe (1940-1970).


Subproject B (Barbara Miller): Development, Decolonization and Global Solidarity. Missionary Entanglements between Switzerland and Colonial Zimbabwe (1960-1980).