Wilhelmina Svensson was the first female missionary to work for Svenska Missionsförbundet (the Swedish missionary federation) at their camp in Bas-Congo (now Kongo Central) province in what was then the Congo Free State. Her work in Congo involved both healthcare and teaching as well as translating the Bible and composing song texts in the local Kikongo language.
Wilhelmina Svensson was born at Arnungared farm in Tvärred parish, Västergötland, in 1861. She was the youngest child of Johan Svensson, a freeholder, and his wife Inga Maria Isaksdotter. She had five older siblings. Both of her parents belonged to the Jönköping area. According to her life story as published in Missionsförbundet, shortly after Wilhelmina Svensson was born her father lost almost everything he owned upon the termination of guarantees. Following this catastrophe the family moved back to Småland. When Wilhelmina Svensson was only two years old her mother died and she was then put into a foster home.
We have very little information on Wilhelmina Svensson’s childhood and youth. According to the aforenoted life history in Missionsförbundet she became a convert at the age of 16, having experienced a long-standing pain in her arm. This pain in her arm vanished following her conversion and she interpreted this as divine intervention. Wilhelmina Svensson’s religious conversion also brought with it a certainty that she wanted to work with sick children. She applied to Ersta in Stockholm to train as a social-welfare worker but she was too young for the programme. Instead she then spent two years working as a junior-school teacher in Järstorp, near Jönköping, until she was old enough to begin her training at Ersta. One of her patients at Ersta was a young African man, Josef K’Mataka, a Zulu. It was meeting him which led Wilhelmina Svensson to devote her life to being a Christian missionary in Africa.
Following the completion of her training Wilhelmina Svensson returned to Jönköping where she worked as an assistant at the hospital and in home medical care. In the autumn of 1882, when she was 21 years old, she was appointed director of the Ahlsborg poor-home in Vetlanda. Meanwhile, her desire to become a missionary only increased. Svenska Missionsförbundet approached her in 1887 about becoming a missionary to Congo. She accepted the offer and gave up her position at Vetlanda in order to attend a course for female missionaries at Elsa Borg’s Christian women’s home on Södermalm in Stockholm.
On 17 April 1888 Wilhelmina Svensson boarded the Afrikaan steamboat in Rotterdam to travel to Congo along with her four future missionary colleagues Elisabet Karlsson, Anna Andersson, Magnus Rangström, and Karl Teodor Andersson. Shortly after their arrival in May Elisabet Karlsson fell ill with typhoid and died two months later. Anna Andersson also fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis and Wilhelmina Svensson’s first primary role was to be her carer whilst also tending to other ill colleagues. Following the death of Anna Andersson she became increasingly engaged within the wider missionary activities.
Wilhelmina Svensson was initially active at the Svenska Missionsförbundet station at Mukimbungu, but she then moved to the mission’s Kibunzi station on the north side of the Congo river. There she began to teach a class of young boys at the mission school. She also began to teach women who had sought her out in the hopes that she would teach them to read. Further to her teaching activities Wilhelmina Svensson also ran a medical surgery where people came for treatment and medicine. She was sometimes summoned as a midwife for other female missionaries working with different organisations originating from different countries. Wilhelmina Svensson appears, as far as is known, to have been linguistically talented. She taught her colleagues the local language, and it was stated that she had a better command of English than most of the other missionaries. She translated many hymns from Psaltaren into the local Kikongo language and even composed her own hymn texts in that language. Several of these hymns were printed in the Congolese songbook Minkunga Miayenge. She was the first female delegate to the Congo missionaries’ conference held in early February 1890.
Wilhelmina Svensson, as the first female missionary to Congo representing Svenska Missionsförbundet, saw it as her responsibility to show that women also had a role to play in the missionary enterprise. The personal skills she brought to this task were solid: she was independent, intelligent and linguistically talented. Despite her simple background she had determinedly worked to accrue appropriate professional skills. Given her relative youth – she had just turned 27 a few months after her arrival in Congo – she came with several years’ experience in teaching and social work. As E.J. Ekman, the missionary director, wrote in Missionsförbundet following Wilhelmina Svensson’s death: “Mina Svensson’s working days were few in number; however, it is beyond doubt that she initiated efforts amongst the children and women of Congo which will bear rich beneficial fruits in the future.”
Wilhelmina Svensson died of malaria in April 1890, following two years’ missionary work in Congo.