Religion and Faith in Africa

Confessions of an Animist

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Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , May
     2018.
     144 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982765.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This well-thought-out book examines religion and faith and draws its arguments from two key terms: “confessions” and “animist.” Orobator argues that calling worshippers of African religion “animist” is a misjudgment, a misconception, and a misinterpretation of facts perpetrated by pretenders and outsiders who do not understand African religion. He further argues that the classification of animist is actually a derogatory name used by members of supposedly “superior” religions. Drawing from a variety of historical and contemporary minds and sources, Orobator concludes that such colonial classification defines African religion as primitive and inferior. 

Orobator’s argument is that all religions should be given equal opportunity for they all serve the same purpose of working for the good of the people. In addition, he states that African religion has potential for contributing positive values to human development in Africa. It should be clear from the beginning that Orobator writes as an African insider and as one protesting especially against those who devalue African religion as pagan and heathen. He argues that these accusations are not true and that Africans remain rooted in African religion even if converted to Christianity or Islam, both of which seem to be growing rapidly. 

In addition, Orobator contends that African religion offers a set of values and norms that shape socio-political behavior within a context filled with beliefs in spirits, deities, gods, goddesses, and ancestors. He argues that religion in Africa is equated to the life and well-being of the individual and the community. Within this framework, diviners, herbalists, priests, and priestesses work as overseers of socio-political and moral values. Therefore, he argues that “the African is a believer” (19). By this he means that the African’s experience of faith did not begin with the arrival of Christian or Muslim missionaries. He argues that both Christianity and Islam have brought about negative consequences in Africa and that the land requires spiritual healing. In this vein, Orobator offers statistics that show that Christianity and Islam are growing, but he argues that this is because they are planted in the fertile soil of African religion. He asserts that Africans will remain Africans no matter what: especially when confronted with problems, they will go back to their African religiosity—consulting the faith of their fathers and the spirit of their mothers. Some scholars would call Orobator’s perspective syncretistic.

Orobator argues that Africa has become a competitive religious market. As such, there is interreligious contestation and conflicts that are not only challenging but worrisome. This is worth mentioning to help the African, Christian, and Muslim readers—persons from all three religions discussed by Orobator—to come to terms with the situation at hand. He argues that Africa cannot continue to be a marketplace of faiths. If Christianity and Islam ignore Orobator’s perspective, they will fool themselves when they claim that everyone is either Christian or Muslim. For people to comprehend the African religion they needs to be aware of the spirituality of African religion and its way of worship that promotes inclusivity and humility. 

African understanding of religion focuses on the relationship between humanity and its creator. Orobator argues that African religion has rich resources for supporting ecological responsibility and mitigating climate change because of its belief that whatever God created needs to remain sacred. In view of this, spirituality that dismisses African religion as animist or pagan is misguided because its spirituality and ethics have important roles to play in the enterprise of healing the earth. He observes that our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God.

Orobator also argues that Christian churches in Africa, like African religion, need to be gender sensitive. Women are in the majority and are the backbone of the church and yet are sidelined by both Christianity and Islam. For Orobator, it is sad that women in Africa are discriminated against or excluded because of their gender. The Christian church in particular has forgotten that it exists as a family to further the mission of reconciliation, justice, and peace. The author claims that it is only in African religion that women are given the same opportunity as men. In some contexts, women have worked as priestesses in the same way that their male counterparts work as priests. For Orobator, this means that discrimination and segregation are foreign to African religion.

Despite a slightly uncritical approach, Orobator has good intentions in writing positively about African religion. He refuses Western religions the slogan of “holier than thou.” Religion and Faith in Africa is an important contribution to the understanding of world religions and thus can contribute to the ongoing academic discourse about how we categorize religion and spirituality throughout the world. I recommend it as a useful book for theological colleges and universities worldwide.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Victor Chilenje is Lecturer in Church History, Polity, and Missiology at Justo Mwale University in Lusaka, Zambia.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ is a Jesuit priest who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the author of Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis 2008) and editor of The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III (Orbis 2016).

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