Talk in Oxford African Studies Seminar


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February 13, 2017 · 5:17 pm

BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Out in Africa’

Image result for radio 4 bbcBBC Radio 4 recently produced a programme on the theme ‘Out in Africa’, in which presenter Charles Adesina explores dynamics of homophobia and the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Africa.

Adesina, an award-winning film- and radio-maker who himself is a gay man with Nigerian roots, explores in particular the role of religion in relation to issues of homosexuality in Africa. Among other people, he meets with British-Nigerian gay pastor Jide Macaulay from House of Rainbow Ministries, Rev Mpho Tutu-van Furth, daughter of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and herself an Anglican priest who recently married a woman, the openly gay Imam Muhsin Hendricks from Cape Town’s People’s Mosque, and with a group of courageous South African grandmothers who have taken it upon themselves to learn what it means to be lesbian or gay, and defend their LGBT grandchildren from family hostility. Adesina also interviewed me as part of his preparations, and in the programme I give a commentary on the historical and socio-cultural backgrounds of anti-homosexuality politics in contemporary Africa, as well as on the complex role of religion.

The programme was broadcast on 20 December 2016, and in a slightly shorter version on 1 January 2017. It is available online through this link.

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Review of Paul Gifford’s Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa

Review of Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa. London: Hurst & Company, 2015. viii + 187 pp. £18.99 (paperback). ISBN 9781849044776.

Published in African Affairs (2016).
Image result for Christianity, Development and Modernity in AfricaThis book offers a comparative account of two forms of Christianity in Africa, Pentecostalism and Catholicism, and their respective ‘public effects’. Gifford feels that the diversity between both ‘is unacknowledged in the usual studies of African Christianity, … [while] these differences have significant bearing on questions of development and modernity’ (6). Chapter 1 – ‘The Issues’ – briefly introduces the major themes. It also attends to the methodological approach, which as Gifford points out is built on ‘personal experience’ (7), having researched various branches of African Christianity for three decades and building a personal archive over that period.

In the following eight chapters, the comparison of the two Christianities unfolds. Chapter 2, ‘Enchanted Christianity’, argues that Africa is characterized by an enchanted religious imagination and that Pentecostalism continues the enchanted worldview of traditional religions: it is concerned with explaining, predicting and controlling events in the world and in people’s lives, believed to be caused by spiritual forces. Gifford discusses two examples illustrating this argument. The first is Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries (MFM), founded by Daniel Olukoya in Lagos in 1989 – a church deeply concerned with spiritual warfare, using prayer as ‘the principal means of thwarting the evil forced arrayed against us and reclaiming our true destiny’ (27-28). Chapter 3, ‘Victory’, presents the second case study: Living Faith Church Worldwide, also known as Winners’ Chapel, founded by David Oyedepo in Lagos in 1983. This church has a strong emphasis on material prosperity. Drawing on these two examples, Chapter 4 – ‘Pentecostalism and Modernity’ – presents a more general account. Gifford identifies six ‘registers of victorious living’, distinguishing the different ways in which Christianity is linked to success and wealth: 1) Motivation 2) Entrepreneurship 3) Practical skills 4) the Faith Gospel 5) the ‘anointing’ of the pastor 6) defeating the spirits blocking one’s advance. Several scholars have highlighted the contribution that Pentecostalism makes to development, often explaining this with reference to Weber’s thesis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Gifford is much more sceptical and argues that such a positive assessment only takes into account the first three registers, while the latter three have become much more prominent in African Pentecostal circles. Discussing the socio-economic effects of Pentecostal beliefs in spiritual warfare and prosperity, he argues that they undermine social capital, diminish personal agency, and discount scientific rationality. In Gifford’s assessment this form of Christianity does not advance modernity or contribute to development; it is simply ‘dysfunctional’ (67).

In Chapter 5 (‘Global Catholicism’), Gifford introduces Catholicism as another global form of Christianity. The chapter briefly outlines developments in Catholicism in the West, such as disenchantment – the shift away from a spirit-pervaded cosmos – and internal secularization – with the Catholic Church becoming ‘a super-NGO, the supreme example of global civil society’ (80). Focusing on Africa, Chapter 6 (‘Catholicism and Development) highlights the major contribution of the Catholic Church in many African countries to education and health care. With funding coming increasingly from secular bodies such as the EU, the UN, USAIDS, Gifford suggests that there is a shifting balance in African Catholic activities from evangelisation to development and relief, and he concludes that this form of Christianity ‘brings not so much redemption as development’ (103). In Chapter 7 – ‘Enchanted Catholicism’ – Gifford acknowledges that many African Catholics live in an enchanted world and find ways of coping with that within their religion; however, he says that these expressions of enchanted Catholicism are banned or circumscribed by the church hierarchy. Chapter 8 then argues that like the bishops, also African Catholic theologians ‘entirely ignore the religious imagination’ of Africans, and is characterized by an ‘internal secularisation’ (144).

Drawing all of this to a conclusion, in Chapter 9 Gifford concludes that there are two distinct religious visions on the continent: one is ‘the enchanted religious imagination of so many Africans’, catered for by Pentecostalism, and the other is the ‘increasingly internally secularised Christianity of the Catholic professionals’ (151). He continues by opposing the relevance of the notion of ‘multiple modernities’ to understand African realities and by arguing that the enchanted imagination of Pentecostalism is incompatible with the functional rationality that he considers the essence of modernity.

Based on decades of experience, observation and reflection, Gifford’s book offers a general, but therefore also generalizing, account of two broad forms of Christianity in Africa, and presents an original assessment of their socio-public effects. However original, this assessment is not entirely rigorous. Due to the conflation of modernity and modernization, and the essentialist notion of modernity, the argument lacks the nuance and sophistication found in broader debates on both Pentecostalism and modernity in Africa. Furthermore, the selected evidence is interpreted within, and used to support, a simple binary scheme of ‘enchantment’ versus ‘development’, while many Pentecostal churches today are actually involved in development activities such as education and health care, and many Catholics (both lay people and officials) may attend the Catholic Church not just to get access to developmental resources but to meet their spiritual needs as well. Gifford draws attention to an important aspect of contemporary African Christianities, but the relation between enchantment, modernity and development might be more complex and ambiguous than this book does acknowledge.

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Book review: Religion and the Inculturation of Human Rights in Ghana

Review of  (Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies), London: Bloomsbury, 2013, 284 + ix pp., 9781441199478, £58.50 (hard cover). Published in Journal of Religion in Africa 45/3-4, 346-347.

Image result for Religion and the Inculturation of Human Rights in Ghana

With his book , Atiemo has made an important contribution to current debates on religion and human rights, and on human rights in Africa. Based on original fieldwork in three traditional areas (La, Anlo and Gomoa) and two major cities (Accra and Kumasi) in Southern Ghana, this study explores the ways that local religio-cultural traditions in Ghanaian societies might, or already do contribute to the global framework of human rights and to the embedding of this framework in the Ghanaian context. This is a timely and important study as it addresses two problems that have emerged with the globalisation and growing recognition of human rights as a major ethical and legal framework: first, the criticism of human rights as a product and reflection of Western norms and values imposed on other parts of the world, and second—and relatedly—the criticism of human rights as a secular ideology insensitive to the deeply religious nature of the organisation of communities and societies in Africa and elsewhere.

Taking up Gerrie ter Haar’s call for an ‘inculturation of human rights in Africa’, Atiemo, who is a senior lecturer in the Study of Religions department at the University of Ghana, employs the concept of inculturation as a hermeneutical model. Although this term has its origins in African Christian theological discourse, in this study ‘religion’ is not limited to Christianity and neither is the disciplinary character of the book strictly theological. Defining inculturation as ‘the process of encounter between the universal and local that eventually results in the activation and redevelopment of local elements, which share some affinity with the universal ones, in such a way that both the local and the universal are mutually transformed’ (p. 6), Atiemo argues that human rights are ‘dream values’ of which the ‘imperfect seeds’ (p. 37) can be found in all societies and cultures including Ghanaian religio-cultural traditions.

The book opens with an introduction (chapter 1), followed by a number of general chapters discussing relevant questions. In chapter 2 on religion and human rights, Atiemo argues that for human rights to be inculturated in Ghana they must be embedded in religious frameworks. Chapter 3 focuses on inculturating human rights and deals with a key problem in global discussions on human rights, the problem of cultural relativism. Atiemo argues that the model of inculturation is most appropriate in dealing with this problem since it pursues a non-relativist approach to human rights. The notion of a common ‘Ghanaian culture’, which underlies the model of inculturation, is explored in chapter 4. It offers an account of the historical processes of national identity construction in Ghana. Chapter 5 then seeks to locate religion in postcolonial Ghana in relation to public discourse, the nation-state, and politics, and examines religion’s role in and contribution to society in terms of ‘spiritual capital’. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 form the part of the book in which Atiemo actually implements his model and examines the possibilities, challenges, and outcomes of an inculturation of human rights in Ghana.

The chapters present a systematic and critical analysis of the above-mentioned ‘imperfect seeds’. The focus here is respectively on indigenous ideas of human dignity and rights in traditional Ghana (chapter 6), the fruition and possibilities of human rights in contemporary Ghana (chapter 7), and the translation of human rights as a secular idea in Ghana’s religious worldview (chapter 8). Aware of the criticism of inculturation theology by African feminist theologians for its uncritical embrace of ‘African culture’, Atiemo certainly does not present a naive or romanticised account of Ghanaian religio-cultural traditions and their convergence with modern human rights discourse. He critically identifies and discusses issues such as witchcraft accusation, widowhood rites, and the distribution of political power that demonstrate violations of human dignity and rights in precolonial as well as contemporary Ghana. Yet through his hermeneutics of inculturation he also identifies Ghanaian beliefs and practices, inspired by indigenous religion and traditional culture as well as Christianity, which he shows are fruitful for a local appropriation of global human-rights discourse. How this inculturation then affects and indeed transforms global human rights, as suggested in the above-quoted definition, becomes less clear in the book. Perhaps this is because Atiemo adopts the idea of human rights as a normative and universal framework relatively uncritically. It is remarkable, for example, that Makau Mutua’s 2002 book is not even mentioned. A more in-depth analysis of human rights controversies in contemporary Ghana, such as around the issue of homosexuality, could have provided more critical insight into the conflicts and tensions between local and global (i.e., Western) perceptions of human dignity and rights. Thus the significance of this book is primarily—and importantly so—in its robust account of how human rights can be embedded in the Ghanaian context and related to Ghanaian religio-cultural traditions, which has profound implications for politics and social policy not only in Ghana but more broadly in Africa and other parts of the majority world.

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New book: Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa

The book Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa has just been published by Routledge. I have co-edited this volume together with Professor Ezra Chitando from the University of Zimbabwe. It complements another volume we co-edited, entitled Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa.

9781472444745Issues of homosexuality are the subject of public and political controversy in many African societies today. Frequently, these controversies receive widespread attention both locally and globally, such as with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. In the international media, these cases tend to be presented as revealing a deeply-rooted homophobia in Africa fuelled by religious and cultural traditions. But so far little energy is expended in understanding these controversies in all their complexity and the critical role religion plays in them. Complementing the companion volume, Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa, this book investigates Christian politics and discourses on homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa. The contributors present case studies from various African countries, from Nigeria to South Africa and from Cameroon to Uganda, focusing on Pentecostal, Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. They critically examine popular Christian theologies that perpetuate homophobia and discrimination, but they also discuss contestations of such discourses and emerging alternative Christian perspectives that contribute to the recognition of sexual diversity, social justice and human rights in contemporary Africa.

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