Religion, Media, and Marginality in Modern Africa

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Felicitas Becker, Joel Cabrita, Marie Rodet
Cambridge Centre of African Studies
  • Athens, OH: 
    Ohio University Press
    , February
     2018.
     320 pages.
     $69.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780821423035.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Religion, Media, and Marginality in Modern Africa, editors Felicitas Becker, Joel Cabrita, and Marie Rodet provide a timely intervention for media studies in the study of religion. This three-part, ten-chapter edited volume audaciously attempts (but only partially succeeds) in situating “media within a longer history of Muslims’ and Christians’ use of older media forms, including both print and penned manuscripts, not least among them their sacred scriptures” (1). Although the editors establish facts in abundance that “studies of religion and media in Africa typically treat new electronic and digital media in isolation from well-established scholarship on print and manuscript culture in Africa” (2), they fail to go beyond these kinds of orthodox religious studies arguments, which often restrict scriptures or “media” to otherized status, and thereby reify classical taxonomies of texts as scriptures.

The first chapter, Sean Hanrettta’s “Formal Care: Islam and Bureaucratic Paperwork in the Old Gold Cost/Ghana” (38-69), illuminates how imams in the Gold Coast found it necessary to co-opt British licensing, certifications, and “paperization” of weddings in order to be deemed authorized and qualified to perform such ceremonies. Jörg Haustein’s “Provincializing Representation: East African Islam in the German Colonial Press” (70-92), a good refresher on some significant antecedents for contemporary Islamophobia, is a powerful testament to the classical European gimmicks of “rescue” and the civilizing mission through the signing of treaties. Importantly, Haustein’s piece demonstrates both the “genius” of German conquest styles and the challenge that “a different historical logic” (87) ultimately presents to the invaders for the control of a multi-religious landscape such as East Africa. In “A Tin-Trunk Bible: The Written Word of an Oral Church” (93-111), David Gordon argues that “marginal texts hold special powers” (93) whereby imaginaries of marginality signify, and are made to become, proof of divine approbation. Questioning and contesting the use of photographic “figurative representations,” especially of women in Kenya, is the focus of Heike Behrend’s “Photography as Unveiling: Muslim Discourses and Practices on the Kenyan Coast” (112-32). Bruce S. Hall examines emergent forms of media in Mali in “Vernacular Media, Muslim Ethics, and ‘Conservative’ Critiques of Power in the Niger Bend, Mali” (133-53), but remains fixated on “self-consciously folkloric” negotiations of “‘traditional’ ideas” (134). Liz Gunner’s “‘The Angel of the Sabbath Is the Greatest Angel of All’: Media and the Struggle for Power and Purity in the Shembe Church, 2006-12” (154-74) reveals struggles over orthodoxy, contests for power, and the ensuing signifying practices within the community of faith represented by the Shembe Church founded by Isaiah Shembe in 1910. 

Asonzeh Ukah takes on charismatism in “Charisma as Spectacle: Photography and the Construction of a Pentecostal Urban Piety in Nigeria” (175-201). Ukah advances a helpful method for the study of emergent media forms in Nigeria, stating that faith is seeing, and seeing is believing. The first piece to radically alter the volume’s overall bent toward orthodoxia  in religious studies scholarship, Kathrien Pype’s “Nzete Ekauka versus the Catholic Church: Religious Competition, Media Ban, and the Virgin Mary in Contemporary Kinshasa,” provokes thinking around the complexities and boundaries of religion and politics through meanderings from Brother Rapheal Minga Kwete to Nzete Ekauka to the pantheon of apparitions. Unlike Heike Behrend’s “Kenyan Coast,” where visibility is vehemently abhorred, André Chappatte’s “Exploring Youth, Media Practics, and Religious Allegiances in Contemporary Mali through the Controversy over the Zikiri” (229-55) offers renegotiations of both allegiance to “local elders” (236) and spiritualized morality, leaving an ever-expansive border interpretation in the use of new and social media. Last but not least, Maria Frahm-Arp admits that, despite Africa’s apparent lags in science and technology, Pentecostal Charismatic Christianity (PCC) manages to hold itself up through the deployment of “cutting-edge technology” (256). By ethnographically portraying the PCCs in South Africa, Frahm-Arp’s “Personal Charismatic Christianity and Social Media in South Africa: Mitigating Marginality, Prosperity Teachings, and the Emergence of a Black Middle Class” (256-79) offers a classic case study for contemporality, presence, and power within black congregations. 

Religion, Media, and Marginality in Modern Africa is important because, according to the editors, “the fluidity of social borders as well as their sometimes quite sudden rigidity in situations of conflict, and the multitudes of people facing and seeking to mitigate one or another form of marginalization” (3). There is little to no doubt that the volume is a significant contribution to media and religious studies scholarship. Yet the disparity between the classic text-based study and the critically comparative “media” study, such as Kathrien Pype’s piece, is quite obvious for any serious scholar in that area. Not even “the editors’ specializations in Southern African Christianity, East African Islam, and West African postslavery societies” (3) could be used as justification for the wide gap.

The major drawback of this volume is the overemphasis placed on text-based “world” religions, but, on the whole, Felicitas Becker, Joel Cabrita, and Marie Rodet have done well for giving us even the slightest (additional) hint, through Religion, Media, and Marginality in Modern Africa, that Africa is neither a monolith nor a hopelessly static cadaver for Western examination. In sum, these various chapters weave an evidence-based web of media portraiture alongside a comparative analysis of religious practitioners.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David O. Olali directs multiple research projects including Comparative HeritageIjaw Project and Ijaw Journalamong others.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Felicitas Becker is Professor of African History at Ghent University, and a specialist in the history of Islam in East Africa. She is the author of Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania and coeditor of AIDS and religious practice in Africa. Her current work focuses on Islamic preaching, the rhetoric of development and aetiologies of poverty in East Africa.

Joel Cabrita is Lecturer in World Christianities at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Text and Authority in a South African Church. Her forthcoming book is a history of the transatlantic Zionist movement (The People’s Zion: South Africa, the USA and a Transatlantic Healing Movement).

Marie Rodet is Senior Lecturer in the history of Africa at SOAS. Her research interests lie in the field of modern migration history, gender studies and the history of slavery in francophone West Africa. She is the author of Les migrantes ignorées du Haut-Sénégal, 1900–1946 and coeditor of Children on the Move in Africa: Past and Present Experiences of Migration.

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