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THE FORGOTTEN SOUTH: AFRICAN RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS AND THEIR GLOBAL
IMPACT

Paper Presented at the American Theological Library Association Annual Meeting, St. Louis
June, 2009

Robert M. Baum

Religious Studies

University of Missouri

Columbia, Missouri

“The Forgotten South: African Religious Traditions and Their Global Impact”

As we approach the end of the first decade of the Twenty-first Century, it continues to surprise me how many Religious Studies Departments, dedicated to the comparative study of religions, fail to include within the canon of specialties that their departments offer, the study of indigenous African religions: those religious traditions created by African peoples that are closely linked to their sense of ethnic identity and provide a spiritual connection to the land, to the supreme being, to lesser spirits and to their ancestors. To the extent that this field exists at all within the Western university, it is usually relegated to departments of anthropology, that have their roots in Western expansion into the Forgotten South of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. It is indeed curious that our students learn about theoretical approaches to the study of religions by examining the work of anthropologists and historians of religion who studied African religions, but they seldom have the opportunity to study African religions on their own terms, in order to understand some of the oldest and still dynamic and vital religious traditions in human history. Indeed, if physical anthropologists are correct and human beings first came into being on the African continent, then it stands to reason that religions themselves began in Africa, as well.

If that is the case, then why this profound neglect? Why the forgotten South? What I will try to do today is address the origins of this neglect, the stereotypes of African religions, and some sense of the rich diversity of African religious traditions. I will conclude with some brief remarks about their encounter with Christianity and Islam, as well as the future of indigenous African traditions.

The distinguished philosopher and novelist, Valentin Mudimbe has demonstrated the remarkable persistence of two fundamental assertions about Africa in the Western imaginings of the continent. These have had a profound impact on the place of African Studies within our universities. Since the time of Herodotus, he notes, Western travelers and scholars have imagined Africa as a place without history and without religion. Herodotus described Africa as populated by a host of bestial creatures, most notably the Troglodytes, none of whom possessed a sense of history or a religious system. This distinguished Africans from the Greeks and Egyptians, and eventually, the Romans, with their emphases on civil religions and civic histories.1 This discourse of disparity, persisted into the modern era, most influentially in Georg Friedrich Hegel’s, Philosophy of History:
Africa proper... the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious

history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of night....But even Herodotus called the

Negroes sorcerers: now, in sorcery we have not the idea of God, of a moral faith....

At this point we leave Africa... For it is no historical part of the world: it has no

movement or development to exhibit... What we properly understand by Africa is

the unhistorical, undeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature

and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.2
These images find their way into accounts by travelers and slave merchants during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, conveniently echoing these ideas of non-historical peoples without religion, as a way of describing Africans as people who ought, by their very natures, be enslaved. Had not Plato once described peoples without history or religions as brutes for whom enslavement could be justified?3 These images found their way into the travelogues of intrepid explorers like Sir Samuel Baker: who, despite the fact that he spoke no African language and was continually on the move in his quest for the source of the Nile, wrote confidently about his encounters with various peoples without religion. Less than a century later, British anthropologists wrote some of the finest analyses of African religions based on field research among Baker’s peoples without religion.4 If, however, the slave traders and explorers of the sixteenth through the nineteenth century were correct, than I would find myself as both a historian of Africa and a student of African religions, as a person who has spent his entire professional career studying the history of peoples without history and the history of religions of people without religions. So I can stop now. It is only a short trip back to Columbia. But, alas, I will not have met my task.

Where did these images that dominate Western imaginings of Africa come from? I think they are rooted primarily in four phenomena. First, is the long-standing continuity of the nature of interaction between peoples of the Mediterranean and European worlds with Africa. Since the time of the pharaohs, people from the North have purchased the lives and labor of African peoples from south of the Sahara. Their legitimation of such practices and their eventual sale of African slaves to other peoples helped created these images of barbarians without history and religion. Such images persisted in the Islamic world where non-Abrahamic religions were seen as simply forms of “unbelief” and whose adherents could be subject to enslavement. As the Portuguese explored the African coasts seeking sea routes to Asia, they discovered the utility of employing unfree African labor on sugar cane plantations off the coasts of North Africa and Iberia. The idea of bringing religion to people without religion and putting Africans into history became a justification of the Atlantic slave trade endorsed by French, British, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, and Baltic slave traders. A second reason for this idea that Africans had no religions, apart from Islam and Christianity, was that Europeans associated “religion” with houses of worship. They looked for church-like dwellings, mosque-like dwellings, and temples and, not finding many, this reinforced their image of Africa as a place without religion.

Similarly, they thought of religions having some kind of scriptural foundation, a practice common not only to the Abrahamic religious communities, but to most of the Asian religious traditions that, since the eighteenth century, they were beginning to study. African religious traditions relied primarily on oral traditions handed down from teacher to student, from father to son, and mother to daughter. These traditions were inaccessible to European travelers not only because they did not understand African languages, but because of the fourth reason for European unawareness of African religions, the only one that came from African traditions themselves. The focus on oral transmission of knowledge, the idea that knowledge is power, and that one must demonstrate one’s ability to handle the power being offered through education, has served to reinforce the esoteric nature of African religious education. Only people with the right to know, who had demonstrated their ability to handle the power of religious knowledge would be taught. Travelers for short periods of time, missionaries who sought to revolutionize African societies through the introduction of Western forms of Christianity, colonial administrators, and even eager graduate students funded for a year of the field research experience did not qualify. In many cases, they were told what village elders wanted them to know, the kinds of stories they told their children, stories devoid of the central paradoxes of their religious traditions. And dutifully in accordance with the intent of their informants, missionaries, travelers and anthropologists wrote about child-like beliefs, practices, and superstitions, never suspecting that they were being kept at arm-length and were being told the equivalent of Bible Stories for Children.

Although there were occasional vivid and accurate descriptions of African religious practices during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, it was only with the arrival of missionaries, primarily in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with their vocational focus on religious phenomena and the work of conversion, that we began to get reports on African concepts of the supreme being, of lesser gods or spirits, and the rituals they performed to worship them. They wrote reports back to their missionary and/or geographical societies, to popular magazines and newspapers, and what became known as “arm-chair” anthropologists wove them together into encyclopedic studies of the non-Western world, arranged according to the dominant paradigms of the time, evolutionary schema that saw Africa and other “primitive” parts of the world as living laboratories for the study of the origins of religions. Various theorists came up with different ideas about the origin of religions, ranging from Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s animism (the belief in souls in everything), Charles de Brosses and James Frazer’s concept of fetishism (the worship of powerful objects), polytheism (the worship of many gods), etc. African religions were always placed at the bottom of the evolutionary schema and either monotheism or atheism, both most influential in the West, were placed at the apex. Evans-Pritchard describes a standard “recipe” for these types of descriptions of African religions:
a reference to cannibalism, a description of Pygmies (by preference with a passing

reference to Herodotus), a denunciation of the inequities of the slave trade, the

need for the civilizing influence of commerce, something about rain-makers and

other superstitions, some sex (suggestive though discreet), add snakes and elephants

to taste; bring slowly to the boil and serve.5
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, only Father Wilhelm Schmidt suggested the possibility of an initial monotheism, suggesting that all religions can be traced back to Adam and Eve and their primal revelations in the Garden of Eden.6 It is interesting to note that when Christian missionaries began to proselytize in earnest in the mid nineteenth century, each African religion they encountered had a word for a supreme being that missionaries saw as roughly equivalent to the Christian concept of God. Now, they occasionally had problems with interpreters and translation. Okot P’Bitek described an early encounter of missionaries with the Acholi of Uganda in which they asked some elders about who created them. The interpreter, however, chose a term for create that meant “mold” with the implication of “deform.” The elders replied that Rubanga was that deity. The missionaries said that this was their god. The Acholi elders thought that this was strange, that they usually try to keep Rubanga out of their lives, but perhaps the Europeans knew something that they did not. Nevertheless, the missionaries had few converts in the years before they discovered the error of their translation and switched to the term that was used by the Acholi to describe the supreme being.7

Systematic anthropological research on the subject of African religions began in the 1920s and original research by historians of religions on African religions had to await the conclusion of the Second World War. Not surprisingly, many of the early religious studies, ie. Geoffrey Parrinder and Placide Tempels, were written by former missionaries with many years experience in African societies.8 By the 1950s a number of African scholars, largely Christian in religious practice, began to write on their own communities’ religious systems, often attempting to demonstrate strong parallels between Christianity and African religions.9 From the late 1960s, scholars like Charles and Jerome Long, Benjamin Ray began to study African religions within the framework of the history of religions.10 By the late 1980s, African religions scholarship had created a small, but critical mass, which led Rosalind Hackett and Robert Baum to create an African Religions Group at the American Academy of Religion.11

So based on this gradual expansion of research on African religious traditions, what do they entail? First, I would suggest two strong cautionary statements: there are over one thousand different African cultures, each of which have their own distinct religious practices. Their differences reflect different linguistic groups, ecological zones, political systems, interaction with other cultures, including those of Muslims and Christians, the impact of the Atlantic slave trade, and the influence of disease. Thus, there are significant differences between African religions of the Sudanic and Sahelian regions of West Africa in comparison with traditions of Upper Guinea and with Lower Guinea. Both are significantly different from the religions of Bantu-speaking Equatorial, East, and Southern Africa, as well as from the Nilotic religious traditions of East Africa. Second, the term “religion” has a distinct meaning within Western religious discourse; terms associated with “religion” in African languages may not convey an exact parallel. As Jonathan Z. Smith challenged historians of religion to do, we must stipulate what we mean by “religion” in the societies in which we work. Thus, in my own work on Diola “religion,” I associate four terms with the English term: makanaye “what we do” or tradition;

boutine, a path; kainoe, thought; and huasene or ritual. Thus, Diola think about what Westerners identify as “religion” in terms of tradition, following a path, thought, and ritual.12

Next, I would suggest that in every case in which I am familiar, African religions have at their center, a concept of a supreme being, who is seen as eternal and the source of all power in the universe. Many have suggested that the supreme being is relatively remote and inactive, what has often been called a deus otiotus, the source of all life power, but relatively inaccessible to ritual supplication. In fact, the importance of the supreme being differs dramatically, from one religious tradition to another. As we turn to specific religious traditions, one should keep in mind, that these supreme beings are not all-knowing; they make mistakes and they allow emotions to cloud their judgement.13 Among the Dogon, for example, the supreme being, Amma, rapes mother earth, because of his profound loneliness as the sole being in the universe. These supreme beings are considered to be male in some religious traditions, female in others, and androgynous in some. When I asked Diola elders about whether their supreme being, Emitai (Of the Sky) was male or female, the response I got was “You are from America. They have sent someone up to Emitai (to the moon). You tell us if God has male parts or female parts.” In short, they thought it was an inane and prurient question about the anatomy of the supreme being. One could consider my asking of this question as a reflection of an American culture where the gender of God was a matter of considerable contestation in the 1970s and 1980s.

In every case, this supreme being begins the process of creation and is seen as the source of life. In the ecological zones where adequate rainfall can make the difference between feast or famine, the supreme being is often identified as the source of rain. Finally, the supreme being judges the behavior of people when they die and determines their initial destination in the afterlife. Only those people who have lived in ways that helped their families and communities become ancestors. Those who violated community norms through violence, sexual improprieties, theft, or witchcraft are sent to various kinds of punishments, but they, along with the ancestors, are eventually reborn. As one Diola Catholic said, even though he had learned in catechism that people stay in Heaven or Hell for all eternity, “The priest was a white man. He could not see the spirits of the dead, returning to the living. We do not believe that God could hate anyone so much as to condemn them to Hell forever.” In many African religions, the supreme being is neither remote, nor inactive, but controls the creation of life, the distribution of rain, and determines one’s fate in the afterlife. In describing African religions, I avoid the sterile debate about whether African religions are monotheistic or polytheistic, a debate that Okot P’Bitek accurately suggests has far more to do with polemical debates about the founding of Christianity in the ancient world than the religious realities of African farmers and herders.14 I prefer to describe African religions as monocentric; there is a supreme being, of varying degrees of importance, at the center of each African religious system.

In most African religions, there are also lesser deities or lesser spirits. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, they are known as
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