Africa as a Site for Understanding Contemporary Religion: Impressions from a Research Workshop

I had been looking forward to the two-day series of seminars (University of Leeds; 25-26 January 2018) on “Theory from the South: Africa as a Site for Understanding Contemporary Religion” for a few months; a star of the academic world of religion and Africa was going to be talking, and I was ready to absorb whatever I could.

Professor Birgit Meyer, award winning academic and author of numerous articles and books, began the workshop with a lecture entitled, ‘Studying Religion in and from Africa’. There was so much material, so much knowledge shared that taking notes was a challenge.

There were two main objectives in the talk: firstly, to unpack the use of the term “religion” and the associated vocabulary, and secondly, addressing the possibilities that arise from studying religion from (instead of in) Africa. With links between Religious Studies and Africa ‘not yet synchronised’, Meyer stressed the importance of rethinking the relation between “religion” and “Africa”. A fresh, postcolonial perspective is needed. The study of religion in Africa ends up normalising something which should be questioned. The perspective that Africa is ‘Europe’s alternate other’, with its enchantment and its ‘incurable religiosity’, Meyer claims, denies Africa co-evenness with Europe.

So, what of ‘religion from Africa’, what difference does that vantage point make? Meyer explored the differing perspective with its resonance in ‘theory from the South’, and its ability to decentre relations of power. Although impossible to disentangle Africa from its colonial history, she stressed the importance of not essentialising either Europe or Africa. What Meyer proposed is a notion of religion which is open, not limited to those contexts where the term “religion” is explicitly used, but capturing any situations where humans deploy relations with another world.

What really struck me about the opening lecture was Professor Meyer’s absolute desire to dig deeper and explore every comment. This exploration continued into day two, and the passion for learning was contagious.

The following day’s programme, which was conceived and crafted by Dr Adriaan van Klinken, was brimming with potential, and didn’t disappoint. Even the early start was forgiven!

The day began with a talk by Dr Marloes Janson, focusing on lived religion in Lagos, Nigeria. Observing the idiosyncratic ways religion is performed there, Janson proposed an interdisciplinary approach for scholars to take. A collaboration between anthropology, religious studies and theology allows for a greater understanding of religious pluralism and the diverse perspectives present.

Using ‘Chrislam’ (a hybrid mix of Christianity and Islam that exists in Lagos) as an example, , Janson emphasised the importance of looking beyond “religion-as-belonging” to acknowledge the performative power of religious practice. Foregrounding the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, she drew attention to the reality of multiple religious belonging. This challenges the boundaries we so often place around religions and demands a ‘decolonization’ of religious studies. Janson proposed the concept of ‘assemblage’ as a key method, allowing for a new and fresh perspective.

Charles Prempeh followed with his sociological analysis of interfaith marriages between Muslims and Christians in Accra, Ghana. Beginning with a historical account of Christianity and Islam in Ghana and the formation of a secular state, Prempeh moved on to describe examples from his fieldwork on interfaith marriages, and the often-pragmatic approach people take to religion. Belief that Christians and Muslims worship the ‘same God’, allows people in Ghana to adopt a view that ‘works for me’ regardless of religious affiliation.

Dr Elaine Christian in her paper ‘African Theology as Theory and Action’, proposed a stronger engagement within the discipline of anthropology with theology in order to understand religion in contemporary Africa. Moving from theology as normative theory, Christian’s experience of African theology not only asks the questions, ‘what can I know?’ and ‘what can I hope for?’ but also ‘what shall I do?’ With the connection of potential and action, the boundaries between anthropology and theology become less clear, leading to the question whether ‘African theology’ with its ‘theory and action’, should be liberated from other, more doctrinal notions of theology.

We then heard from Dr Eleanor Tiplady Higgs, presenting on ‘The Marginalisation of African, Gender Critical, Theological Scholarship in Anglophone/Western Gender Studies’. Reflecting on the YWCA in Kenya, Tiplady Higgs observed that the women’s movement in Kenya struggles to embrace faith and yet the majority of women in Kenya are Christian. In addition, western gender studies analysis rarely cites from research published by members of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (an activist-scholarly organisation which has facilitated, championed, and published theology and religious studies from the perspectives of African women since the 1980s). Tiplady Higgs discussed the impact a secular framework has on legitimising an absence of religion in gender studies, and the fact that when religion is discussed it is rarely seen as having positive implications on women in Africa. Exploring the possibility of unacknowledged racism and neo-colonialism underpinning the secular frame of reference, Tiplady Higgs suggested a movement of African gendered theologies into the mainstream.

After lunch Nathanael J. Homewood occupied the dreaded ‘graveyard slot’, but there was no disengagement or desire for our minds to drift. Discussing ‘Sexual Expressivity and Creativity in the Church: The Postcolonial Possibilities of Studying Sex and Religion in Africa’, Homewood explored the Ghanaian deliverance ministries’ response to the colonial tropes of sexuality, leading to a demand to rethink sexualities in Africa. Moving from ‘colonization of bestiality’, to the use of dis-identification as a mechanism, it demonises the colonial sexual trope and transforms a cultural logic from within to be utilised.

The day ended with a presentation by the University of Leeds’ very own Dr Adriaan van Klinken. His paper focused on ‘Queer Theory from the South’, and introduced us to the phenomenon of self-identifying lesbian sangomas (traditional healers) in South Africa. Hence he asked questions about queer theory’s dependency on a Western and secular view. Proposing a development of an African queer theory grounded in indigenous epistemologies and cultures, van Klinken examined the complex intersections of Zulu indigenous religion and Christianity with sexuality, gender and embodiment. This examination leads to the possibilities of religion being the site of African queer subjectivity and agency.

Apart from the breadth and wealth of research and knowledge shared enthusiastically amongst all participants, what I observed throughout the two-day workshop, was the affirmation of a statement made by Birgit Meyer at the outset, that you can’t do African studies without religion. That Africa as a site for understanding contemporary religion both challenges stale notions of the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, as well as challenging the traditional boundaries of fields of study. Studying religion from Africa engages the scholar in new ways. I came away from the workshop with a renewed passion for learning and understanding about that great continent and the relationship religion has with it. I feel privileged to have been party to such exploration.

By Rachel Muter


Rachel Muter recently graduated with an MA in Religious Studies and Global Development from the University of Leeds.

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