Wednesday, October 27, 2010

African religion: Begin by trying to understand

A story in Slate (October 25, 2010) about traditional African religion, based on the author's reminiscences and V. S. Naipaul's recent book, almost works, but for its author's tiresome attack on all religions except his own (which I take, from his earnestly sarcastic tone, to be atheist materialism). Here's Johann Hari, "The Valley of Taboos: V.S. Naipaul dares to discuss Africa's indigenous beliefs":
There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don't want to talk about it. We don't know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.
Well, full marks for understanding that all cultures have taboos, including ours. Honest discussion of the differences that really do make a difference is a Big Taboo in North America today. And he is right to think it is a serious problem:
These are not trivial side-beliefs, like vague fears of black cats crossing your path. They are at the core of many Africans' understanding of themselves and the world. I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a "witch" who cast spells on her neighbors.
He asks where such a belief comes from.

Well, I have an idea: He also tells us,
In most indigenous African religions, "God" is pretty much inaccessible to humans. But they believe every human is surrounded by a swirl of spirits—of the dead, of the living who can temporarily leave their bodies, of nature—that are constantly at work. Many of these spirits will take on physical representations at key moments, from trees to carved idols to animals. They can protect and heal, or they can smite and curse. Life is a constant exhausting process of wooing the spirits and warding them off. They can be communicated with directly, but it is easier to talk through the local soothsayers and witch doctors. Africans who describe themselves as Muslims and Christians will often retain these traditional beliefs not far beneath the surface.
In other words, the idea that God is a loving father or a just ruler, and always accessible to his rational creatures is absent. And what assumes his place? The spirit of one's still angry dead mother-in-law, who must be placated at all costs ... or something even worse. No wonder missionaries wanted to reach the people with what, for most, seemed good news.

Nonetheless, Hari acknowledges,
Almost all homegrown African belief systems are, or were, based on a reverence for local ecosystems—a belief that the forests and rivers are sacred—and this helped persuade people to preserve them, alive and intact. But when the colonialists arrived, they dismissed such notions as mumbo-jumbo and forcibly imposed religions that originated in the desert and had nothing to say about the African environment. The old taboos were stamped out, and before long the forests began to be systematically destroyed. It's an eco-catastrophe from which Africa has never recovered, and which many Africans have picked up and are continuing to perpetrate today. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, offered a personal example when I interviewed her, speaking about one particular tree near her village that she loved: "That tree inspired awe," she told me. "It was protected. It was the place of God. But in the '60s, after I had gone far away, I went back to where I grew up, and I found God had been relocated to a little stone building called a church. The tree was no longer sacred. It had been cut down. I mourned for that tree."

This sense of grief at seeing a forest destroyed—or even as morally akin to murder—is in fact more sane than our shrugging.
I've mourned for trees too, but if I ever got around to seeing them as akin to people rather than as elements of places, I'd be well on the road to superstition.

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