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katharina wilkensRichard Wright, the African American journalist, former communist, strict secularist and pan-African observer of the independence movements in late-colonial Africa, travelled to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. His report from one the founding meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was attended by many leaders from Asia and Africa, intertwines the themes of racism, colonialism, imperialism and communism in the Cold War era. The title The Color Curtain borrows its imagery from the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’, dividing the Western from the Eastern bloc. The USSR and People’s Republic of China were vying for hegemony in the communist world. A question raised, but also skilfully skirted at the conference, was how many of the newly emerging nations would be interested in allying with China or the USSR rather than the USA.
‘But is there not something missing here?’ asks Wright. ‘Weren’t all these men deeply religious? Christians? Moslems? Buddhists? Hindus? They were. Would they accept working with Red China? Yes, they would. Why? Were they dupes? No, they were desperate. They felt that they were acting in common defense of themselves. Then, is Christianity, as it was introduced into Asia and Africa, no deterrent to Communism?’ He answers his own question quite succinctly: ‘Obviously, religion, and particularly the Christian religion, was no bulwark against Communism’.Among the delegates in Bandung was Kwame Nkrumah, then prime minister of the Gold Coast which was still under British control. Richard Wright had visited him a few years earlier during his first journey through a continental African country, when Wright began to weave his own personal pan-African consciousness spanning both sides of the Atlantic. Nkrumah, together with Sékou Touré from Guinea, Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal, Julius Kambarage Nyerere from Tanganyika, Modibo Keïta from Mali and others, was a founding figure of African socialism. All of these leaders, however, insisted on the religious nature of their version of socialism. And they were not afraid to defend their religiosity against Chinese and especially Soviet accusations that they were violating the ‘true teachings’ of Marx and Lenin.
How to grasp the role of religion in African socialismWright’s confusion is understandable. Karl Marx famously criticised religion, particularly the Christian church(es), as part of the superstructure of capitalism. Both Lenin and Mao implemented atheist regimes and vigorously popularised atheist attitudes. Many African labourers and students in France and Great Britain in the 1920s and 1930s founded organisations combining pan-African and communist ideas. This earlier generation of freedom fighters often followed atheist ideals unlike the later, more pragmatic leaders of the African independence movements. Nyerere and Senghor were both practicing Catholics, Touré and Keïta Muslims, Nkrumah and others were Protestants. None were shy about it. Indeed, they argued that their anti-atheist position was a distinction between African socialism from Soviet-style communism. Nkrumah writes: ‘Insistence on the secular nature of the state is not to be interpreted as a political declaration of war on religion, for religion is also a social fact and must be understood before it can be tackled’. For all leaders, Christianity and Islam were essential moral underpinnings of African socialism while also vital aspects of modernisation, progress and development. In the words of Senghor, ‘it is false to claim with the Marxists that Christianity and Islam scorned, or even neglected, the sciences’. While Wright might have balked at a sentence like this, the socio-political place of religion in the colonies differed from that in the metropoles.
Dis:connecting religion and civilisationStudying the global spread of the concept of ‘religion’ (as opposed to church institutions), scholars of religion have noted its immense impact on the discursive construction of ‘civilisation’ and thence on the colonising strategies of European empires. Only ‘civilised humans’ have religions, so the Spanish argued, conversely implying that non-Christian ‘barbarians’ in South America in the early 1500s, for example, could be exploited. A couple of centuries later, Hegel dismissed Africans as ‘immoral barbarians’ without law, as ‘cannibals’ and as ‘fetishists’ without proper religion or even self-awareness. He argued that they ‘were not part of history’ because they were not ‘capable of development’. His arguments were often repeated in political and missionary discourse of colonial imperialism and occasionally resonate even today. But even when academics, policy makers and colonial officials grudgingly began to accord African religion a place in history, the prevailing evolutionary theory placed ‘fetishism’, ‘animism’ and ‘ancestor worship’ on the lowest rung of religious development, thus denying Africans any indigenous civilisation. In their minds, civilisation could only be established alongside Western (and mostly Protestant) Christianity – David Livingstone’s three C’s of the colonial and missionary enterprise: Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce – held well into the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Western anthropologists were bent on salvaging indigenous cultures in books and museums because they thought them doomed under imperialism and secular modernity. Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, government anthropologist in southern Sudan and leading scholar of indigenous African religions among the Azande and Nuer. In the 1940s, South African anthropologist Meyer Fortes, himself a son of Russian Jewish refugees, was among the first to discuss the impact of colonialism on the religio-political-juridical system of ancestor veneration among the Talensi in northern Ghana.
Reconnecting with the African pastThe counter movement followed from the early 1950s, when Christian theologians, both Western and African, began writing about indigenous religions in a new style. African religions were cast as ‘natural religions’ (rather than ‘heathendom’). In this argumentation, the god of Christian salvation worked through the gods and priests of African cosmology prior to Christianisation, allowing pious Africans into salvation history. Under the rise of nationalist ideology, religion as a marker of civilisation was thus restored to indigenous peoples. The image of ‘African Traditional Religion’ (ATR) created by these scholars was free of cannibalism and violence, instead emphasising community, beauty, natural philosophy, spirituality and unity across seemingly heterogenous traditions. Prominent writers in this vein from the 1940s to 1970s include Ghanaian politician and theologian Joseph Boakye Danquah, Ugandan theologian John Mbiti and Nigerian theologian Bolaji Idowu. However, despite their celebration of traditional religion, they agreed that it was passé. With the coming of Christ (through the colonial missionaries), Christianity was the way forward, albeit in thoroughly Africanised garb. The leaders of African socialism were aware of these discursive positions in the disciplines of anthropology, history and theology, in which many held PhDs. In their publications, they consistently maintained that Africans had been ‘civilised’ people prior to the advent of the European colonisers; that their culture was morally advanced; and that their ancestral religions had the same worth as mission Christianity. In 1943, Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the Mozambiquan liberation movement with a doctorate in anthropology, wrote in a letter to former Swiss missionary teacher and close friend André-Daniel Clerc:
I think that the beliefs placed in my heart by my grandmother about our ancestors had something to do with my spiritual progress. I believed that there was another life after death because my grandparents live in spirit (even though they are bodily dead). And from this when I heard the story of Christ and God I immediately accepted.Mondlane later added a further thought to his reflection on religion: ‘Our indigenous religion could have remained and continued to thrive if there had not been another which offered better answers to the questions of the future’. In emphasising the ancestral lineage of faith in God, Mondlane sets the indigenous way of life on par with Christianity-as-civilisation. Simultaneously, he concurs that the universal church (or rather, Africanised church and neither a specific national nor denominational church) was best suited to modernisation and national independence. While ancestral religion was seen positively there, it belonged to the past. African scholars and independence-era writers tried hard to counter the Hegelian trope of African a-historicity. Notably, Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese Egyptologist argued in his 1954 thesis Nations Nègres et Cultures that ancient Egyptian civilisation was derived from the same black civilisation as that of West Africa. His contemporary Léopold Senghor pits the concept of Négritude against the French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of ‘pre-logical mentality’ and similar theories. He also emphasised that African religion was based on both reason and idealist ontology; it touched on life and meaning beyond the everyday, perceiving beauty and searching for the divine in nature. However, he opposed ‘magic’ to ‘animism’ (the Francophone alternative to ‘African Traditional Religion’, not the primitive religion of evolutionary theory). He considered ‘magic’ and particularly the so-called secret societies, or mask societies, who ostensibly practiced it, to be ‘a superstitious deformation, too human’. In the discursive framework of Africanist history, anthropology and theology, ‘religion’ was a pre-condition of ‘civilisation’, which in turn was a pre-condition for independent rule, free of colonial paternalism. Though I am oversimplifying the complex economic and political negotiations of the independence movements, of course, the strategic role of the discursive figure of religion as the basis of civilisation – and thus modernity – must not be underestimated.