Summer/Autumn 2013 (Vol. 41, Nos. 3 & 4)

Summer/Autumn 2013 (Vol. 41, Nos. 2 & 3)

Lost and Found in Translation by Michael Jackson

What Ghana Taught King by Josslyn Jeanine Luckett
Attending Ghana’s 1957 independence ceremony inspired and influenced Martin Luther King Jr.
Waking from a Dream by Jonathan L. Walton
We honor Martin Luther King Jr. by applying his moral vision in the contemporary moment.
An Equilibrist Vodou Goddess by Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha
The Vodou spirit Ezili Freda represents an image of femininity defined by Haiti’s complex history.
The Myth of Purity by Ayodeji Ogunnaike
The idea of purity in Yoruba-derived traditions needs to
be challenged and complicated.

Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith by Jacob K. Olupona
Nigerian faith traditions are stronger than ever, but divisiveness and violence have increased. The author reflects on Nigeria’s history and proposes steps to help religions assume a productive role in society.
The Silent Voices of African Divination by Philip M. Peek
The special rapport between diviner and spirit is frequently expressed as twinning; likewise, voiceless creatures are employed in divination because they illustrate the wisdom of quiet elders.
Habitations of the Sacred by Tracey E. Hucks
Global Africana communities negotiate theories of health and healing, utilizing diverse strategies to achieve physical, spiritual, and ontological stability.
Necropolis by Hans Lucht
Dark-skinned migrants and asylum seekers in an economically precarious Greece are subject to violent attacks and inhumane treatment.

In Review:
Pilgrims: Progress and Regress in Three African Memoirs by Devaka Premawardhana
Reflecting on the trope of pilgrimage in recent memoirs by Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Lamin Sanneh.
An African Ecological Ethics of Invitation by Mohammed Girma
An African’s take on Journey of the Universe
Ethiopian Lives and Liturgies by Kay Kaufman Shelemay
Ethiopian lives and liturgies at home in North America.
Writing Africa into Islamic Studies by Lisanne Norman
An Interview with Ousmane Oumar Kane.

Two Poems by Kwame Dawes
Elsewhere by Clifton Gachagua
Effective Immediately by Gabeba Baderoon

EDITOR’S NOTE: We focused this issue of the Bulletin on the theme “Religion in Africa and the Diaspora” to highlight an exciting and important moment in the field as it expands and becomes more established, including here at Harvard Divinity School. The African and Diasporic Religious Studies Association (ADRSA), an interdisciplinary consortium based at Harvard University, was founded in April 2012 and held its inaugural conference in April 2013. One of the group’s founders and director of its leadership council is a former junior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Funlayo E. Wood, and ADRSA’s advisory board includes HDS faculty and alumni (including Jacob K. Olupona and Tracey E. Hucks, represented in these pages).


See also: Past Issue

An African Ecological Ethics of Invitation

Mohammed Girma

In Review | Film Journey of the Universe: An Epic Story of Cosmic, Earth, and Human Transformation, directed by David Kennard and Patsy Northcutt, produced by Mary Evelyn Tucker. Shelter Island, 60 minutes.

Journey of the Universe

I recently had an opportunity to watch the documentary film made by Yale Divinity School theologian Mary Evelyn Tucker and cosmologist Brian Swimme, titled Journey of the Universe. It is an ambitious project that aims to present cosmology from an interdisciplinary perspective with two overarching purposes: First, the film "aims to convey the nature of our physical world by tapping the perspectives of a multitude of disciplines, from astronomy to theology and religious history"; the second and deeper agenda of the film is to create a more engaged attitude toward our environment by delineating our relationship with the universe in scientific language.1

Fascinated by the beautifully crafted story and the urgency of the subject matter, I nevertheless found myself making some critical observations of the movie from an African point of view. I was brought up in rural Ethiopia, where people enjoy an intimacy with nature and experience few, if any, technological intrusions. I lived a substantial part of my life among communities which hold Christianity, Islam, and African traditional religions as their religious commitments. As a theologian and philosopher, I have made quite a few attempts to reflect, academically and critically, on African understandings of nature, time, and society. Having now lived, studied, and worked in Europe and the United States for the better part of a decade, I have also become aware of the important differences between Western and African cosmologies.

My observations here have very little to do with the content or quality of this film project (which is admirable), but are focused on the ideological and contextual disparities in the way different peoples understand reality, its origin, and our relation to it, which leads me to wonder about the methods used when attempting to get an environmental message across. Precisely because the environment is such an urgent concern that demands more than mere "intellectual gymnastics," I believe there needs to be some openness to retooling and contextualizing this ecological narrative in such a way that it will resonate with different people living in various cultural contexts, many of whom may adhere to different ideologies and beliefs from the ones that undergird this film. In Africa, God is more than an object of worship. "Speaking God" is a social skill, too. For people who claim to depend on God not only for their spiritual needs, but also for rain, sun, fertility, peace, justice, and reconciliation, removing God from ecological discussions runs the risk of associating the issue with a Western secularist or humanistic agenda. Though Journey of the Universe might be of interest to a handful of African intellectuals, I fear that relying heavily on the language of evolutionary philosophy, with no reference to God, will not prompt a wide range of regular Africans to take concrete action. The worst-case scenario is that framing the ecological crisis in this way could wrongly lead to a perception that the issue of the environment is a Western humanist issue, thereby providing support for the already predominant attitude of many African leaders that the pressing issue in Africa is not the environment, but economic development.

In actuality, the issue of the environment is closer to the heart of most Africans because their survival depends on seasonal precision. A majority (70 percent) of sub-Saharan Africans still live in rural areas, where they are easily exposed to drought and starvation during erratic climate changes and unpredictable weather conditions. Yet, I'm not sure if the scientific community has developed an effective dialogue tool to convince ordinary African folks that they also are contributing to the looming environmental horror. For this reason, I found the language of "participation" in the documentary quite enchanting. We are participants not only in creating life, but also in destroying it. The documentary is rich with materials and analogies that flesh out this sense of participation, and this understanding would only need cultural nuances to be communicated effectively to ordinary Africans.

It seems to me, however, that the documentary is based on the assumption that the universe is autonomous, creating and re-creating itself through mind-bogglingly complex evolutionary processes. Philosophical debates aside, I don't think this sense of the autonomy of nature would sit well with African perceptions of reality. This, again, is a question of context and contextuality. If the overriding purpose of the documentary is to mobilize people from every corner of society throughout the world, my suggestion is that we need a more flexible hermeneutics. I admit that it is impossible to fully account for the multifarious nature of African cosmologies. There could be conceptual variations, for example, between Akan and Yoruba cosmologies. That said, I will try to anchor my arguments in a few generic features that I believe characterize the nature of most African cosmologies I have studied.

One of the main characteristics of the African cosmologies I have encountered is the notion of dependence and interdependence. Sometimes this is elucidated as a chain of being in which God (the creator and sustainer of everything) is at the top of the chain, followed by spirits, ancestors, living humans, animals, and plants.2 Indigenous African ideologies place a tremendous emphasis on the respect people should have for this chain of being, since the elimination of one part of the chain implies the elimination of the others. Moreover, the spiritual order is believed to have given birth to the material order. According to African cosmologies, the very physical existence of the material order—mountains, rivers, trees, land, and the vast range of natural phenomena—is believed to be sufficient proof of the existence of spiritual reality.3 It is not surprising, then, that disrupting this chain of being is a morally questionable act: it demystifies nature, denies nature the rich spiritual ascription given to it, and reduces it to its mere techno-material dimension. This is why traditional African societies can be apprehensive about such concepts as modernization or urbanization. They fear that modernization would disconnect the material order from the higher spiritual order, thereby mechanizing nature to its bare physical presence and disrupting the fusion of realities that regulates the rhythm of life. Such variations in cosmological understandings should prompt those with ecological goals to formulate alternative narratives that rely on a language of "participation" and also on a sense of dependence and interdependence, rather than on a belief in autonomy.

Another generic element that characterizes many African cosmologies is the notion of "invitation." In African cosmologies, nature cannot create and re-create itself. Instead, God, who is also regarded as timeless, is responsible for setting up both spiritual and material orders. In many African cultures, God is characterized as Excavator, Architect, Originator, Inventor.4 God, the grand architect, fashioned the earth in such a way as to invite human beings to live in it. This means that the physical existence of human persons in this designed place is limited, and yet, this limited physical existence is synchronic and complementary to the cosmic order maintained by the creator of the universe.5 While creation is seen as being within the ambit of God, he is always its overseer. In African religions, God is in and to nature more than human beings are,6 and this interrelatedness between God as a host and humans as guests provides humans with a peculiar ethical framework. Based on this ethical foundation, primal African religions require their adherents to express great sensitivity for both the visible and the invisible worlds. The sense of invitation regulates our human response not only to nature, but also to other genders, races, and ethnic variations.7 The concept of hospitality in African cultures incorporates ideas of caring, providing, sharing, ministering, and "mothering." Ethically, it is a contemptible act in Africa for a guest to abuse a possession belonging to the host. The guest is supposed to take special care of the materials belonging to the host as a sign of gratitude and respect. Culturally, Africa is known for having an active "shame culture," but this comes out of the context of invitation. A guest is expected to maintain a sense of dignity, and one way to do this is to guard against tampering with the order of the host. The implications of this cultural sense of being a guest for the ethic of ecological interdependence are immense.

The last line in the documentary is, "We always belong here." From a Western point of view, this certainly is an astute way to close the film. And, at face value, any sensible theology of creation or eschatology would not contradict this statement. For one, the sacred literatures teach us, as human beings, that we are made of "dust," or adam (in Hebrew and Arabic). Second, eschaton as such is not about the destruction of the "created order." To the contrary, eschaton is about restoration and redemption of the whole creation. We belong together with nature in the inception of the universe, and also in its restoration. Restorational participation, in one way or another, should therefore be one of our fundamental theological mandates. However, the ideological postulation underpinning that last line, "We always belong here," would hardly resonate with African audiences. The humanistic assumption that takes on spatiotemporality as the ultimate horizon, and the lack of a sense of humans as guests, would sharply contradict African cosmologies. Therefore, any ecological narrative is best formulated and retooled for Africa by using the notion of invitation rather than the notion of always belonging here. A contextualized "last line" of the film for African participants would be this: "We are invited into a mutual interdependence with the reality surrounding us."



  1. For more information about the film, visit its website: In particular, see Frank Brown, "Mary Evelyn Tucker Partners with Cosmologist Brian Swimme on Journey of the Universe," Notes from the Quad (Yale Divinity School),
  2. Mika Vähäkangas, In Search of Foundations for African Catholicism: Charles Nyamiti's Theological Methodology (Brill, 1999), 258.
  3. The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, ed. F. Abiola Irene and Biodun Jeyifo (Oxford University Press, 2010), 313.
  4. See John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Heinemann, 1990), 39–41.
  5. The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, 313.
  6. Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Introducing African Women's Theology (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 46.
  7. Ibid.

Mohammed Girma is an assistant professor at Evangelische Theologische Facultiet, Belgium, a research associate at University of the Free State, South Africa, and author of Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia: Toward a Hermeneutic of Covenant (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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An Equilibrist Vodou Goddess

Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha


Ezili Banda, Ezili Banda,
Ezili Banda, pase sa'l vo.
Ezili Banda, Ezili Banda,
Ezili Banda, pase kò-li.

Pretentious Ezili, sexy Ezili,
Sexy Ezili outdoes herself.
Strutting Ezili, preening Ezili,
Preening Ezili thinks she something.1

THIS VODOU CHANT for the Haitian spirit Ezili Freda, who many women and men have called to be their protector and guide (mèt tet), speaks volumes about the ways that Ezili Freda is revered and praised, but at the same time seemingly distanced. Ezili Freda is the lwa, or spirit, of love and abundance. She is mostly known in the Haitian pantheon for her material possessions: gold necklaces, earrings encrusted with jewels and diamonds, silks and satins, and pink and blue lace trim. Preoccupied with establishing her wealth and upper-class luxury, she is also depicted in Haitian mythology as being involved in numerous scandals with lovers, both practitioners and other male lwa, such as Legba, Danballah, Gede, Ogou, and Agwe.

Although she is commonly compared to and associated with the Yoruba deity Oshun and Ezili Whydah of Benin, Ezili Freda is a key example of what happens to a spirit when it travels across the water. The spirit, having vestiges of its African past (because of the Middle Passage), now responds to a different set of needs and desires its practitioners have. The spirit also has to respond to the new territories (land) and rules of governance that have either helped or hindered her followers. It is this dynamic that makes the diaspora such a distinct site of religiosity: the continual reworking of memory (at the forefront, our African past) and, at the same time, the constant adaptation or malleability of both the human and the divine as they interact in rites and rituals. My own research consists of personal interviews with Haitian Vodou practitioners, ethnographic study, and fieldwork in a sacred Vodou community in Montreal, Canada. I examine the combative and complacent gender performativity of Ezili Freda in sacred spaces and how she is revered through altars and multiple artistic representations, focusing on her diverse sexual identities.

Ezili Freda, like Haitian Vodou in general, has a distinct trajectory, stemming from the history of the Haitian people, who have endured French colonization and enslavement. Haitian Vodou is a powerful element in understanding the formation of gender, sexuality, and colorism in Haiti. Vodou's acceptance of sexual and gender diversity is a part of the religious worldview. This distinguishes Haiti not only in terms of its religiosity, but also in terms of the variety of sexualities and genders possible. Early scholarship tended to provide limited representations of these deities, which did not expose the full complexity of multifaceted lwa and their important role in understanding femininity, womanhood, and sexuality in Haitian society. Representations of these lwa had become fixed, usually constructed as binaries or opposites of one another; in the case of the Ezili figures, Ezili Freda is sexualized whereas her "opposite," Ezili Dantò, is not.

Thankfully, groundbreaking scholarly work is now being done on such Vodou deities as the venerated Ezili Freda, exploring the complex yet contradictory notions of social constructions surrounding colorism, femininity, and sexuality in these representations, all of which are grounded in their unique social and historical contexts. I am interested in how scholars and practitioners view the significance and representation of the Haitian Vodou deities' Ezili family and their different manifestations—Ezili Dantò, Ezili Freda, La Sirenn, Ezili je wouj (red eyes), Gran Ezili, Ezili-kokobe (the shriveled)—and in looking at how they have been constructed as binaries, but challenging some of these accounts. Through educational, anthropological, religious, performance, sociological, and historiographical enterprises, new scholars are beginning to expand and complicate the understanding of these Haitian Vodou deities. I, too, embrace a perspective in which all Ezili, and, more specifically, all Ezili Freda, have complex identities and provide healing to the practitioners who worship them.

My questions include the following: Why are gender and sexuality important issues to discuss within the context of Afro-diasporic religions? How have Haitian scholars viewed gender and sexuality within the context of the Haitian deity Ezili Freda? What can scholars learn from this deity and from a greater understanding of Haitian gender and sexuality? And finally, how does Haitian religion function as a mode of survival and healing?

Vodou is a religion deeply integrated into the everyday lives of the people who practice it in Haiti and the diaspora, informed by their struggles and their needs. In Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith argue that the Vodou religion is a form of humanism. It offers a practical way of understanding the world, a way of being, and a way of living one's life. Karen McCarthy Brown echoes these sentiments in Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn:

Haitian traditional religion the repository for wisdom accumulated by a people who have lived through slavery, hunger, disease, repression, corruption, and violence—all in excess. (98)

Vodou is the system they [Haitians] have devised to deal with the suffering that is life, a system whose purpose is to minimize pain, avoid disaster, cushion loss, and strengthen survivors and survival instincts. (10)

Thus, Vodou's value as a religion lies in its ability to be malleable when it comes to the needs of its believers: it is informed and shaped by their histories and directly responsive to their tribulations. During Vodou ceremonies, practitioners can receive advice from lwa about their own personal problems and can be channels through which the deities speak to initiates. This is a practical, everyday faith that gains meaning from the active participation of the initiated. Its power is not created through a formal dogma, but through the lived experience of Haitians.

This practicality is reflected in the various forms of sacred space in Vodou. Vodou ceremonies can be experienced in a Vodou temple, but they are just as likely to be carried out in a practitioner's basement, or in any other private space. Within any space, Vodou provides a special gathering in which the community can talk about specific peoples' trauma and physical pain. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins has suggested that alternative sites are a form of "subjugated knowledge," in which intimate spaces are created, especially for Black women, and from them comes new knowledge of self-definition and self-value.

One must understand the deities residing in a ceremony to bring about healing, counseling, and empathy. Roberto Strongman draws from Mama Lola to extend the work on transpossession—being taken over, or mounted, by a spirit. The service also applies when a practitioner is mounted by her mèt tet. As Roberto Strongman illustrated in his article "Transcorporeality in Vodou," the body is a psychic reality and source of human life that was metaphorically symbolized through the physical body. Strongman continues his analysis of the duality of the self by adding that the body consists of many parts. The ti bon ange is the conscience that allows for self-reflection and self-criticism, and the gros bon ange is the psyche, the source of memory and personhood. It is the gros bon ange that must be prepared well and separated from the initiate to allow the spirit, the lwa, to enter in its place. The fundamentals of Haitian Vodou describe the body and soul as a multifaceted place where a lwa can be allowed to mount an individual.

In Haitian Vodou, the lwa not only take over the bodies of the ceremonial participants, but also use them to deliver messages to others, becoming a source of reason and help. In Strongman's analysis, the phenomenon of the spirit entering the body of a participant involves displacing elements of the participant's psyche. This reveals how complex gender dynamics are in Vodou, since any person can be a receptacle for either male or female lwa to enter, regardless of the gender or sexuality of the possessed. I think we should also consider concepts of transqueer possession—what happens when a male spirit mounts a female practitioner and vice versa—and the importance of this performativity. During my fieldwork in Montreal, I witnessed a devotee being taken over by Ezili Freda. The other practitioners sprayed the devotee with perfume, covered her with a baby pink scarf (the color Ezili Freda is associated with), and washed her feet to show their respect. They treated her with care and showered her with gifts. Mostly, there were men around her and she was greatly upset when women were close to her. Like Oshun,2 she is a very jealous deity, so it made sense that she did not want other women competing for the attention of her male followers. Ezili Freda is also very vain, and the men made sure that the pink silk, jewelry, and gifts they brought to her were clean and expensive, as befits her high-maintenance, feminine persona.

The way Ezili Freda is represented racially is also interesting, though the surface interpretations based on her physical traits do not reflect her complexity. Freda's lighter skin is deemed to be indicative of an elite class that has social and financial "solidity." As Karen McCarthy Brown argues, "Ezili Freda imitates ideas of beauty that have social power and prestige" (255). This is in contrast to her counterpart, the "poor" Ezili Dantò, who is "black, black, black" (256). Ezili Freda is seen as the light-skinned mulatta—the term used for the sexually desirable, racially mixed woman during slavery, and the symbol of the prostitute. The mulatta is seen as more attractive and sexually charged than her darker-skinned counterparts, a product of the complicated racial caste system following colonization. In Sexing the Caribbean: Gender, Race, and Sexual Labor, sociologist Kemala Kempadoo argues that, within the Caribbean, the image of the mulatta was understood to be particularly erotic. She writes:

If white womanhood represented the pinnacle of femininity, couched in assumptions of fairness, purity, frailty, and domesticity, and black womanhood the total opposite due to the presumed closeness to nature, dark skin, masculine physique, and unbridled sexuality, the combination of European and African produced notions of light-skinned women who could almost pass for white yet retained a tinge of color as well as a hint of wantonness and uninhibited sexuality of exotic cultures. (36–37)

Vodou has not escaped the colonial notions surrounding skin color that privilege whiteness over blackness in the social hierarchy. French colonization and the constant degradation of dark skin have left an indelible mark on Haiti, even centuries after the 1804 revolution that ended the slave system subjugating the African population. Color is inextricably connected to privilege. Ezili Freda represents an image of femininity defined by this history. Vodou is a religion deeply connected to the everyday lives of its believers, and within the world of Vodou practitioners, skin color has a discernable effect on life chances and perceptions of worth. Therefore, though it is a negative legacy of colonization, this ingrained hierarchy has made its imprint on the representations of the lwa in Vodou religious practices.

However, within Haitian religion, the lwa Ezili Dantò and Freda's erotic desires also provide healing and potential power for Haiti, Haitian women, and Haitian culture. Brown adds:

These female spirits are both mirrors and maps, making the present comprehensible and offering direction for the future. In the caricaturelike clarity of Vodou possession-performances, the Ezili sort out, by acting out, the conflicting feelings and values in a given life situation. By interacting with the faithful as individuals and groups, all the Vodou spirits clarify the options in people's lives; and the Ezili do this especially well for women. (221–222)

Ezili Freda, then, is not simply a shallow stereotype of female vanity, but a "mirror" capable of showing her followers the characteristics and strengths they may possess within their own hearts and minds. Moreover, there is power in Ezili Freda's shameless, proud embrace of her overtly feminine qualities; they are pieces of the female experience that practitioners can reflect upon and gain wisdom from in their own life experiences. She is a "map," offering paths of thought that value femininity, while also acknowledging some of the pitfalls of gender as a constructed idea: vanity, elevation of light skin over dark, jealousy, and vying for male attention. She is not a lwa that can easily be quantified or simplified, and this is where her value lies.

I argue that Ezili Freda is useful to her practitioners if and when she is recognizable as a symbol for substantive issues. Her light skin reflects notions of beauty that her followers understand on a practical level, whether they are critical of colorism in their society or not. She represents normative, discriminatory ideas about feminine beauty and embodies them in her appearance and in her performativity while mounting her supporters, but she should not be dismissed as an uncomplicated mimicry of these social structures. In the ceremony I witnessed in Montreal, Ezili Freda was teaching those in the room a lesson about the challenges of being female and relating to other women, about obsessions with material possessions, and about the historically constructed preference for and sexualization of light-skinned Black women in Haiti, and in the rest of the diaspora. Ezili Freda's significance is derived from her ability to speak directly to believers' lived realities and to offer possible avenues for personal reflection. These reevaluations and redefinitions of Vodou deities such as Ezili Freda provide a more complete, holistic understanding of gender, femininity, womanhood, and sexuality in Haitian diasporic religion.



  1. Translated by Karen McCarthy Brown in Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press, 2001), 250.
  2. Oshun is a Yoruba deity.

Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha, MTS '13, is a first-year PhD student and William Fontaine Fellow of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, and Black feminism within African diasporic religions. This is an edited version of a paper delivered at the inaugural conference of the African and Diasporic Religious Studies Association held at Harvard University on April 5, 2013.

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Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith

Religion at the Crossroads in Nigeria

Jacob K. Olupona

NIGERIA IS THE African country with the largest population, almost equal to that of all other West African countries combined. It is the most culturally and ethnically diverse African nation. It is the largest country in the world with an approximate balance between its Christians and Muslims. Despite these centrifugal challenges, Nigeria has overcome all attempts to break up the federation; and has maintained its national and territorial integrity when many smaller and less differentiated countries, like Mali or Somalia, have been divided. This is good news and deserves mention.

Nigerian faith traditions are buoyant at home and abroad, yet these traditions are also at a crossroads. The state needs to be rescued, not only from its moral drift but also from the bondage of religion, manifested as divisiveness and violence. My essay explores this apparent contradiction: the Janus or the Esu face—the ugly and the beautiful—of Nigerian faith traditions.


I WAS BORN into an Anglican family, and the lineages of both my father and my mother include well-known Anglican and non-Anglican priests. The religious variety and dynamics in the many villages, towns, and cities where we lived intrigued me, especially the inevitable mixing of traditions. Upon my university graduation in 1975, I served in the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) in Ilorin at a time when the NYSC was regarded as Nigeria's most significant rite of passage into national life. But 1976 proved a sober year for the Nigerian nation, and for me; in a military coup, drunken soldiers killed our host, the governor of Kwara state, Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, and the Nigerian head of state, General Murtala Muhammed. At the memorial church service held for the general, the sermon, preached by an Anglican cleric, was based on the biblical text "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). These traumatic events spurred my scholarly imagination, and I began to explore the intersection of religious pluralism and civil religion within nation building in Nigeria. I also began to have a deep appreciation for my own religious heritage and the priceless inheritance of religious freedom I enjoyed in southwestern Nigeria. Although not irrelevant for the Yoruba people's self-understanding, religion did not define Yoruba ethnic and cultural identities. The multi-religious traditions of Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religion provided an open space for all.

The insight that propelled my early scholarship was that the ideology and rituals of Yoruba sacred kingship are what define Yoruba civil religion and are at the center of Yoruba identity.1 Civil religion is the incorporation of common myths, history, values, and symbols that relate to a society's sense of collective identity. Yoruba sacred kingship formed a sacred canopy that sheltered the followers of each of the three major faith traditions in Nigeria, forging bonds of community identity among them. Civil religion can be understood as the manner through which the symbols of Nigerian nationhood take on religious significance for the wider Nigerian public, above and beyond particular cultural communities of faith.

Do not misunderstand me: I am interested in the project of civil religion and its functional relevance in a religiously pluralistic society, but I do not advocate the erasure of conventional religious traditions. Nigeria is a religiously pluralistic society, and institutional religion continues to grow in relevance and in the national imagination. It is invoked in conversations concerning nation building, Maitatsine and Boko Haram violence, the secularism debate, the Shari'a debate, the question of Islamic banking, the role of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the issue of noise pollution caused by religious activities, and so on. Nigerians today immediately ask about the religion of any new official appointed by the president. There is no denying that religion constitutes a critical component of our body politic, or that it will continue to prove critical in the future of civil life.

For my purposes, religion refers not only to institutional religion, the beliefs and practices as they relate to the sacred and transcendent, but also encompasses those values, bodies, and matters normally not regarded as "religion"—such as those rites of passage and ceremonies relating to our various youth brigades, and habits that promote the symbols and values of communalism and national sacrifice. It is important to connect civil religion and civil society, since they involve activities, rituals, and spaces of practice in the performance of religion in national affairs. Religion also encompasses the human, cultural dimensions within faith traditions, such as how human agency shapes, influences, and complicates religious control. Thus, I examine religion not only as a sacred phenomenon, but also as a cultural and human fact brought into being through social interaction. I believe it is important to integrate the sociopolitical dimensions of religiosity into any examination of the crisis of the Nigerian state.

This means that I am concerned with the participation of faith traditions in both private and public spaces.2 Public space provides the arena within which religion is enacted and demonstrated, and the public space is shaped and formed in and through religion. The Western democratic influence on African political structures has resulted neither in the official exclusion of religion from public political life nor in the construction of a secular public space devoid of religion. Evidence demonstrates that African-based religious identities—whether in the traditional, Christian, or Islamic iterations—do not support the wholesale separation of religion, culture, and society. Africans have always commingled what we now understand as "religion" with the activities of daily life; our ethics, and our political and economic structures, engage with religion.

This is why the rhetoric around "secularism" has been worrisome for many Nigerian religionists. Secularism in social science discourse simply means the separation of religion and the state, such that the affairs of each should be managed independently of the affairs of the other, thereby maintaining a "level playing field" for adherents of all faiths (including those of no faith). In my view, the term "secular" has been misused in the Nigerian crisis, exacerbating our problems. It does not imply that society has to be secular (as Nigeria certainly is not), only that the state should not show preferential support for any one particular religion or support religious institutions.

Whatever the contemporary postcolonial crisis is that pervades African social worlds, alongside it are forms of religious understanding that shape and often complicate any possible resolution. This commingling of religion with the moral order of the nation-state both produces the idea of the Nigerian nation-state and unravels its possibility. The Nigerian case requires that we complicate the public/private, religious/secular divide that is customary in the analysis of modern Western societies. These conceptual ideas can be useful in constitutional debates on the place of religion in Nigeria, but they fail to engage the complex meaning of the civic public.3 What is needed is a rethinking of the various publics within which people create religious meaning.

Despite the ethnic diversity that gives blush to our national complexion, our religious diversity is often reduced to a bifurcated, ideological struggle between Christianity and Islam, two seemingly irreconcilable religious worldviews. Though the Nigerian state does not proclaim an official state religion, its founding texts and principles were embedded in Islamic and Judeo-Christian sensibilities, and today its leaders surreptitiously (though unofficially) support several mainstream religious institutions. In response to the pragmatic concerns of daily life, many have incorporated their religious norms into the structures of the state. There is no problem with individual rulers or state representatives professing their faith in private spaces; allowing mainstream religions to impact governance, however, not only marginalizes religious minorities but is detrimental to other traditions. This creates an ethos of exclusivity in which citizenship is defined along religious lines and political power appears to be the exclusive property of certain groups.

This new sense of exclusivity is counter to Nigeria's religious heritage. Although Islam and Christianity have tended to play more significant roles in contemporary Nigeria, indigenous African religious values and worldviews are nevertheless still key to the soul of the people, defining their ontology and organizing their epistemology. For many, including residents in rural areas, but also members of the elite, Nigerian political life has always involved gods, ancestors, festivals, rituals, and the whole gamut of African spirituality. In a way, both Islam and Christianity are forever responding to issues defined by the indigenous moral system. For example, prophecy and revelation through consultations with priests in Islam and Christianity play a similar function to divination and spirit possession in indigenous religion.

The presence of Islam and Christianity in Africa allows Nigerians to participate in these global world faith traditions, and their values have penetrated into our worldviews and social practices. But I think it is also fair to say that in the years of my childhood, Nigeria did a better job with the dynamic intermixing of traditions, because of the enduring role of indigenous moral systems and practices among those professing Islam and Christianity. For example, in the early 1960s in my father's church, the entire local community rejoiced and celebrated when the first imam made the hajj, because it was considered an honor to have the first alhaji in their community. The imam's extended family, mainly Christians, wanted to have a thanksgiving service in the Anglican church in celebration of this community honor. While this may seem incongruous to modern Nigerian sensibilities, this culturally pluralistic community—and indeed this was the case in many other locales in Yorubaland—saw the various religious systems as alternative traditions, to the extent that a devotee of one felt free to consult another. The traditions engaged each other in meaningful, intellectual conversation and practical exchange, underscoring the cultural capital they represent for us.

Today, however, there is an endemic religious crisis, especially in northern Nigeria, where there is regular intra- and interreligious violence. In my view, these conflicts are a manifestation of the profound structural imbalances in the Nigerian state and society. If we are honest with ourselves, a critical, civic public, which is essential for good governance, viable democratic transitions, and meaningful ideas of citizenship, remains grossly underdeveloped in much of Nigeria, especially as the crisis of the nation-state deepens in the context of corporatism, neo-patrimonialism, and neoliberalism. Thus, rather than focus solely on religion, we need to begin a serious conversation on how we build legitimate structures and agencies of civil society (through a well-conceived national educational and civics scheme, for example) and a responsible democratic project that will begin to put in place strong institutions of governance and accountability. Any long-term solution must respond to these deep structural problems.

THREE CONCEPTS GUIDE my analysis of religion in Nigeria: bonds, boundaries, and bondage. First, "bonds." The phrase "bonds of faith," describing the spiritual and religious ties or agreements that form religious communities, points to the essential and existential meaning and functions of religion as it is expressed in its Latin root, religare, "to bind." In Latin, this word denotes that which unites individuals, people, communities, and nations to each other via the ultimate reality, be it God, Allah, or another sacred symbol.

No matter how an article or subject of a faith is defined—Allah, Jesus, Osanobua, or Chineke—the transcendent, numinous, providential being provides a sacred point of reference around which communities are created. These bonds of faith are performed and maintained at locations sacred to those communities that are united together: the ummah, the church, the temples, the shrines, the assembly halls of Jehovah's Witnesses, or the invisible and imagined spaces of what the Yoruba call the sacred mothers (awon iya). Out of these various communities, religious and cultural heroes arise: special individuals and groups who cultivate the religious ties, strengthen the community, and whose calling it is to move the faith beyond its space of origin to other places, both inside and outside Nigeria.4

At the same time, emergent transnationalism, a result of both slave-trade forces and voluntary emigration, has expanded these bonds of faith around the world, to Europe, Asia, the Americas, Brazil, and the Caribbean. In recent years there has been an explosion in the transnational, transregional, and global spread of Nigerian religions, including Nigerian indigenous traditions, Islam, and evangelical Pentecostalism.

We should not forget the unknown ancestors who took Nigerian indigenous religion to the New World during the slave trade from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and through whom the expansion of West African indigenous traditions in the West occurred. Transnational Orisha and the Cuban Abakua (derived from the enslaved Efik nations of Cross River State) have now become conversion faiths among African diasporic people. Nigeria's indigenous faith, labeled as idolatry and rejected by Nigerian believers, has become the cornerstone of a new faith tradition that boasts millions of adherents in the Americas. Moreover, the new Nigerian religious traditions, particularly the Pentecostal movement, are binding together faith communities transnationally.5 Religious transnationalism recognizes the bonds between home and the diaspora, the creation of multiple centers of faith, and the impact of cultural globalization on local and translocal religious traditions.

My second conceptual and theoretical concern is with the "boundaries" of Nigerian faith traditions, by which I mean the doctrinal and ritual demarcations of the people, groups, agents, and structures that define both local Nigerian faith traditions and "outsider" traditions. My understanding assumes that while faith traditions often endeavor to strictly demarcate themselves, in reality the boundaries of faith are very porous, and faiths intersect and dovetail in surprising ways. The boundaries of faith traditions determine how people define their identities, and religion plays a strong role in individual and communal definitions, for example, Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic.

The boundaries of faith that were the dominant paradigm in the precolonial and colonial periods have been expanded, broken, and transformed into transnational and global formations that are no longer understandable if seen only through the Nigerian prism. Nigeria has created and reengineered faith traditions, and, in doing so, has broken old boundaries, conquered hearts, and expanded into new lands in ways that neither official Nigerian diplomatic relations nor the governmental policies of other nations have done.

Boundaries identify liminal stages, but they can cut in different ways. In spite of ethnic skirmishes, Nigerian faith traditions in the 1960s added color to our humanness, defined our truly plural society, and made us one another's keepers.6 Increasingly, however, Nigeria's religious actors erect boundaries that divide communities and that set up stumbling blocks to the kinds of religious interaction that bonded us as a people and a nation.

The nature of religious society in Nigeria today suggests clear boundaries and demarcations between denominations and faith traditions. The consequence is fierce competition, both within and between traditions. This competition is inimical to nation building, because it makes the public sphere more volatile and at times results in the tragic deaths of civilians. When these issues overlay national affairs, they take a devastating toll on governance, creating civil boundaries and compromising impartiality in the democratic process.7

This leads to my last concept: bondage. Religion in its current Nigerian practices and manifestations has become a major source of national bondage, so much so that it threatens human knowledge and cultural values. Sadly, religious demarcations have become more striking across class lines. Religion and religious fervor now provide a haven where poor and underprivileged Nigerians can find refuge from deplorable living conditions. Meanwhile, religious zeal has become an avenue for the superrich to display their wealth, interpreted as signs of God's beneficence, and to justify their continued exploitation of the suffering souls who, by the logic of material salvation, are "the cursed masses." Modern religions have produced countless misplaced revolts and protests, such as those staged by Maitatsine and Boko Haram. In other words, religion in Nigeria has led to the subjugation of the people, the very opposite of what religion—a bond—was meant to be.

Religion can be a functional force, helping to promote civil society, community values, and education, but it can also become a dysfunctional influence, stifling rational discourse and promoting the belief that only faith and devotional life will solve our myriad national problems. While I believe in prayer and am convinced that a praying people triumphs in times of national crisis, we risk turning God into a magician who, against all odds, can perform miracles to rescue us from our human-created crises. Those who hold such beliefs may be unaware of another dimension of religion, that of a force or phenomenon that frees us from ignorance and requires us to hold our leaders accountable for their moral failures and their reckless disregard for the sufferings of the millions of Nigerian citizens under their care.8

The crisis of religious violence that has engulfed Nigeria indicates that religion, as it is currently expressed, puts individuals, communities, and the nation in bondage. But, paradoxically, religion is also crucial in fighting such bondage. In its functional form, it can help promote peaceful coexistence, the alleviation of poverty, transparency and a lack of corruption, and the pursuit of human happiness through social welfare programs. The debate about whether it is religion or politics that triggers the frequent violence in Nigeria underestimates religion's powerful function in molding cultures and societies everywhere. Throughout the world, religion plays a key role in the identity construction of individuals and groups, including ethnic and national identities.9

In northern Nigeria, the current spate of violence is not purely religious; it may also be social, economic, and political. Religion too often becomes a rallying point around which to articulate political views. The discourse of salvation in evangelical Christianity and jihad in Muslim rhetoric has been used to justify each group's clarion call to aggression. Any time a new leader emerges in our nation, he tends to build a religious castle to ensure his own survival, further aggravating religious sensibilities. A cursory look at events in the past few decades indicates that such religious interventionism happens widely—from the importation of Muslim Marabouts from neighboring countries, as we witnessed during General Sani Abacha's dictatorship, to the upsurge of evangelical Christian proselytization for personal survival among government dignitaries in high places. While there is nothing wrong with southern Christian communities holding on to their faith traditions as minorities in many Muslim regions, Christian evangelical aggression and triumphalist displays of faith may be counterproductive and detrimental to the nation's religious climate. The way that some revival meetings are publicized on billboards—particularly those that portray the faces of foreign evangelists—may have the effect of suggesting to Muslims and other non-Christians that Christians seek to conquer their territory.

The deeper dilemma is that, since only Islam and Christianity remain as the principal expressions of religious identity in Nigeria, the two traditions are confronting each other in the public sphere and competing for the soul of the country. This current bipolar situation stimulates an intolerance of African values and increasingly encourages conversion and violence. Moreover, the religious struggle between these two faiths has resulted in a new cold war between global Islam and the international evangelical Christian communities, with Americans and Europeans beginning to finance, construct, and promote the growth of Christian institutional influences within Nigeria, while the Gulf States finance Islamic movements and institutions.

Where and why did the fulcrum of Nigerian religious history shift from tolerance to intolerance and violence? How did we move from a time when religion was a source of bonding, to today, a time in which religion seems more a form of bondage?10

AT THE DAWN of Nigeria's independence, there was widespread recognition of the nation's trifurcate religious heritage: Islam, Christianity, and indigenous traditions. This recognition permeated the political, social, and cultural institutions established after independence. Most state events incorporated invocations of God, based on the assumption that civilians considered God the common denominator among the three traditions. "God talk" became the most significant bond among Nigeria's 350 ethnic groups.11 Although there were skirmishes among traditions during this era, they did not lead to sustained conflicts like those seen in Nigeria in recent decades. The independence era also espoused a central national ideology whereby Nigerian leaders encouraged the promotion of values and culture, recognizing their significance to social development. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences were motivated to research arts, culture, indigenous education, and medicine.12 The early nation builders recognized that modernization does not equate with Westernization and, indeed, that African cultures, including religions, could develop their own forms of modernity. During the landmark 1977 Festival of Arts and Culture FESTAC), large gatherings of African diasporans assembled in Lagos under General Olusegun Obasanjo to reaffirm the authenticity of African traditions, promote these values in national development, and ensure that national objectives included cultural components. This proved to be a turning point in our national life.

Before that moment, indigenous faiths constituted a more active part in Nigeria's collective identity. Indigenous religions conveyed local values and worldviews. Relationships among ethnic cultures, anchored in African myths, rituals, and symbols, reminded all Nigerians that Christianity and Islam were nonindigenous missionary faiths, which had arrived either via trade routes or with the Europeans and which needed to become Africanized in order to achieve legitimacy. This shared understanding encouraged more tolerant strains of Islam and Christianity. In a sense, the indigenous component of Nigeria's cultural memory served as a buffer between Islam and Christianity. The Nigerian faith hearth had three legs, like my grandmother's three-legged cooking hearth, which never allowed her cooking pot to fall off. As the Yoruba proverb says, "Adiro meta ki yebe sina!"13

But in the late 1970s, many Nigerians began to perceive indigenous culture as an enemy preventing the nation's progress into the modern world. This marked a critical juncture in Nigeria's religious history, when the country began its spiral into chaos. As Nigeria embarked upon nation building under various military rulers, particularly in the post–civil war era, we began to witness the erosion of indigenous values and the undermining of the virtues of religious tolerance and mutual engagement. The state failed to understand that the decades of peaceful religious tolerance in the land were the fruits of previous efforts toward modernity and secularism, properly understood. What happened in the post-FESTAC era, then, represents a coalescence of misguided state policies and wanton corruption that deflated people's confidence in the state's neutrality and impartiality toward religion. This was a recipe for factional politics, including religious fanaticism. In this new atmosphere, the two dominant religious factions—Christians and Muslims—became the central players. The opposition to FESTAC by Christian and Muslim religious purists was a real sign of the times. Both Christian and Muslim elites considered FESTAC, with its celebration of black culture and traditions, to be an endorsement of paganism. The backlash it provoked led to Christian and Muslim zealotry at the expense of traditional values. Military rule did not help the situation, as political leaders exploited the geographical distribution of Muslims and Christians in order to consolidate power.

Coupled with this was the gradually increasing influence of some Middle Eastern embassies in promoting a new form of Islamism that valued Arab culture more than black culture. This was also a time when the influence of indigenous Christianity, such as Aladura, which had flowered along with Nigerian nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, began to wane and was replaced by the more vibrant and exhilarative evangelical Pentecostal and charismatic movements.14 In the larger Islamic scene, the late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi championed a new Islamism.15 Gumi's ties with Wahhabi traditions in Saudi Arabia, and his own personal piety, allowed him to speak powerfully to the northern Muslims. It was Gumi who embarked on a program to root out indigenous-flavored Sufi practices in order to promote a new interpretation of orthodox Islam, thus uniting various Muslim groups under the pretext of modernization.16 Gumi's ingenuity provided the basis for the later quest for Islamic rule and a rejection of secularism and the secular nation-state.

The 1980s witnessed significant shifts in the Nigerian religious landscape. Indigenous Christianity began to lose its influence for two reasons. First, global Pentecostal charismatic Christianity denigrated native Christian traditions and promoted foreign cultural values in the guise of religion. Second, the rise of this movement coincided with the economic downturn in Nigeria, during which the currency tumbled and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forced the state to take an IMF loan with a structural adjustment policy that created wrenching poverty.

Pentecostalism became increasingly attractive to the disadvantaged not only because it promised prosperity, but because it also provided social services that catered to the poor, leading citizens to see faith in instrumental terms. Indigenous Pentecostalism also struck familiar chords in the local cultural repertoire. Indigenous traditions taught that good health, prosperity, and a long life lay at religion's core—the same teaching Pentecostalism offered, though Pentecostalism no longer defined worldly salvation as the exclusive preserve of the gods, but as earthly prosperity and otherworldly bliss. Unfortunately, these religious institutions failed to address the underlying economic problems that caused such poverty. I do not mean to imply that Nigeria's religious institutions were entirely complacent. Some religious leaders fired prophetic warning shots and used their pulpits to call the attention of our leaders to the declining state of our nation.17

By the beginning of the new dispensation and re-democratization era that began in 1999, Nigeria had reached a crossroads. Under a series of leaders, we went through new phases of religiopolitical crisis and saw protests over the implementation of Shari'a, the Miss World Pageant, and Islamic banking. Things are at the point now where virtually any crisis in the core Muslim world sends ripples of anxiety through Nigeria.

THE QUESTION IS: Which is the way forward for Nigeria? We need to draw a roadmap for our future, and that map must include directions for the state that acknowledge religious formations at its core. I propose five key steps for applying the lessons of the study of religion to Nigeria's nation-building project.

First, we must develop religious literacy. The country needs to embark on a rigorous educational program in which Nigerian youth will be exposed to the country's many religious traditions, not for the purpose of conversion or indoctrination, but to acquaint them with the traditions that constitute the core of Nigerian religious and cultural inheritance.18How we teach Nigerian religious wisdom to our youth is central to the success of any religious literacy program. For example, if you ask a Nigerian history student about Shehu Uthman dan Fodio, the great cultivator of Islam in northern Nigeria and the founder of the Sokoto caliphate, the student will most likely inform you that he was the architect behind the jihad whose ideological pursuits led to the northern Nigerian establishment of Islam known today. However, the student is unlikely to know an equally important fact: that education, especially education for women, was integral to dan Fodio's reforms. This intellectual revolution was exemplified by Nana Asma'u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio (1793–1864), a poet, teacher, Sufi mystic, and educational reformer who could serve as an icon for educated Muslim women in Nigeria.19 Nana Asma'u's life and written works point to women's deep involvement in religion as a form of public, civil practice. Because forceful militarized governance masculinizes so much of civil life, the contributions of women to nation building are especially valuable.

Second, I recommend maintaining a line between private and public expressions of faith. The custodians of communal traditions and culture—the emirs, obas, and obis—must avoid combining personal evangelical espousal of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity with their public faith discourse. Civil leaders should recognize that by virtue of their position, they preside over a diverse community of believers, and they should offer a sacred canopy under which these eclectic traditions can exist.

Third, we must establish and nurture interfaith dialogue. Nigeria is finally making significant progress in intra- and interfaith conversation, and many groups exist that could respond to the need for a viable, ongoing conversation. Yet, meeting only in response to a crisis seems counterproductive; the conversation gets stuck. Moreover, the state sponsors most interfaith dialogues, rendering it difficult to maintain the required neutrality during such conversations. In other countries, robust interfaith initiatives have been sponsored by nongovernmental agents, even in times of peace. And, the test of a successful interfaith endeavor is in praxis, not in its theory of interfaith dialogue.20 We need the same in Nigeria.

Fourth, we need a national orientation that generates an invisible national faith—a form of civil religion—to provide an overarching sacred space for political and social action. The nation should promote and strengthen symbols, rituals, histories, and metaphors pertaining to Nigeria's collective identity. A functioning society requires a set of values to bind it together. Unfortunately, we have yet to create new ones, or to nurture the old symbols and rites that have served this purpose in the past. Nation building is always a work in progress. It requires visionary, transformative leaders who will guarantee that the multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious identities in Nigeria coexist underneath a single, sacred canopy of the nation-state.

Placing Nigeria within regional and global discourses on issues of social and economic development, it is clear that religion must assume a productive role in our society. As a nation, we must reinforce our society's secularity and our religious pluralism, which, as I have argued, are not necessarily in conflict. Rather than decreeing modernity and secularism, we need to spell out the appropriate ingredients for our modernity and their constitutive relationship with a democratic state that is culturally pluralistic and that takes seriously the varieties of Nigerians' religious values and cultures. Consequently, my fifth and final recommendation is that the state establish a well-funded research institute where critical thinking about religion and nation building can take place. Because of the complex issues surrounding religion, it has become the most unregulated sphere of our nation's life. Security considerations require that we reevaluate the function of religion in Nigeria: Is it primarily violent or nonviolent? Is it used as a tool for other actions? Does it represent the faithful? While Boko Haram may be the extreme case, lesser-known forms of aggression in God's name—such as dangerous and violent forms of witchcraft exorcism in children reported in southeastern Nigeria, or instances in which religious leaders manipulate defenseless citizens—require equally attentive regulation. We must focus our national security agenda not only on extremist religious violence, but also on the quotidian forms of aggression against the nation's most vulnerable citizens.

The reality is that Nigerian faith traditions have evolved from institutions that provided bonding among our people to institutions that establish exclusive boundaries between faiths, subject people to bondage, breed violence, and threaten our national life. Yet a careful look at contemporary Nigerian society suggests that religious institutions also constitute some of our strongest "communities of interest," with significant social and religious capital at their disposal. In part because the Nigerian judiciary has failed to be the arbiter for poor, ordinary citizens, the common person respects and trusts religious leaders and institutions much more than he respects and trusts politicians and the state. Religions, if properly put to use, can have a significant influence on the lives of Nigerians. It behooves all men and women of good will, the nation's leadership, traditional rulers, and civic society to join hands in establishing effective programs to reverse our current course.



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Effective Immediately

Gabeba Baderoon

Effective immediately,
there will be no visitor traffic into
or out of the institution between the hours of 12:30 and 1:15 pm.
Please plan your visits accordingly.

Visitors and inmates will sit straight, facing forward.
No arms around each other.
No sitting on laps.
No placing legs on the tables or chairs.
No sitting sideways. No touching.

Hugging and greeting is only allowed
when first meeting and upon departure.

Children are crying.

Inmates are not permitted to use the vending machines.

Inmates are not permitted to handle money at any time.

I ask for a pencil and paper and am pointed to a cupboard with
boxes of plain white paper and unsharp pencils. The whole
cupboard shakes as I turn a yellow stub in the old-fashioned
sharpener screwed into the edge of the frame. The lead stays
broken and I reach for another nub to write with.


He tells us about Code Z for "predators and prey." I say sorry,
I didn't hear that, and instantly wish I hadn't when he leans
forward in his brown suit with orange trim and his soft-soled
white shoes and explains, while his mother sits next to us, that
Code Z means those who have attacked other people, or have
been raped, his trimmed white beard marking 41 years since he
first entered here while his mother sits next to us.

He doesn't tell us he's been on the honor block for 20 years.

We talk about Kurasawa films, prison reform and the new book
on African aid by Dambiso Moyo.

Effective immediately,

All coats and jackets will be hung in the coat rack.

All metals except gold rings, earrings and necklaces must be removed.

He says, they can take it from you at any time.

No tobacco products of any kind are permitted inside.

His mother says matter of factly, as though the sadness of it
disappeared a long time ago, you can't get too close to other
families. They could be police informers and tell the guards
something the prisoner said. Everyone wants to get out of here.

Vehicles must stop at this point.

Visiting room.

Visitors Entrance.

Hours later, I try to cut off the blue armband around my wrist
that identified me as not belonging behind the heavy steel doors,
the bars, the 5,000 lights, the laser beams covering the grass and
open spaces, the four rolls of barbed wire on the ten-foot fence,
the knocking on the walls of the cell twice a day to check for I
don't know what. My scissors are useless and after showering
with it on, I tear the armband off in pieces.

Twenty years and they can take it from you at any time.

When I look online for blogs about the prison, I see posts
written at 4 am, 4:02, 4:06.

The prison is closed for visits on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

CELL PHONES, PAGERS, and CAMERAS are prohibited and
should remain in the vehicle.

The frequency of visits shall be a total of six visits per month.
Each inmate may have no more than three of those visits on
weekend days (Saturday and Sunday).

Each inmate is limited to a total of five visitors at one time.

Photocopies of any ID will not be accepted.

During contact visits, an inmate and his visitors may embrace
only upon meeting and when leaving the visiting area. Excessive
kissing and/or petting are not permitted and may result in
termination of the visit and disciplinary action.

Visitors are not permitted to leave anything, including gifts,
money orders, etc. for the inmate. No objects may be exchanged
between a visitor and an inmate.

All visitors (including minors) are required to pass through a
walk-through metal detector. Please dress accordingly.

From the blogs I see this means no underwire bras, no metal in
belts, no steel bangles.

Visitors must sign in upon arrival and sign out before leaving. All
information requested on the sign-in sheet, including names and
complete addresses, must be filled in completely. If you travel
by private vehicle, you will be asked to register the year, make,
model and license number of the vehicle.

I never remember my license number and invent one each time.

Food items, snacks, and beverages are not permitted to be
brought into the institution's visiting rooms. These items may be
purchased from the vending machines located in the visiting areas.

He used to love the puripatta she brought him to eat on Christmas,
but one year the governor got tough on crime and put an end to that,
he teaches other prisoners to take their high school equivalency
exams, he learned Spanish, he referees weekend basketball games,
he meditates for two hours each morning, he calls every Saturday,
he only reads non-fiction, what use are stories, he shares his books
with his friends, two other long-termers, sometimes he has the flu
and we don't visit, it costs him more to call his mother than for me
to call Zurich, prisoners have to call collect and she always accepts.

A photo machine is available in the Inside Visiting Room only.
Photos cost $3 each

The machine trembles when I touch it.


Gabeba Baderoon is a South African poet and scholar. She is the author of the poetry collections The Dream in the Next Body and A hundred silences. She teaches women's studies and African studies at Pennsylvania State University. Further details are at

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See also: Poetry


Clifton Gachagua

Wash the heart in sunset purple,
cellophane and a voice recorder in hand,
take it out for a stroll in the open field.
Buy a prosthesis if that is what you need,
mind the spiral lanes of games
left behind by children who now play elsewhere.

Welcome the new state of wakefulness:

(his remains were removed
and a cenotaph was placed at the original grave)


a tomb or a monument erected
in honor of a person whose body
is elsewhere.


Clifton Gachagua won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets from the African Poetry Book Fund for his Madman at Kilifi, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. His poems have appeared in Kwani? and Saraba.

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See also: Poetry

Ethiopian Lives and Liturgies

Kay Kaufman Shelemay

 In Review | Music Ethiopian liturgical music in the United States. Images of worship and musical performance at Re'ese Adbarat Debre Selam Kidest Mariam Church can be viewed on the church's website,

Tabot ceremony

The tabot ceremony at St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church, January 27, 2007. Photo: Marilyn E. Heldman


The curtains to the Holy of Holies open and three priests emerge, each one supporting on his head a cloth-wrapped tabot, a sacred altar slab made from wood or stone replicating the Tablets of the Law. Each priest's vestments, seen from the front, are covered by richly embroidered cloth draping down from the tabot. When viewed from the rear, each of the three figures appears as a solid block—similar to the altar chest on which the traditional tabot rests. Turbaned musicians in white robes stand several steps below the three priests, deployed in two lines facing each other, all singing the traditional chant and swaying to the resonant beats of the kabaro, the large kettledrum. Each musician shakes a small metal sistrum in his right hand, while his left anchors a prayer staff extending back over his left shoulder. The musicians are led by the liqa mezemrat (master of liturgical chant), Moges Seyoum, who stands second from the rear in the right-hand line of musicians, a microphone instead of a sistrum in his right hand. Behind him and to the right of the tabot procession, one can just glimpse the bearded face of the abba, the church elder, flanked by priests, one of whom carries a large ceremonial cross. The tabot procession, shadowed by large ritual umbrellas, proceeds down the center aisle of the sanctuary and then around the circumference of the entire hall. The musicians and choir follow, trailed by members of the congregation, who sing, dance, and ululate. When the procession ends, the priests return the tabots to the altar and close the curtains to the Holy of Holies.

If the elaborate rituals of Ethiopia's venerable Orthodox Church might seem to be relics from a distant land, the 1974 Ethiopian revolution and subsequent migration of millions of Ethiopians abroad has introduced Ethiopian Christianity to all corners of the globe.1 Among these locations is Washington, DC, where the procession described and pictured above took place at Debre Selam Kidest Mariam (St. Mary's) Ethiopian Orthodox Church on January 27, 2007. The late-twentieth-century dispersal of Ethiopians worldwide may strike one as unexpected, given Ethiopia's longtime status as a global symbol of isolation and stasis. Did not the eighteenth-century writer Edward Gibbon state that, by virtue of their location in the mountainous highland plateau of the African Horn, "the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten"?2 If Gibbon overstated the historical isolation of Ethiopia—which had, in fact, for more than a millennium supported an ecclesiastical community in Jerusalem and also initiated other contacts with the outside world—he would have been even more startled at the pace at which late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Ethiopians have become global citizens. Heirs to a church founded in the fourth century, when shipwrecked Christian missionaries from Tyre converted the Ethiopian court, Ethiopian Christians have in recent decades transmitted their esoteric liturgical tradition far and wide.

Christmas ritual at Lalibela
The Christmas ritual at the rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, c. 1974. Photo: Peter Takacs

The Ethiopian synaxary credits the large repertory of Ethiopian chants to the creativity of a venerable church musician named Saint Yared, who is said to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit during the sixth-century reign of Emperor Gebra Masqal. Performance of this liturgy has remained at the heart of Ethiopian Orthodox religious practice ever since, just as the Ethiopian Church itself has expressed the core of Ethiopia's official national and religious identity for centuries. But, in 1974, the Ethiopian revolution began and the long-standing hierarchies of Ethiopian religious and social life were turned upside down. With the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the church lost its symbolic, but powerful, head and, with the subsequent nationalization of rural and urban lands shortly afterward, it lost its economic base as well.

As Ethiopia became increasingly chaotic in the mid-1970s, Ethiopians began to flee their country and to seek asylum abroad. Thousands, especially Christians of Amhara ethnic descent, left the country through whatever means were possible; over time, they established new communities worldwide. Among these refugees were an unusually large number of church musicians vital to the establishment of Ethiopian Christianity abroad. Here, I will introduce two important church musicians, both of whom have helped found Ethiopian churches abroad and have remained central to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity's new global presence.

Moges Seyoum
L. M. Moges Seyoum. Photo: Marilyn E. Heldman

The first is L. M. Moges Seyoum, a leader at St. Mary's in Washington, DC. His peripatetic life was surely one he could never have anticipated or even imagined during his formative years. Born in a rural area of the central Ethiopian highlands in 1949, Moges3 began studying chant in his local church as a young child. His father was a marigeta (leader of church musicians) and a teacher and scholar of chant. Like many young boys, Moges followed in his father's footsteps (as did his two older brothers), becoming a marigeta. At fifteen, he left home for Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where he both continued his secular education in a military high school and achieved at church schools the status of "master for aqqwaqwam," the advanced study of Ethiopian liturgical dance and instrumental practice. This was also an era during which the emperor placed a high priority on sending talented young people abroad to study, and Moges left in 1970 to study theology and law in Greece. When the Ethiopian revolution began in 1974, with violence soon breaking out at home, Moges decided to remain abroad. He left Greece in 1982 when he received asylum in the United States.

Moges Seyoum arrived in Dallas, Texas, in the heat of August 1982. At first, he helped lead the liturgy at a local Russian Orthodox Church, with knowledge he had acquired during his sojourn in Greece. But with the Dallas metropolitan area home to an increasingly large number of Ethiopian refugees, Moges quickly helped found the Ethiopian Tewahedo Debre Meheret St. Michael Cathedral in adjacent Garland, Texas. Over the years, he made visits to other Ethiopian churches throughout the United States and, in 1989, accepted an invitation from Debre Selam Kidest Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox (St. Mary's) Church in Washington, DC, to lead its liturgy.

Christmas ritual at St. Mary's
The Christmas ritual at St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church, January 6-7, 2011. Photo: Kay Kaufman Shelemay

Today the Washington, DC, metropolitan area hosts the largest Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia, estimated to be more than one-quarter of a million people, and is home to more than a dozen Ethiopian Orthodox churches. St. Mary's Church has grown to be one of the largest Ethiopian churches in the diaspora and has a critical mass of priests and liturgical musicians able to ensure performance of the liturgy in a form very similar to that of the Ethiopian homeland in the past. There are enormous challenges facing Ethiopian Orthodox churches seeking to maintain the traditional ritual cycle, including its musical content, in diaspora. While the Mass can be chanted by a single priest and is relatively straightforward to perform in the diaspora setting, the musical liturgy celebrating annual holidays requires a number of trained musicians proficient not just in the large and esoteric corpus of chants set in the three distinct musical modes, but in the ability to perform a given chant in multiple and subtly different renditions with varying instrumental accompaniment and dance. Full performances of these lengthy rituals celebrated on annual holidays, saint's days, and other important occasions, ideally require two groups, each with a dozen musicians, standing opposite each other accompanied by drummers playing the kabaro.

Even large churches such as St. Mary's face mounting challenges, especially as their well-educated priests and musicians age. All congregants except the clergy and musicians lack familiarity with the liturgical language, Ge‘ez. In diaspora, the many demands of immigrant life render impossible the day-to-day engagement with the traditional liturgy that sustained the tradition among congregations at home in the past and encouraged young boys to pursue a liturgical career. Moges Seyoum is well aware of such challenges to the future of the tradition, which has led him to take action:

I have to teach. . . . When I was in Ethiopia, it was OK; I didn't have any problem, because a lot of students needed to follow the zema [chant], the aqqwaqwam [instruments and dance]. Now we don't have time in this country. You know, everybody works, and just the younger generation follows a class in English language.4

In light of the pressing need to transmit the liturgy, since 2000 L. M. Moges has offered a weekly class on Saturday mornings where he teaches a group of men from his church the chants and associated sistrum and dance motions for upcoming rituals. In this way, a larger group of participants are incorporated and important liturgical portions are inculcated as common knowledge. Moges has also published a set of CDs containing the complete chants for the annual cycle of holidays (Yä'amutu Wäräboch) and plans to record a DVD that will transmit his singing along with accompanying movements: "The DVD is very important to everybody. So at home you can follow it."5

Moges Seyoum devotes extraordinary time and effort to maintaining the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy in Washington, DC, despite holding down two full-time jobs. A similar situation exists in other American communities with much smaller Ethiopian immigrant populations; at the same time, these smaller communities can contribute to our understanding of the struggle to maintain Ethiopian liturgical and musical practices in these new environments. The Ethiopian diaspora community in Boston can provide additional insights.

Masqal celebration
Celebration of Masqal, the Festival of the True Cross, by members of three Boston-area Ethiopian Orthodox churches, in River Park, Cambridge, 2009. Photo: David Kaminsky

There are four Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the Boston metropolitan area, serving an Ethiopian community officially estimated at twelve thousand, but no doubt considerably larger. Of the qes (priests) serving these four congregations, only one, Qes Tsehai Birhanu, is also a highly trained liturgical musician. So extraordinary is Qes Tsehai's story that I will recount it here in some detail.6

Tsehai Birhanu was born in rural Ethiopia. Orphaned by the time he was one, he was raised by his grandmother. There were many clergymen in his family and his great-uncle, a monk, trained him in liturgy from his early childhood years. After becoming a marigeta at the famed Qoma Fasilidas monastery in north central Ethiopia, Qes Tsehai received a diploma in Amharic literature from the Holy Trinity Theological College of Haile Selassie I University and also became an expert in performing improvised liturgical Ge‘ez poetry, qene. Qes Tsehai speaks with great reverence of the exhilaration he experiences from improvising qene: "When one does qene well, it is energizing spiritually."7

Tsehai Birhanu
Qes Tsehai Birhanu. Photo: Kay Kaufman Shelemay

In the early 1970s, after studying and teaching Bible and church music in the Ethiopian capital for several years, Qes Tsehai traveled to the Soviet Union, where, in 1975 in Leningrad, he completed a master's degree in theology. After his return to Ethiopia, he served the church in several important administrative positions, including heading the church's youth department. In 1982, Qes Tsehai left Ethiopia for the United States, to engage in postgraduate studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, and subsequently received asylum. He held several positions with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the United States over the ensuing years and, in 2001, moved to Boston following the invitation to serve as head priest and administrator of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Debre Selam Saint Michael Church in Mattapan, Massachusetts. In addition to his comprehensive musical, liturgical, and administrative skills and experience, a very special aspect of Qes Tsehai's background made him particularly well suited to head congregations in smaller diaspora communities.

While a leading musician in the church in Addis Ababa in the late 1960s, before his departure for Russia, Qes Tsehai worked to engage the interest of urban Christian youths in Addis Ababa who were drifting away from the tradition. He composed strophic, unison hymns in Amharic, the Ethiopian national language. Qes Tsehai recalls vividly the process through which he invented a new genre of Ethiopian Christian choral music and issued the first publications of the genre:

Yes, the new style. . . . Let me explain to you. I composed this hymn book, while I was studying ... [at] Holy Trinity College in Addis Ababa. I was assigned by the bishop to teach Bible and song at every church in Addis Ababa. At that time, [I was]. . . creating every new hymn. So I decided to. . . make a book of compositions. I sent it to the bishop. He just put his sign on it to be sent to the Department of Evangelization. They said, . . . "If it is published, it will be helpful for the younger generation of the church." . . . And it was published. Soon everybody, even the bishops, the archbishops, the scholars, they had that book. . . .  This was before I went to Russia. After I came back from Russia, they asked me to publish again. And that is why, now here in America, and throughout the world they are using my songs.8

Qes Tsehai's hymns quickly became popular among young people in the church, and, during the revolution, when groups were forbidden to congregate, the songs provided an excuse for young people to gather in the church. The hymns, which came to be known as the "Sunday School Songs," are today circulated and widely performed both in Ethiopia and worldwide. Circulated through cassettes, CDs, and oral tradition, these songs have opened a channel through which young people can participate in Ethiopian Christian liturgical performance. In smaller Ethiopian diaspora communities such as Boston, the choirs that sing these songs have both helped attract young people to church and provided ballast to traditional liturgical performance.

Woman playing the kabaro
A woman plays the kabaro on Christmas at St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church, January 6-7, 2011. Photo: Kay Kaufman Shelemay

The hymns also provided the first channel through which women of all ages could enter into the formerly all-male world of Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical performance. As Qes Tsehai noted: "Traditionally it is not allowed for women to sing. . . . But now it is coming. Even here, the women are participating with the men. Even in Ethiopia, in the cities they do."9 Over time, women have begun playing the drum and the sistrum and have begun to acquire some basic knowledge of the traditional chant.

Today, choirs are heard at Ethiopian churches throughout the diaspora. At large churches, like St. Mary's in Washington, DC, the choirs are large and coeducational. At smaller churches, in communities such as Boston, choirs tend to be comprised mainly of women and are small. The Amharic hymn texts are more accessible to the congregation than are the traditional chant texts in Ge‘ez, and many of the songs invoke the Virgin Mary. One of Qes Tsehai's Sunday school songs, "A Voice Cried Out in the Wilderness," is sung for the Ethiopian new year in September:

A voice cried out in the wilderness
Saying prepare the way of God.
If John told us his witness, let our heart be straight for our God.
CHORUS: O Virgin Mary, bless for us our New Year.

Thus, the perpetuation of musical and liturgical traditions from the Ethiopian homeland presents a great challenge in diaspora, with only the largest churches within major metropolitan areas having the musical leadership, let alone a sufficient number of musicians, to mount these rituals in full. Ritual performance in most Ethiopian American churches necessitates compromise in the face of constraints on personnel and time.

St. Mary's Choir
St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church Choir, Washington, DC, January 27, 2011.Photo: Marilyn E. Heldman

Like Qes Tsehai, L. M. Moges also undertakes activities that are overtly innovative in the musical domain. He arranges liturgical portions to perform on special occasions and, in October 2007, arranged the chant, instrumental accompaniment, and dance for a presentation during the 69th National Folk Festival, in Richmond, Virginia. While most of his activities are in service of sustaining long-standing traditions, L. M. Moges devotes a great deal of time and attention to reshaping these materials for performance in new diaspora settings. He understands that the Ethiopian Church needs to reach out to a broader public: "In the American society, we have a plan, you know, to show everywhere. Not in our church only. We have to explain for people and, for example, universities. . . .  There is the game of promotion."10

Tsehai Birhanu and Moges Seyoum have expended decades of effort to reestablish the Ethiopian musical liturgy within the United States. Both have served their communities in exceptional ways and have received public acknowledgment. Qes Tsehai has received certificates of recognition from the United States Congress, from the Massachusetts State Senate, and from two Boston-area city councils. In September 2008, L. M. Moges received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. On the day following the ceremony on Capital Hill and a festive banquet in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, a celebratory concert for fellowship winners was mounted at the Strathmore Music Center in suburban Maryland. As part of an awards program that featured a Korean dancer, a Brazilian capoeira master and his troupe, a New Orleans jazz clarinetist and ensemble, and Oneida Indian hymn singers, L. M. Moges and ten musicians from St. Mary's Church performed Ethiopian chants on the Strathmore stage. But, perhaps the most extraordinary moment followed the curtain calls, during which each fellowship winner took a final bow while the jazz band played choruses of "When the Saints Come Marching In." When all the awardees had congregated on stage, and the band continued to play, the capoeira troupe suddenly and spontaneously began to perform traditional capoeira moves to the music; a few of the young men approached the older Oneida women and invited them to dance. The Korean dancer began dancing her own elegant style in the middle of the stage, and several Oneida couples started to dance the two-step. On the right-hand side of the stage, the Ethiopians, led by Moges Seyoum, stood in full liturgical dress. They looked at each other in amazement and then slowly joined in, swaying to the music and reinforcing the jazz band's beat with the boom of the kabaros and the tinkle of the sistrums. On this evening, Ethiopian lives and liturgies were clearly very much at home in North America.



  1. See Kay Kaufman Shelemay and Steven Kaplan, introduction to "Creating the Ethiopian Diaspora: Perspectives from Across the Disciplines," special issue, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 15, no. 2/3 (fall/winter 2006, published spring 2011): 191–213.
  2. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 2 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 159–160.
  3. Ethiopians are traditionally called by their first names. I thank L. M. Moges Seyoum for sharing details of his life story and musical activities with me.
  4. Moges Seyoum, interview by author, August 2, 2007.
  5. Ibid.
  6. I am grateful to Tsehai Birhanu for sharing his life story and musical knowledge with me over the last decade.
  7. Tsehai Birhanu, interview by author, April 12, 2008.
  8. Tsehai Birhanu, interview by author, September 17, 2010, and April 12, 2008.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Interview by author with Moges Seyoum, August 2, 2007.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is currently writing a book about musicians of Northeast Africa living in diaspora.

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Habitations of the Sacred

Africana approaches to disease and healing are complex

Tracey E. Hucks

"Wherever a community of people is found, health and wholeness are desirable."1

AFRICANA SACRED TRADITIONS, while dialogical with Western medicine, are comprised of a constellation of distinct spiritual and wellness systems. Both continental Africans and those in the diaspora have, for centuries, fashioned their own etiology of disease, sociological approaches to healing, skilled herbal apothecaries, and proficient divining specialists, each given a unique flavor, born of the particularities of time, region, and intercultural contexts. Within Africana theurgic domains, one encounters not only pathways for physical healing but a complex theologizing of the human body, which defines human materiality as embodying simultaneously the place for affliction and the location for interpreting and ritualizing healing.2 For most African-descended populations, there exist "gaps in a western medical approach to holistic restoration" for, "unlike western scientific medicine which precisely distances itself from the ‘supernatural,' " most African peoples see clearly that "the connection between these two worlds is key to the practice of medicine in traditional communities."3 Thus, the Africana world as it relates to health, restoration, wellness, and wholeness is not explained exclusively within bounded scientific empiricisms, but instead is more broadly interpreted and defined in spiritual and theological terms.

In theorizing Africana notions of disease, illness, and affliction, religious scholars such as Emmanuel Lartey argue that "disease in Africa is thought of as . . . having spiritual and relational causes."4 In this paradigm, illness and disease not only represent a "physical disharmony" but may also be symbolic of "spiritual, religious, medical and socio-ethical" disharmony that has broader implications.5 Thus, the larger healing event for Africana communities is defined and lived out in textured and meaningful intersections between the natural and the supernatural worlds. Healing, in its ultimate sense, involves an episodic series of restorative processes linking humans and the spirit world in a constellation of wellness practices. As a result of his extensive research among communities and healers in West Africa, Lartey concludes: "the heart of African traditional medicine is the restoration of harmonious relationships throughout the whole cosmos. . . . African traditional healers seek to bring about harmony between the Supreme Being, the deities (or messengers . . . of God), the ancestors, humanity and nature."6 The work of healing and medicine in Africa, therefore, covers a broad tapestry of individual, family, social, and "spiritual restoration."

Global Africana communities commonly negotiate theories of health, conceptions of wholeness, and diverse strategies for achieving physical, spiritual, and ontological stability through material and divinatory approaches to wellness, within the context of their diasporic circumstances. Divinatory and material technologies are often inextricably linked, sharing relational space with locally defined conceptions of medicine, healing, and wellness. On the continent of Africa and throughout its diaspora, material culture and divination have been important indices and "communicative modes" that speak through languages of materiality, embodiment, healing epistemologies, and medicinal prescriptions.7

Divination as a "diagnostic process"8 has remained fundamental across African and diasporic geographical and cultural contexts. Throughout my research endeavors in Africa, North America, and the Caribbean, I analyze divination as a mediatorial language and corpus of sacred knowledge negotiated through a complex interplay of hiddenness and revelation.9 My scholarly and curricular work engage the lived traditions of healing and wellness in the places where human affliction is theologized and ritualized. In the venues I explore, I have found that Africana populations accommodate multiple habitations of the sacred, blurring religious boundaries and traversing multiple sacred cosmologies in ways that are "self-authorizing."10 In an effort to advance a subfield of divination studies within the discipline of religion, I most recently taught a comparative course on the "transcultural phenomenon" of divination and the globality of esoteric divinatory practices.11 Through comparative engagements with Greco-Roman sympathetic magic and spell production, British and New England magical traditions, Muslim ingestion and talismanic practices, and Japanese Noh plays and dream divination, this course situated Africana divinatory practices in Africa, North America, and the Caribbean within a larger global repertoire of healing technologies that collectively employ a variety of medicinal and material fabrication practices. Divination, throughout many of the global contexts examined, adhered to an "anthropocentric ontology" where "existence . . . is viewed in terms of its connection to humans" and human agency was a chief negotiator between the spiritual and natural worlds.12

Curative prescriptions might include herbal medicine, bathing rituals, infusions, healing soaps, and topical salves.

Divinatory communication in Africana religious studies, in particular, remains largely dependent upon the mystical infusion of locally available material instruments of the natural world. For example, bones, nuts, shells, water, metal, stones, and pebbles are embraced alongside other surrogate artificial instruments encountered in the Atlantic world, such as coins, cards, crystal balls, and Bibles. Henry John Drewal identifies these as "meaningful assemblages of objects from a variety of sources" that distill and activate religious power. African-descended communities in Africa and in the diaspora have long used mystically charged objects of material culture as conduits of theurgical intervention and potent mediatory languages.13 These "material forms of mediation" operate at the "juncture between physical and spirit worlds," revealing "the views and intentions of the supernatural world."14

Through specific instrumentalities, divinatory patterns transform into sacred textual transcripts that are then deciphered by religious specialists in order to diagnose and to prescribe spiritual and medicinal remedies. In order to enact healing, the morphology of Africana divination may include examination, consultation or reading, diagnosis, and applied prescription. The healing may also involve a complex relationship with oracular literature or sacred oracles that aid in identifying spiritual prescriptions that seek to appease, neutralize, or invoke mystical assistance. For example, for those seeking wellness in Africana sacred traditions, curative prescriptions might include herbal medicine or ingestive remedies, bathing rituals, infusions, healing soaps, topical salves, recitation or incantation utterances, as well as treatments that require supplicative appeasements to spiritual entities, such as incantations and prayers, food offering, animal sacrifices, and, in some instances, initiatory rites.15 Corollaries to such practices in European traditions include prayers of supplication, exorcism, ritualized confessions, use of divining rods, spell and incantational practices, or baptism.

In Africana religious contexts, divination and material objects are most commonly part of a larger spiritual grammar of healing, restoration, and curative practices enacted through ritual correspondences between human and mystical transcendence. Material artifacts, in particular, maneuver a fluid world across ranges of disease and affliction. For example, Frederick Douglass utilized Sandy's "root" to displace fixed temporal and social boundaries in North American slavery. These spiritually charged artifacts act as a compere for transformative spiritual energy with the ability to stabilize the maladies of the human body and the challenges of everyday life.

Seeking healing and restored wholeness in Africana wellness systems, supplicants enter the world of divination pursuing an alternative sociology of religious knowledge and a theory of time that assist in decoding the inexplicable and indecipherable. They enter with their "everyday contradictions, memories, problems, and hardships," engaging a multivalent epistemology around the origins of affliction and human distress. Thus, in moments of "physical, emotional, or spiritual crisis," healing and restoration are maneuvered through a world "between practices" and across belief systems, seeking not just a cure from affliction but an explanation of its origin" in this larger "illness event."16

Africana approaches to healing and wellness expose supplicants to porous orientations toward sacred power and possibility. In this context, rigid distinctions and boundaries that often circumscribe religious orthodoxy are commonly profoundly relaxed. In Central African contexts, Congolese scholar Jean Masamba Ma Mpolo observed that "many Africans converted to Christianity run back to traditional spirituality especially when they have to find solutions to misfortune and poor health. People cling to African traditional spirituality as it contains positive human possibilities for wholeness and offers a kind of repository of other options beside Christianity and western therapeutic and medical systems."17 Within African and diasporan contexts, this flexible spiritual epistemology is host to a fluid world constitutive of what Grey Gundaker theorizes as "coexistent realities and double sight."18

Throughout my own research in Africana religious cultures in the diaspora, I explore the complex meanings of healing, divination, and materiality from two perspectives: first, from the hermeneutical perspective of those Africana spiritual specialists and ritual technicians who facilitate "knowledge management" of these traditions; and second, from the historical perspective of those in the Atlantic colonies who campaigned to demonize, penalize, and criminalize Africana religions and its associative practices.19 More specifically, my work as a historian of religion within the contexts of North America and the Caribbean examines the contested interpretations of Africana healing practices and approaches to personal and social disease both as a constituent of a larger repertoire of healing technologies and as historical targets of European criminalization and persecution stemming from misdiagnoses of African religious traditions as carriers of spiritual malevolence. This mislabeling of Africana religious cultures as transporters of spiritual sorcery and evil has endured since the earliest encounters between European travelers, colonialists, and missionaries and so-called primitive cultural practices.

My current book explores systems of sacred knowledge and divinatory technologies in the Caribbean, specifically examining nineteenth-century British-colonial Trinidad in the slavery and post-slavery eras. Within this nineteenth-century Anglophone Caribbean context, the criminalization and demonization of African religious practices as "unsanctioned religious power" stand out against the stringent regulations enacted by white colonial officials.20 Beginning in 1797, when the British acquired this territory from the Spanish, African practices such as Obeah were outlawed based upon British imagined perceptions of the dangers of these mysterious African religious traditions. According to Article 11 of Governor Picton's 1800 Slave Code in Trinidad, "any Negro who shall assume the reputation of being a spell-doctor or obeah-man, and shall be found with an amulet, a fetishe, or the customary attributes and ingredients of the profession, shall be carried before the Commandant of the District, who will take cognizance of the accusation; and provided the crime be not capital, inflict proper punishment." The ordinance furthen stipulated that "should it appear probable that the culprit has been the cause of death of any person by his prescriptions (as very frequently happens), the Commandant will then transmit him to the gaol, as a criminal, to be prosecuted and dealt with according to law."21

Long after British manumission in the 1830s, this legislation remained the primary social and legislative prism through which African religious cultures were negotiated and measured. The most thoroughly documented legal case against Africana healing practices in Trinidad was that of John Cooper in the 1870s. The official record of well over 100 pages, documenting John Cooper's conviction for Obeah, states: "John Cooper, a black, was entering Port of Spain about 5 a.m. on the 25th November, with a bundle. His demeanor attracted the attention of a constable who stopped him for the purpose of examining the bundle under sec. 55 of law of 1868. In the bundle were two fowls, one dead, the other alive." Cooper was initially suspected of theft, but upon his explanation that the fowl were used for spiritual healing purposes through ritual, the arresting charge was changed to Obeah, or sorcery. The lens through which British society viewed Africana healing religiosity is evident in these colonial documents. According to the record, "Among the population of African descent" there existed a widespread belief in Obeah "superstition," and the "chief practitioners of it are natives of Africa." It was believed to prevail "in all West Indian Islands" and deemed by colonial authorities as a source of spiritual "terrorism."22 In addition to John Cooper's recorded "testimony" and alleged "confession," we learn from the Trinidad Gazette in 1872 that, at the time of his arrest, he had a collection of material culture in his possession indicating his status as a potential specialist in Africana religious cultures. Colonial records indicate there was "a packet of powder on him" and another "parcel of powder," which, he said, was to prevent harm coming to him as he walked. "He had a bone; he was asked what that was for; he said, to protect himself. He had a cock; he said he would cut the [bird's] throat, and sprinkle the blood on the ground to do good for the person who employed him."23 This transcript offers significant evidence concerning John Cooper's possible profession as a diviner and ritual specialist, and his presence in the colonial record is symbolic of a larger mapping of African divinatory, healing, and curative practices upon the religious landscape of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Over time, populations of African descent in Africa and the diaspora have participated in their own mappings and meanings for securing therapeutic and protective refuge from societal and personal discord. John Cooper's case in the Caribbean is important for it represented a moment in the historical record when Africana "subterranean traditions" were brought forth from their marginal social contexts and placed at the center of Western colonial religious reflection.24 What I learn most from the corpus of this research, and what I hope will continue to be unearthed in the future study of Africana religious cultures in Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean, is that wherever African people have settled, their theurgical and therapeutic practices (inclusive of divinatory and African mystical technologies) have functioned as important epistemic and generative resources for how Africana populations deploy religious meaning, invoke counter-strategies of resistance, and seek to create remedies of restorative health and wholeness as protective shields from individual and collective affliction, disease, threat, and annihilation.



  1. The Church and Healing: Echoes from Africa, ed. Emmanuel Yartekwei Lartey, Daisy Nwachuku, and Kasonga wa Kasonga (Peter Lang, 1994), 3.
  2. Emmanuel Y. Lartey, Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World (Pilgrim Press, 2006), 145.
  3. Emmanuel Y. Lartey, "Two Healing Communities in Africa," in The Church and Healing, ed. Lartey et al., 7, 42.
  4. Ibid., 39.
  5. Andrew Olu Igenoza, "Wholeness in African Experience: Christian Perspectives," in The Church and Healing, ed. Lartey et al., 126.
  6. Lartey, "Two Healing Communities in Africa," 41.
  7. Grey Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America (Oxford University Press, 1998), 8.
  8. Yvonne B. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (University of California Press, 2003), 101.
  9. Lartey, Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World, 128.
  10. Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism (Penguin Press, 2004), 81–82.
  11. Henry John Drewal, "Mami Wata Shrines," in African Material Culture, ed. Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary, and Kris L. Hardin (Indiana University Press, 1996), 327.
  12. Preston McKever-Floyd, "Masks of the Sacred," in Religion in South Carolina, ed. Charles H. Lippy (University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 155.
  13. Drewal, "Mami Wata Shrines," 327.
  14. Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs, 123. Jacob K. Olupona, "Sacred Cosmos: African Indigenous Religion in the Contemporary World," in African Americans and The Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. Vincent Wimbush (Continuum Press, 2000), 72.
  15. Velana Annemarie Huntington, "Bodies in Contexts: Holistic Ideals of Health, Healing, and Wellness in an American Orisa Community" (PhD diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 2005), 7–8.
  16. Ibid., 44.
  17. Jean Masamba Ma Mpolo, "Spirituality and Counseling for Healing and Liberation," in The Church and Healing, ed. Lartey et al., 17.
  18. Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs, 128.
  19. Ibid., 151.
  20. Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, "Extra-Ordinary People: Mystai and Magoi, Magicians and Orphics in the Derveni Papyrus," Classical Philology 103 (2008): 26.
  21. A. Meredith John, The Plantation Slaves of Trinidad, 1783–1816: A Mathematical and Demographic Enquiry (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 215.
  22. CO 295/261, Colonial Office and Predecessors: Trinidad Original Correspondence. Correspondence, Original – Secretary of State. Despatches.
  23. "Proceedings of the Meeting of the Court of Appeal," Trinidad Chronicle, April 9, 1872.
  24. Dianne Stewart Diakité and Tracey E. Hucks, "Africana Religious Studies: Toward a Transdisciplinary Agenda in an Emerging Field," Journal of Africana Religions, vol. 1, no. 1 (2013): 43.

Tracey E. Hucks, PhD '98, is Professor of Religion and former chair of the Department of Religion at Haverford College. Her book Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (University of New Mexico Press) was published in 2012, and she has recently completed a manuscript on African religious cultures in Trinidad. This is an edited version of the plenary address Hucks delivered on April 13, 2012, at the Harvard-sponsored symposium, "Sacred Healing and Wholeness in Africa and the Americas."

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Lost and Found in Translation

Michael Jackson

IN THE FALL OF 2013, a doctoral student, Michael Lesley, gave me a Muzsikás CD on which several Romanian folksongs recorded by Béla Bartók in 1910 and 1912 alternated with the orchestral compositions he based on them. The folksongs stirred and affected me deeply. Bartók's Romanian Dances had been background music to my life at twenty-one. But now, hearing these poignant, heartrending voices from a hundred years ago, from a world we know will be obliterated in the mid-twentieth century, I was overwhelmed. These blackbirds whistling in a summer forest, that remote voice struggling to be heard above the static of an inadequate recording machine, made me aware that even though our lives become lost in the ocean of history, something of our lifeworld survives, albeit fragmented, amputated, and transformed. For almost forty-five years, my ethnographic sojourns among the Kuranko of northeast Sierra Leone have provided me with similar insights into this uncanny phenomenon of cultural survival—folktales still told in Kuranko villages that reached the New World through the memories of Mande-speaking slaves, becoming part of the corpus of so-called Brer Rabbit tales, collected by Joel Chandler Harris and first published in 1868 and 1869; Kuranko field songs that instantly evoked a memory of Robert Johnson's nasalized singing of the blues; a Kuranko word (barana) from which our word 'banana' derives. The contents of this current Bulletin bring home to us how much of Africa survived the Middle Passage and the centuries of degradation that followed. Though we will be forever haunted by the millions of lives destroyed in the process of creating a New World for a privileged few, significant strains in our traditions of music-making, preaching, divinatory and healing practices are traceable to West and Central Africa. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to claim that the Euro-American world is indebted to Africa for its very existence. Yet, while Africa's vital presence is still felt in contemporary America, so the music, religion, and popular culture that flourished on this side of the Atlantic has found its way back to whence it came, finding expression in the Afropop, Rap, and Reggae you hear on the streets of Freetown, or the "jazz cosmopolitanism" of Accra that leads Ghanaian musician Nii Noi Nortey to declare, "John Coltrane is Africa," adding that though Coltrane never got to visit Africa, he visits it spiritually every time local musicians play.

Through these Bulletin essays on the two-way traffic of the Black Atlantic, we realize that movement and migration have defined the human condition from time immemorial. Along with all living things, we move through life. By this I mean not only that we are all bound to die (it is only a question of when) but that we were all once migrants (again, it is only a question of when). Whether planned or accidental, desired or dreaded, the passage from one place to another, one life stage to another, or one state or status to another, often figures centrally in the stories we tell about our lives. Though we may hanker after hard and fast differences between self and other, human and animal, man and machine, male and female, these boundaries get blurred, transgressed, and redrawn. We morph and migrate, in and out of our bodies, in reality and in our imaginations. Our moments of rest are soon enough disrupted, our settled states disturbed, our minds distracted.

Although movement, metamorphosis, and mutation are in the nature of things, change does not merely befall us, like a bolt from the blue; it is often chosen and embraced, in the hope that we may be carried into a more fulfilling relationship with the world. Whether we construe the wherewithal of life as having wealth or health, fresh water or self-worth, love or lebensraum, food, family or a future—it tends to be characterized by scarcity. As a limited good it must be actively sought, struggled for, salvaged, and safeguarded. Critical to these processes of capturing or commanding life is a capacity to move to where life appears to be most abundant and accessible, or to orient oneself in such a way as to see what other possibilities may exist where one is. Migration, therefore, is but one expression of mobility as a survival strategy. And while mobility may cover activities that range between transhumance, nomadism, asylum seeking, and physical exercise to the movement of labor, capital, knowledge, music, stories, commodities, viruses, and medicines across the face of the earth, it also applies to phenomena like "social mobility" and those forms of the imagination in which we entertain such notions as the transmigration of souls, karmic rebirth, religious conversion, the cybernetic fusion of bodies and machines, or escape from a stultifying situation. Even when people agree on what constitute the minimal requisites for life—water, food, and shelter—these basic elements are conceptualized in widely divergent ways. No one lives by bread alone, and human beings will risk or even sacrifice their lives in pursuit of symbolic goods whose meaning cannot be reduced to the kinds of adaptive behaviors that enabled survival two hundred thousand years ago.

Mobility must, therefore, be understood existentially as well as phylogenetically. It is a metaphor for freedom as much as it is a means for accessing life-giving resources, and we learn from these essays that respect, recognition, honor, trust, prestige, autonomy, agency, love, and the ability to share one's experience with others all emerge as vital sources of life. Equally compelling are the minor, fugitive, and often unremarked events that momentarily change a person's experience of being-in-the-world—an expression of care or concern, an offer of sympathy, a small gift, or time spent with loved ones. Clearly, human consciousness itself is fluid, which is why we associate emotion with mood shifts, states of affective agitation, and sudden changes in our environment. The telling of migrant stories stirs deep emotions in the teller, but we are also moved, for such stories unsettle and problematize many of the discursive conventions with which we render the world intelligible, while broaching critical questions concerning the political, moral, and legal orders we invoke in laying down the conditions under which our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is best guaranteed.


Michael Jackson, Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, is the Bulletin's faculty adviser. His recent books include The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being (University of California Press, 2013) and Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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African migrants in Greece experience profound injustice.

Hans Lucht

WHEN I FIRST MET Kelly in Athens, Greece, in February 2010, while I was doing ethnographic fieldwork, the police stopped us on the street and checked our papers. We had barely had time to exchange greetings when the three police officers approached us. Kelly was asked to remove his knitted cap in the pan-African green, gold, and red and to open his mouth wide, so a policewoman, assuming he was a dealer, could inspect him for drugs. Kelly, a devout Muslim who takes pride in living "a clean life," as he puts it, was clearly stung with anger by the incident, but there was little he could do except stand there on the busy sidewalk and open his mouth wide to the officers—and anybody walking by.

Kelly's unfortunate position as a Ghanaian undocumented migrant in Athens, with no work, no money, and at the bottom of an economy heading for a meltdown, did not offer him any avenues for objection. Clearly, this was not a turn of events he had foreseen when he left Ghana to embark on a new life in Europe—a new life, he had hoped, that would establish him as someone whose life and opinions matter to people, whose counsel is sought by family and peers, and whose efforts in life would leave a mark. Now, for the most part, Kelly later explains, he tries to avoid thinking about his plans at all, especially alone in bed at night, because doing so makes him think "crazy thoughts" that scare him and at times make him fear he is losing his mind and his ethical bearings.

"This is just one of the ways the police humiliate us," Kelly says, as we head for his apartment after being allowed to go. "Sometimes they make us face the wall and then they knee us very hard in the thighs. It hurts very badly. But they do this to frustrate you, to push, to make you angry, but we—the Ghanaians—are always careful. We always think that one day, one day everything will be different. We will never give up; that's the Ghana way. God will not let us suffer forever."

When I ask the young men what they do to survive, they say I wouldn't want to know: "You see the trash cans–this is what we do.

Kelly and his fellow Ghanaians are mostly Hausa-speaking Muslims from the poor side of Accra. They have no official places to worship in Athens, but attend makeshift prayer sites. The city has more than a hundred of these informal mosques operating, for example, in cultural halls, but also in warehouses, garages, and basement apartments.1 Several arson attacks have taken place in the past, and the underground mosques are discrete, fearful of violent, right-wing extremists. On Fridays, Kelly attends the mosque of a Bengali imam in a former basement store off the high street, next to the square where many Ghanaian migrants gather in the evenings to socialize. Athens has had no official mosque since 1883, when the Ottomans evacuated the city. Even though the Greek Parliament committed to building a mosque in Athens a decade ago, and again approved plans in 2012, the future of Muslim worship is still uncertain. Traditionally, the Greek Orthodox Church opposed the building of a mosque, but in 2006 the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Orthodox Church of Greece, reversed its position and welcomed the Parliament's decision, as yet to no avail, making Greece the only European capital without a mosque or a Muslim cemetery.

Kelly's basement apartment consists of two rooms and a small kitchen. The oldest person among them shares the front room, closest to the stairway, with two others, while in the back room, six other men sleep on the floor. When we arrive, at ten o'clock in the morning, it is pitch-black inside, and everybody is still sleeping; the air is heavy and musty, and the only circulation comes from a small window in the kitchen. They were still sleeping, Kelly explains, because they have nothing to do all day and because sleeping helps them stave off hunger.

As the guys wake and greet us, they begin their morning routines with slow, almost exhausted movements. The first person to get up places a large tin bucket that looks like a container for pickled vegetables, probably tomatoes, onto a small gas fire in the kitchen and starts heating water for the morning bath. It is a slow and tiresome project, when one container holds only enough water for one person. The kitchen itself is messy and run down, and cockroaches run in and out under an electrical installation on the wall.

They all express their enormous disappointment over life in Athens; many have stayed several years and have not been able to hold regular work for even one day. They go around town every night looking for bottles, facing strong competition from other migrant groups, and then sleep until noon. Food is scarce, and they take rounds going to friends' places, hoping that someone is cooking. Or they retrieve food from garbage cans, especially on market days, when vegetables, discarded by local sellers at closing time, can be found in the refuse or thrown into the street. Some sellers also leave boxes with damaged fruits and vegetables next to their stalls, and the migrants know it is OK to take them.

When I ask the young men what they do to survive, they say I wouldn't want to know: "You see the trash cans—this is what we do." On a good day, they get five bottles—they only look for Heineken and Amstel because those carry a small deposit of ten cents each when returned—which is almost enough to buy five pieces of the round and flat sweet "Arabic bread" that is sold for seventy cents. They eat the bread with tea with milk and sugar, and often that is the only meal of the day.

IN JANUARY 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared the situation for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Greece a "humanitarian crisis," and in December 2011 the European Court of Justice upheld the position that asylum seekers could not be sent back to Greece (as their initial point of entry) from other EU countries, since in Greece they risk inhumane and degrading treatment. But things are only going from bad to worse. As Greece struggles to deal with extreme cutbacks, deep recession, and record unemployment—especially among young people—dark-skinned immigrants and asylum seekers have become scapegoats in racially motivated attacks that, according to the UNHCR, have become an almost daily occurrence in Athens.2 As one of the principal points of entry into the European Union, Greece, in the middle of its worst recession in decades, still receives 80 percent of the migrants entering the EU. Several hundred new migrants are reported to cross the river Evros from Turkey every day, including women and children in urgent need of help and protection. Most migrants then head straight for Athens, where they are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in the street and living hand to mouth.

The political power of the extreme right is growing explosively, giving migrants good reason to fear for their safety. Many European correspondents felt shivers run down their spines when, in the first week of September 2012, polls in Greece showed that the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, which had eighteen seats in the Parliament, would be the third-largest party in Greece if elections were held then—up nearly 4 percent since the June elections that gave the party a sizeable platform in the Parliament.3 Surprisingly, these numbers came after a serious of controversial incidents that linked the extremist party to violence against political opponents and the "migrant scum" they have promised to kick out of Greece. Prior to the June 2012 election, a former commando soldier and Golden Dawn spokesperson assaulted two political opponents on a live morning television show, throwing a glass of water in the first woman's face and slapping the second woman twice before evading the police.

In another incident, in September 2012, Golden Dawn supporters—among them a police officer assigned as personal guard to a Golden Dawn MP—raided an open-air market in western Greece and were caught on video attacking stalls operated by migrants. The police are investigating a similar raid in a market in northern Greece involving two other Golden Dawn MPs. In the wake of these attacks against undocumented migrants, Greek and European journalists are asking whether the country is approaching a complete social and political meltdown.4

On top of the difficulties asylum seekers like Kelly and his friends face just keeping their heads above water in the Athens underground, they now live in constant fear of attacks, such as the one I wrote about in a column for The Guardian:

On the morning of May 25, Kelly ... was on the bus going to a pickup place at the outskirts of Athens, where African immigrants and asylum seekers go to look for work, when he was attacked by a mob. He saw them from afar, standing at the bus stop—a group of about 10 young men—but thought nothing of it. They were probably going to one of the demonstrations, he supposed. But as they entered the bus, they pulled out bats, iron rods, and knives, and attacked him. ...

Kelly knew he had to avoid the guy with the knife that came straight at him. He somehow managed to wrestle the knife from his hands—he's a big guy and a boxer in Ghana—while the others assaulted a black woman sitting behind him. Suddenly the attackers decided they'd had enough, and disappeared. "The lady was beaten very badly," Kelly said. "Blood was flowing down her face. She tried to call for help in their language. But nobody came. They were all afraid." After the attack, the Africans went their separate ways,
filing no report with the police.5

In August 2012, a young Iraqi was beaten and stabbed to death by dark-clad perpetrators on motorcycles who had already attacked other migrants during their hunt for victims. Following this incident, Javied Aslam, head of the Pakistani community and president of the Migrant Workers' Association, told Reuters that at least five hundred migrants had been attacked in the preceding six months, with more than twenty people stabbed and hospitalized during the three-week period at the end of July and beginning of August.6

Migrants and refugees are not the only ones to have felt the wrath of right-wing extremists. In early 2013, a Korean backpacker, Hyun Young Jung, was stopped by two policemen in Athens and asked to produce his papers. One was dressed in plain clothes. Suspicious of fraud, he asked to see their IDs, but instead received a punch in the face. The next thing he knew he was on the sidewalk being kicked. He shouted for help, thinking he was being mugged, and it was only when he was handcuffed and taken to the station that he realized they were indeed police. Still handcuffed, he was hit again in the face outside the police station, and a third time inside, on a stairwell.

In July 2012, Christian Ukwuorji, an American citizen of Nigerian descent, was arrested in Athens while on vacation in Greece with his family—despite showing his U.S. passport. While in police custody, he says, he was beaten so badly that he passed out and woke up in the hospital. The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to Americans traveling to Greece about "unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons, who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants."7

In 2011, 2,000 people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. . . . European leaders worry about the economy, but they are busy looking the other way when it comes to refugees.

Mainstream political parties are now also turning their anger toward migrants. In Athens recently, the government detained more than 7,000 people during a seventy-two-hour period, suspecting them of being illegal immigrants—an assumption apparently based only on the color of their skin—and drawing harsh criticism from human rights groups. In defence of the operation, Public Order Minister Nikos Denidas called the immigration question a "bomb at the foundations of the society and of the state."8 This shift in attitude comes while Greece's economy is under constant scrutiny and threat of a meltdown. The European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank released fresh cash in December 2012, averting a Greek bankruptcy, and are now in the process of assessing the effects of new and hugely unpopular austerity plans that entail tax increases and new dismissals of civil servants before the next 2.8 billion euros will be paid out by the end of March 2013. The Greek economy is in its sixth year of recession, and unemployment is at a record high of 26 percent. In total, Greece has received 200 billion euros in rescue loans since May 2010.9

Another attempt at cracking down on immigration has been the construction of a barbed-wire fence along the Turkish border. Such a fence will hardly solve the problem. Lessons from the Mediterranean Sea show that extra pressure applied along clandestine routes does not stop migrants; instead, the price of paying to cross the border generally surges and the risk of loss of human life increases. In 2011 alone, about 2,000 people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in the now militarized Mediterranean. The Greeks alone, however, cannot be held responsible for the situation. European leaders worry about the economy, but they are busy looking the other way when it comes to refugees.

FOR LUNCH, KELLY takes me to a friend's apartment, where he usually goes to eat and hang out during the day. For my visit, he has somehow managed to gather enough money to buy a chicken, which is already simmering on the fire when we arrive.

Kelly's friend, Boss, is busy in the kitchen, expertly preparing the food in a Ghanaian-style tomato sauce. Boss is a truck driver and had worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq. His job was to drive truckloads of military equipment from Kuwait to the war zone up to four times a week. While I look at pictures of him in the desert in front of a vehicle full of bullet holes, he recounts how many of his fellow drivers had been killed by enemy fire or roadside bombs. He considers himself lucky to be alive. Boss's war experience is a recurring subject of heated discussion among his friends. While I am there, the guys in his flat are disputing the American right to invade a foreign country that had done nothing to attack them: the United States only came to steal Iraqi oil, they argue, provoking Boss, who then has to defend U.S. efforts in Iraq, and by implication his own participation in the unpopular war. Boss maintains that the U.S. invasion was legitimate, since the Americans were only responding to the Iraqi people's cries for help. And, since they are now helping the Iraqis rebuild the country after having ousted Saddam Hussein, while they should not pay themselves, at least they should be allowed to use the oil money for this purpose. The argument goes on for a long time, becoming more and more agitated. Kelly shrugs his shoulders and says it is nothing: "It gets a lot worse when they are discussing football."

To Boss, however, the situation is serious enough. When his religiously strict father found out that he was working with the Americans in Kuwait, he disowned Boss for supporting a war against a Muslim country. Boss asked the local imam to intercede, and the imam went to talk to the father twice, but the father would not give in—even though he had benefited greatly from the money Boss sent home from Kuwait. In the end, Boss had no choice but to leave Ghana altogether. "I was afraid for my life. Something bad might have happened," he explains. Now, there is nothing he can do except wait for the old man to pass away. If only the Greek authorities would listen to him, he argues, they would surely help.

Everywhere the migrants end up, it seems, they are met with new obstacles, whether socioeconomic, political, or legal.

Kelly's father was a boxer like him and "a very powerful man" from Burkina Faso. He was a foreman at the Ghana Railway Company, and, if one looked in the history books, Kelly explains, his name and picture would be there. But he didn't give his wife and children the attention one might expect from such a big man. Every time the mother urged him to put up a building, to provide something for their future, he was reluctant, and said he'd rather build in his own country, in Burkina Faso. When he unexpectedly died, the family was left with nothing, causing Kelly to hate his father dearly for his alleged neglect. "It is his fault I am here today, suffering," he says, sitting on the green couch in Boss's room, while his friend Abdel prays on a blanket on the floor. Kelly has a son, he adds, two years of age, and he doesn't want the boy to suffer the way he has suffered himself. That was a big part of the reason he was in Greece at all.

For Kelly and many other migrants, their clandestine journey and undocumented stay in Europe are often justified by a sense of profound injustice, an injustice rooted in the lack of local and global responsiveness to West African hopes and dreams. Everywhere they end up, it seems, they are met with new obstacles, whether socioeconomic, political, or legal in nature. Experientially, the ethical right to claim a life worth living, to pursue a path that may bring about a sense of connection to the imagined sources of well-being, is a right that should take precedence over the formal authority of any given country to deny migrants the right to enter or to stay. Listening to Kelly, one is reminded of anthropologist Michael Jackson's understanding of ethics as a "morality before Morality based on the deep grammar of reciprocity."10 That is to say, a sense of right and wrong is always connected to a deeper sense of what is owed and what should be given.

Just making it to Europe often results in massive disappointment: the migrants have crossed great distances, and at times overcome great dangers, only to discover that they have not really moved any closer to the centers of wealth and mobility except in a purely geographic sense. Such a great social and racial distance remains that cannot be bridged, however close they get, physically, to the places they imagined would change their lives. Quite the contrary, it seems as if their marginality sticks to them wherever they go. Perhaps this is a paradox of globalization: that exclusion and inclusion seem to accelerate simultaneously, and in settings shared by those moving forward and those permanently waiting, stuck on the outside.11

This was not the first time Kelly had tried to reach Europe. First, he married a contract wife from the Czech Republic, but the Czech authorities didn't buy their love story—even though they were married in a Christian church to make it look "genuine" and had an actual party with a big wedding cake. Next, he bought a business visa for Russia and in Moscow boarded an international train for Finland, but he was apprehended, sent back to Russia, and deported to Ghana via Dubai. Then he managed to get a business visa for Turkey through a connection man at the embassy. He stayed three months in Istanbul, working in a factory, before crossing the river Evros one night in a small rubber boat together with eight other migrants. "It's a very big river, and the boat was really shaky," he recalls. The Turkish smuggler, who led them across, pointed toward some lights in the distance: "You see the lights? That is Greece." The group walked about two hours until they reached a small village; the villagers gave them directions to the immigration detention center. It was raining and well past midnight when they reached the camp, but the police said they had to leave because the camp was full already. "It was so cold. We went back to the village, slept outside a provisions store, and in the morning we went back to the camp. The same policemen told us to take a train to another city, Thessaloníki, where there would be another camp that could take us, so that is what we did. But we couldn't find the camp, and decided to go to Athens instead." At the train station, however, the police arrested Kelly and one other man from Ghana. They were locked up for a week and then released with a document that gave them three months to leave the country. Kelly, like most migrants, went on to Athens, to apply for asylum.

IN THE EVENINGS, the immigrants and refugees gather outside the small First Apostolic Church, where Nigerian church members hand out free food to the hungry: small black-laminated containers with rice and stew, and a loaf of bread. There are about a hundred people outside the church the evening I am there, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans, Bengalis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis. After collecting their food, the Ghanaians retreat to the small square in central Athens where they gather in the evenings. The Ghanaians have the western corner, while the Somalis and the Nigerians have the eastern and the southern corners. Around the square there are small shops open twenty-four hours. The Bengali-run Internet café is especially popular; here, one can browse for fifty cents an hour, in the endless search for European or American women willing to marry. In the current circumstances, this unlikely strategy appears to be the only effort that gives the migrants a small measure of optimism. Migrants are reported to have been offered a route to Bulgaria or Poland—or even to the United States—by their Internet girlfriends. Usually, however, the small cubicles are used as places to rest, where you can "put down your head" and sleep until morning. Outside, in the square that Kelly called "Ghana Base," there is a small fenced-off children's playground and a central square circled by benches and palm trees. "This is where I slept, when I first came," Kelly says and points to the benches. Most of the Ghanaians sleep here when they first arrive, their luggage stored in the trees above them.

While we are talking in the square, the police suddenly arrive. Most of the migrants withdraw quietly. The police arrest a young Greek man and a black man on crutches who is arguing loudly, shove them into the police car, and disappear again.

Because the asylum system has effectively broken down in Greece, migrants have, in many cases, not been able to state their case to the authorities, even though they have stayed in Athens for years, some living in the streets. The following night, Kelly and I visit the notorious Attika Aliens Police Directorate on Petrou Ralli Street in Athens, to meet up with Boss, who needs to renew the pink card that indentifies him as an asylum seeker with the right to remain in the country while his case is processed and considered. Without the card, he could be deported.

The scene is depressing. Hundreds of asylum seekers, including women and children, wait along a fence in heavy rain, covering themselves with pieces of cardboard or torn plastic bags. Many had slept on the ground to be at the front of the line. Typically, after midnight, and sometimes not before early morning, the police come out and select ten to twenty people and tell the rest to go back where they have come from. This often sparks confrontations among the migrants, and fights breaks out. Because of this, the West Africans have divided Fridays between the English-speaking and the French-speaking nationals, to avoid clashes between the two groups.

"The police like to see us fighting; they even laugh at us, when we struggle with each other," Kelly bitterly claims. We find Boss in the line, sheltering from the rain under a transparent piece of plastic, and Kelly hands him the food he has brought along. A police car is parked in front of the gate, and two officers watch the migrants at all times. We don't stay long because of the rain and the desolate atmosphere.

Later, Boss tells us that, once again, he has had to give up on the chance of telling his story to the police: "The rain came seriously down. But they were just laughing at us. Then at 1:30 am they came out and picked three people from the front and twenty-six from the back. We don't know why. We have been standing in line for so long, and they pick someone who has only been there one or two hours. I tried to run to the back of the queue, but I fell down; it was very dark and wet. So, we started to make trouble, but they were beating us with sticks and brought out the dogs for us. They told the rest of us to go back and come again next week. My brother, it is not easy, wasting my time like that in the rain and the cold. There's no hope here, nothing."

Clearly, the situation seems to be in danger of slipping out of control. What is needed is a strong, unified European response to how the situation of the thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers can be solved. The Dublin Regulation states that asylum seekers should seek protection in the first European country they arrive in, but when that country, as is the case with Greece, cannot offer them protection, other countries must step in. Leaving asylum seekers like Kelly and his friends at the mercy of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement cannot be tolerated.

One day, taking a break from fieldwork, Kelly and I visit the Acropolis and discuss its significance in European cultural history. Kelly, disappointed with his miserable life, says, "The Greeks used to be first in democracy—now they are last."



  1. Andy Dabilis, "Without a Mosque, Greece's Muslims Go Underground," Southeast European Times, July 10, 2012,
  2. UNHCR, "Fatal Attack on Iraqi in Athens," Racist Violence Recording Network press release, Athens, August 15, 2012,
  3. Reuters, "Support for Greek Far-Right Party Surging, Poll Says," September 6, 2012,
  4. See, for instance, Jonathan Jones, "Greece's Golden Dawn: A Dark Image of Light," The Guardian, May 11, 2012,
  5. Hans Lucht, "Greece Must Not Leave Asylum Seekers at the Mercy of Extremists," The Guardian, December 29, 2012,
  6. Reuters, "Racist Attacks on the Rise in Greece-Migrants Group," August 14, 2012,
  7. Chloe Hadjimatheou, "The Tourists Held by Greek Police as Illegal Migrants," BBC News Magazine, January 9, 2013,
  8. "Greece to Deport 1,600 Immigrants Arrested in Athens," BBC News, August 6, 2012,
  9. Reuters, "Troika Interrupts Greek Bailout Review, Return Later," March 13, 2013,
  10. Michael Jackson, Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want (Duke University Press, 2011), 75.
  11. See Hans Lucht, Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today (University of California Press, 2011), 67.

Hans Lucht, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen, is the author of Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today.

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Pilgrims: Progress and Regress in Three African Memoirs

Devaka Premawardhana

In Review | Required Reading There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe. Penguin Press, 333 pages, $27.95.

In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Pantheon, 256 pages, $25.95.

Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African, by Lamin Sanneh. Eerdmans, 299 pages, $24.

ASIDE FROM THE BIBLE, the book that nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries most eagerly translated for their potential converts is Paul Bunyan's allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Eighty translations, from Amharic to Zulu, exist in Africa alone. Yet, as literary critic Isabel Hofmeyr argues in her masterful study of the book's African history, the act of translation is always equally one of mistranslation.1

This has long been the argument of historian and theologian Lamin Sanneh. Christianity abides by the "vernacular principle," he argues. It has always identified itself with the need to translate, even out of the Aramaic and Hebrew languages of its founders; but this translational imperative led missionaries to concede more to their converts than they may have realized. By translating the Bible into languages they never fully mastered, they cleared the ground for indigenous people to appropriate Christianity in accord with their own cultural logics, sometimes in ways that clashed with what the evangelists intended.2

Perhaps the best-known theorizing of translation in Africa, however, comes out of a debate between two of the continent's literary superstars. The opening salvo was Chinua Achebe's. English, he claimed, is a legitimate medium of African literary expression. Not only is it capable of "carrying the weight of my African experience,"3 but the legacy of colonialism leaves little choice: counterarguments to anti-African racism must be comprehensible to the racists. When Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o offered his rebuttal, he wrote, with reference to Achebe, "It is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues."4 For Ngũgĩ, real liberation required the reclaiming not only of political and economic institutions, but of languages as well. In the early 1980s, Ngũgĩ vowed to cease writing and publishing his fiction in English; Achebe saw no such need.

Coincidentally, all three elders, decades since making their theoretical marks, have released memoirs in 2012. For three thinkers so concerned with the nature of translation, and so affected by Christian missions, it is no surprise that their disparate lives share a commonality of contact with The Pilgrim's Progress. Ngũgĩ makes his indebtedness known in the very title of his memoir: In the House of the Interpreter alludes to one of Bunyan's best-known scenes. On the final page of his memoir, Summoned from the Margin, Sanneh finds nothing less than a lengthy quotation from The Pilgrim's Progress "appropriate . . . to serve as fitting conclusion of one individual's journey in life and in what lies beyond" (276). In There Was a Country, Achebe refers only in passing to an Igbo edition (a translation, it should be noted) of The Pilgrim's Progress on his father's bookshelves (10), but he does offer elsewhere this poignant reflection on reading it: "I recall in particular a most vivid impression of the valley of the shadow of death. I thought a lot about death in those days."5 We, of course, are thinking a lot about his death these days. It came earlier this year, a mere five months after the release of this book.

Given the importance of The Pilgrim's Progress in the history of African translation, and the centrality of Achebe, Ngũgĩ, and Sanneh to theorizing African translation, it is not a stretch to view their lives through the trope of pilgrimage. Yet, whether these lives, and the history of Africa with which they intertwine, bespeak progress, regress, or something besides is the far more revealing question.

FOR CHINUA ACHEBE, Nigeria's transition to postcolony is decidedly not one of progress. His memoir opens with great optimism. The impending independence of 1960 felt like "the building anticipation of the relief of torrential rains after a season of scorching hot Harmattan winds and bush fires" (40). However, this sensation of standing at the dawn of a new era proved short-lived; six years later, Nigeria collapsed into civil war. Achebe notes that Britain played a role here, having fomented interethnic tensions when, for administrative ease, it divided the country in three.

Yet Achebe's account emphasizes the brutality of other Nigerians toward his, the Igbo, people during the civil war. In the aftermath of multiple military coups against rulers from the Hausa north, the Igbo fell victim to swift revenge. They were made into "scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independence Nigeria" (67). Achebe's narrative is most compelling when he chronicles his and his family's own displacements, narrow escapes from the mob violence that engulfed the nominally free Nigeria. He describes in harrowing detail the massacres and invasions, the looting and raping, and the starvation of millions, particularly children, owing to the national government's economic blockade. Part lamentation, part accusation, these passages lend credence to Achebe's cautiously deployed language of pogrom (82–83) and even genocide (228–232).

Achebe persistently addresses the role of intellectuals amid such suffering. Reflecting on themes of his best-known novels—imperialism, slavery, racism—he describes his task as that of " ‘writing back' to the West" so as to "broaden the world's understanding, appreciation, and conceptualization of what literature meant when including the African voice and perspective" (55). Drawing inspiration from the pragmatism of West African griots, Achebe writes that "it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest" (58). In the postindependence context, this sense of the intellectual engagé leads him to a more complex sense of "the African voice and perspective"; the most urgent protest now is against other Africans. This refusal of a rigid West/non-West binary is longstanding. One sees it in his defense of the English language and in the allusion the title of his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), makes to Yeats and thereby to the Irish struggle against British rule.

Yet his political commitments to the Igbo secessionist cause, for which he served in an official capacity in the breakaway government, leads him to a different set of essentialist claims wherein "the Igbo culture" is "receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive" (74) and singularly responsible for driving the British out of Nigeria (67). In a representative display of almost chauvinistic pride, he contends that, "Unlike the Hausa/Fulani, [the Igbo man] was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies" (74). The comparative advantages of the Igbo culture "could have been harnessed by committed leaders for the modernization and development of Nigeria. Nigeria's pathetic attempt to crush these idiosyncrasies rather than celebrate them is one of the fundamental reasons the country has not developed as it should and has emerged as a laughingstock" (76). Readers expecting the nuance and textured depiction of intra-ethnic, even intra-familial, dynamics that animate his novels will be disappointed by this largely macro-level sweep of postindependence Nigeria.6

This is not to say the book is wholly lacking in the personal and particular. Aside from compelling anecdotes about his and his family's sufferings in the war, Achebe also devotes the first thirty or so pages to his upbringing. He documents his rearing by an evangelist father and the value of proximity to other, non-Christian, kin who "were called heathens by the new converts" (11). This duality is mirrored in his education, which came as much from colonial schools as from the local villages. In these early pages, Achebe trumpets the prestige of the missionary schools, government colleges, and universities he attended, and of the illustrious alumni they have produced. Yet Achebe speeds away from these more autobiographical reflections into the heart of his lament with such transitional statements as, "Of course today, under Nigerian control, these schools have fallen into disrepair" (20).

Achebe's discussion of his childhood seems somewhat out of place in what is otherwise a book of historical analysis. One wonders whether Achebe forced his childhood in to suggest a parallel between the optimism of youth and the optimism of nascent nationalism: not only their exuberant beginnings, but their tragic endings. After all, it is not generally those who were colonized, but specifically "my generation" that "had great expectations for our young nation," and for whom, "After the war everything we had known before about Nigeria . . . had to be rethought" (227). This trajectory of tragedy is consistent with that of his protagonists—Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart and Ezeulu of Arrow of God (1964)—beguiled as they are by an inability to comprehend or control the lethal turns of their lives.7 Conspicuously absent from this memoir are the personal struggles of Achebe's late adulthood: the car accident in 1990 that left him paralyzed from the waist down, or the illness that eventually claimed his life, which he may well have sensed he was racing against while writing this memoir. Yet, even without their inclusion, Achebe succeeds in moving his readers with a narrative of disenchantment, of failed hopes, and of things falling irrevocably apart.

LAMIN SANNEH'S Summoned from the Margin is both more personal and more hopeful. Each chapter corresponds roughly to one of the many and diverse educational institutions through which he has passed. Having grown up in a part of the Gambia that "had long resisted Western schools as a cesspool of infidel corruption" (40), Sanneh was sent to the local Qur'an school, and later to an Islamic boarding school. After completing secondary education and taking up work in the civil service, Sanneh encountered the Christian churches he had no contact with as a child. His conversion followed a series of intellectual debates over Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, issues with which Sanneh, in classic Augustinian fashion, "wrestled and tussled and agonized" (96). A chance voyage to Germany led him to puzzle over the decline of Christianity in its former heartland, a curiosity that propelled him back to school, this time to study religion. College in the United States followed by doctoral work at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London led him eventually to professorial positions: at the University of Aberdeen, at Harvard Divinity School, and finally at Yale Divinity School where he is D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity.

Along the way, Sanneh offers touching tributes to motherhood (26, 48, 54), powerful reflections on communal reciprocity (25–26), and moving descriptions of the natural world (57–62). However, by pegging his major life transitions to shifting educational affiliations, Sanneh has effectively constructed his memoir as a platform for recapitulating the major theoretical claims of his career. These include, most prominently, his vernacularization thesis, the argument that the Bible is infinitely translatable, and that, through Western missionaries' creation of orthographies, grammars, dictionaries, and Bible translations, Christianity has served to revitalize local languages and cultures. By privileging no single language, Christianity privileges all. Sanneh lends force to this argument by comparing Christianity and Islam, two religions that are known to him not abstractly but existentially: he was Muslim before becoming Christian. The lesson he remembers best from the Islamic schools of his youth are about the sacred significance of Arabic, its status as a revealed, and therefore unparalleled, language (39, 67).

As a Christian missiologist, what interests him about Islam are its comparative contrasts to Christianity, "the Islamic contrast of the Qur'an as nontranslatable" (217) being just one. One might question whether Sanneh need traffic in dichotomies to defend Christian missions against charges of cultural imperialism, a central concern of his. Yet, indisputable is the necessity of contrasts for the testimonial style of this memoir, a style that exaggerates the flaws, if not depravity, of one's prior condition so as to throw into relief the sanctity of the new. Different from the Qur'an school, for example, the Western school that arrived later in Sanneh's childhood had in its classrooms "a wooden stick for pointing to things, not for beating us" (41). During a return visit to his childhood home, Sanneh describes at length the monetary and gift expectations of those who received him. Sanneh chides "the thoroughgoing instrumental political culture" (15) in this traditionally Muslim society, where "People who make a gift to you will not hesitate to trumpet the news to their neighbors, and to demand praise for it—exactly the sort of behavior Jesus warns against in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:2–4)" (14). In popular Islam, he writes elsewhere, "what people worship is less who God is—which is why speculative theology is so scarce in Islam—than the appeal of worldly prosperity" (170). The overreach of the contrast with Christianity is obvious in what Sanneh avoids noting: that "the recent explosion of Christianity in Africa" (164) he triumphantly announces is precisely in its prosperity-oriented Pentecostal forms.8

In addition to using the tradition one formerly belonged to as foil for that which claims one's current allegiance, another trope common to conversion narratives is that of journey. Of the three—Achebe, Sanneh, and Ngũgĩ—it would be fair to say that Sanneh is the most peripatetic, perhaps justifying his liberal use of travel metaphors to describe his life. Even before leaving the Gambia, education allowed him to "[make] the mental journey out of my world long before I made the physical journey" (9). Conversion-as-journey is not simply a displacement, but a transcendence. The classics of Western literature, of which Sanneh read as much as he could during his adolescence, "made school life under the heavy hand of authority bearable" (77). The Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Oliver Twist, among others, offered liberation from the stranglehold of Islamic discipline. A chance encounter with Helen Keller's writings likewise inspired him to move "from silence and darkness to a life of vision and triumph over adversity. . . . I was not blind in the physical sense, true [as was Keller], but I was trapped by my adverse circumstances" (18). The journey is clearly a salvific one: from confinement to freedom, from darkness to light, "from the margin of remote Africa to the center of the world" (16).

This celebratory optimism, the possibility of perfectibility, reads as a relief on the heels of Achebe's pessimistic account. "Firm trust that God is transforming and renewing creation obliges us not to be weighed down by past difficulties, but to keep our eyes firmly turned to the future" (276). Such words are positively enchanting, and not just for those who share or who, moved by Sanneh's witness, come to share the faith commitments underpinning them.

THE SECOND VOLUME of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's memoir series picks up where the first, Dreams in a Time of War (2011), left off: with his emergence from childhood into Kenya's esteemed Alliance High School. More than a site for scholastic advancement, this colonial mission school aimed to impart a thoroughgoing socialization, a reorienting of values. In his first year, one of Ngũgĩ's teachers introduces his young students to British table manners, posture, and etiquette, bringing them to his home for "a tour of a real Englishman's house" where "everything was immaculate white" (20). Eurocentric values also dominate classroom lessons, with the literature, history, and even geography of Europe always the reference point for African experience. The literature instructor presents Jesus not only as white with blue eyes, but as English-speaking (23)—a far cry from Sanneh's vernacularizing missionaries.

Ngũgĩ takes the title for this memoir from a sermon he heard at chapel, based on the scene in Pilgrim's Progress at the house of the Interpreter.9 Dwelling on the symbolism of dust in this tale, the school's headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, "likened Alliance to the Interpreter's House, where the dust we had brought from the outside could be swept away by the law of good behavior and watered by the gospel of Christian service" (43). Christianity, European values, and British customs were consistently coded clean and white, while African religions, traditions, and languages were considered dirty. Yet the ambiguity of Ngũgĩ's situation, initiated first into Gikuyu traditions only to be reinitiated into European ones, leads to the constant undoing of such rigid bifurcations. For example, in a richly detailed account of his first return home for the holidays, Ngũgĩ discovers, inexplicably, that his village is no more. Homes have been razed, inhabitants displaced. When he finally arrives at the concentration village to which scattered communities have been forcibly resettled, he finds his mother and siblings thatching roof and plastering walls for their new home. "I find a corner, take off my Alliance uniform, and change into old clothes, and within a few seconds, I'm all mud" (8).

The distinction between cleanliness and dirtiness grafts on to that between inside and outside. In his first year, Ngũgĩ experienced the school as an enclosed space, secure and immune from the family turmoil at home, a home now closely controlled and monitored by British police forces. He felt safe, "the howl of the hounds . . . a distant echo" (9). However, knowledge that his older brother was in the mountains fighting in the anticolonial Mau Mau cause made the inside/outside distinction as difficult to maintain as the cleanliness of his Alliance uniform. At school he sang the British anthem, with such lines as "Long to reign over us" and "God save the queen," while at the same time his brother was risking his life to end the queen's reign over Kenya (17–18). Likewise, global events in the anticolonial struggle during Ngũgĩ's school years—Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal (1956), Ghana's independence from British rule (1957)—continued to erode the distinction of domains, not only between outside and inside, but also between collective history and individual biography.

Although "the outside began to make itself felt within the walls" (57) by Ngũgĩ's second year, when the colonial government started mandating internal passbooks, the most riveting and unsettling collapse of such distinctions transpires in the final section of the book. There, the recently graduated Ngũgĩ falls victim to a police dragnet, facing trumped-up charges and detention in a squalid jail cell. In the midst of that experience, Ngũgĩ comments, "I cannot comprehend the turn of events from hope in the morning to despair in the evening" (196).

Other examples of eroding distinctions abound. Against the intentions of its founders, Alliance High School actually spawned a generation of resistance to colonial rule (12–13). The Christmas pageant that Ngũgĩ directed one holiday season expressed discontent with the colonial situation in the Christian idiom once used to justify colonialism (128). Ngũgĩ's own relationship with evangelical Christianity fluctuates between enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment (137, 175, 222). Time and again, Ngũgĩ shows the tendency of binary oppositions to collapse under the weight of colonial contradictions and everyday experience.

What Ngũgĩ learns above all from his schooling is that life is more complex than the classificatory schemes on which colonialism thrives. After reporting to Headmaster Carey Francis that he has been temporarily detained by colonial officers, he confesses that his brother is a Mau Mau guerrilla. He fully expects that will put an end to his welcome: "There! At long last, my secret was out. . . . You are an officer of the British Empire. My brother is sworn to end the empire. Send me back to my mother" (79–80). Carey Francis tells him instead to return to his studies, but not before tenderly imploring his young charge to be more careful: "Some of those officers are scoundrels!" (80). Such blows to Ngũgĩ's monolithic race-thinking recur repeatedly. In public remarks about Egypt's anticolonial developments as well as about the Mau Mau, Carey Francis conveys a complicated mixture of opposition and respect, criticizing yet honoring the legitimacy of resistance struggles. "He was truly a mystery" (185), Ngũgĩ is left to conclude. As the Interpreter, Carey Francis stands less as arbiter of meaning than as container of multitudes. As his student, Ngũgĩ thinks anew the world and his place in it.

THESE ARE THREE memoirs brimming with insight into the educational experiences, spiritual influences, and political contexts that had formative effects on the theoretical positions with which each author would later be associated: formative, but not determinative. For, in the case of Ngũgĩ, we encounter an adolescence at considerable odds with his politics of language. Significantly, he does not touch on translation debates in his memoir, as do Achebe and Sanneh in theirs.10 Readers familiar with Ngũgĩ's Afrocentric polemics would be disappointed if they read this memoir in search of biographical linkages to them. It is precisely in this disconnect, however, that he seems to suggest something far more profound. If he has not altogether abandoned the Marxist narrative of struggle between oppressors and oppressed, he has at least found such neat divisions inadequate for the task of storytelling. It is remarkable, after reading his at-times elegiac account of his colonial school years, to recall certain lines from his critical writings.11 While Ngũgĩ's recollection of his four years at Alliance High School is not without critique, his story is decidedly more nuanced than his theory. It is a story that resists pat conclusions; it is a slice of life that stands on its own, unlike the synoptic life stories Achebe and Sanneh have written. For the latter two, secondary school is merely a momentary prelude to the larger narrative arc of their lives, a moral arc in fact, driven by a priori ideological commitments: Achebe's as a partisan for the Igbo people; Sanneh's as an evangelical Christian.

Ngũgĩ illustrates what Achebe and Sanneh present in tandem: that there is value in conjoining opposites, holding them together in a pattern of oscillating equilibrium. Sanneh's highly personal narrative finds its counterpoint in Achebe's largely political account. Sanneh's Christian convictions find a partner in Achebe's valorization of traditional religion. Sanneh's steady ascent, full of promise and renewal, finds its balance in Achebe's pessimistic lament.

Such balance offers hints at a resolution to the language choice debate that once raged between Achebe and Ngũgĩ. Perhaps it is not an either/or question, as the debate is often framed. In fact, both men would acknowledge this. Achebe, despite writing mostly in English, has always argued that the kind of English he uses is deeply inflected with the thought patterns, idioms, and metaphors of Igbo. Ngũgĩ, despite vowing a return to Gikuyu, continues to find it expedient to write certain books (including his memoirs) in English; he also, like the others, eventually took up a teaching career in the United States. Sanneh's missiology offers a useful image for understanding these negotiations: those who impart a new faith should not be seen as "leaving such deep footprints that converts [have] little to do except trace them."12 There is much more creativity and exchange than a singular choice of language, or of religion, can contain. Interpretation is always interpenetration; conversion is always conversation.

So it goes for the relationship between progress and regress. Notwithstanding the title of his allegory, John Bunyan captures well their mutual entailments. The Pilgrim's Progress is as much about progress as about its constant undoing, for every step the protagonist takes brings him to a new set of threats: "there was a way to hell, even from the Gates of Heaven."13 Heaven and hell, progress and regress are not general conditions, but coexistent possibilities. Against the rampant stereotypes and simplifications still spouted about Africa, it is good to be reminded of this. Through the lives of three of its greats, we see in that place still too often reduced to a heart of darkness a heart big enough to contain the darkest of laments and, simultaneously, the brightest of hopes.



  1. Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim's Progress (Princeton University Press, 2003).
  2. Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, 1989).
  3. Chinua Achebe, "The African Writer and the English Language," in Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (Anchor Press, 1975), 103.
  4. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Heinemann, 1986), 20.
  5. Chinua Achebe, "Named for Victoria, Queen of England," in Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays, 121.
  6. It is notable that Lamin Sanneh, in Summoned from the Margin, recalls his time in Ibadan during Nigeria's civil war as a time of "a bitter propaganda war in the press, which became the playing field of partisan protagonists. Cartoons were the chosen mode of discourse when words failed to convey the sense of scorn and vitriol of one side for the other" (147).
  7. Abiola Irele, "The Tragic Conflict in the Novels of Chinua Achebe," in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, ed. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors (Three Continents Press, 1978), 10–21.
  8. Allan Anderson, "The Newer Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches: The Shape of Future Christianity in Africa?" Pneuma 24, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 167–184.
  9. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (Oxford University Press, 2009), 29–37.
  10. Achebe, There Was a Country, 25; Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin, 216–228.
  11. Lines such as: "the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the chalkboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom." Ngũgĩ, Decolonising the Mind, 9.
  12. Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003), 25.
  13. Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, 164.

Devaka Premawardhana, MDiv '05, is a visiting instructor at Colorado College and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. His dissertation uses ethnographic methods to explore patterns of religious conversion in contemporary Mozambique.

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The Myth of Purity

Ayodeji Ogunnaike

BETWEEN THE 1930s AND 1960s, sweeping conceptual and practical changes, restructuring, and debates arose in the Yoruba-derived traditions of Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santería found in the United States, which were all driven by one concept: a return to a purely African tradition. Curiously, this concern with purity is largely absent in the practice of Oriṣa worship in Yorubaland in southwestern Nigeria, the site of the return that purists advocate. An examination of Yoruba proverbs, mythical narratives, and ritual practices or discussion of other aspects of Yoruba culture and religion challenge and complicate the notion of "purity" within a Yoruba context and the recreation of Yoruba religious traditions in the Americas.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, a "serious internal debate among priests" of the Brazilian Oriṣa tradition of Candomblé emerged over the African "purity" of various facets of their religion. In Brazil, the Nagô/Quêto nation (or subdivision)—though not particularly large numerically—began to root out "Creole corruptions"1 and to focus on "purely" Yoruba features, launching a profitable trade in West African spiritual goods. The movement had a "transformative influence on the broader Candomblé priesthood"; the Nagô/Quêto nation grew from a "distant third" in terms of numerical rank to a clear first; and its emphasis on purity brought the issue to the forefront of Candomblé's practice and representation.2

The most significant consequences of the rise of the Nagô/Quêto nation and its discourse of purity were: the increased prevalence of the Yoruba Oriṣa Ṣango/Xangô (because leaders drew on the religious traditions of Ọyọ, where Ṣango is the patron deity) and Oriṣanla/Oxalá (adopted as a symbol of purity because of his senior status in the Yoruba pantheon and his association with the color white) and the subsequent rejection of "Creole corruptions," such as worship of and spirit possession by caboclos, native Brazilian ancestral spirits. The caboclo spirits represented a challenge to the theme of purity, since they do not exist in Yorubaland, are believed to be ancestors of mixed European and native Brazilian decent, and "embody little concern for cultural and racial purity."3

In the United States, the debate about purity in Santería took place between the Cuban practitioners and the African Americans with whom they had begun to share their tradition. A prime example is the collaboration between the Cuban Cris Oliana and the American Oseijeman Adefunmi, who founded a Yoruba Temple in New York. The two parted ways in 1964, however, because Adefunmi thought the Cubans were "remaining too Catholic in their approach."4 Adefunmi and other African Americans did not support the incorporation of Catholic elements (such as the veneration of saints) that are deeply ingrained in Santería,5 because of their European origins, and the Cubans did not approve of public displays of their religious practices and festivals because of the historical development of Santería as a more closed and private tradition in Cuba.

Adefunmi's "intention to purify the religion of ‘Catholic/slave vestiges' was central to the project that became known as ‘Yoruba reversionism,' "6 and the culmination of this movement was the foundation of Ọyọtunji African Village in South Carolina, a culturally Yoruba village that aspires to return to a traditional Yoruba way of life free of European influences. Ọyọtunji literally means "Ọyọ rises again" (referring to the Yoruba empire of Ọyọ). The importance of purity for Ọyọtunji practitioners has even led them to criticize Yoruba practitioners in Nigeria for wearing Western clothes, causing "a growing divide in the Americas between people who align themselves with Santería-Lukumi traditions and those who align themselves with Yorùbá traditionalists"—and even between African American practitioners and those in Nigeria—over the issue of purity.7

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade argues that, for traditional societies (such as that that produced Yoruba religion), the mythical time of the ancestors should be understood not as a fixed period in the linear, "profane" past, but rather as a world of archetypes existing in a time outside of (or before) time, or in a primordial era that is constantly enacted and recreated in a cyclical human time. Given this framework, for practitioners of Oriṣa traditions in the Americas, the sacred origin and archetypes are removed in both mythical time and space. Thus, Yorubaland becomes a symbol of racial identity and a physical sacred origin free from racial oppression. Or, as Tracey Hucks puts it: "Africa became for African Americans part of a larger system of symbols involving primordial origins," moving the mythical origin onto the physical plane.8 In Nigeria, however, without the separation in space, this idea of the primordial return largely exists only in mythical time. With the displacement of both heritage practitioners and converts to the diaspora, having the return to sacred archetypes take on more of a horizontal (physical and profanely temporal) than a vertical (primordial or atemporal) dimension seems quite natural.

Discourses around purity relating to Candomblé and Santería also reflect the ideas found in Melville Herskovits's Myth of the Negro Past, published in 1941 during the height of the purity movement in Candomblé and just before the debates between Cuban Santeros (practitioners of Santería) and African Americans. Herskovits asserts that Africans in the Americas retained many "Africanisms" and "survivals" in their new cultural contexts, and his model fits in quite nicely with the debates over African purity: in both cases, the "Africanisms" that survived were sought out by African Americans and the Nagô/Quêto nation, and the features deemed to have been corrupting or leading the religious traditions to the other end of the spectrum—such as Catholic saints in Santería or caboclos in Candomblé—were jettisoned.

The simple notion of "survivals" and disappearances presents a rather static representation of mutually exclusive forces, leaving little room for the dynamic interactions and varying syntheses of forces that transcend retentions and erasures. This is especially the case with Oriṣa traditions: Catholic saints in Santería did not eclipse Yoruba deities but were integrated into an existing framework to represent those deities in a more practical way. The utilitarian focus of traditions such as Yoruba religion in place of a focus on orthopraxy resists binary categorization.

J. Lorand Matory notes that the Nagô nation in Brazil and "Ọyọ religion diverge strikingly around the theme of purity—a theme virtually absent from Ọyọ ritual rationales but pervasive in Candomblé talk and practice."9 This "New World" concept of purity in Yoruba religions is challenged by the marked lack of uniformity among the Yoruba themselves. In Santería, Ṣango/Changó is actually an amalgamation of several deities from other areas in and around Yorubaland,10 and the god Oriṣanla/Oxalá carries slightly different characteristics and names, including Oriṣanla, Ọbatala, and Oriṣa Funfun, depending on geographic location.

Beyond this diversity among the traditions of the individual Oriṣa, even greater divergences exist. Ifa narratives and mythistory, central to conceptions of Oriṣa worship and everyday practice, vary widely from region to region, and this variation is recognized and accepted by most babalawo, or priests of Ifa. While researching the interaction between Islam and traditional Yoruba religion, I asked a babalawo what he thought of other priests who practice Islam alongside traditional religion. He replied that it could not be done, but qualified his answer by stating, "Here-o! I am not talking of other areas."11 Instead of one "pure" form of Yoruba religion, I see multiple, often related alternatives that have been developed to serve local needs and to provide a plurality of archetypes for future employment.

In fact, many of the most common aspects of Yoruba religion are not "purely" Yoruba in origin. For example, many Yoruba, including Ṣango's priests among the Ọyọ, believe that Ṣango was himself a Muslim who came from Nupeland to the north!12 Not only is the most central deity in the debates on purity for the Nagô/Quêto nation and Ọyọtunji Village considered to be something of a foreigner who practiced another religious tradition, but his high priests are proud of that fact. There is even a particular divinatory sign in Ifa—Otura Meji—that in many areas of Yorubaland dictates that the client or someone in the client's family must become a Muslim, learn to read and write Arabic, dress like a Muslim, or be involved with Islam in some other fashion.13

Islam does not have a monopoly on heterogeneous aspects of Yoruba religion. A babalawo in Modakeke (an ethnically Ọyọ town) with whom I have worked extensively asked me to bring him a large bottle of American cologne the next time I visit because of its powerful ritual effects. I have also observed him using many traditionally non-Yoruba items, such as gunpowder, glass mirrors, and American currency, in his practice. Even among the Ọyọ, traditional Yoruba religion appears to have made a practice of incorporating elements from other traditions.

The best illustration of this dynamic may be found within the Ifa literary corpus itself (under Odu Okanran-Oturupọn), and again deals with the introduction of Islam into traditional life. In this story, a group of Yoruba Muslims had to travel all the way to heaven every year to sacrifice a ram to Olodumare, the Supreme God. The trip became more and more difficult, and many died on the way, so the people were very pleased when an Ifa priest told them Olodumare would accept a sacrifice made on earth instead. Since then, Muslims have sacrificed a ram on earth during the Ileya festival—known in other Muslim communities as Eid al-Kabir.14

This story complicates the idea of purity in several ways. First, it incorporates a foreign, or non-Yoruba, tradition (that of Islam). Second, through a paradigm I refer to as comprehensive religion, it not only accepts the practice of Islam alongside traditional Yoruba religion, but it encourages the seamless integration of the two. Finally, the myth depicts a literal change in the landscape, which requires an adaptation in religious practice that is endorsed by none other than the Supreme God himself! If this mythical change in landscape were to be applied to the changes in the physical and cultural landscape of transatlantic Oriṣa traditions, this section of the Ifa corpus seems to condone new interpretations of and adaptations to the tradition and acceptance of elements that might not be "purely" Yoruba.

This myth also emphasizes how efficacy determines orthopraxy, and how these acceptable practices are derived from vertical precedents (those from sacred and primordial time) as opposed to horizontal ones (those from profane and worldly time): the "purity," or, more fittingly, the efficacy of the Ileya festival is derived from above and not from behind (the past). It stands to reason, therefore, that there could also be room for Catholic saints or caboclos, even though they have no historical or horizontal precedents. Still, this does not mean that any innovation is pure or legitimate.

Given the Yoruba belief that there are 201 gods (figuratively implying an infinite number), and that each god governs certain domains of life, if those domains were to change or new domains were to come about, it seems fitting that the existing gods might undergo slight changes or new gods emerge. Or, if the population of devotees were to intermarry with others to a great extent, the spirits of the ancestors would no longer all be Yoruba (as in the case of caboclos) and would need to be accounted for in the cosmology.

Utility is valued so much more than historical precedence that there is even a Yoruba saying, Oriṣa ta kẹ kẹ kẹ, ti o gbọ, ta gẹ, gẹ, gẹ, ti o gba, oju popo ni ngbe, which, roughly translated, means, "If your god doesn't listen when you praise it, or doesn't help you when you worship it, get rid of it!" For the tradition-alist Yoruba, if or when something as central as a god is no longer efficacious, it is simply to be discarded and replaced by something else that is, no matter how "pure" it might be. Examined in this way, trying to rid an Oriṣa tradition of syncretisms, mixings, or innovations because of horizontal origins might not actually lead to the reinstatement of a "pure" Yoruba religion.

While I believe that the heterogeneous nature of traditional Yoruba religion and its emphasis on utility greatly outweigh issues of horizontal orthopraxy, the issue of efficacy also lends itself to a more vertical type of orthopraxy. For example, there was (and still is) a high demand among practitioners in Brazil for items such as kola nuts and soap made from specific medicinal herbs, because there is no effective substitute for them in specific rituals. Since the time of the ancestors, the babalawo have been memorizing verses from the sacred Ifa corpus exactly as their masters taught them, and they are always careful to recite the appropriate phrases when making sacrifices, because if the wrong words were uttered, the whole ritual would be compromised. The focus on certain forms of orthopraxy does not preclude the emergence of new efficacious rituals or adaptations or substitutes for older ones.

A purist discourse that seeks a return to Yoruba religion in its original state is problematic for three main reasons. First, there is so much diversity even within the worship of specific Oriṣa themselves, not to mention traditional Yoruba religion as a whole, that one would invariably have to choose and privilege one specific interpretation and representation over others. Second, many elements of Yoruba religion as practiced in Yorubaland are not natively Yoruba, as the foreign aspects of Ṣango's identity make evident. Third, the tradition itself is inherently dynamic and readily adopts new additions and interpretations, provided they are efficacious and have vertical or primordial precedents. Thus, the emphasis that purist discourses place squarely upon the concept of historical and ethnic precedence and purity might actually result in a rupture with the original tradition in Nigeria rather than with the continuity it seeks to reinstate.

Both sides in the debate often stress certain forms of "purity." In the case of the conflict between Cuban santeros and new African American initiates, the Cubans sought a continuation of their tradition as practiced in Cuba, and the African Americans sought a symbolic return to the tradition from Nigeria. Adaptations such as removing features drawn from the society of the oppressor would, in my opinion, be just that: adaptations. I believe it is important to name them as such instead of identifying them as a return or reversion. Such a sudden ossification of a dynamic, heterogeneous, and flexible tradition would itself be a "striking divergence," as Matory puts it.15

As with the translation and recreation of all religious traditions in a new setting, lines must be drawn between adaptations and complete departures. For transatlantic Oriṣa traditions, these lines are perhaps better drawn according to specific locations in space and time and derived from vertical rather than horizontal precedents. I would like to challenge and complicate the idea of Yoruba purity and purity in Yoruba religion to propose a discourse that analyzes particular situations and the subsequent most appropriate interpretations of Oriṣa traditions. Otherwise, a return to a "purely authentic" form of Yoruba religion would leave us with very little of a tradition at all.



  1. Luis Nicolau Parés, "The Nagôization Process in Bahian Candomblé," in The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, ed. Toyin Falola and Matt D. Childs (Indiana University Press, 2004), 198, 191–192.
  2. J. Lorand Matory, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé (Princeton University Press, 2005), 120, 121.
  3. Ibid, 136.
  4. For a full account of Adefunmi and Oliana's collaboration and later split, see Carl Monroe Hunt, Oyotunji Village: The Yoruba Movement in America (University Press of America, 1979), 28.
  5. Tracey E. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (University of New Mexico Press, 2012), 151–152.
  6. David H. Brown, Santería Enthroned: Art, Ritual, and Innovation in an Afro-Cuban Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 279.
  7. Kamari Maxine Clarke, Mapping Yorùbá Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities (Duke University Press, 2004), 14, 10.
  8. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions, 94.
  9. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 136.
  10. Brown, Santería Enthroned, 116.
  11. Ifasola Onifade, interview by author, Osogbo, June 14, 2009.
  12. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 138.
  13. Watch a recitation and interpretation of this verse at
  14. Watch a recitation and interpretation of this verse at
  15. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 136.

Ayodeji Ogunnaike is a doctoral student in African studies and religion at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences whose work focuses on Yoruba religious traditions, including Islam, Christianity, and Oriṣa worship, with a particular focus on Ifa divination.

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The Silent Voices of African Divination

Philip M. Peek

Luba diviners

Luba Bilumbu diviners, Democratic Republic of the Congo (1989). Photo: Mary Nooter Roberts


EVEN AFTER SEVERAL DECADES of research on African diviners and divination systems, the subject continues to fascinate me because of divination's importance in daily human lives, its centrality in cultural systems, its articulation of values and laws, and its breadth of artistry. Divination is an incredibly rich area for anthropological research—in fact, I would argue that there is no richer ethnography of a culture than the study of its divination system. In a very real sense, as the Yoruba of Nigeria explicitly state about their system of Ifa, a divination system constitutes a people's "book of knowledge" wherein their history and cultural guidelines are maintained.

My working definition of divination is:

A divination system is a standardized process deriving from a learned discipline based on an extensive body of knowledge. This knowledge may or may not be literally expressed during the interpretation of the oracular message. The diviner may utilize a fixed corpus, such as the Yoruba Ifa Odu verses, or a more diffuse body of esoteric knowledge. Divining processes are diverse, but all follow set routines by which otherwise inaccessible information is obtained. Some type of device usually is employed, from a simple sliding object to the myriad symbolic items shaken in diviners' baskets. Sometimes the diviner's body becomes the vehicle of communication through spirit possession. Some diviners operate self-explanatory mechanisms that reveal answers; other systems require the diviner to interpret cryptic metaphoric messages. The final diagnosis and plan for action are rendered collectively by the diviner and the client(s).1

We usually assume "communication" in divination entails audible speech, although we do secondarily acknowledge a number of nonverbal modes of communication. It is critical to stress that African divination systems are multisensory and variously utilize all forms of communication. One aspect has particularly fascinated me: the use of "silent" objects and creatures as agents of communication between worlds. While humans are greatly concerned about the "other," spiritual world, it is normally a silent world and must be given voice somehow in order for communication to take place. In African divination systems, this cross-world communication often takes the form of "spirit possession" of diviners whereby "silent" ancestors or spirit entities speak through the diviner. Equally, it is understood that the other world "speaks" through otherwise inanimate divinatory objects, such as marked tablets, half-shells on a string, or objects in a diviner's basket.

Another frequently encountered assumption about divination is that the diviner is a totally "unique" individual, in the Western sense of a singular person. In fact, African diviners are, literally, complex individuals often constituted of a number of discrete elements. Most African societies hold that individuals must maintain proper relations with their spirit doubles (as well as other entities) in order to live a good life. For diviners this is even more critical. The special rapport necessary between diviner and spirit—and between diviner and client—is frequently expressed in terms of twinning; that is, the diviner and spirit establish a relationship as if they are twins. From her research with the Djimini Senufo of Côte d'Ivoire, Ellen Suthers offers the following interpretation:

Sharing the same womb experience, twins become endowed with, or constituted of, the same perceptions; hence they emerge in the world having congruent images. Because they share perfect knowledge and perceptions of each other and of the spirit realm, twins do not need speech to communicate with each other or with the host of spiritual entities. ... As pairing makes the client congruent with the diviner and the diviner congruent with the spirits, all come to share a common perception. Through gestures, the diviner transforms his or her body to reflect the image of the client, and thus to reveal the client's problem in concrete terms.2

I think this description perfectly expresses the critical dynamics of divination in many African cultures, those esoteric processes that operate whether through diviners or through their devices. Once this perspective is recognized, many representations of it can be found. For example, among the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa, diviners' home shrines always include pairs of spirit figures that aid their enterprise. Sometimes these images depict two figures back-to-back in a Janus pose, or one on the shoulders of another, as if to portray the merging of diviner and spirit. Indeed, most diviners (komien) work with a variety of spirit helpers who "possess" the diviner during divination sessions in order to provide oracular messages.

Senufo Sandogo diviner

Senufo Sandogo diviner, Côte d'Ivoire (2001). Photo: Philip M. Peek

Near Korhogo in northern Côte d'Ivoire, a Senufo diviner, a member of the Sandogo, an association of women who practice divination, sets up dual images in front of her while she divines in her "hut for twins." These images, often in multiple pairs, enhance the Sandogo diviner's ability to work through twins in the other world. The diviners' images are always pairs of a male and a female. This raises a related and essential understanding found throughout West African cultures: the "perfect" pair of twins is male and female.3

As part of their divination ritual, Yaka diviners from the Democratic Republic of the Congo use a slit gong, which incorporates both male and female symbolic forms representing male and female genitalia. Here, as so often in divination, we find male and female pairing and the suggestion of androgyny. Intriguingly, the diviner considers the slit gong his "twin": it facilitates his reception of occult messages.4

Androgyny seems to be a common goal among the African cultures where diviners engage in cross-gender dressing. Examples can be found among peoples from West, Central, and Southern Africa. I have long thought that this might reflect an understanding of spiritual entities as androgynous themselves (as opposed to mere humans of single sexes), and that such a posture would have value for the diviner when dealing with male and female clients.

Lobi diviner
Lobi diviner, left, with client in Gbuntara, Burkina Faso (1980). Photo: Piet Meyer

"Twinning" occurs not only in the relationships of diviners and spirits, but between diviners and clients. Not only do complex relations develop around the psychological dynamics between diviners and clients, but there is often a literal, physical bonding of the two to ensure a successful divination session. The Lobi of Burkina Faso use a hand-holding type of divination wherein the diviner holds the client's right hand in his left hand; the raising and lowering of their clasped hands gives "yes" and "no" answers to their questions. Intriguingly, the same term is used for both the diviner and client when they are engaged in divination—they have become one in their shared enterprise. Among the Batammaliba of Togo, both client and diviner hold a stick, and its movements convey the oracular message.5

Luba diviners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo also work in pairs (opening photo, at top). A man and his son, with their wives, are divining with their paired pots: "proof" (past events, causes) and "promise" (future, interpretations). Many symbolic objects in the pot are shaken and their configurations are "read" to provide answers and actions for the clients. References to twins are found throughout the Luba divination system, from the songs that are sung to the elegant carvings depicting female twins holding a divination bowl.6 Another example of the many forms "twinning" takes in African divination systems comes from my research among the Isoko of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria.

Isoko eva diviners
Isoko eva diviners Eture Egbedi, left, and his assistant in Ole, Nigeria (1971). Photo: Philip M. Peek

The two diviners are using the eva system, which is related to the opele (divining chain) of the Yoruba that is incorporated into their major system of Ifa. These chains are constructed of eight half-seed shells, which can fall with either their concave or convex sides upwards. Working in pairs, each diviner casts his two chains. Then, in turn, each quickly "reads" the other's cast using the esoteric eva language while the other rapidly translates into standard Isoko. Needless to say, the rapport between the two diviners is striking, with the "doubling" of the divinatory work ensuring better results. The reason that twins are critical among the Senufo and other West African peoples is that they have shared the womb together and have "perfect knowledge and perception of each other." For that reason, "twins do not need speech to communicate with each other or with a host of spiritual entities"; further, the Senufo hold that "too much talk obstructs the passage of knowledge."7 This brings me to a second thread from Ellen Suthers's research, that of "silent" communication. In several other West African cultures, including the Lobi and Batammaliba, we find further support for the importance of silence and its links to twinning. The Lobi maintain that the thila (protective spirits) have no tongues and can only communicate through humans—but only by means of the joined hands of the diviner and client during divination.8 The Batammaliba of Togo also engage in "silent" communication through divination, as the diviner interprets the movements of the staff he and the client hold as it responds to their questions. "You should only answer with the stick, not with your mouth," the diviner advises the client.9

The topic of silence has fascinated me for many years. Silence is not a "normal" condition for humans; we have to create silence by not doing what we usually do. Because we normally make noise and usually define humanness by the ability to speak, to restrict or prevent speech is noteworthy. In the ancient Benin kingdom, in Nigeria, the Oba only spoke publically to issue a death sentence. The neighboring Yoruba kings still wear crowns with beaded veils so that one cannot see them speak—which, in any case, they seldom do. Virtually all persons of status, certainly in West African societies, have those who speak for them.

Silence is not simply an emblem of royal power, however. It is also interpreted widely as an indication of wisdom. The person who speaks only occasionally, slowly and cautiously, is the one to listen to, not the fast talker "talking anyhow" (as Nigerians phrase it). Based on his long experience of fieldwork in West Africa, Dominique Zahan expresses this eloquently:

It [silence] is the supreme virtue, as it subsumes integrity, courage, the power of the soul, prudence, modesty, and temperance. Silence defines the man of character, and is the attribute of the wise man; it is a type of wisdom. He who knows how to be silent possesses true happiness, interior peace, and detachment.10

This leads to my discussion of silent animals. All cultures use animals to represent their values, and, just as animals "speak" for humans in folktales and so on, their "silence" is equally significant. From the Kaguru of East Africa, T. O. Beidelman offers a comment that echoes Zahan's:

Hare is often described as smooth-talking and seductively eloquent. In fact, hares appear to be silent creatures, a quality which Karugu also associate with wisdom. While Kaguru highly value eloquence, in general they associate voluble speech and garrulity with fatuous silliness, qualities more appropriately linked with hyenas.11

We might first think that those animals with distinct voices or sounds would be the chosen divinatory creatures, but they are not. Lions and elephants rarely figure in divination, nor do parrots or other creatures whose calls we often mimic. In fact, despite such abilities as mimicking human speech, little is found about parrots in African cultural practices. Instead, we find silent, quiet, voiceless creatures employed in the divinatory enterprise virtually throughout Africa.12

Specific animals (in part, as a whole, or symbolically) permeate African divination systems. These are serious choices and none are without meaning. But one must be very cautious when interpreting these choices, because the representations are culturally determined and may or may not relate to "natural" observations, especially in ritual contexts. Owls are wise to Europeans but are witches for many Africans. Nature is not "natural" but cultural, and the criteria by which choices are made may be quite obscure to outsiders. While my discussion here deals with creatures actually employed in divination systems, accenting the "silent" component must be seen as an argument from my own academic perspective.

At the same time, to underscore my emphasis on emic (i.e., indigenous categories) as opposed to etic, or outsider, perspectives, I offer the following observation by a blacksmith in the Republic of Benin recorded by Allen Roberts:

You with your science may have heard the call of a snake, but we here have not. It is difficult to know a snake's voice. The monitor [lizard] is like this too, and cannot be heard, but it is a powerful animal and it has a forked tongue, as well, which people feel is a bizarrerie. It goes on land and in the water, and so is above other animals.13

Many of the creatures linked to divination are ambiguous, anomalous, seemingly "betwixt and between" cultural classifications. In such culturally determined, liminal states we often encounter reptiles and snakes, pangolins and aardvarks, flying squirrels, and chameleons. The otter-shrew in Yaka (Democratic Republic of the Congo) belief aids diviners because it moves between water and land. Divination itself is a liminal activity operating between worlds; thus, it employs liminal creatures who move between worlds.

Dogon diviners
Dogon diviners reading the Pale Fox's tracks, Mali (1997). Photo: Walter E. A. van Beek

Another broad category among African peoples that might inform us about choices of divinatory agents is that of the trickster figure. Why is it that the most popular tricksters are tortoises, rabbits, spiders? Yes, they are small and silent; but they are also very clever, if not wise. The Yoruba system of Ifa is rigorous and demanding, with diviners trained for at least sixteen years; but also on the Ifa tray is the face of Eshu the Trickster, who is the messenger between humans and the other world and who can affect all divination sessions. Perhaps this is another reminder of the dangers of verbal communication and the importance of silence.

Examples of silent animals in divination abound. The Dogon live in villages set along the plateaus and against the high cliffs of central Mali. At dusk, diviners prepare complex grids of symbols in the sands at the edge of the village; corn kernels are scattered over the diviner's diagram. At dawn the next morning, diviners return to read the patterns of the fox's paw prints for the oracle's answers to their questions. Note the liminality in space and time—a common feature of many African divination systems. Divination occurs neither during day nor at night, and neither in the village nor in the bush.

Intriguingly, this system overlays the fox's nonverbal answers onto the human's nonverbal questions. In Dogon mythology, the "Pale Fox" was deprived of speech due to his transgressions. Thus, akin to the Lobi thila, an otherwise mute but knowledgeable entity is only given voice through divination in order to aid humans. As if to underscore this point, the other popular divination agent for the Dogon is the ant. A number of African societies utilize insects in divination; the Azande of the Sudan use ants as well.

I return to the Baule and Guro of Côte d'Ivoire for my next example, a mouse oracle vessel. Among its external decorations are a porcupine tail and red duiker horns—from creatures who are both silent and nocturnal (another frequent characteristic of creatures linked to divination). It is believed that mice "never lie" and that they hear the "sounds of the earth."14

Baule mouse oracle container
Baule mouse oracle container, Côte d'Ivoire (1998). Photo: Philip M. Peek
Guro mouse oracle
Guro mouse oracle, Côte d'Ivoire (1990). Photo: Lorenz Homberger

Mouse divination is a fragile and complex enterprise. A mouse is captured and placed in the bottom chamber. The top chamber holds the divination device: a small tortoise shell with ten chicken wing bones or, better, bat wing bones. Of the ten bones, the five on the left represent living human types, while the five to the right stand for ancestors and various dangers. Among the neighboring Yohure, it is said that mice lost their voices because they always run and hide; so they can only communicate through the bones. Corn kernels are scattered in the dish and the top is replaced on the container. The mouse crawls up to the upper chamber and eats some corn, thereby rearranging the bones. The top is removed and the diviner reads the resultant pattern.

One of the world's most remarkable creatures is the chameleon. Cultures the world over note its ability to change its skin color and its independently rotating eyes. While not absolutely without voice (it will hiss if disturbed), most reckon it to be silent. Throughout Africa, chameleons are held to be among the world's oldest and wisest of creatures. With their primordial and supernatural status, they have great wisdom of the mysteries of the past and of the future. While chameleons are not, to my knowledge, directly employed in divination, they are frequently portrayed in their role as trusted messengers to the other world on iron shrine staffs outside diviner's shrines in West Africa. The slit-gong used by Yaka diviners often has the head of a chameleon carved at the top, or a tortoise head can also be depicted. Here again, the chameleon acts as messenger, with another silent creature as an alternate. Chameleons and diviners are also linked among the Senufo, where, again, the twinning idea comes forth in the twinned chameleon rings diviners often wear.

Throughout Africa, religious and political leaders are distinguished by having others who speak for them. Among the Ashanti of Ghana such spokesmen, okeyame, carry elaborate staffs decorated with symbols signifying famous proverbs. "We speak to a wise man in proverbs, not in plain language."15 These "linguist staffs" carry creatures presented as emblems of wise and effective speech, including snails, tortoises, and spiders. Although these are not exactly the creatures which first come to mind when we think of oral communication (one cannot be much quieter than a spider), for the Ashanti, all these creatures are associated with wisdom. In fact, the spider is the supreme tale-teller of all animals and, as Anansi, is also a wondrous trickster. Snails are often used in medicinal preparations and are thought to "cool" heated individuals and conditions. The Isoko provide a wonderful example of how a "speechless" creature aids human speech: they use snails to cure stuttering. Although the silence and slow speed of snails does not seem to recommend them as divinatory agents, they are encountered in divinatory paraphernalia throughout Africa, as with diviners in Mozambique. Likewise, the tortoise is a frequent character in African folk tales and is considered one of the wisest of animals. Its slow and deliberate behavior seems to be what is most recognized as demonstrating its wisdom, but its silence is also noteworthy. Tortoise shells often hold diviners' apparatuses, as among the Baule and Senufo.

One can imagine the behavior of spiders leading to its association with the "weaving" of tales and being a supreme observer of human behavior from its vantage point of a ceiling corner, but it is as a speaker that the Ashanti recognize the spider's abilities. This is not an antiquated belief. When I visited W. E. B. Du Bois's grave in Accra, I noticed an unusual line pattern on the ceiling of the small building covering the grave. I thought it looked like a spider's web and when I asked an attendant at the home, I was told that, yes, indeed, it was a web, to reflect Du Bois's extraordinary communication abilities. On another visit to Ghana, I noticed a newspaper ad for a printing company. Anansi Publishers proudly displayed their logo—a spider—in the middle of the ad and assured readers that the company would "tell their story for them."

A divination system based on the spider exists in Cameroon. Spiders are depicted in the royal arts of Cameroon kings because they are mediators between gods and men. Among a number of peoples in Cameroon, the ground-dwelling spider is the main agent of divination primarily because it lives near the ancestors in the earth. The diviner draws out a large number of marked leaf "cards" from a container lying on the tail of a squirrel (who is also considered a messenger between worlds). These cards are placed near the spider's burrow and all is covered. When the lid is removed, the spider's alterations of the cards are "read" by the diviner.

Another form of divination, also from Cameroon, employs a close relative of the spider (at least in our scientific typology), the land crab, also a silent creature. Among the Kapsiki of northwestern Cameroon, specially marked pieces of gourd are placed in a container with the crab and all is covered. After about fifteen minutes, the cover is removed and the rearrangement of objects is studied. Partial answers are perceived; then the whole procedure is repeated until the diviner is satisfied with the revelations made by the crab.16

My last example is the pangolin, another rather rare animal whose observed behavior seems ready for symbolic interpretation. Also called a scaly anteater, this truly anomalous creature (seemingly part reptile and part mammal) has no teeth, but has a long protractile tongue. The solitary, nocturnal pangolin quietly moves through the undergrowth hunting for insects. Although possessing poor eyesight, it has acute senses of hearing, smell, and taste—a reminder that divination is multisensory. Since hearing is greater than sight for the pangolin, it reminds us that, universally, there are many blind "seers" or diviners, but few, if any, deaf diviners.

When threatened, the pangolin rolls up into a ball, presenting only its large, hard scales to its enemies. This feature has been adapted by Luba diviners, who wear beaded hats with pangolin patterns to protect their heads. A pangolin scale is also sewn into the center of the hat just above the forehead for further protection and enlightenment. In some other Central African divination systems, marked pangolin scales are cast and read by diviners.

With such an array of divination systems, clearly one should be very cautious of any generalizations. Years ago, Benneta Jules-Rosette17 discussed the similarities between anthropology and divination; both pursuits attempt to sort out foreign cultures, to determine meaningful utterances from background noise, and to translate from one system to another. Fully appreciative of such dangers, I will still suggest a way to understand this widespread use of normally silent creatures.

Throughout Africa, the talkative, verbose individual is considered neither wise nor knowledgeable. It is the reticent person who is the sage. Because good speech, wise words, and deliberate communication are so highly valued, the one who seldom speaks is the one to whom we should listen.

Twins serve as a model because of their special rapport, their extraordinary ability to communicate, often without words. Thus, diviners seek in their relations with other beings (and with clients) that "perfect knowledge of each other" which transcends usual human communication. Also demonstrating the value of nonverbal interaction, "silent" animals are used in these critical cross-world communications because their normal silence serves as a reminder of the wisdom of the quiet elder, the person of few but important words.

Let me end with a story that illustrates the wisdom of silence and serves as a cautionary tale to any speaker. The story "The Talking Skull Refuses to Talk" is widespread in Africa and is the most widely recorded tale among African Americans:

A hunter found a human skull in the forest and asked, "What brought you here?" The skull answered, "Talking brought me here." The hunter ran and told the king that he had found a skull that talked. The king did not believe him and sent a guard to see if his story was true, with orders to kill him if it was not. All day long the hunter begged the skull to speak, but it remained silent and the hunter was killed. When the guard had left, the skull asked, "What brought you here?" The hunter's head replied, "Talking brought me here."18

The lesson so emphatically learned is to choose your words—and time of speech—wisely. Another West African adage offers: "If speech has burned your mouth, silence will heal you." Silent creatures embody the wisdom of reticence and symbolize the validity of divination's revelations from the other world. Just as the measured, deliberate speech of the elders should be carefully attended, so, too, should the "words" carried by "silent" creatures.

  1. From African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing, ed. Philip M. Peek (Indiana University Press, 1991), 2.
  2. Ellen Suthers, "Perception, Knowledge, and Divination in Djimini Society, Ivory Coast" (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1987), 11-12, 16.
  3. See my introduction to Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed, ed. Philip M. Peek (Indiana University Press, 2011).
  4. René Devisch, "The Slit Drum and Body Imagery in Mediumistic Divination among the Yaka," in Insight and Artistry in African Divination: A Cross-Cultural Study, ed. John Pemberton III (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 116–133.
  5. Rudolph Blier, "Diviners as Alienists and Annunciators among the Batammaliba of Togo," in African Divination Systems, ed. Peek, 73–90.
  6. Mary Nooter Roberts, "Proofs and Promises: Setting Meaning before the Eyes," in Insight and Artistry in African Divination, ed. Pemberton, 63–82.
  7. Suthers, "Perception, Knowledge, and Divination," 11ff.
  8. Piet Meyer, "Divination Among the Lobi of Burkina Faso," in African Divination Systems, ed. Peek, 91–100.
  9. Blier, 85.
  10. Dominique Zahan, The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa, trans. Kate Ezra Martin and Lawrence M. Martin (University of Chicago Press, 1979), 113.
  11. T. O. Beidelman, "Ambiguous Animals: Two Theriomorphic Metaphors in Kaguru Folklore," Africa 45, no. 2 (April 1975): 191.
  12. I cannot resist noting that the use of silent creatures is not exclusively an African divination phenomenon. Many Europeans still recall the extraordinary success of Paul the Octopus who predicted, from the confines of a German aquarium, winners of the European Cup in soccer.
  13. Allen F. Roberts and Carol A. Thompson, Animals in African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous (Museum for African Art, 1995), 66.
  14. Lorenz Homberger, "Where the Mouse Is Omniscient: The Mouse Oracle among the Guro," in Insight and Artistry in African Divination, ed. Pemberton, 157–167.
  15. Doran Ross, "The Verbal Art of Akan Linguist Staffs," African Arts 16, no. 1 (November 1982): 56.
  16. See Walter E. A. van Beek, "Crab Divination among the Kansiki/High of North Cameroon and Northeastern Nigeria," in Reviewing Reality: Dynamics of African Divination, ed. Walter E. A. van Beek and Philip M. Peek (LIT Verlag, 2013), 185–210.
  17. Benetta Jules-Rosetta, "The Veil of Objectivity: Prophecy, Divination, and Social Inquiry," American Anthropologist 80, no. 3 (1975): 549–570.
  18. William Bascom, "African Folktales in America: I. The Talking Skull Refuses to Talk," Research in African Literatures 8, no. 2 (1977): 266–291.
  19. Senufo Sandogo diviner, Côte d'Ivoire (2001).

Philip M. Peek is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Drew University. He has published extensively on African visual and verbal arts and divination systems and currently is researching the lower Niger Bronzes of southern Nigeria. This essay is a modified version of a talk presented at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University on October 25, 2012.

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Two Poems

Kwame Dawes


for Mama

she wraps love and slips it soft
in the corner of the tuck box
among the kenke balls wrapped in banana leaf
the cans of sardine and corned beef
the condensed milk thick sweet
the jar of pepper ground in onions
tomato and wild herb
bread still warm from the kiln
golden tender food to chew with
the fish fried so crisp it will last for days
the oranges the yoyi the mangoes

she shelters this bounty of tuck
in a silk red scarf and crowns it
with the holy word of god

then on a rattling sedan
she bears her gift
up to the convent on the hill
where the irish nuns
are crafting from the stone
a holy bright-eyed gem
a daughter to make her mother proud

To Buy a Pair of Shoes

The box, sturdy and assured, the sign
of money, a casket for something
treasured, something of worth. You
remove the cover and there, like
two loaves, the gleaming shoes,
polished leather, taut with newness,
nesting in thin delicate paper.
And you will try them on, one after
the other, like any other man would
in this city 'cause people can look
at you, look at the angle of your
hat, look at the cut of your suit,
the way it flows down your body,
and then study the shape of your shoes,
how well you care for them,
how strong they plant you down,
and know that no matter how
you came by them, you were good
for the soft shape in the leather,
good for the clean stitches of sole
to skin, good for the money
it would take to walk out of this shop
with these shoes. The thing is
you are black, you are a true black,
not a simple black, but the deep
black of an Alabama negro;
you are not the color of Booker T,
or Weldon Johnson, or Frederick
Douglass, or Langston Hughes,
or W. E. B Dubois; no, no, not
the high color negro, the kind
that make white folks feel at ease;
no, you are the affront, you are
the stone confounding the void,
you are the stumbling block,
you are that South Carolina
low-country Geechie strain
of negro, with no stain of white
in your skin, with the film
of yellow in your eyeballs;
you are cousin to Jack Johnson,
kin to Marcus Garvey, and sulking
Paul Laurence Dunbar is your
brother—negroes so black
the pure glow off of your skin
is something holy, something
heroic as a pitch night, and you
smile with a mouthful of even teeth,
everything about you inviolate,
clean, clean like these shoes.
You walk out of the store
cradling this box full of grace,
and you imagine all the pavements
you will walk along, all the thick
fine carpets you will glide over,
and all those dust yards you will
pick your way through, all that saw-
dust and beer spill which you step
through, shuffle in, stomp on;
all the boards you will make
squeal, all the beds that will shelter
these shoes—you imagine
how a foot put forward will
announce your presence as dignity
and power, and you will wait
for the quiet of familiar places
to wear these shoes for the first
time. And in that moment,
the moment you discard the old
shoes worn down to your corn-
covered soles and slip these new
shoes on, tie the leather laces
and then stand, feeling the press
of your feet into the embracing
skin of the good cured leather;
and looking down, you watch
the way the seams of your trousers
land lightly and perfectly
on the intersecting lines of the laces;
you feel the bigness inside you,
for a man is a man with a new
pair of shoes—and you feel to blow
a song so new and fresh it will make
people forget what just came before;
a song that will frighten
all those careless Ethiopians
who have gone astray into
the desert, who have forgotten
their way home, and it will
call them home, call them
to the congregation, call them
to that holy ground where those shoes
are glowing in the Sunday light.


Kwame Dawes is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, several anthologies, and plays. He has won two Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Emmy. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor's Professor of English and the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner.

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See also: Poetry

Waking from a Dream

Jonathan L. Walton

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
—1 Corinthians 13:11

THERE COMES A TIME in everyone's life when each of us must move beyond ignorance and innocence to a place of knowledge and responsibility. Though ignorance is bliss, ignorance is also infantile. It reflects a lack of awareness and maturity. Yet there are those in the highest places of power in the United States who seek to sustain and maintain this nation by keeping its citizens dumb, deaf, and blind to the true relations that are fueling our daily existence. There are those who have a vested interest in obscuring the difference between reality and a ruling ideal. An infantile mentality is fostered by those who find it more profitable to peddle myths and promote the opinions of plutocrats.

In 1983, many people who were part of the progressive freedom struggle of the twentieth century were skeptical when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became a federal holiday. Though overjoyed that King's importance was being recognized, activists were aware of the irony that this particular president, President Ronald Reagan, was the one to sign King's birthday into law. After all, this was the president who kicked off his 1980 general election campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by declaring his commitment to "states' rights" in the same community where civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered in 1964. This was the president who also contested federal civil rights legislation on the grounds that it was "humiliating" to the South.1 Reagan signed the law to honor King with one hand, while working to undercut the legislation that the civil rights movement helped to enact with the other. As Charles G. Adams said of this action, "Ronald Reagan understood that it is easier for America to honor and celebrate a dead icon than it is to heed the admonitions of a living prophet."

Adams's words were both prescient and prophetic. Our nation has witnessed a sanitization and sterilization of Martin Luther King Jr. over the course of the past three decades. Pay attention to the prevailing themes on any King holiday. Many have selectively framed King's legacy within a successful bus boycott and the March on Washington. King's contributions to American democracy have been reduced to an ephemeral dream. The courageous and nonviolent but purposefully confrontational King has had his powerful message transformed into an insubstantial "can we all just get along?" (à la Rodney King). We have placed Martin Luther King Jr. within the pantheon of American civic gods, but, in doing so, we have robbed him of his power to challenge us. With George Washington and his inability to tell a lie and Abraham Lincoln and his hand-built log cabin stands Martin Luther King Jr., the color-blind dreamer. As a result, within the popular imagination of America, King's legacy has been deprived of its cultural potency and prophetic insight at a time when we need his wisdom more than ever.

I suggest that we need the wisdom of the Martin Luther King Jr. who, for all intents and purposes, was murdered in 1965. I am not confusing my history here. I am not speaking of that inauspicious Thursday evening in Memphis, April 4, 1968, when King was shot down in front of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel. Rather, I am referring to the year when King decided no longer to be a bonsai tree, shaped and molded in the directions the white and black bourgeois establishments would have him grow.

Most King biographers and interpreters mark 1965 as the year that he moved beyond civil rights in the South to human rights, nationally and internationally. Moved by growing inequality across the country, King expanded his moral focus beyond desegregation to calling for a more just distribution of wealth in the United States. As a result, it was around this time that King was no longer perceived by those in power as a conciliatory moderate preacher, but as a national security risk.2

What impelled King's shift? I would argue that, unlike the America that King loved and was deeply committed to, Martin Luther King Jr. matured. King's mature moral and ethical framework would not allow him to turn a blind eye toward America's inherent contradictions and moral failings or to remain willfully ignorant about a suffering humanity throughout the world. With maturity comes clarity and consistency.3

King was clear. From the earliest years of his ministry, King knew that he could not in good conscience call himself a minister of the gospel, one who is supposed to be concerned with the "least of these" in society, and yet sit back and watch the vast majority of God's children—black, white, brown, yellow, and others—be exploited by America's capitalist economy. In his words: "Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of humanity and is not concerned with the economic conditions that damn the soul, the social conditions that corrupt, and the city governments that cripple them, is a dry, dead do-nothing religion."4

King was consistent. How could he promote a philosophy of nonviolence in Montgomery, Selma, and Chicago, yet remain silent while guided missiles were being fired by misguided men engaged in a quagmire of a war overseas? King understood that he could never again raise his voice in good conscience against the violence of the underclasses in America's ghettoes without having first condemned the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."5

As we celebrated the King federal holiday this year, many of us also celebrated the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama to a second term. Invariably, some of us got caught up in the euphoria and symbolism surrounding this nation's first African American president. As President Obama was sworn in with King's personal bible, T-shirts and signs appeared with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside President Barack Obama—as if the latter is a fulfillment of King's vision for American peace, justice, and equality.

To be sure, I respect, support, and pray for President Obama, and I do not envy the moral and political challenges he faces each day. But to suggest that President Obama is in any way the fulfillment of King's moral vision is to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. was more concerned with racial representation than he was with a moral and ethical orientation toward economic justice, human rights, and global peace. Having an African American commander in chief may, for some sections of the dominant society, assuage feelings of racial guilt or serve as evidence of a "postracial America." An image of President Obama as the fulfillment of King's dream may also serve as a soothing fantasy for the African American middle and upper classes. Instead, all people of goodwill must wake up and get busy applying King's moral vision in the contemporary moment.

President Obama's election does not change the fact that the incomes of the richest 1 percent of this nation have grown 33 percent over the past twenty years, while the incomes of 90 percent of Americans have remained stagnant. Nor does his election change the fact that this nation continues to spend trillions of dollars to support a profitable and increasingly privatized military industrial complex, which includes an unprecedented "American kill list," while the language of austerity and belt-tightening is used to describe programs that aid the most vulnerable citizens among us.

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to see Wall Street and those of us with privilege and power held to a higher standard than America's poor, not vice versa. We cannot speak of rising tides lifting all boats (as every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has done), but fail to acknowledge that more than 30 percent of the population do not have boats. This is particularly true when it seems our federal and state governments are increasingly willing to take away the life jackets of America's most vulnerable in the name of fiscal responsibility.

As a nation, we need to stop honoring King with our lips and to begin incorporating King into our social philosophies and programmatic policies. We need to move beyond our puerile King-the-color-blind-dreamer rhetoric and mature to the point where we can accept King's 1967 challenge for a revolution of values that he issued from the pulpit of New York's Riverside Church. This revolution of values, according to King, would move us from a "thing-oriented society to a person-oriented" society, for "when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."6

King speaks to us today. He challenges us to place service, sacrifice, and the forgoing of privilege at the center of what it means to live a good life, as opposed to defining eudaimonia (human flourishing) according to the accumulation of wealth, power, and luxury goods. History bears witness to King's challenge. Was it not through the sacrifices and eschewing of privilege by abolitionists like Angelina and Sarah Grimké, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Bishop Richard Allen, and Absalom Jones that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect one hundred and fifty years ago? Was it not through the dedication, courage, and organizing acumen of Mary Fair Burks of the Montgomery Women's Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that the walls of legalized segregation were slowly broken down, until, finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

In the same way, it will only be when you and I step outside of our own insulated areas of comfort and convenience that we can begin to speak candidly, think creatively, and work cooperatively toward the cause of peace and justice in the contemporary moment. This is how we honor Martin Luther King Jr. This is how we extend his legacy. This is what it means for us to wake up from "the dream." For, if we believe, as King did, that we are all inextricably woven into a common fabric of humanity and garment of destiny, then we should be able to sing with uplifted voices the words of the songwriter: "It's no longer I, but it is you and me. No more them or they, but it is us and we. We can march onward to the victory. We are one in the Spirit of the Lord."

There is too much work to do. It is time to wake up.



  1. Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (Public Affairs, 2000), 458.
  2. See Taylor Branch, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (Simon & Schuster, 2006); Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America (Oxford University Press, 1995); Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000) and April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America (Basic Civitas Books, 2008).
  3. In King's earliest writings and sermons, we see his concern for human rights and economic justice, but I am suggesting that his moral framework "matured" insofar as he was able to articulate and apply his moral principles within a national and international frame.
  4. Martin Luther King Jr., The Measure of a Man (Fortress Press, 1988), 14.
  5. Martin Luther King Jr., "Beyond Vietnam," in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (Warner Books, 2001), 143.
  6. Ibid., 157–58.

Jonathan L. Walton is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey
Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University and Professor of
Religion and Society at HDS. This is an edited version of the keynote
address he delivered at the 43rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Breakfast in Boston, January 21, 2013.

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What Ghana Taught King

Josslyn Jeanine Luckett

And I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: "Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I'm free at last." They were experiencing that in their very souls.
—Martin Luther King Jr., "Birth of a New Nation," 1957

These lyrics are perhaps most familiar to us as the prophetic closing cry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," delivered on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the world looks back this year on that summer afternoon half a century ago, I am interested in taking us a bit further back, to the spring of 1957, when our beloved freedom dreamer Dr. King traveled across the Atlantic to witness Kwame Nkrumah become the first prime minister of the newly independent Ghana. In fact, the epigraph is from a lesser-known sermon, "The Birth of a New Nation," which King delivered to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church upon his return from Ghana. I only discovered this sermon and the fact of this trip to the former Gold Coast recently, and I confess that in all my years of loving King, in all my years of insisting on a broader assessment of his global engagement, his religious pluralism, and his radical political vision, I was foggy about whether or not King had ever been to Africa. While much is made of his 1959 trip to India to follow the footsteps of his deceased satyagraha guru, Mahatma Gandhi, I wonder why so much less is made of his earlier trip to West Africa to bear witness to Kwame Nkrumah as he nonviolently led his nation to independence from the British Empire. Stanford historian Clayborne Carson's phenomenal digital archive has guided me to details of this first trip to Ghana, and also to documentation of King's later meeting and correspondence with Trinidadian scholar C. L. R. James, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's support of various African independence leaders and scholarships for African students to study in the United States, and of King's second trip to West Africa for Nigeria's independence. Taken together, this information paints for me a brand new portrait of a diasporic King.1 Looking more closely at King's sermon on Ghana and wondering what it meant for him to consider the Negro spiritual "Free at Last" while in Accra watching Africans "experience" those words, I think we get a much stronger sense of the inspiration of the liberation movements of Africa as a driving force for King's dreaming, marching, and freedom visioning, not only for African Americans and Americans, but for all people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Only about ten weeks passed between the conclusion of the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and Martin and Coretta King's trip to the Gold Coast. During those ten weeks, terror reigned in Alabama. When I first considered King among the Africana intelligentsia present in Ghana that first week of March 1957, I imagined an energized, victorious, twenty-eight-year-old Martin, humble yet privately giddy, perhaps signing copies of his cover photo on the February 17, 1957, issue of Time magazine. That fantasy was crushed when I read King's letters to President Eisenhower dated January 11 and February 14, 1957. In the first letter, King describes brutal acts throughout the South and calls for the president's immediate response:

Extreme violence continues to be directed toward Negro people in the South who merely seek rights guaranteed every American citizen by the United States Constitution. . . . In Alabama . . . [m]en and women, black and white sitting peacefully in buses have been attacked by snipers. A fortnight ago, a 15 year old Negro girl was brutally beaten. A few days ago the legs of a woman eight months pregnant were shattered by a gun fired in a public conveyance. A state of terror prevails. . . .

We ask you to come South immediately to make a major speech. . . . As the leader of a great nation which proclaims its defense of freedom abroad, you will understand our urgent plea that you make this trip to defend, by words of wise counsel, American citizens unjustly and brutally attacked at home.2

And, by February 14:

Violence has continued to erupt by night and day. . . .

While we are sensitive to the burden of your responsible office, we are aware that human life and orderly, decent conduct of our communities are at stake. . . .

To this end,

1. We implore you to re-examine your decision not to speak out to the South on the question of law and order.

2. We further urge you to call a White House conference on the maintenance of law and order similar to those held earlier on education and juvenile delinquency. . . .

. . . our people, though resolute and courageous, cannot be expected forever to be targets for rifles, shotguns, and for bombs. . . . 3

Amid this state of siege and in despair at the inaction of the highest in command of their nation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church pooled their resources to send their leader/pastor and his wife to West Africa to experience the swearing in of Kwame Nkrumah as prime minister of the newly independent Ghana.

On his first Sunday back in the pulpit, King was eager to share the experience and delivered his "Birth of a New Nation" sermon, using as his scripture the Exodus story of Moses. The sermon extends nearly an hour, and when I heard it in its entirety, I felt that I, too, had crossed the ocean, stood outside the Gold Coast's parliament, and watched the Union Jack come down and the new flag of Ghana rise, surrounded by thousands shouting, "Freedom! Freedom!" King tells his congregation that, at that moment, "I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: 'Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I'm free at last.' They were experiencing that in their very souls." The way he stresses and stretches the word "experiencing" took my breath away. As many times as King sang or quoted that freedom song, did he ever experience it on this earth?

King relates how Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people and stated, "We are no longer a British colony, we are a free, sovereign people." Then King confesses his tears: "I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment."4 Surely the story of those tears included all of the struggles, pain, and agony of the women and men of Montgomery who made this moment of witness possible for King.

Part of why the sermon is so long is that King shares all he has researched about the geography of Africa, the Gold Coast's history of colonialism, and a detailed biographical sketch of Nkrumah's life and education (which included a degree in sacred theology from Lincoln University in Philadelphia). However, it is in his colorful description of the numerous inauguration ceremonies that the sermon comes most alive. King admits to rubbing shoulders with a who's who of Africana studies, saying, "Look over, to my right is Adam Powell, . . . Ralph Bunche. To the other side is Her Majesty's First Minister of Jamaica, Manning,5 Ambassador Jones of Liberia, . . . A. Philip Randolph." Finally, Nkrumah walks in, with members of his cabinet who had been fellow political prisoners. King reflects: "The thing that impressed me more than anything else that night was the fact that . . . they didn't come in with the crowns and all the garments of kings, but . . . with prison caps and the coats they had lived with for all of the months that they had been in prison."

At the official opening of the new Parliament, King observed the Duchess of Kent's entrance, and commented:

The night before she was the official leader and spokesman for the Queen, thereby the power behind the throne of the Gold Coast. But now it's Ghana, . . . and she is just an official visitor like M. L. King and Ralph Bunche and Coretta King and everybody else, because this is a new nation.

Later, at the State Ball, King says that Mordecai Johnson "called his attention to the fact that Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah was dancing with the Duchess of Kent. And I said, 'Isn't this something? Here it is the once-serf, the once-slave, now dancing with the lord on an equal plane.' "

It is one thing to consider King part of a historic Pan-African gathering and, from there, to consider and connect his work and relationships with black liberation struggles around the Atlantic, but it is quite another (and startling) thing to imagine that King would ever suggest to his Montgomery, Alabama congregation that he hopes black Americans will consider immigrating to Ghana. But he does say this quite clearly in the sermon. Threading the Exodus story back into his Ghana story, King asserts that this new nation, Ghana, may be "out of Egypt," may have "crossed the Red Sea," but that now "it will confront its wilderness" and will need help: "Yes, there is a wilderness ahead, though it is my hope that even people from America will go to Africa as immigrants. . . . Right now is the time that American Negroes can lend their technical assistance to a growing new nation." He then lists some—a black American doctor, a dentist, and an insurance agent—who had already made the move to Ghana, saying, "And Nkrumah made it very clear to me that he would welcome any persons coming there as immigrants." It makes me wonder if King did not at some point during the visit to Ghana whisper in Coretta's ear: "Is this so bad? Yoki could grow up with a black prime minister, instead of that insensitive, ineffective Eisenhower!" But we know that Martin and Coretta returned home to face the wilderness of Alabama, circa 1957; and King brought his sermon home, too.

He delivers repeated refrains of "Ghana teaches us" and "Ghana has something to say to us," and it seems that what King most wanted to drive home to his people at Dexter Avenue that morning was that Egypt won't always be. Ghana teaches Montgomery "that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. . . . And if Nkrumah and the people of the Gold Coast had not stood up persistently, revolting against the system, it would still be a colony of the British Empire." He urges his congregation not to think that their work in Montgomery is over and that all they have to do is wait for the city commissioners to come around:

If we wait for it to work itself out, it will never be worked out! Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation. . . . [D]on't sit down and do nothing now because the buses are integrated, because if you stop now, we will be in the dungeons of segregation and discrimination for another hundred years. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps because he can hear himself getting a little more heated than he might like, he transitions to another lesson Ghana teaches Montgomery: the benefit of breaking out of Egypt nonviolently. Quoting from Nkrumah's autobiography, he stresses that Nkrumah came out of prison with "the determination to free my people from the colonialism and imperialism that had been inflicted upon them by the British. But I came out with no bitterness."6 It must have bolstered King to have an African leader of a newly independent nation speak on the power of nonviolence. Given the bloodshed in Montgomery after the boycott, there must have been folks at Dexter Avenue still questioning the viability, the sustainability, of nonviolence for African Americans navigating the brutal south. King's good news about Ghana arriving at independence nonviolently must have bolstered his congregation as well.

Finally, King preaches two related lessons that Ghana teaches Montgomery. He starts with how hard it is physically, psychically, and emotionally to break out of Egypt: "you better get ready for stiff backs. You better get ready for some homes to be bombed. . . . You better get ready for a lot of nasty things to be said about you, because you getting out of Egypt." Next he says, in language that will be familiar to us, "The road to freedom is difficult, but finally, Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice." And then, in a rare move (does he sense the congregation is doubting him?), he shifts from "Ghana tells us" to "Ghana tells me," and he becomes simultaneously more internal, almost mystic, yet also more political:

You can interpret Ghana any kind of way you want to, but Ghana tells me that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice. That night when I saw that old flag coming down and the new flag coming up, I saw something else. That wasn't just an ephemeral, evanescent event appearing on the stage of history. But it was an event with eternal meaning, for it symbolizes something. That thing symbolized to me that an old order is passing away and a new order is coming into being. An old order of colonialism, of segregation, of discrimination is passing away now. . . . Somehow the forces of justice stand on the side of the universe, so that you can't ultimately trample over God's children and profit by it.

When I heard those lines, they felt directly related to King's letters to Eisenhower just prior to crossing the Atlantic. No matter how defeated King may have felt amid the terrorism in Montgomery following the end of the boycott, the forces of justice were working even then to motivate his church and the MIA to send him across the waters so he could bear witness to and be emboldened by Ghanaian independence, then return to carry on the work of justice back home. The very next line of the sermon says just that: "I want to come back to Montgomery now"—with new faith and new hope inspired by the birth of this new, free, African nation.

My soul looks back and wonders, how we got over? 7

A moment of silence was held for W. E. B. Du Bois at the March on Washington. The visionary leader, scholar, and Pan-Africanist had died the night before, in Ghana. If you had asked me a couple of years ago about a connection between Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghana, I would only have been able to offer that the announcement of Du Bois's death in Accra came right on the eve of "I Have a Dream." Now, taking Mahalia Jackson's lead, my soul looks back and wonders at the deeper layers that tied these two African American icons to each other and to Ghana. On hearing that Du Bois died there the night before the march, did King reflect back on his 1957 trip? When King dreamed that "one day" his children would be judged for the content of their character and not the color of their skin—an echo of Du Bois's earlier line, "sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins"8—did he remember witnessing the reality of the end of colonial rule in Ghana? While King said his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream, we miss something fundamental if we fail to include the impact of the independence struggles in Africa on King's freedom dreaming. If, as King repeatedly suggested, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, the single garment of destiny to which we are all tied must extend across the Atlantic to include the entire African diaspora.9 It is important to me that we never fix our iconic African American leaders on one side of the Middle Passage. Du Bois and King, and so many diasporic women and men before and after them, traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, carrying political and spiritual wisdom, sorrow songs, and chants of liberation in both directions.

Diaspora in its most classic sense suggests a scattering, a forced scattering in the case of the Atlantic slave trade. The notion of "return" is not always feasible or desirable. These days, I think much more about the notion of "gathering." What is scattered must yearn to be gathered. On this anniversary of the great 1963 gathering in Washington, DC, I celebrate the lessons, the inspiration, and the power that the great gathering in Accra in 1957 had, not only for the young Martin Luther King, but for all who still seek to experience the reality of the spiritual, "Free at last, free at last," in their very souls.



  1. See the King Papers Project website, sponsored by The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford:
  2. To Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 11, 1957, King Papers Project, Stanford University.
  3. To Dwight D. Eisenhower, February 14, 1957, King Papers Project, Stanford University.
  4. The written text and a link to the audio of the April 7, 1957, "Birth of a New Nation" sermon can be found on the King Papers Project site, Stanford University.
  5. King means Norman Washington Manley, who worked for Jamaican independence as chief minister (1955–1959) before becoming the country's first prime minister.
  6. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1957), 138.
  7. From Clara Ward's gospel hymn "How I Got Over." When you listen to Mahalia Jackson's version sung at the March on Washington (August 28, 1963), you can hear her change the lyrics from "how I" to "how we."
  8. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (First Vintage Books / Library of America Edition, 1990), 188.
  9. The "inescapable network of mutuality" metaphor is most famously documented in King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," reprinted in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (Harper & Row, 1986).

Josslyn Jeanine Luckett, MDiv '12, is a playwright, essayist, and occasional preacher from Los Angeles. She is currently working on her PhD in Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She blogs at

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Writing Africa into Islamic Studies

An Interview with Ousmane Oumar Kane

Lisanne Norman

In Review | Books The Homeland Is the Arena: Religion, Transnationalism, and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America, by Ousmane Oumar Kane. Oxford University Press, USA, 336 pages, $35 paper.

Lisanne Norman, a graduate student in the Department of African  and African American Studies at Harvard University, sat down with  Ousmane Oumar Kane to discuss his most recent book, on Senegalese  immigrants in New York City, and how his work challenges the ways the field of Islamic studies has been structured. Kane joined Harvard Divinity School in July 2012 as the first Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society.

First, how have you found settling into Harvard?
I was delighted to be offered this position and I accepted it enthusiastically for at least two reasons. There are people here whose work I found very interesting and I welcome the opportunity to interact with them closely. Second, this position, although titled "Professor in Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society," is focused on Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. This has been a marginalized field in Islamic studies, partly due to the division of labor in academia. The study of Islam has been primarily conducted in Middle Eastern studies, and the study of sub-Saharan Africa in African studies. Islam in Africa was somehow ghettoized. Students of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa did accomplish high quality academic scholarly research, but their work was marginalized and most of it was not published. Until recently, 90 percent of books published on Islam dealt with the Arab world, yet Arabs represent only 20 percent of the global Muslim population.

What percentage do African Muslims represent?
Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa represent approximately 15 percent of the global Muslim populations, and the whole African continent would be more than that—roughly 450 to 500 million, which is one-third of the world's Muslim population. So I am thrilled to join the Islamic studies community at Harvard, and I look forward to doing more research on Islam in Africa, interacting with other scholars of Islam, and giving greater visibility to the study of Islam in Africa. Although certainly being here [in Cambridge] has been a bit of a challenge because it is a little bit cold!

That's true!
I come from Columbia, where I taught at the School of International and Public Affairs for ten years. SIPA is a public policy school. Although I did teach some Islam, students there had different expectations and different interests than students of Islam here at Harvard. I look forward to developing new courses, and I am also exploring the possibilities of collaboration with colleagues at other departments and institutes with shared research interests.

Your background is in political science, and The Homeland Is the Arena is an incredibly interdisciplinary work, involving ethnographic fieldwork and migrant studies. What drew you to this research topic, and how did you navigate these different approaches?
I consider my main field of research to be the study of Islam and Muslim societies in sub-Saharan Africa, a field which I engage from an interdisciplinary perspective. I'm historically minded, I was trained as a political scientist and also as an Islamicist and an Arabist. Sufism and Sufi orders are a dominant expression of spirituality in Africa. I started my career researching Sufism in West Africa, and, more particularly, the intellectual history of Sufism. In the 1990s, I paid attention to Muslim globalization because those Sufi orders that I studied in the African context were spreading in other parts of the world through migration, particularly here in the United States.

In 2000–01, I was a postdoc at Yale studying African Sufi orders in the United States, thus my interest in migration and diaspora studies. I joined the faculty of Columbia in 2002, where I taught a course on international migration and development for many years. Living on the Upper West Side of New York City, I was able to conduct ethnographic fieldwork leading to this book on Senegalese immigrants and the role that religion plays not just in the process of settlement, but also in the building of ties with the homeland. I studied the various aspects of the Senegalese migration—ethnic, occupational, gender, generational, above all religious, and particularly Islam, because 95 percent of the Senegalese are Muslim and an overwhelming majority of them identify with Sufism. I tried to understand the role that religion plays in this process of settlement and building connections with the homeland. That is how I became interested in the larger issues of diaspora and transnationalism.

What I found most fascinating in your book was the strong connection these Senagalese communities maintain with the homeland, the enormous influence their remittances have, and what this translates into within the larger Senegalese religious community. Is this strong relationship with the homeland still continuing with second- and third-generation immigrants?
You are quite right that these immigrant communities are having a major impact on the development of religion in the homeland because of the money that they remit and because they have also created NGO-type religious organizations that are making a major contribution to development, including the building of hospitals, schools, wells, and sanitary systems in some saintly cities.

Since the first generation of Senegalese settled here in the 1980s, the second generation is now graduating from college and starting families. As I was conducting my research, this second generation was still quite young. It has been assumed that as immigrants settled, the second and third generations will assimilate into American society, but we need to have more studies on the second generation of the post-1965 migrants in order to provide a full picture of what their connections to the homeland will be. And when I say more studies, I mean in general, not just on the Senegalese. As you know, in the United States there have been two great waves of migration in the modern period. The first was at the turn of the twentieth century, when about 27 million came, and the second was from the mid-1960s to today, when about 25 million people have arrived. The second wave was much more diverse ethnically and religiously, because 80 percent of the migrants came from Asia and Latin America, and there were many Muslims and Hindus among them. Because the second generation has still not yet been adequately studied, we do not know what the trends are. Will they integrate, will they assimilate into Middle America or assimilate into something else, or will they retain their ethnic identities? These are questions with which scholars of immigration studies are still grappling.

If the second generation doesn't pick up the mantle, and these development efforts are not sustained by the state, then what will happen?
Well, it's not that the state doesn't do anything, the state does contribute, but as you know, these countries have limited resources and sometimes they are not used in efficient ways. There are still regions without an electrical grid or power supply, or even running water, though it is interesting that natives of those regions form the largest segments of the diaspora. There is a very strong sense of community among these migrants. When someone comes here, he will try to bring a cousin. While that is arguably true for other immigrant communities, it is quite prevalent among immigrants from northern or central Senegal. And these people send remittances that equal about 7 percent of the gross national product of Senegal. The Senegalese diaspora is making a difference in helping people survive and access healthcare and education, and, in the process, contributing to building human capital, which is something very critical that our countries need.

However, their relationship with America is very ambiguous because, on the one hand, they see it as a land of opportunity where success comes with hard work, but on the other hand, they also fear change and the Americanization of their children. They feel that religion and culture, whatever that means, are very important to preserve. They fear that their kids who go to school here may abandon cherished homeland cultural norms, particularly gender norms. Many send their children home for awhile to study, but above all to learn the religion, because they fear that otherwise their kids will acculturate. The paradox is that even people who are not particularly religiously observant strive to provide Islamic education to their children. There are also Senegalese Christians, mostly Roman Catholic, but most are based in Washington, DC, and I must confess that I haven't studied them enough to know what the dynamics are. They probably do not have the same concerns about religion as Muslims do.

Another thing that struck me was your discussion of the transformation of gender dynamics within this community. You mention Americanization, and the greater public awareness of domestic abuse. You also discuss how many of the women have higher incomes because of jobs such as hair braiding. Is this causing a lot of tension within the community?
Indeed, there is a crisis in gender relations that has many causes. One is women's participation in the labor force, which undermines the material foundations of patriarchy within these communities. It is atypical in the homeland for women to have higher incomes than men, and Senegalese men are not well prepared for that. There is also the issue of who should support the household materially. According to homeland traditional cultural norms, the man is supposed to pay for the rent and maintain the family. If you marry a woman, it is your obligation in Islam to support her, regardless of how much money she makes. She is under no obligation to contribute. That doesn't mean, however, that women are not contributing. Women are supporting their larger extended family, and they also make gifts to the family of the husband on a regular basis. Senegalese men who struggle to make ends meet tend to believe that women are not contributing enough, and this is controversial among Senegalese couples.

In addition, because there is greater gender justice here, Senegalese women will not accept some forms of physical and emotional abuse. They renegotiate gender relations and demand greater respect from men. Some men resist these new gender dynamics, and this leads to crisis and often to separation. Of course, intimate partner violence is also perpetrated among nonimmigrant Americans. In the United States there are laws in place to deal with perpetrators, but in the African homeland, men may easily perpetrate domestic violence and get away with it.

Another source of conflict is the irregular working hours. Many Senegalese men work as cab drivers or in the food industry or as security guards, and often work very late. Likewise, 75 percent of Senegalese women work in the hair-braiding industry, also working long hours, sometimes around the clock in the high season to make more money. This doesn't leave a lot of time for romance or for the performance of inherited gender roles.

Will the second and third generations uphold traditional gender norms from the homeland? Probably not. Even in the homeland, the younger generation is developing different views about gender relations. There is a greater participation of women in the household decision-making process, particularly among educated people with higher incomes. So, changing gender dynamics are not just the consequence of migration. The pace of change is faster here partly because many women immigrants from Senegal come from rural areas. When they arrive and join the labor force as hair braiders, they make a lot of money, which frustrates Senegalese men. Men and women are now acclimating to new gender norms created by a new political economy. Worthy of note is the fact that many immigrants from French West Africa who settled in the United States in the mid-1980s were illiterate. In contrast, African immigrants from English-speaking countries of West Africa like Ghana and Nigeria tend to be highly educated. Most of them came here to pursue higher education. As a result, they have higher incomes.

I remember in the 1990s the hair-braiding salons in New York up along 116th Street, out in Bed-Stuy and even in Fort Greene, where I'm from. There used to be a Senegalese restaurant called Jolof on Fulton, and there were also a number of Senegalese businesses in Fort Greene.
In Brooklyn, the Senegalese enclave is called "Futa town" because of the high concentration of people who come from the Futa region in northern Senegal, which is the homeland of Fulfude-speaking people. They formed a majority of those Africans living in Brooklyn. Whereas in Harlem, in "Little Senegal" or "Little Africa," the majority of Senegalese come from central Senegal and are speakers of Wolof. There are also people from Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Guinea, but the Wolof-speaking Senegalese are the majority.

Switching gears to current events occurring in Muslim communities in West Africa, like Mali or northern Nigeria: Are there any lessons from your research that will help us to understand what is unfolding in these regions?
Before colonialism, there existed a vigorous Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa. The history of Arabic writing in West Africa spans a period of 800 years. We know that from the fifteenth century on there is an established tradition of local authorship, people who have written in Arabic or in African languages using the Arabic script. There is a huge archive of this material in Timbuktu, which used to be a major educational center in the fourteenth century: between 150 and 180 schools were operating in Timbuktu before the discovery of the Americas. But Timbuktu is just the tip of the iceberg; in the whole Sahelian region from Senegal to the Red Sea where Islam spread, so did the use of the Arabic language or the Arabic script. Some used Arabic to educate people in languages like Hausa and Fulfude. Muslim intellectuals provided religious education to their followers, and some mobilized people to speak against oppression, heavy taxation, and enslavement. The Islamic archives of Africa contain a lot of scholarly treaties as well as notes recording historical events in the margins. They have not been adequately studied because of the division of labor in the study of Islam and Africa I already described.

Thus, there are major flaws in some of the writings about the production of knowledge in Africa, because their authors have no awareness of the existence of the Islamic intellectual tradition south of the Sahara. Arabic has been the language of administration and instruction in some of these countries since before European colonialism. When European colonial rule was established, a new educational system based on European languages (e.g., French, English) was created and became prominent. This also contributed to hide the Islamic factor in African history that I think really needs to be documented. Though this field is attracting a growing number of scholars, still 90 percent of the Islamic archive has not yet been studied adequately. Most of the work so far has consisted in producing catalogs of manuscripts or digitizing manuscripts. Manuscripts dating from the nineteenth century reveal that Sufism had became a dominant expression of Islamic spirituality.

This relates to current events because Muslim jihadis who occupied northern Mali during the entire year 2012 challenged the tradition of Sufi Islam in the region. They believe that Sufism is a deviant form of Islam and that building shrines for Sufi saints is tantamount to idol worship. They destroyed some of the shrines, burned manuscripts, and took other manuscripts with them when the French reconquered northern Mali in January 2013. It's not very clear how much damage was done because the information is contradictory; some say very little, while others report that two thousand manuscripts are missing. The Islamicists apparently took the hard drives of most of the computers on which manuscripts were digitized. A new, intolerant vision of Islam, which has hitherto been unknown in the Sahel, was brought by these jihadis coming from Algeria who established themselves in northern Mali. Mali, as you know, is a big state with a huge territory and a history of great difficulty policing its territory. Jihadis established niches in places such as mountainous regions and began to prosper through kidnapping and the drug economy. For more than ten years, the international community overlooked the extent to which they were a threat to security. In the last decade, they received tens of millions of euros and dollars in ransom.

So these groups are extremely well funded.
Yes. The leaders of these jihadi groups are well educated and have received sophisticated training in guerrilla warfare. They work with local Malian communities and occasionally subcontract criminal jobs to those communities. They also invest in the legitimate economy. Some jihadis are involved in drug trafficking, because West Africa has become an important area for transiting drugs from South America to Europe. The jihadis may be just a few thousand people, organized around brigades of a few hundred people each. But they have accumulated sophisticated weapons and tracking devices and lots of money. Had they not been stopped in January 2013, they would have conquered the whole of Mali today and possibly parts of neighboring countries.

Do you feel that there is a greater instability within the region of West Africa now?
Building strong and stable states has been a preoccupation in West Africa since independence. Religious intolerance is not unprecedented, because there have been some fanatics there for a while. However, they have now linked up with groups like AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) that have provided them with sophisticated military training and significant resources. Now they can conduct guerilla warfare and perform acts such as suicide bombings. If even the U.S. has not been able to help Iraq and Afghanistan defeat these jihadi groups, imagine a country like Mali or Nigeria being able to do so. Also, the jihadis of northern Mali have now linked up with Boko Haram in Nigeria. A few years ago, suicide bombing was unknown south of the Sahara, but now it has become commonplace.

What factors have contributed to the rapid growth of this phenomenon in West Africa?
I think the globalization of jihad movements is a factor. Now jihadis from all over the world are heading to northern Mali. They are able to move across those porous borders with ease. Another factor is that West African states like Mali are weak. It has been argued, and rightly so, that African states with large land mass and/or huge populations face very unusual challenges in policing their populations. They tend to be dysfunctional and they fare poorly in most development indicators. Smaller states tend to do better. Countries like Mali and Niger in the Sahel are among the poorest countries in the world. They have huge land masses, with mountainous and desert regions, and they have very poor communication infrastructures. Insurgent groups can hide easily and defeating them can become impossible, or near impossible, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The presence of so-called Arab Afghans in Mali is a real problem. These people were trained by Pakistani intelligence services and the CIA in Afghanistan where they fought the Soviet Army. Their reach was limited to the Arab world until recently, but now they have spread in the Sahel. Of the groups which conquered northern Mali, the most prominent is AQIM, which used to be called GSPC—Groupe Salafi pour la Predication et le Jihad (Salafi Group for Preaching and Jihad). In Algeria, GSPC operatives faced a strong state that suppressed its members mercilessly. GSPC members began to redeploy to Mali in early 2000. They were able to establish camps in Mali, where the state is weak and incapable of securing its territory. I think that the international community, and more particularly the Community of West African States (ECOWAS), was not really aware of the security challenge that this group posed. Nobody thought that they would attempt to conquer the Malian state, but they did, with the help of Turareg insurgent groups.

West African states still do not have the resources to deal adequately with these kinds of groups. When France intervened militarily in January 2013 to stop the expansion of the jihadis, other West African countries committed to providing troops and logistical support to the peace-keeping mission in Mali, but they could not uphold this commitment. Now they are hoping that the United Nations will send a force to maintain peace. The fact that these countries are very weak and extremely poor makes it easier for terrorist groups to attack them. Some of these jihadi groups provide resources to local populations in the absence of a welfare state, and are thus able to establish strong networks. Defeating the Islamicists in Mali was relatively easy for the French army, but restoring peace will be very difficult because Malian troops are taking revenge against so-called Arabs. They don't really know who the enemies are. They will find it difficult to deal with unconventional warfare strategies like suicide bombing. The first suicide bombing in Mali took place after the French military intervention. So if you defeat them in combat, they resort to guerilla tactics. I think the region has some serious challenges ahead of it.

One last question: How do you navigate your faith commitment, and what is the role of faith within your research?
That is a very important question. I am a Muslim. I am also Sufi and I grew up in a Sufi family. We practiced Tijaniyya Sufism. While I was in Nigeria doing the research for my first book, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria, I studied a fundamentalist group who were really hostile to Sufism. When they realized that I didn't have any hidden agenda, that I just wanted to learn and to understand them and publish this research, which would give them some voice, they accepted me.

Of course, members of my own faith community are sometimes not very pleased with my writings. They are more interested in hagiography than in the scientific study of religion. When some people in Senegal read my work, they may question it. Obviously, those of us who write do not say everything, especially when you are dealing with issues that are very personal and you know that there are taboos which people would prefer you not talk about. But the good news is that the focus of my current research (intellectual Islamic thought in Africa and Islamic intellectual production, and the ways in which it contributes to helping us better understand some aspects of African history, and the role of the Islamic scholar) does not pose any significant challenge to my faith. When it comes to looking at micropolitics among the Muslim communities, particularly that community to which you belong, there are sometimes issues you would rather let other scholars deal with. Many scholars approach me to request assistance in working on my community, and I am only too happy to share my resources and knowledge with them.

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