Africa World Religion

Al Imfeld, AFRIKA ALS WELTRELIGION. Zwischen Vereinnahmung und Idealisierung.
Stämpfli Verlag, Bern 2011. 184 S. ISBN 978-3-7272-1314-4

English Summary

For the author it is essential that in the context of slavery, African men and women with their culture have been actively living – not necessarily of their own wishes – on all continents: in the new world, in the Caribbean, Latin and Northern America; also as servants for European slave traders from Lisbon up to Copenhagen and in the East throughout Asia from Arabia to China as castrated guardians of the women in the residences of rulers from Arabia to China. Inevitably they came in close contact with Christianity and Islam. They were just superficially taught and therefor their traditional religion subsisted blended with some of the new religious elements, many of them magic and superstitious.

As a result, during the last 400 to 1000 years African religion developed worldwide. For this reason the author puts African religion grammatically as singular and regards it as World religion, just like Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. This book is not dealing with the originally many different religions on the continent, but is to give insight into a historically long lasting process uniting the many African elements into one world religion.

The origin is comparable to that of Christianity. This was originally nothing else but a Jewish sect. Jesus had hardly in mind to create a world religion; he rather wanted a renewal of Judaism. Through Paul, of Jewish and Roman citizenship, ideas of Jesus got spread and deeply affecting the slaves, esp. those in Rome. Realizing the subversive power of the Christian love, the Romans authorities started persecution forcing the Christians to go hiding underground (catacombs). But the new spirituality was a force incorruptible and active among the social layer of poor and destitute in the Empire. The live of Jesus was written down in four versions. Christianity became the book of remaining in the Jewish tradition of monotheism. On this basis, it spread rapidly throughout Northern Africa, Asia and Europe; from now on Christianity being a powerful world religion.

The author recognizes strong parallelism between the origin of Christianity and its spread with the origin of African world religion. The thesis is the following: through slavery, Africans were dispersed into the whole world. Far from home living a hard and humiliating life as slaves, Africa became something new. Africa as singular entity came into existence with the imagination and concept of different influential men. Marcus Garvey, a black or Afro-Jamaican, developed the concept of Pan Africa and founded among many other things for the homebringing to Africa of former slaves even a shipping company. The poet Aimé Césaire, from Martinique operating from Paris, wrote the classic “Cahier d’un Retour au Pays natal”. Together with the later president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, they were initiating the movement “Black is Beautiful”. Césaire was the first philosophizing on Créolism; for him it was clear, that nothing on the African continent was original. The essence of Africa has become hybridized in its susceptibility to crossing; among the Diaspora there was no discussion necessary: Africans and all their ideas worldwide in the Diaspora are a product of mélange. Africa and the Africans were open and got influenced and made something new, a positive and creative blend with the rest of the world. In this sense, with this understanding Africa is the World, Africa has the World in it. In view of this, it is quite reasonable to call African Religion and Spirituality a world phenomenon

The author refers to what others – in an isolated way – regard as typically African, forgetting that the typical has long gone and always has been floating. Nothing on this continent can be defined in an European way. It is always “both and . . .”, because Africa does not know neither monotheism nor mono-causality. Thus the search for and the traditional belief in finding the Ur-religion or the real beginning of religion on this continent is sheer arrogance. The ethnological studies under the colonialists defining clearly and distinctly what this or that tribe should be, must be taxed as fiction because there never existed a pure tribe. What we still call tribes, are all crossbred hybrids of mixed influence. Each people must also be seen in the context of its neighbors. Africanity essentially means being of various influence and interaction.

But there are trends and certain strong and sometimes even dominating features. For example: Throughout Bantu-Africa God is hidden and one doesn’t care about him. Important are the ancestors who interfere with every day life. To interpret signs the n’anga is needed with his knowledge reaching to the remote past and who is also a herbalist and healer. Here we touch a further important element of African Religion: there is always the need of an intermediary, someone in between, nothing goes direct.

The African society until recently is oral, all goes mediatorilly. Nothing is written down; stories are of permanent susceptibility to adaptation and variation. But with time written texts emerged either Biblical or Koranic. Until recently black people couldn’t read; hence storytellers and bards were needed.

The slaves were fond of the Old Testament with its Babylonian exile and the lamentations on the riverside and of the New Testament with emphasis on Jesus and the Apocalypse. This was blended with African elements. Most of them are now believed to be predominantly from Yoruba or Ashanti. Yet this is a mere imputation. Why? Yoruba as well as Ashanti (Akan people) always sent others into slavery, mostly neighbors like Ewe. Those “Ewe” in the exile were looking up to them, and indeed they knew a lot of them, some isolated elements excelled as African and the rest was mythical. Something similar happened to Voodoo: it is said to be the original African religion (origin Benin). Voodoo however is a creation in the context of slavery under Catholic influence, as in Haiti; this also showing how certain elements in the development of African religion flow back to the continent.

As mentioned above, there was a mixture of culture and even more: different realities that overlapped. Most Africans are moving within on different spheres, real and imagined, some of the earth, some of the air or in the stars and so on. This makes it very difficult to Europeans to understand Africans.

The medium determines the African view of the World and what is seen as actual reality. A medium is always a medium, never direct, always something in between remains.

We shouldn’t forget that African belief is not only based on a vague tradition, but also on whatever joined tradition enlarging and enriching it with additional ingredients so to become a broad stream. Best examples are two Jamaicans: the above mentioned Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, the genial Rasta musician; his songs have become like a chapter in the African “Gospel”. From the Jazz in New Orleans to the Funk under the bridge of Lagos. Soul and Pop are of African origin. The African music in all its multiplicity and diversity corresponds to our Holy Books; just sounds replacing the words.

Most significant are the many masks of more than 2000 different peoples, a world with many meanings reflecting the different levels from sacred to profane.

No wonder the modern African art has developed explosively in Nigeria and recently in South Africa reflecting a confused world and also the longing for a homecoming.

The author takes advantage of his vast experience and of his comprehensive of modern African literature being acquired since 1956 and referring to it as well as quoting the Fathers of the Church. Therefore you find 35 poets and writers in the appendix with a short summery of their essential message. Preeminent is indeed the Nobel-Prize-Winner (1996) Wole Soyinka. He may be regarded as the best modern African theologian.

The third part of the book deals with modern developments of African religion which started at the end of the colonial era on the continent with the sudden expansion of the Independent African Churches, shortly IAC, first in South Africa, now erupting like volcanoes in all West African states. Even in the Islamic world of Africa (mostly Sufi oriented) a similar tendency may be observed.

By Europeans, Christians as well as by Moslems, Pentecostal churches were regarded disdainfully. For the author the Pentecostal Churches are a typically African element and hence part of the African world religion. Important activities and features are practiced by means of preaching, singing and dancing. Here are some African traits:

  • Healing: A hope of being healed, with many different respects (from AIDS to traumata) and on levels far from body illness reaching even to cosmic catastrophes.
  • Prophesies: People nowadays want to know what will come upon them. The prophet is part of African tradition as well as of Jewish. A prophet warns people. This warning becomes part of preaching. Contrary to their tradition Africans now look into the future and have become inclined to apocalypse.
  • Millenarism: overlapping the fear of a chaotic ending of the world and the cosmos is the hope of foretelling. There are always certain indications and signs of a coming end.
  • A new Jerusalem is expected; at the best on a holy mountain. For most people the megacities of today mean slums and/or chaos.
  • A new small community where people feel at home. In today’s world most of them feel lost. Practically all of the IACs are not developing missionary activities, except in their neighborhood; they want to create a harmonious environment.
  • The new preacher replaces the corrupt Chiefs and partly also the N’angas who all ask for too much money; pertaining to the old system they are regarded as bloodsuckers.
  • Exorcism is another important element of many of these IACs. Due to the social situation greed dominates. The world is full of witches and witchcraft. Witchcraft at the moment is the biggest social disease esp. in West Africa.

The African religion exploded in thousand variations in Latin America, esp. in Brazil. Candomblé is fully part of the African Religion, the same or very similar as the Orthodox Church is part of Christianity. In like manner thousands and thousands of Pentecostal strands are all of African origin and spirit.

The gist of the book is the following one:

For two thousand years Christianity and the West as its promulgator have looked down on Africa and its people. In the process of decolonization, Africa impetuously emerges as player on the political scene of this world, as a consequence claiming recognition and equal rights. All of a sudden people realize, that there is even an African Religion all over the world. Therefore the author pleads to recognize: African Religion is one more variation of Weltreligion; from now on it belongs to the Science of Religion as additional chapter besides Christianity, Islam or Buddhism and others. Africa is more but a mere footnote.



Al Imfeld©   July 2011